By Dan Freed
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wells Fargo & Co <WFC.N> is scaling back and remolding its auto lending business in response to growing stress in the market, as well as a bank-wide push for more centralized risk controls.
Wells, which was the No. 2 U.S. provider of auto loans less than a year ago, has already cut quarterly originations by nearly 30 percent over the nine months leading into March 31, according to a May 11 company presentation. It has also begun consolidating the collections operation in a move that people familiar with the business say could eliminate hundreds of jobs, after a new head of auto finance took the reins in April.
Wells Fargo joins other lenders in reducing exposure to the rapidly cooling U.S. auto market. Bankers, auto industry executives, analysts and regulators have been warning since 2014 that the auto loan market could overheat after being fueled for years by low interest rates and easy financing terms.
Chasing growth, some lenders, including Wells Fargo, began to embrace borrowers with shaky credit. In late 2015, however, auto default rates began creeping above other types of consumer debt, according to data compiled by Cox Automotive, prompting some lenders to tighten standards and edge away from the market.
Wells Fargo began curtailing its auto exposure beginning last year. It cut the share of subprime loans in the auto portfolio to 8 over percent in the first quarter from over 11 percent a year earlier, according to a company presentation.
Analysts expect to see higher delinquency and default rates when Wells Fargo reports results on Friday.
"The general view, which they've been pretty clear about, is that loan growth will be negative for next two to three quarters," said Brian Foran, an analyst at Autonomous Research. He expects the auto pullback to shave roughly one percentage point off Wells Fargo's net interest income growth over time.
The bank's executives have acknowledged that tightening of standards comes at a price.
"Wells Fargo is willing to give up volume and share in order to protect its balance sheet from credit risk," Franklin Codel, the bank's head of consumer lending, told the bank's investor day in May.
At the same event, Chief Executive Officer Tim Sloan singled out auto loans as the business with the biggest potential for a "negative credit event."
A Wells Fargo spokeswoman declined to comment for this story beyond what executives have already said about auto lending.
As Wells Fargo's auto loan originations have dropped, it has slipped to No. 7 from No. 2 among top U.S. auto lenders, according to Experian Automotive.
The bank also began a revamp of its auto business early this year as part of a broad overhaul following a sales scandal that has roiled the third-largest U.S. bank by assets.
In April, Laura Schupbach took over management of the auto business, months after her predecessor, Dawn Martin Harp, announced plans to leave. Schupbach is a 22-year Wells Fargo veteran who most recently ran its insurance business after various roles in finance and expenses, according to her corporate biography.
Weeks later, the bank began the process of moving collections staff from 57 locations across the country to three central hubs in Raleigh, North Carolina, Irving, Texas and Chandler, Arizona, according to an internal memo viewed by Reuters.
People with knowledge of the business say hundreds of positions will likely be eliminated. A bank spokeswoman declined to say how many jobs might be lost, and would not authorize an interview with Schupbach. Martin Harp could not be reached.
The auto lending shake-up, some details of which were first reported by Auto Finance News, is the latest indication that Wells Fargo's top management is seeking greater control over businesses that traditionally operated with much independence.
In interviews, three people who have worked inside the auto lending operation raised questions about what impact the abandoning of the "run it like you own it" philosophy will have in the long term.
In recent years auto lending delivered nearly twice as much in revenue per dollar of expenses as the overall bank, according to people familiar with the numbers.
They attributed the performance to tight cost controls and the operational independence that was once a source of pride for Wells Fargo. But that business model has come under scrutiny after revelations that thousands of branch employees created as many as 2.1 million accounts to hit aggressive sales targets.
Following an internal investigation, Wells Fargo's directors released a report in April recommending tighter and more centralized risk management. Since then, Wells has begun moving 5,200 risk employees from business units to one "corporate risk" division.
Although the changes could make businesses less nimble, tighter controls were inevitable, said Marty Mosby, analyst at Vining Sparks.
"It was hard for them to give up that last piece of who they really were," he said. "That's what made them more profitable than the other bank."
(Reporting by Dan Freed; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Tomasz Janowski)