Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wells Fargo Chairman Prefers U.S. Plan to Buy Stakes

(Bloomberg) -- Wells Fargo & Co. Chairman Richard Kovacevich said the U.S. Treasury's intention to buy stock in banks provides a better stimulus to escape the financial crisis than an earlier plan to purchase soured mortgage-related assets.

``Direct capital injections versus buying loans is a far more preferable way'' to help companies already facing credit losses, Kovacevich, 64, said yesterday at an event hosted by San Francisco's Commonwealth Club. ``It's an important tool to get the financial system back into the money business again.'' Wells Fargo, which agreed to buy Wachovia Corp. for about $14 billion this month, is one of nine large lenders slated to receive cash infusions as part of the government's plan to spend $700 billion unfreezing credit markets. Wells Fargo, based in San Francisco, will get $25 billion. JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are among the others that will receive the cash.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson last week urged banks to ``deploy'' the money in loans. He was forced to change his strategy after the initial plan to buy distressed assets caused banks to hoard cash and failed to halt a slide in the stock market. Kovacevich declined to say if he initially opposed Paulson's plan as the New York Times reported. Wells Fargo dropped 99 cents, or 3 percent, to $31.65 at 10:04 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The shares gained 8.1 percent this year through yesterday, the biggest advance in the 24-comopany KBW Bank Index. Wachovia fell 17 cents to $5.92, adding to its 84 percent decline this year.

He's Seen Worse

Kovacevich said the current economic crisis isn't the worst he's seen, and the U.S. government's may help end the credit freeze ``reasonably soon.''

``Our customers, except those in residential home lending or autos, are doing quite well,'' he said. ``By far, the worst economic crisis of my career was in the 1980s.'' The Wachovia deal, orchestrated by Kovacevich, marks an eastward expansion and strategic shift for Wells Fargo, which maintained a profit during the financial crisis by avoiding riskier loans. Wachovia's mortgage portfolio includes an estimated $74 billion in future losses. The Wells Fargo-Wachovia deal will create the biggest U.S. bank network, with 6,675 branches. The Federal Reserve said yesterday that Wells Fargo agreed to reduce its deposit base to comply with U.S. bank-merger law should the combined company control more than 10 percent of deposits nationwide.

Wachovia reported its third straight quarterly loss today, hurt by crumbling mortgage markets and writedowns on securities backed by real estate. The loss for the three months ended Sept. 30 was $23.9 billion, or $11.18 a share, compared with net income of $1.6 billion, or 85 cents, in the same period a year earlier, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company said in a statement. The Wachovia deal would be Wells Fargo's biggest acquisition since Norwest Corp. purchased the old Wells Fargo 10 years ago and adopted the name. Kovacevich was chief operating officer at Minneapolis-based Norwest in the 1980s when current Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf, 55, was running the auto-dealer business and working on commercial loans. Kovacevich was promoted to CEO of Norwest in 1993 and stepped down in June 2007 to make way for the promotion of Stumpf, who has been with the company for 26 years.

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