Wells Fargo Wants To Expand Wealth Biz

The head of Wells Fargo & Co. is reportedly interested in expanding the firm’s wealth business, possibly through acquisition.

The head of Wells Fargo & Co. is reportedly interested in expanding the firm’s wealth business, possibly through acquisition. Chief Executive John Stumpf was quoted in Reuters this week as saying he felt the “sub-optimized” wealth business could stand some expansion. Any deals in the works? “If there were the right opportunity at the right time, that could be interesting to us,” he replied, rather noncommittally. Company spokesmen could not be reached for elaboration.

What kind of acquisition could Wells make at this point? Some have floated the idea that Wells is in the market for a brokerage firm, but Aite Group analyst Alois Pirker said that isn’t likely, given the size of the existing advisor base. A new private bank is also unlikely, he says, as Wells Fargo Private Bank has that market covered. Pirker thinks a “high-end franchise” whose investor clientele would fill in the gap between the brokerage and the private bank market, is a possibility. “I think, product-wise, they pretty much have all they need. It’s more about how you distribute better, how you package services better,” Pirker said (Reuters said Stumpf wants to expand the firm’s insurance distribution business.)

Buying another bank may not be an option, either. Wells is at or near a federal cap that bars banks from accumulating a concentration of more than 10 percent of the domestic deposit market, Morningstar analyst Jaime Peters says. “There would be no ability for them to do a meaningfully sizable deal,” she said. “It’s going to have to be some other part of the business.” Wells is meticulous in its approach to mergers, looking for both cost savings and revenue gains, she added. “They take their time. They’re not about speed. They’re about accuracy when it comes to conversions,” she said.

Stumpf made the comment at the Goldman Sachs U.S. Financial Services Conference in Manhattan, where he bragged about the success of the bank’s 2009 acquisition of Wachovia, which gave the firm a big footprint in the financial advisory business. When Wells acquired Wachovia, the latter was still digesting its own 2007 acquisition of A.G. Edwards. Wells now has more than 15,000 advisors on its full-service and independent (FiNet) platforms. Profits last quarter in the company’s Wealth, Brokerage & Retirement unit (which includes Wells Fargo Advisors) more than doubled year over year, to $256 million, while revenue grew 5 percent.

Wells Fargo wants to sell its loans and other banking services to financial advisors’ clients, and so far it’s doing a pretty good job with that. Loan originations by financial advisors in Wealth, Brokerage & Retirement grew 33 percent year-to-date, the company reported at the conference. But the approach doesn’t sit well with some advisors, who see it as an intrusion on their relationships with their clients.

Some A.G. Edwards advisors are still smarting from their acquisition by Wells. In Registered Rep.’s Broker Report Card this month, 45 percent of Wells advisors who responded to the survey felt their business had been negatively affected by the merger, while only 57 percent felt Wells was the best company to work for. Among the complaints cited in the survey: restrictive compliance practices and cross-selling pressure. “Banks should not be in the brokerage business,” one unhappy advisor wrote (in fairness, some Wells advisors in the survey specifically said they weren’t feeling leaned on to market banking products.)

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