Although Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC)’s outlook remains constructive, particularly expense leverage tied to the company’s efficiency initiative and legacy servicing/mortgage-related costs, earnings growth is clearly moderating into ’14. The slowing momentum is only exacerbated by the stubbornly low rate environment and normalizing mortgage banking revenues. With the shares trading at 10.2x ’14 EPS meaningful multiple expansion from current levels is unlikely says a new report from Todd L. Hagerman of Sterne Agee. Full details below.

Wells Fargo Downgraded by Sterne Agee on Slower Earnings Growth, ZIRP,

  • We are downgrading the shares of Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC) to Neutral from Buy on valuation given expectations for more modest earnings growth. Our price target of $42 remains unchanged and implies 10.5x our 2014E of $4.00 and 1.5x our 2014E TBV. We are fine-tuning our 2Q13 estimate to account for slightly lower loan loss provision, although our ’13 and ’14 estimates remain unchanged at $3.65 and $4.00, respectively.
  • High performance company deserving of a premium multiple, but limited upside given expectations for more modest earnings growth into ’14. With Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC) shares trading at 10.2x forward EPS and 1.8x TBV, we see limited upside from current levels, even with a modestly higher earnings multiple or earnings growth. To be sure, the company’s top-tier profitability metrics (an estimated +16% ROTCE and 1.34% ROAA in 2013E), balanced revenue stream, and relatively benign risk profile are deserving of a premium valuation. However, accounting for modest EPS upside relative to current expectations and additional multiple expansion only yields a low/mid $40 intrinsic value in our view. While we consider Wells Fargo a high-quality, core holding for investors (company continues to redeploy 50-60% of earnings via dividends and share repurchases), meaningful outperformance of Wells Fargo shares at this juncture seems unlikely.
  • Outlook broadly better than peers, but we see the shares now as largely fairly valued. Our $4.00 2014E EPS implies roughly +5% earning asset growth, which ranks at the top of our large-cap bank coverage. With ongoing momentum in the wholesale bank (select portfolio acquisitions, organic loan growth, and increasing market share), the spread income outlook remains steady, despite expectations for further margin compression. And we continue to forecast modest top-line growth and efficiency gains (55% in ’14, or the low end of Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC)’s 55-59% target) despite normalizing mortgage revenue. To rationalize material upside to the current price target, we would need to muster earnings in excess of $4.75/share (see Figure 7), which would again place Wells Fargo at the very top of its 1.3%-1.6% ROAA guidance, which we envision the company achieving by 2015 at the earliest.

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Wells Fargo: Key Investment Points

Although Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC)’s outlook remains constructive, particularly ongoing credit leverage as well as expense levers tied to the company’s efficiency initiative and legacy servicing/mortgage related costs, earnings growth is clearly slowing into ’14. The slowing momentum is only exacerbated by the stubbornly low rate environment and normalizing mortgage banking revenues. To be sure, we expect to see ongoing momentum in the wholesale bank (select portfolio acquisitions, organic loan growth, and increasing market share) and identified expense leverage through Wells Fargo’s efficiency initiative (Project Compass) and lower accruals attached to legacy servicing/mortgage related matters.

However, our optimistic earnings sensitivity analysis surrounding our existing conservative pre-provision profit forecast for ’14 (refer to Figure 7), notably better-than-expected mortgage revenues, lower provisions, accelerated decline of legacy mortgage-related costs and lower variable expenses tied to production volumes suggest potential EPS leverage of about 25-30% in 2014. However, this scenario would again place Wells Fargo & Co (NYSE:WFC) at the very top of its 1.3%-1.6% ROAA guidance and well below its targeted efficiency range of 55-59%, which we envision Wells Fargo achieving by 2015 at the earliest.

Wells Fargo spread income growth and further margin compression remain risks. Adjusted for the shortened day count in 1Q13, spread income was flat ($10.7B) as average earning assets increased 2% sequentially. While absolute net interest income was adversely impacted by two fewer days in the quarter, the net interest margin fell 8bps to 3.48%, marking an aggregate decline of about 43bps from the year-ago period. The decline in margin was attributable to about 2bps of asset yield pressure (balance sheet re-pricing), 3bps to strong deposit inflows resulting in higher liquidity balances, and 2bps of lower variable income (lower PCI accretable yield).

Wells Fargo PCI accretable yield benefited interest income by $447mm or modestly lower than 4Q12 results ($513mm). While the margin is expected to remain under pressure in the near/medium term, management expects absolute net interest income will increase in 2013. However, we expect flat spread income due to a modestly larger balance sheet, including some commercial loan growth. We look for a margin of about 3.35%-3.40% for the full-year 2013 (versus 3.48% in 1Q13), or down about 35-40 bps year over year.

Similarly, we look for additional compression of about 5bps in 2014, which should result in positive spread growth of 2-3%. Currently, we would expect pre-provision profits to fall about 2-3% in 2013 as mortgage banking continues to normalize, in conjunction with relatively flat net interest income, although we remain relatively conservative on the expense side for now (down ~2-3% in 2013).

Mortgage banking expected to normalize over the course of the year. Core fee revenues fell 6% sequentially in 1Q13 and were relatively flat from the year-ago period due primarily to a decline in market-sensitive revenues, including mortgage banking. We would note that mortgage banking was trending at unsustainably high levels in 2H12, and the quarterly decrease was effectively within expectations, down roughly 9% to $2.8B. While still respectable, origination activity (10% tied to HARP) and flow sale gains associated with origination/sales were down in the quarter, which registered $2.5B vs. $2.8B in 4Q12.

Origination activity tailed off somewhat, as total originations of $109B were down from 4Q12 ($125B) and the mortgage pipeline of $74B declined from $81B in the prior quarter. Despite the modest slowdown in the quarter, origination volumes are expected to remain relatively healthy, given improving housing values, seasonal benefits (spring buying season) and ongoing refinance opportunities. However, because so much of the current volume is driven by refinance activity, revenues will likely further slow in the coming quarters as purchase volumes likely struggle to offset the expected volume decline in refinance activity.

Gain on sale margins will likely compress throughout 2013. On an annual basis over the past four years, GOS margins have edged as high as 2.3% and as low as 1.6%, which is the outlook for 2Q13—in other words, unpredictable. In 1Q13, gain on sale margins were surprisingly flat at 2.56%. The outsized range for 2Q13 is essentially tied to the company’s ultimate decision to retain conforming fixed-rate mortgage production on its balance sheet ($3.4B in 1Q13 vs. $9.7B in 4Q12). However, the company has suggested that it would

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