WELLSFARGO-BG

Pedestrians pass in front of a Wells Fargo bank branch in New York.

Daniel Tepper

Wells Fargo reckons it won't suffer a consumer backlash from the unprecedented punishment the Federal Reserve leveled this month.

The third-largest U.S. bank anticipates an increase in loans made to consumers to finance homes and other purchases even as an order from the government's top banking regulator prohibits it from growing.

"My expectation is that we'll have higher consumer loan balances a year from now than we do today," Chief Financial Officer John Shrewsberry said in an interview Monday at the bank's San Francisco headquarters. He said as long as the economic environment stays broadly the same and risks don't dramatically change, "there's no bogey on loan growth."

Any loan increase would happen despite reputation damage the bank suffered since a fake-accounts scandal erupted in late 2016. Last year, its consumer loans fell 1.7 percent to $453 billion, even as rivals increased lending activities.

After acknowledging the fake accounts, the bank revealed that auto-loan clients were forced to pay for unwanted car insurance and that mortgage customers were improperly charged fees. The Fed acted, ordering that Wells Fargo can't boost assets until it proves it can fix shortcomings including internal oversight. The firm can take deposits and lend to consumers but not balloon past $1.95 trillion in total assets.

Shrewsberry's boss, Chief Executive Officer Tim Sloan, said at investor conference Tuesday that the bank's customers are seeing few effects from the Fed order.

"The customer impact has been really nonexistent," Sloan said at a conference sponsored by Credit Suisse Group in Florida. "But it's really it's been bankers, relationship managers -- including me by the way -- out there reinforcing to customers that we're open for business and we'll be able to work through it."

Wells Fargo doesn't need to adjust strategies to achieve growth in consumer or institutional businesses, Sloan said in a separate interview Monday at the bank's headquarters.

"If something works, that's fine," Sloan said. "We don't feel like we have to do anything new, other than to make sure our customers understand we're out there."

The auto-lending business is expected to return to growth one or two quarters after the firm completes a consolidation of its regional car-loan centers in March or April, Shrewsberry said. He also said that the bank is "pursuing vigorously" credit-card customers who will spend more and those that will keep balances longer than a month.

"In terms of fundamentally changing how we're going about doing our business, we don't need to do that," Sloan said.

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