Wells Fargo chair flays TARP, "asinine" stress test

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wells Fargo & Co's WFC.N chairman lambasted the U.S. government for imposing new curbs on lenders that receive federal bailout money, and called the federal plan to subject big banks to stress tests "asinine."

A Wells Fargo bank branch is framed by North Table Mountain in Golden, Colorado January 28, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

In remarks after a speech Friday at Stanford University, Chairman Richard Kovacevich said the fourth-largest U.S. bank should not be lumped with weaker rivals in being forced to adhere to new rules governing such matters as lending and pay.

Wells Fargo took $25 billion of capital last year from the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program at the behest of regulators including then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, but has said it did not need the money. It was one of nine original TARP recipients.

Like a growing number of rivals, the San Francisco bank is now complaining about TARP, including a provision that lets Congress unilaterally impose new restrictions on recipients.

“Is this America, when you can do what your government asks you to do and then retroactively you also have additional conditions put on?” Kovacevich said. A video of his comments was posted online by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

Bank of America Corp BAC.N, Goldman Sachs Group Inc GS.N, JPMorgan Chase & Co JPM.N and several smaller lenders have said they want to get out of TARP when they can, although Bank of America Chief Executive Kenneth Lewis has said the program helped avert a financial meltdown.

On March 6, Wells Fargo slashed its quarterly dividend 85 percent to 5 cents per share, saving $5 billion a year.

The bank in the fourth quarter posted its first quarterly loss since 2001, and at the end of the year it completed its acquisition of troubled larger rival Wachovia Corp.

Even with the $25 billion of TARP capital, Wells Fargo has less capital relative to its size than some analysts prefer.

Kovacevich nevertheless said that had the bank not been forced to take TARP money last October, “we would have been able to raise private capital at that time, and with that private capital, given what is going on today, it is very unlikely that we would have had to reduce the dividend.”

Wells Fargo and 18 other large companies are being subjected to stress tests to determine which can withstand a particularly severe recession. Those that cannot will need to raise more capital. Results are due by the end of April.

“We do stress tests all the time on all of our portfolios,” Kovacevich said. “We (have) shared those stress tests with our regulators, forever. It is absolutely asinine that somebody would announce we’re going to do stress tests of banks and we’ll give you the answer in 12 weeks.”

Kovacevich said press reports that Wells Fargo acted purely out of self-interest in resisting regulators’ demand that it accept TARP money were misleading.

“They felt that if they gave it to everybody, whether they needed it or not, that the consequence would be that everyone would be raised up equally, and people would not know who was swimming naked and who wasn’t swimming naked,” he said.

In afternoon trading, Wells Fargo shares were up 69 cents, or 5 percent, at $14.63 on the New York Stock Exchange. They began the year at $29.48.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; editing by John Wallace