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Gary Cohn says he's not in talks to become the next Wells Fargo CEO — but the rumors are revealing

Gary Cohn says he's not in talks to become the next Wells Fargo CEO — but the rumors are revealing
Gary Cohn, who left his job at the White House this year, has been rumored to be a pick to replace Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

Gary Cohn promptly denied it, but the rumor has been persistent and widespread on Wall Street: The former Goldman Sachs executive, who recently ended a stint as a White House advisor, had supposedly heard from Wells Fargo & Co. this year about becoming its next leader.

Approached by the New York Post for an article it published Wednesday, Cohn bluntly denied he’s in talks: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not — and you can put that on the record,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

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And that afternoon, the bank’s chairwoman, Betsy Duke, weighed in too: “Rumors that Wells Fargo’s board of directors reached out to potential CEO candidates are completely false. CEO Tim Sloan has the unanimous support of the board, and this support has never wavered.”

Yet Wall Street’s latest parlor game says a lot about the state of Wells Fargo. On Oct. 12, Sloan will reach the two-year mark in a tenure spent trying to resolve the company’s scandals. He’s overhauled management and internal controls, and traveled the country espousing a commitment to treating customers right. But by a number of classic market yardsticks, the bank still hasn’t convinced investors it’s on the rebound.

The stock is a laggard, analysts keep cutting profit estimates and every few months, the firm’s cleanup campaign unearths more abuses, rattling the public.

Analysts say that puts at least some pressure on the board to consider taking action — fueling chatter about scenarios such as enlisting Cohn. Duke’s statement Wednesday indicated the board is satisfied with the progress its chief executive is making. “Tim has driven significant transformational change at Wells Fargo, which is benefiting all stakeholders,” she said.

Turning to an outsider could give Wells Fargo a fresh start with the public as it makes the case it’s reformed. Sloan was promoted to CEO in an emergency shakeup, but his status as a three-decade veteran of the company has become a talking point in lashings by lawmakers. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren has repeatedly called for his ouster.

While the bank’s stock has climbed 22% since Sloan became CEO, it’s trailing the 52% advance of the broader KBW Bank Index. Rivals JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp. have gained 73% and 95%, respectively.

Analysts began this year predicting Wells Fargo would produce a record $24-billion annual profit. But they’ve cut estimates again and again after the Federal Reserve punished the bank with an unprecedented cap on growing assets. The average estimate is now for less than $21 billion, the weakest since 2012.

“At the end of the day if he can’t grow earnings the pressure is going to build even more,” said Charles Peabody, an analyst at Portales Partners, who predicts Sloan has until the next annual meeting, typically in April, to show progress.

The big caveat is that Sloan inherited a mess. He rose up through the firm’s operations serving corporations, while most of Wells Fargo’s scandals simmered in its vast retail network. The problems erupted in 2016 when regulators said the bank had opened millions of accounts without customers’ permission.

Some of the additional abuses that since came to light surfaced as Sloan’s team bolstered internal oversight and examined old complaints. He’s enjoyed support from both the board and the bank’s largest investors, such as Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Warren Buffett. Early this year, directors boosted his annual pay package 36% to $17.4 million.

In recent interviews, several analysts credited him with taking the steps needed to overhaul the company, even if it’s taking longer than investors hoped.

“When you have a culture that has been so bad, so pervasive, for so long, whether it was Tim Sloan or Spider-Man, I don’t know how fast you could clean it up,” Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, said in an interview.

Even those whispering about Cohn were quick to add that he’s an improbable pick. He doesn’t have much experience with retail banking. He spent a decade as the second-highest executive at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which focuses on Wall Street businesses, where Wells Fargo has less presence.

Levitt writes for Bloomberg.

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