Wells Fargo seems to be ahead of its time in implementing sensible bank policies which are now standing them in good stead as banks try to weather the financial crises. Perhaps they should thank Socially Responsible Investment and Community Welfare advocates, who began raising the issue over four years ago and targeting Wells Fargo because of their aggressive lending practices. A historical tour of this campaign is simply fascinating given the news today.
This very worthy read, a September 2008 review of SRI Activity, notes that attention to predatory lending started in 1999: “Shareowner activists took note of this trend as early as 1999 after a keynote speech at SRI in the Rockies by Martin Eakes, founding CEO of Self-Help, a North-Carolina-based community development financial institution (CDFI.)”
“One of the biggest drivers in Wells Fargo Bank’s steady income growth is its mortgage business, which contributes approximately one-third of the company’s earnings year after year. Des Moines-based Wells Fargo Home Mortgage (WFHM) is one of the nation’s largest mortgage originators and servicers. At the end of 2003, WFHM originations hit $470B and mortgage servicing reached a record $664B. Wells Fargo’s subprime mortgage lending totaled $16.5B in 2003. While this is modest volume compared to Wells Fargo’s prime mortgage originations, the company now ranks # 8 among B&C lenders and generally has been doubling its subprime volume each year since 2000.”
This detailed 10 page report covers the merger of Wells Fargo and Norwest and many lending practices, ending with the sad conclusion “Lulled by favorable analyst reports, Wells Fargo investors may not realize they are subsidizing a predatory lender. In addition, limited regulatory oversight and loopholes in regulations have enabled Wells Fargo Financial to hide predatory practices from federal regulators. Sadly, the people who see these problems most clearly are the unit’s customers, who too often face the loss of their home or financial ruin as a result.”
On April 26, at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, Wells Fargo shareholders will vote on a resolution that links CEO pay to the company’s progress on eliminating predatory lending practices, such as excessive fees, poor disclosure and interest rates that are higher than warranted by customers’ credit scores.
The resolution was filed by members of Responsible Wealth (RW) [with support of many other advocacy orgs], a network of affluent investors. [Who advocate for greater social opportunity, one of their top issues is preserving the estate tax!] … Since a similar resolution was put forth in 2004, Wells Fargo has met with representatives of Responsible Wealth and the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) to discuss changes in their lending practices.
Nevertheless, the company has lagged behind other companies that have eliminated predatory practices. For instance, following a similar campaign by RW, CRL, and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Citigroup agreed to cap fees, reduce prepayment penalties and ensure that all customers received rates appropriate to their credit history, regardless of which division of the company handles the loan application. “
Now isn’t that interesting… Citigroup. And how are they faring today?
August 31, 2005 – Wells Fargo Implements Borrower Protections, LA Times.
Wells Fargo announces a series of changed lending practices, including “include more clearly defining and limiting upfront fees, easing penalties for borrowers who refinance or pay off loans early, and eliminating mandatory arbitration of disputes”. ACORN made a grudging statement “glad that the company has finally acknowledged the damage that their practices have been causing and have agreed to change them.” However, they weren’t satisfied, and only a couple months later were out picketing Wells Fargo’s national headquarters contending that the company’s lending still discriminated against minorities: “Nationally, black Wells Fargo borrowers are nearly four times as likely to pay extraordinary loan rates as whites, according to information compiled by Responsible Wealth. Nearly 30 percent of blacks taking out first-year loans from the company pay high interest rates.”
The Minority Wealth Gap is a real issue, but the changes Wells Fargo made at the time apparently satisfied at least one investor; what’s really interesting to me as I do this research, is the discovery that around Q3 2005 is when Warren Buffet decided to buy in, according to this report:
“Warren Buffett also revealed his holdings in Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) today [Feb 4, 2006], after disclosing his holdings in H. R. Block (HRB) and Torchmark Corp. (TMK) in January. During the third quarter of 2005 Buffett kept his holdings in these companies confidential. As revealed by the amended filings of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett added his positions in Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) by about 50%. Currently Berkshire holds 85 million shares of Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo is now the 4th largest equity holding of Berkshire Hathaway, behind Coca-Cola Co. (KO), American Express Co. (AXP) and Procter & Gamble Co. (PG).”
The stock wasn’t particularly pounded and “the street” wasn’t really paying attention. I checked the stock price on Yahoo (NYSE:WFC) and it had increased mildly over 2005, fluctuating between a high of 31 and a low of 29.
By 2007, at least one traditional investment newsletter was raving about Wells Fargo. Dan Ferris, of Daily Wealth reports: “Of all the companies involved in the subprime space, the one that really leaps out at me is Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC). Wells Fargo is without a doubt the highest-quality mortgage underwriter I’ve found in my research.” He concludes “were I in the market for a large-cap stock, I’d back up a U-Haul and fill it with Wells Fargo common stock.”
It so clearly needs to be said, so I’ll say it: Thanks SRI Community!