A survivor, from repo guy to Wells Fargo chief

CEO John Stumpf: "There's still too much uncertainty - tax policy, health care, entitlements. ..."
CEO John Stumpf: "There's still too much uncertainty - tax policy, health care, entitlements. ..." (AP)
Posted: December 08, 2012

John Stumpf is a survivor, a CEO who kept his job as peers fell after the 2008 financial crisis, a strategist who expanded his company while others shrank theirs, a personable banker at a time of great anger toward his industry.

Stumpf is the boss of Wells Fargo NA, of San Francisco, the second-largest bank in the Philadelphia region, by deposits - and one of the few that emerged from the financial crisis with a reputation for responsible banking.

Today, Wells, the nation's fourth-largest bank by assets, controls a third of the U.S. mortgage market, giving it by far the biggest share of any bank.

The mortgage strategy has its own problems, though. In October, for example, the Justice Department sued Wells, accusing it of misrepresenting the quality of thousands of mortgage loans that the Federal Housing Administration insured and that later defaulted.

In an interview, Stumpf, 59, talked about why he's fighting the lawsuit and why he's less than enthusiastic on the economy.

Questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Question: What's your prediction for the economy the next couple of years?

Answer: We've got $16 trillion of federal debt, we have deficits as far as the eye can see, 10,000 people retire every day in this country and are getting (extremely low interest rates) on their savings. Left to its own, it will look very much like what it's looked like so far.

Q: So what do we do?

A: There's still too much uncertainty - tax policy, health care, entitlements, a whole bunch of other things. I would like to see the public sector and private sector get on the same page. Take something like housing. We have states that are passing new laws around housing that sometimes are in conflict with the national standards. What will happen to the mortgage interest deduction? We don't know these things. And when it's uncertain, the private sector feels it in a big way.

Q: Should taxes go up for the wealthiest people?

A: I'll speak as an individual. Whatever is asked of me as a taxpayer, I'm willing to do. I'm the luckiest guy on the planet, so I'm all about growing our way out of this situation.

Q: The Justice Department recently accused your bank of mortgage fraud. What's your response?

A: We think they got that wrong. Our FHA lending activity and servicing, we've done it in good faith, we have met the requirements that were laid out. The proof was really in the results - our portfolio performs better than others. We have a number of defenses. This is one we're going to take on.

Q: You started in the business as a repo guy. What did you learn from that?

A: When you make a bad loan, a lot of people suffer. Your shareholder suffers, customers suffer. People go into a loan wanting to make it work, and they want to pay their debts.

Q: Any good stories?

A: One time I was repo-ing a chain saw out on a farm north of the Twin Cities. I heard the chain saw, so I walked around the house and some guy was cutting wood. He said, "What do you want?" and I said, "I'm here for the chain saw," and he picked up the chain saw in one hand and then a shotgun in the other, and he said, "Here, come and get it." And I said, "Maybe I don't need that chain saw right now."

Q: You were outspoken against the idea of a stand-alone Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when it was proposed. What do you think of the job they've done so far?

A: These are good people, and they've been asked to do an impossible job. I hope they get it right.

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