Wells Fargo projects record $3 billion 1Q profit

April 9, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Wells Fargo & Co. said Thursday it expects record first-quarter earnings of $3 billion, easily surpassing analysts' estimates and providing an encouraging sign for the banking industry. Wells Fargo is the first major bank to give an indication of how the first-quarter looked. Several pessimistic forecasts about potential loan losses have jolted the market in recent days, and investors have been anxious as Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. all report next week.

Wells Fargo's stock surged $2.71, or 18.2 percent, to $17.60 in midday trading. Broader markets also rose on the Wells Fargo report, with the Dow Jones industrial average gaining more than 159 points to 7,996.

San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which has received $25 billion in funds as part of the government's bank bailout plan, anticipates earnings after preferred dividends of about 55 cents per share. Revenue for the period ended March 31 is expected to climb 16 percent to $20 billion.

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters forecast profit of 23 cents per share on revenue of $19 billion. Analysts' estimates typically exclude one-time items.

Wells Fargo earned $2 billion during the first quarter last year.

The bank's chief financial officer, however, did caution that the economy hasn't necessarily recovered yet.

"It's premature to conclude the economy has turned," said Howard Atkins, Wells Fargo's CFO. "All I can tell you is we're seeing a lot of business."

Revenue at Wells Fargo, which has been one of the strongest banks during the ongoing credit crisis and recession, was bolstered by strong mortgage banking and capital markets business, Atkins told The Associated Press. During the first quarter, Wells Fargo received about $190 billion in mortgage applications, a 64 percent jump from the previous quarter. More than 40 percent of that volume came in March.

Most of that business was refinance applications, but about 25 percent came from customers looking to purchase homes, Atkins said, noting the recent quarter's mortgage activity has been among the strongest quarters since the housing market began to collapse in 2007.

The government has been implementing many new programs in an effort to cut interest rates, hoping to bolster the beleaguered housing market, and those programs have definitely helped, Atkins said.

"For sure the reduction in interest rates is having an impact on the wave of activity in the mortgage market," Atkins said.

The company also credited its Wachovia acquisition, which was completed Jan. 1, for helping boost revenue. Atkins said Wachovia accounted for about 40 percent of revenue during the first quarter, and that business at Wachovia has steadily improved since Wells Fargo announced it would acquire the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank last fall.

Wells Fargo said charge-offs are expected to total $3.3 billion for the first quarter, compared with a combined $6.1 billion between Wells Fargo and Wachovia during the fourth quarter. Charge-offs are loans written off as not being repaid.

The bank is still facing loan losses as customers fall behind on repaying loans during the recession. It said its loan-loss provision will total about $4.6 billion for the first quarter, including adding $1.3 billion to its credit reserves. Wells Fargo now has $23 billion in reserves to cover future loan losses.

Signs of improvement from one of the nation's largest banks gave investors reason to rally around the banking sector amid hopes that the worst of the credit crisis is ending. The KBW Bank Index, which tracks 24 of the nation's largest banks, surged 10.5 percent to 31.11. Some of the nation's hardest hit banks have also rallied, with Citigroup Inc. gaining 23 cents, or 8.5 percent, to $2.93. Shares of Bank of America Corp. rose $1.34, or 19 percent, to $8.40.

Over the past month, investors have clung to encouraging announcements from banks to send their shares higher. The market's recent rally was initially sparked by CEOs at Citigroup and Bank of America announcing their banks were operating at a profit during the first two months of the year.

Wells Fargo is scheduled to report full quarterly results on April 22.

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AP Business Writer Michelle Chapman in New York contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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