Wells Fargo's business is going gangbusters -- its first-quarter earnings show this: Revenue for Wells Fargo (ex-Wachovia) grew 16% year on year. My problem is that the bank's balance sheet still looks excessively leveraged, and I think the company's sterling reputation (Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is the largest shareholder) may be causing investors and analysts to gloss over that fact.

Before I get started, I want to try to preempt any e-mails or comments about being paid by "shorts" to write this article. I already know some of Wells Fargo's strengths -- they're the reasons I bought shares -- but I'm more interested in finding out about its weaknesses or things I may have misunderstood about the company. I want to know the reasons not to own the stock; thus, it may appear from my articles that I have a negative bias toward the company. On top of that, I recently allowed my membership to the Association of Professional Market Manipulators to lapse.

An inconsistency hiding in plain sight
Here is a glaring inconsistency: How is it that a reputedly well-run, conservative lender like Wells Fargo finds itself near the bottom of the pack with respect to its tangible common equity (TCE) ratio?


Tangible Common Equity Ratio (as of March 31, 2009, unless otherwise noted)

SunTrust Banks


Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS)

4.6%* (March 27, 2009)

Morgan Stanley


JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM)


US Bancorp (NYSE:USB)


Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC)




Citigroup (NYSE:C)

3.0%** (Dec. 31, 2008)

Bank of America (NYSE:BAC)


Source: Standard & Poor's Capital IQ.
**Prior to the common shares/preferred stock exchange.

Could Wells Fargo earn its way to a healthier capital position? Given enough time, of course it could -- the current environment is highly favorable for banks. However, the California lender might not have that luxury if the government's stress tests indicate that its capital levels are inadequate. Bloomberg reported today that the government could release its results publicly on May 4 (banks will receive preliminary findings tomorrow) and could require banks to address how they plan to make up any capital shortfall at that time.

This window might get crowded
Goldman Sachs timed last week's $5 billion equity raising brilliantly. Wells Fargo's bullish earnings pre-release on April 9 looked tailor-made to set the stage for an equity offering of its own, but the bank didn't follow through. If Wells is required to raise capital in the near future, the market may be less welcoming, particularly if it is asked to receive several "bad pupils" simultaneously.

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Alex Dumortier, CFA, has a beneficial interest in Wells Fargo, but not in any of the other companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.