Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE: WFC) seems to have hardly a week or two go by before another piece of negative news comes out about the bank. On top of a recent “forced shrinkage” via limiting the bank’s growth and planning the removal of four directors from its board, the newest headline is that Wells Fargo sent erroneous auto insurance letters to its customers.
The one question that seems to go unanswered is how all of this is making the great Warren Buffett feel toward keeping his investment in Wells Fargo. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) owned a stake worth $26.9 billion as of the end of the third quarter of 2017. What mattered in that last 13F filing report as of September 30, 2017, was that the 464.2 million shares was about 3.75 million shares smaller than it had been the prior quarter. What stands out is that Buffett had been almost a perpetual accumulator of the stock.
It’s hard to know if dropping less than 1% of the stake in Wells Fargo would be a prelude to something larger. That being said, when Buffett has accumulated large blocks of stock in companies over time, it’s not normal for him to sell the stake down some and then become a buyer again. It has happened, but it is not the norm, from what we have seen in two decades of whale watching related to Buffett.
One issue that may have to be considered is that tax reform is set to help Berkshire Hathaway. Whether or not that pertains to the capital gains versus the net income in the grand scheme of things for a conglomerate remains to be seen. The problem that we all know is that Buffett has such a large profit in Wells Fargo that he might just determine that it would be cheaper or close enough to being cheaper on an after-tax basis for Berkshire Hathaway to ride out the current malaise than it would be to sell the holdings.
Buffett obviously was not happy, despite backing him originally, that former CEO John Stumpf had allowed the Wells Fargo culture to become so aggressive in cross-selling that its account opening scandal cost the bank so much credibility. But now the move is costing it in raw dollars because being unable to grow could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income opportunity. And there is no assurance that the bank will be free to resume its growth ambitions.
Buffett has a very tough call here. In a perfect world, he’d think about adding to his other bank investments where the banks have less restricted operations. But that tax issue is a real issue, and some people in the investing community think that Buffett hates paying any more taxes than he deems fair, even while he has said in public that the rich need to pay more in taxes.
Buffett recently proclaimed that tax reform would have been done differently had he been in charge. Still, he indicated that it would be good for Berkshire Hathaway and for corporate America in general. The simple explanation that companies getting to keep 79 cents of every earned dollar rather than 65 cents would be a good deal for companies and shareholders.
The fair value of all equity securities was listed as $157.65 billion in the quarterly earnings report for September of 2017, with more than $82.2 billion being unrealized gains.
Buffett did indicate after the passage of tax reform that the firm had sold some shares of companies, but also that it had been a net-buyer of shares in general. What that means for Wells Fargo remains unknown.
Berkshire Hathaway is set to release its 13F-HR filing with its year-end equity holdings for 2017 this week. The total $157.65 billion in holdings almost has to be valued higher considering the gains that were seen in late 2017. That being said, the filing will be as of December 31, 2017, so we may not know if Buffett has sold even more Wells Fargo shares in the first quarter during 2018.