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Wells Fargo is selling a retirement unit for $1.2 billion

Wells Fargo is selling a retirement unit for $1.2 billion
A Wells Fargo bank branch in New York in 2017. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Wells Fargo & Co. has agreed to sell a retirement plan services unit to Principal Financial Group Inc. for $1.2 billion as the bank streamlines operations in the wake of scandals.

The business, which has $827 billion in assets under administration, includes operations in the United States, the Philippines and India, Principal said Tuesday in a statement. Principal gains operations that handle 401(k) and pension plans, executive deferred compensation and institutional trust and custody offerings.

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Wells Fargo, the fourth-largest U.S. bank by assets, has been paring smaller business lines since scandals began erupting from its branch network in 2016. Problems have since emerged in more units, prompting the Federal Reserve to ban Wells Fargo from growing until regulators are confident in executives’ ability to oversee their operations. That has added to pressure on the firm to shed some units and concentrate on those where it can earn the best returns.

“This sale reflects Wells Fargo’s strategy to focus our resources on areas where we can grow and maximize opportunities within wealth, brokerage and asset management,” Jon Weiss, head of Wells Fargo’s wealth and investment management business, said in a separate statement.

The retirement plan services business is part of Wells Fargo’s wealth and investment management arm. Weiss has been working to make the unit more efficient since he took over in 2017. At the bank’s 2018 investor day, he said he was targeting $600 million in savings by 2020. This year, Weiss hired Nyron Latif from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. as head of operations to review the unit’s efficiency.

In February 2018, the Federal Reserve barred Wells Fargo from increasing assets beyond their level at the end of 2017, citing concerns about a variety of abuses inflicted on customers, including the revelation that employees had opened millions of accounts in customers’ names without their permission. (The Los Angeles Times first reported Wells Fargo’s high-pressure sales tactics in 2013.) The bank told analysts and investors at the start of this year that it’s planning to operate under the cap through the end of 2019, rather than just the first half.

The bank has undergone a leadership change in recent weeks, announcing in March that it would replace Tim Sloan as chief executive after the leader faced calls for his ouster from politicians. C. Allen Parker, Wells Fargo’s general counsel, was named Sloan’s replacement on an interim basis.

The deal will double Principal’s U.S. retirement business and expand its reach with midsize employers, giving it 7.5 million retirement customers nationwide. The purchase, which is expected to be completed in the third quarter, will add to the company’s net income next year, Principal said.

“The acquisition will bring expanded capabilities, reach and scale,” Principal CEO Dan Houston said in his company’s statement.

To help finance the purchase, Principal will suspend its share-buyback program, resuming it no later than the first quarter of next year, Houston said on a conference call Tuesday. The acquisition also will be financed with debt and cash on hand, the company said.

Lazard Ltd. was a financial advisor to Principal on the deal, and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP was its legal counsel. Wells Fargo’s investment banking arm advised the company on the sale, while Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP was its legal advisor.

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