Wells Fargo fund business on the defensive amid sales scandal

February 21, 2017 09:48 AM

When a scandal over unauthorized accounts rocked Wells Fargo & Co's retail division last fall, executives at its asset management arm sprang into action to limit its fallout at an already tough time for their business.

A Reuters' review of minutes from about two dozen state and municipal pension board meetings across the country from October to December showed Wells Fargo wealth management executives offering apologies, weighing fee cuts and emphasizing their own controls on staff hiring and vetting.

Joe Ready, head of Wells Fargo's institutional retirement plan business, for example, told trustees of the city of San Diego's defined contribution plan that participants' $1 billion in assets were walled off from other parts of Wells Fargo.

Last September, the bank said it reached a settlement with the authorities over findings that its branch staff opened up to 2 million unauthorized customer accounts.

"Mr. Ready apologized for any inconveniences the recent incident has caused. Mr. Ready confirmed that the retirement plan accounts are not impacted by the recent events," according to minutes of the Oct. 6 meeting published on the city's website.

San Diego pension officials declined to comment for this story. Wells Fargo declined to make Ready available and said it would not comment on its interactions with specific clients, but said in a statement:

"We certainly understand the concerns about what happened in our community bank and have been in regular dialogue with our investor clients regarding the settlement," the bank said.

It is difficult to determine the scandal's precise business impact. Like other fund managers, Wells Fargo is grappling with the seismic shift of money into funds that track indices. Even before the scandal erupted investors had been pulling money out of its funds.

Yet its fund unit has seen faster outflows than its peers and the withdrawals accelerated in the last quarter of 2016.

Wells Fargo's core mutual funds business, for example, had the biggest market share decline among large U.S. fund families in 2016, according to Morningstar Inc data. In December alone, the funds recorded $7.1 billion in net withdrawals, two and a half times more than the second-worst performer.

Cyclical underperformance
Asked to comment on the data, the bank said in a statement it did not believe "there is a connection between our fund flows and the September 2016 sales practice settlement between Wells Fargo and regulators."

"The recent underperformance of many active managers is simply cyclical," it added in the statement.

The bank declined to make executives available for further comment.

In one case, however, the accounts debacle played a role in a lost bid for new business.

The bank's $482 billion asset management arm was among three finalists to run a $40 million bond portfolio for Oakland's police and fire pension fund last fall.

The contract went to a firm with 17 employees and $1.5 billion in assets and David Sancewich, a consultant who helped the pension fund with the selection, told Reuters the scandal influenced Oakland's choice.

"It was one variable as part of the decision process," he said in an email.

In another instance, however, Wells Fargo's assurances appeared to have had some mitigating effect. In Vermont, administrators of Champlain College who considered dropping the bank as an underwriter of a $77 million bond because of the scandal, ultimately chose to stick with Wells Fargo following a review of the bank's operations.

When contacted, the college provided Reuters with a copy of an October memo, which said it made the decision "following a robust discussion," while stressing that the school had no relationship with Wells Fargo's retail unit. Champlain declined further comment.

To be sure, Wells Fargo funds business, which ranks 28th nationally, plays a secondary role for investors, who focus more on other, bigger divisions of the bank.

"It's a small piece of Wells Fargo's business and doesn't drive the stock price," said Shannon Stemm, an analyst at Edward Jones.

Still, at least in the immediate aftermath of the scandal that led to a $185 million settlement and dismissal of 5,300 employees, some of the bank's staff grappled with the repercussions.

Employees at Wells Fargo's institutional retirement and trust unit were fielding about 75 calls a week after the settlement from participants in pension plans in which the bank acts as custodian or record-keeper, Ready told San Diego pension officials at a special meeting in October, the minutes showed.

The callers wanted assurances that their money was walled off from the retail banking operations, Wells Fargo executives told San Diego pension officials.

One executive sought to distance herself from the head office altogether.

At a Nov. 10 meeting of the North Carolina supplemental retirement board, Carrie Callahan, a managing partner at Galliard Asset Management, noted how Galliard was a subsidiary of Wells Fargo but a distinct brand.

"She stressed that there had been no impact to Galliard's business due to the activity at Wells Fargo," according to the meeting's minutes.

Callahan declined to comment. North Carolina officials were not available to comment.

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