The Death of Wells Fargo's Retail Strategy

By John Maxfield Markets Fool.com

Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) doesn't deserve a lot of credit for the way it's handled the fallout from its fake-account scandal, which came to light last September, but the bank is trying to make things right. To this end, every month Wells Fargo reports nearly two dozen metrics that shed light on the latest activity in its retail branches.

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It's doing so to be transparent, and presumably to show that it no longer emphasizes cross-sales in its branches, the practice which is widely believed to have caused the scandal in the first place. Two metrics in particular stick out: New checking-account openings dropped 35% last month compared to the year-ago period; consumer credit card applications were down 42%.

Metric

March 2017

Change from March 2016

Total branch interactions

54.8 million

(4%)

Consumer checking-account openings

400,000

(35%)

Consumer checking-account closings

200,000

(2%)

Credit card applications

200,000

(42%)

Debit card transactions

$5.8 billion

5%

Data source: Wells Fargo's 1Q17 supplement.

Last month wasn't an anomaly, either. The magnitude of the drop has been consistent over the past few months. In January, for instance, new-account openings fell on a year-over-year basis by 31%, while credit card applications were off by 47%.

These numbers belie claims by former CEO John Stumpf that the bank hadn't previously disclosed the scandal in regulatory filings because its executives didn't anticipate the fallout to be sufficiently material, which would trigger its duty to disclose.

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Numbers like these also illuminate how much Wells Fargo depended on cross-selling to generate new checking and credit card accounts. Given that these numbers have dropped so far, one can't help but wonder how big of a role fake accounts played in Wells Fargo's once proudly and loudly proclaimed cross-sell ratio, which tended to be double that of most other banks.

May Wells Fargo's former retail sales strategy rest in peace. Image source: Getty Images.

To a certain extent, Stumpf was right, as the short-term impact on Wells Fargo's bottom line from the scandal has been minimal. Sure, it was the only big bank to report a year-over-year drop in first-quarter earnings. And yes, it's paid a few hundred million dollars in fines and settlements. But that's a small fraction of its $5.5 billion in typical quarterly earnings. And while new checking and credit accounts are down, it's not as if these drive revenue right out of the gate anyhow.

But the problem is that Wells Fargo's overarching retail strategy has long revolved around getting customers in the door with checking accounts and then cross-selling them more profitable products -- things like brokerage accounts, credit cards, car loans, and mortgages. It's no surprise, given this, that the trend in credit card applications has mirrored new checking accounts.

As Stumpf explained in 2012:

There are only three ways a company can grow. First, earn more business from your current customers. Second, attract customers from your competitors. Or third, buy another company. If you can't do the first, what makes you think you can earn more business from your competitors' customers or from customers you buy through acquisition?

My point is that it remains to be seen how big an impact the scandal will have on Wells Fargo's long-term growth rate. The reputational damage will eventually subside, but the impact from the change in its sales culture is likely to be longer-lasting.

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John Maxfield owns shares of Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.