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How Wells Fargo reached milestone as world’s most valuable bank

Behind Wells Fargo & Co.’s ascent to the world’s most valuable bank lies a cheap and reliable source of funds favored by regulators and less popular with its largest rivals: retail bank deposits.

Wells Fargo gets 78 percent of its funding from deposits, and 90 percent are so-called core deposits – small amounts from individuals and other account-holders that are viewed as slower to yank their money than big institutions, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The bank has more than tripled deposits in seven years, adding the equivalent of Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks Inc. in the past two.

Under CEO John Stumpf, Wells Fargo has focused on the consumer, corporate and real estate lending common among regional banks instead of adopting the sprawling universal bank models typical of the biggest banks. This month the company surpassed the record set by Sandy Weill’s Citigroup Inc. in 2001 for most valuable bank in U.S. history.

“Banks following the simple bread-and-butter banking model are providing better returns and have an easier time with regulatory compliance,” Sheila Bair, a former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., said in a phone interview. “Core deposits representing customer relations are very stable, and markets are appreciating that as well as regulators now.”

Wells Fargo has climbed 18 percent in the year through Dec. 17, making it the best-performing stock in the 24-member KBW Bank Index. Wells is based in San Francisco but maintains its largest employee base in the Charlotte area, where it employs about 22,100.

Last week, the Federal Reserve proposed an extra capital requirement for the eight biggest U.S. banks, including Wells Fargo. The rule was especially demanding for those lenders that rely most on short-term market financing – the type that can vanish in a crisis – instead of deposits.

New challenges

That benefited Wells Fargo, which has grown to become the nation’s biggest mortgage lender since the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Now the bank is opposing a different rule under Fed consideration that would require the largest banks to issue long-term debt to absorb losses. That proposal, made by global regulators, is off the mark because it doesn’t recognize that individual depositors provide more reliable funds than bondholders, said Stumpf, who turned 61 in September.

“Those companies that fund most of their operations with debt are less impacted,” he said. “We fund substantially all of our balance sheet with retail funds. Wouldn’t it be an oddity to have the most conservative funding and yet be asked to go raise more debt?”

Bank deposits have surged since the financial crisis as interest rates near zero made alternatives such as money market funds less appealing. Wells Fargo’s have grown by $783 billion, or 225 percent, to $1.13 trillion. The bank’s 2008 acquisition of Charlotte-based Wachovia Corp. contributed.

Rising rates

Rivals, even those that made big acquisitions of their own, didn’t increase deposits as fast. New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co., which swallowed Washington Mutual Inc., added $594 billion. Charlotte-based Bank of America, which bought Countrywide Financial Corp. and Merrill Lynch & Co., boosted deposits by $306 billion.

Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc., with one-fifth the assets of Wells Fargo, saw its deposits jump 173 percent for the second-fastest growth among the 11 biggest U.S. banks.

Whenever the Fed starts raising interest rates, which many economists expect to happen next year, companies and institutional investors are likely to move their deposits to higher-yielding alternatives faster than individuals, according to Standard & Poor’s credit-rating firm.

“If the rate increase happens gradually, banks will adjust to the deposit outflows,” said Stuart Plesser, a senior director at S&P. “But if the rate increases are sudden and sharp, some banks can struggle to cope.”

Different DNA

In a Dec. 2 report, S&P listed 25 banks that could suffer large outflows of deposits if rates jump. Wells Fargo wasn’t among them.

Lately banks, including JPMorgan, have been trying to reduce large blocks of deposits from corporations or financial institutions. Not Wells Fargo, where time deposits larger than $100,000 – such as certificates of deposit – account for only 10 percent of the total compared with 26 percent at JPMorgan and 20 percent at Citigroup.

“Most of our deposits are part of long-term relationships for us,” Stumpf said recently in an interview in New York. “We’re in a category of one when you consider the size and how different we are from what you’d consider as large money-center banks. Our DNA is much more regional, community bank in structure.”

Vicious Cycle

While Bank of America’s core deposits are also about 90 percent of the total, it funds more operations in the bond market than Wells Fargo. That brings Bank of America’s ratio of core deposits to total liabilities down to 54 percent.

History has shown that institutions doing traditional banking are more successful, said Thomas Hoenig, vice chairman of the FDIC. While the sheer size of a bank can increase the risk it poses to an economy, the potential dangers are multiplied by complexity and activities such as trading that fall outside the traditional model, he said.

“Wholesale funding secured by assets on the bank’s balance sheet creates a vicious cycle during a financial downturn as creditors grab the collateral and sell in panic, bringing prices down even further,” said Hoenig, who has been an advocate for higher capital requirements for the biggest banks. “That’s where the vulnerability for the banking system comes from.”

Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is Wells Fargo’s biggest shareholder, has expressed a similar view.

“The biggest single asset that Wells has is its deposit base,” Buffett said in a television interview aired last year. “They have a consumer-based, small-business-type bank that’s just huge.”