While industry chatter erupted this week about Wells Fargo & Co. seeking to acquire UBS AG’s U.S. wealth operations, some members of the industry have been quick to quash the talk as speculation.
New rumors of a potential combination were first reported by InvestmentNews on Tuesday, citing unnamed industry participants and recruiters who said they had heard of talks between the firms.
Wells Fargo Chief Executive John Stumpf has said in interviews dating back to December that the firm is on the hunt for acquisitions as it seeks to better leverage its wealth management business. UBS, for its part, has long been the subject of speculation that it will sell its U.S. wealth management business to shape up after the financial crisis. Taken together, that has led to what looks like pure speculation about a deal, said Danny Sarch, president of financial services recruiting firm Leitner Sarch Consultants.
“You put those two rumors together and therefore you’ve got a bigger rumor,” Sarch said. Both Wells Fargo and UBS were quick to dismiss the reports on Wednesday.
“It is purely rumor and speculation,” Wells Fargo spokesman Tony Mattera said.
UBS Spokeswoman Karina Byrne also said the reports are an unfounded rumor. “UBS CEO Oswald Gruebel has always maintained that the UBS Wealth Management Americas business is not for sale,” Byrne said.
But wealth management industry analysts said a combination, if done right, could be a match.
UBS will likely make this kind of move at some point, said Alois Pirker, research director at financial services research firm Aite Group, unless the firm decides to make the U.S. part of its core strategy.
“It needs further investment to push the strategy ahead on the wealth management side and I don’t see them doing that,” Pirker said.
But any acquisition offer for that business needs to come at the right price, Pirker said, to compete with UBS’ 2000 acquisition of PaineWebber that is still on its books. At the same time, losing that business could free up capital and concerns about tax compliance for the firm, he said.
A combination with Wells Fargo might work, he said, to create a business ranging from its existing mass affluent customers to the ultra high net worth clients that UBS would bring.
“It definitely would close that gap there,” Pirker said. “Having a stronger high net worth and upper mass affluent proposition would be a good thing for Wells. On the other hand, they have a lot of advisors already, so it would push them well above the 20,000 mark.”
That would make the firm’s advisor force one of the largest in the industry. Wells Fargo currently has about 15,000 financial advisors. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, another top industry wirehouse, has about 18,000.
There also could be stronger combinations for UBS’ business, according to Pirker, particularly Canadian or European banks that want to expand in the U.S. like Royal Bank of Canada and HSBC. Wells Fargo instead could look to boost its technology platform with the acquisition of a company like E-Trade Financial Corp., he said.
While a Wells Fargo and UBS wealth management combination could be an “okay fit,” said Bing Waldert, a director at Cerulli Associates, it remains to be seen if UBS is at all interested in that kind of deal. UBS has very quietly been performing better than other broker dealers, Waldert said.
Both firms have traditional sales forces and similar businesses, Waldert said, which could lead to challenges in combining management teams. But Wells Fargo, drawing from the previous Wachovia Securities business, has a history of successfully completing acquisitions, he said.
“It’s outstanding as to whether the Wachovia and Wells Fargo merger is complete,” Waldert said. “Taking on another big merger when you’re still in the process of an existing merger would be challenging to say the least.”
An important part of a combination between the firms would be gaining the trust of UBS’s force, said Mindy Diamond, president and chief executive of financial services recruiting firm Diamond Consultants, who has fielded calls from some “terrified” UBS advisors.
Many of those advisors joined UBS for its reputation for small, boutique offerings for the ultra high net worth set. The fear is that that could all change with a Wells Fargo transaction.
“Many of them would feel very, very skeptical and very unhappy being part of a 25,000 advisor firm,” Diamond said. “They like the Wells Fargo name, but I think the Wachovia piece, a lot of people feel, is a step down.”
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