John Stumpf is a survivor.
Hes a CEO who kept his job as peers fell after the 2008 financial crisis, a strategist who expanded his company while others shrank theirs, a personable banker at a time of great anger toward his industry.
Stumpf is the boss of Wells Fargo, the nations fourth-largest bank by assets – and one of the few that emerged from the financial crisis with a reputation for responsible banking.
The bank likes to say its vanilla business model of making loans and taking deposits has kept it above the fray while exotic derivatives and other risky practices have bludgeoned rivals. Today, Wells controls a third of the U.S. mortgage market, giving it by far the biggest share of any bank.
The mortgage strategy has its own problems, though, including lawsuits over questionable lending. In October, for example, the Justice Department sued Wells, accusing it of misrepresenting the quality of thousands of mortgage loans that the Federal Housing Administration insured and that later defaulted.
San Francisco-based Wells was one of the largest banks in the country but relatively unknown outside the Western U.S. before 2008, when it scooped up teetering Wachovia in the depths of the financial crisis.
The bank has turned a profit every quarter since 2009, when the purchase was complete. Earnings have expanded while revenue has stayed steady.
Like other big banks, Wells Fargos stock has had an impressive year, gaining about 20 percent. But unlike the others, its recently been close to its pre-crisis heights – trading earlier this month in the low $30s. The stock was around $35 when Stumpf took over in the summer of 2007.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Stumpf, 59, talked about why hes fighting the governments lawsuit and why hes less than enthusiastic on the economy.
Questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
Q. Whats your prediction for the economy? Could we move into a reasonably strong economy in the next couple of years just naturally because weve been in a downturn for so long?
A. I dont know that I subscribe to that. It takes more planning and more leadership. Weve got $16 trillion of federal debt, we have deficits as far as the eye can see, 10,000 people retire every day in this country and are getting (extremely low interest rates) on their savings. Left to its own, it will look very much like what its looked like so far.
Q. So what do we do?
A. Theres still too much uncertainty – tax policy, health care, entitlements, a whole bunch of other things. I would like to see the public sector and private sector get on the same page. Take something like housing. We have states that are passing new laws around housing that sometimes are in conflict with the national standards. What will happen to the mortgage interest deduction? We dont know these things. And when its uncertain, the private sector feels it in a big way. We just published our quarterly Gallup/Wells Fargo small-business survey, and we saw more pessimism than weve seen (in years) because what happens in Washington affects Main Street.
Q. Washington is fighting over tax policy and government spending. Should taxes go up for the wealthiest people?
A. Ill speak as an individual. Whatever is asked of me as a taxpayer, Im willing to do. Im the luckiest guy on the planet, so Im all about growing our way out of this situation.
Q. The Justice Department recently accused your bank of mortgage fraud. Whats your response?
A. We think they got that wrong. Our FHA lending activity and servicing, weve done it in good faith, we have met the requirements that were laid out. The proof was really in the results – our portfolio performs better than others. We have a number of defenses. This is one were going to take on.
Q. People hate bank fees. Bank of America just decided to postpone new fees on its checking accounts. Where do you see this going?
A. We try to be transparent in what we do. I think what really irritates customers is where they believe they got something at this price and find out theres some other language in there and they really paid this price.
What we want to provide for customers is a good, fair deal. We have 6,000 (branches), 12,218 ATM machines, 24/7 bankers, online – and all this stuff costs money. We give people (free) access if they do enough business with us. If they choose not to do business with us but for one thing, we charge them ($7) a month for the access to that nationwide distribution. Thats a bargain. Our customers understand that. Weve had minimal issues in that area. Our customers have higher loyalty scores with us than weve ever had.
Q. Youve been pretty outspoken against some of the new government regulations imposed on the banking industry.
A. Im not against regulation. I like good, effective regulation. What I worry about are the unintended consequences of well-intended people who pass laws that make it harder to lend money, make it more difficult for consumers and small businesses and large businesses to get credit.