Buffett on Wells and the Banking Business

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Includes: JPM, KBE, WFC, XLF
by: The Manual of Ideas

In an interview with CNN Money, Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett provides interesting insight into Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC) and the banking business in general. He also states that,

California residential real estate is not deteriorating. It hasn't moved up. But it has flattened out with good volume recently. So my guess is that the option ARMs will work out about as they [Wells Fargo] guessed.

On Wells Fargo, Buffett comments,

Those guys have gone their own way. That doesn't mean that everything they've done has been right. But they've never felt compelled to do anything because other banks were doing it, and that's how banks get in trouble, when they say, "Everybody else is doing it, why shouldn't I?"

Buffett adds,

Wells just has a whole different attitude. That's why Kovacevich calls them retail stores. He doesn't even like the word banking. I mean, he is looking to have a maximum enduring relationship with many, many millions of people. Tens of millions. And at the base of it involves getting money in very cheap. When you do that that's a helluva start in the business. The difference between getting your money at 1-1/2 % and 2-1/2% on a trillion-dollar asset base is $10 billion a year. It's hard to overemphasize that. He thinks more like Sam Walton than he thinks like J.P. Morgan.

On book value as a metric of valuing banks, Buffett asserts,

You don't make money on tangible common equity. You make money on the funds that people give you and the difference between the cost of those funds and what you lend them out on. And that's where people get all mixed up incidentally on things like the TARP. They say, 'Well, where'd the 5 billion go or where'd the 10 billion go that was put in?' That isn't what you make money on. You make money on that deposit base of $800 billion that they've [Wells Fargo] got now.

Buffett then provides his favorite metric for valuing banks:

It's earnings on assets, as long as they're being achieved in a conservative way. But you can't say earnings on assets, because you'll get some guy who's taking all kinds of risks and will look terrific for a while. And you can have off-balance sheet stuff that contributes to earnings but doesn't show up in the assets denominator. So it has to be an intelligent view of the quality of the earnings on assets as well as the quantity of the earnings on assets. But if you're doing it in a sound way, that's what I look at.

Once again, it appears Buffett is way ahead of pundits who are declaring the banking business all but dead. Whenever there is carnage in an industry, most observers and investors have a hard time imagining that things will ever change -- even if the industry will be needed for a long time to come. This is what makes for market bottoms. It also produces attractive long-term investment opportunities for those with the imagination and patience to envision what will be rather than what is.

Disclosure: No positions.