The financial industry has gone through a lot of turmoil over the past decade, and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) in particular has found itself at the center of controversy on more than one occasion over that time span. The bank suffered a big hit during the financial crisis in 2008 and early 2009, but its takeover of Wachovia represented an opportunity that paid off in the long run. More recently, though, a scandal surrounding employee practices has rocked confidence in the stock. Given that, some investors who have been hoping that the banking giant might do a stock split in the near future now fear that a split might never come. Below, we'll look more closely at the history of Wells Fargo stock splits to see whether those fears are justified.
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Image source: Wells Fargo.
Wells Fargo stock splits in the past
Here are the dates and split ratios for the stock splits that Wells Fargo has done in the past, keeping in mind that prior to November 1998, splits refer to the Norwest Corporation, which Wells Fargo merged with at that time:
Data source: Wells Fargo investor relations. All but the final stock split was done by Norwest Corporation, with which Wells Fargo merged in 1998.
Wells Fargo's stock split history goes back a long while. But because only the last split was directly attributable to the current Wells Fargo, it has the most weight in determining what has made the bank make stock-split decisions in the past.
When Wells Fargo has historically done stock splits
Looking back at the Norwest contribution to Wells Fargo's stock split history, the bank generally made split decisions fairly aggressively. In 1997, the stock had only risen into the high $60s before the bank did a split. Before that, splits happened even more frequently, with share prices climbing only into the $50s or even $40s before prompting another move.
That said, Wells Fargo's own 2006 stock split gives more valuable information about what's likely to be part of its decision-making process going for. At that time, the stock had risen into the mid-$70s, with considerable appreciation following the best years of the housing boom. The 2-for-1 split took the share price back into the $30s, and there it stayed for much of the next seven years, with a brief plunge during the financial crisis from which it equally quickly recovered.
Why did Wells Fargo stop splitting?
Over the past few years, Wells Fargo stock has risen, climbing almost to the $60-per-share level in 2015 before falling back. Given how far the bank let its stock climb before doing the 2006 split, no one was really surprised that Wells Fargo hadn't sought to split its shares at a lower price level.
Since then, the stock has given up ground and missed out on an industry rebound, largely because of the scandal it faced last year. Wells Fargo found out through a third-party investigation that thousands of branch employees opened up to 2 million unauthorized accounts, claiming to be acting on customers' behalf. The motivation for the unauthorized activity seemed to be that workers sought to meet goals for new accounts and cross-selling. Although the penalties were minor, the episode called into question the sales culture that made Wells Fargo such a successful bank throughout its history.
Will Wells Fargo ever split again?
Among investors, future views on Wells Fargo right now are justifiably mixed. Some believe that the bank can't fix its broken reputation, while others believe that its long history can help it rebuild. Unless that happens successfully, then the question of a stock split will be a moot point, because the stock could remain mired at current levels.
Even if Wells Fargo stock climbs, there's no guarantee it will split its shares. Several of its peers have much higher share prices but haven't bothered do to stock splits. Attitudes toward high-priced shares have changed over time, and now, fewer companies are concerned about stock prices even that move into triple digits.
Because of those factors, Wells Fargo investors should rely on necessarily ever seeing a future stock split. In the long run, what matters far more is whether the bank can regain the confidence of customers and investors and produce the long-term returns for shareholders that helped make it a success story in the first place.
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