Henry Wells and William G. Fargo, who founded American Express along with John Butterfield formed Wells Fargo & Company in 1852 to provide "express" and banking services to California, which was growing rapidly due to the California Gold Rush. Its earliest and most significant tasks included transporting gold from the Philadelphia Mint and "express" mail delivery that was faster and less expensive than U.S. Mail.
By the end of the California Gold Rush, Wells Fargo was a dominant express and banking organization in the west, making large shipments of gold and delivering mail and supplies. It was also the primary lender of Butterfield Overland Mail Company, which ran a 2,757 mile route through the Southwest to San Francisco and was nicknamed the "Butterfield Line" after the name of company's president John Butterfield. In 1860, Congress failed to pass the annual post office appropriation bill leaving the post office no way to pay Overland Mail Company. This caused Overland to default on its debts to Wells Fargo, allowing Wells Fargo to take control of the mail route. Wells Fargo then operated the western portion of the Pony Express.
Wells Fargo operates under Charter #1, the first national bank charter issued in the United States. This charter was issued to First National Bank of Philadelphia on June 20, 1863, by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Traditionally, acquiring banks assume the earliest issued charter number. Thus, the first charter passed from First National Bank of Philadelphia to Wells Fargo through its 2008 acquisition of Wachovia, which had inherited it through one of its many acquisitions.
In 1872, Lloyd Tevis, a friend of the Central Pacific "Big Four" and holder of rights to operate an express service over the Transcontinental Railroad, became president of the company after acquiring a large stake, a position he held until 1892.
In 1905, Wells Fargo separated its banking and express operations, and Wells Fargo's bank merged with the Nevada National Bank to form the Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank.
In 1923, Wells Fargo Nevada merged with the Union Trust Company to form the Wells Fargo Bank & Union Trust Company.
In 1954, Wells Fargo & Union Trust shortened its name to Wells Fargo Bank. Four years later, it merged with American Trust Company to form the Wells Fargo Bank American Trust Company. It changed its name back to Wells Fargo Bank in 1962.
In 1968, Wells Fargo was converted to a federal banking charter and becoming Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. In that same year, Wells Fargo merged with Henry Trione's Sonoma Mortgage in a $10.8 million stock transfer, making Trione the largest shareholder in Wells Fargo until Warren Buffett and Walter Annenberg surpassed him.
In 1981, it was discovered that a Wells Fargo assistant operations officer, Lloyd Benjamin "Ben" Lewis, had perpetrated one of the largest embezzlements in history, through its Beverly Drive branch. During 1978 - 1981, Lewis had successfully written phony debit and credit receipts to benefit boxing promoters Harold J. Smith (né Ross Eugene Fields) and Sam "Sammie" Marshall, chairman and president, respectively, of Muhammed Ali Professional Sports, Inc. (MAPS), of which Lewis was also listed as a director; Marshall, too, was a former employee of the same Wells Fargo branch as Lewis. In excess of $300,000 was paid to Lewis, who pled guilty to embezzlement and conspiracy charges in 1981, and testified against his co-conspirators for a reduced five-year sentence. (Boxer Muhammed Ali had received a fee for the use of his name, and had no other involvement with the organization. )
In September 1983, a Wells Fargo armored truck depot in West Hartford, Connecticut was the victim of the White Eagle robbery, involving an insider who worked as an armored truck guard, in the largest US bank theft to date, with $7.1 million stolen and two co-workers tied up. The robbery was carried out with the support of the government of Cuba and the cash was initially moved to Mexico City.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Wells Fargo completed a series of acquisitions. In 1986, it acquired Crocker National Bank from Midland Bank. Then, in 1987, it acquired the personal trust business of Bank of America. In 1988, it acquired Barclays Bank of California from Barclays plc. In 1991, Wells Fargo spent $491 million to acquire 130 branches in California from Great American Bank. In 1996, Wells Fargo acquired First Interstate Bancorp for $11.6 billion. Integration went poorly as many executives left.
Wells Fargo became the first major US financial services firm to offer internet banking in May 1995.
After its string of acquisitions, in 1998, Wells Fargo Bank was acquired by Norwest Corporation of Minneapolis, with the combined company assuming the Wells Fargo's name.
Wells Fargo, in its present form, is a result of a merger between the original Wells Fargo & Company and Minneapolis-based Norwest Corporation in 1998. While Norwest was the nominal survivor, the merged company took the better-known Wells Fargo name and moved to Wells Fargo's hub in San Francisco. At the same time, its banking subsidiary merged with Wells Fargo's Sioux Falls-based banking subsidiary. Wells Fargo became a coast-to-coast bank with the 2008 acquisition of Charlotte-based Wachovia.
It then began on another set of acquisitions, starting in 2000, when Wells Fargo Bank acquired National Bank of Alaska and First Security Corporation. In late 2001, it acquired H.D. Vest Financial Services for $128 million, but sold it in 2015 for $580 million. In 2007, Wells Fargo acquired Greater Bay Bancorp, which had $7.4 billion in assets, in a $1.5 billion transaction. It also acquired Placer Sierra Bank and CIT Group's construction unit that same year. In 2008, Wells Fargo acquired United Bancorporation of Wyoming and Century Bancshares of Texas.
On August 14, 2012, Wells Fargo agreed to pay around $6.5 million to settle U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charges that in 2007 it sold risky mortgage-backed securities without fully realizing their dangers.
On October 28, 2008, Wells Fargo received $25 billion of funds via the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act in the form of a preferred stock purchase by the United States Department of the Treasury. As a result of requirements of the government stress tests, the company raised $8.6 billion in capital in May 2009. On December 23, 2009, Wells Fargo redeemed $25 billion of preferred stock issued to the United States Department of the Treasury. As part of the redemption of the preferred stock, Wells Fargo also paid accrued dividends of $131.9 million, bringing the total dividends paid to $1.441 billion since the preferred stock was issued in October 2008.
On October 3, 2008, after Wachovia turned down an inferior offer from Citigroup, Wachovia agreed to be bought by Wells Fargo for about $14.8 billion in stock. The next day, a New York state judge issued a temporary injunction blocking the transaction from going forward while the competing offer from Citigroup was sorted out. Citigroup alleged that it had an exclusivity agreement with Wachovia that barred Wachovia from negotiating with other potential buyers. The injunction was overturned late in the evening on October 5, 2008, by New York state appeals court. Citigroup and Wells Fargo then entered into negotiations brokered by the FDIC to reach an amicable solution to the impasse. The negotiations failed. Citigroup was unwilling to take on more risk than the $42 billion that would have been the cap under the previous FDIC-backed deal (with the FDIC incurring all losses over $42 billion). Citigroup did not block the merger, but sought damages of $60 billion for breach of an alleged exclusivity agreement with Wachovia.
In 2009, Wells Fargo ranked 1st among banks and insurance companies, and 13th overall, in Newsweek Magazine's inaugural "Green Rankings" of the country's 500 largest companies.
Wells Fargo Securities was established in 2009 after the acquisition of Wachovia Securities. It provides sales and trading, fixed income, FX and rates, equity, merger and acquisition, high yield, leveraged finance, equity underwriting, private placement, loan syndication, risk management, and public finance services
In April 2009, Wells Fargo acquired North Coast Surety Insurance Services.
Wells Fargo Advisors was known as Wachovia Securities until May 1, 2009, when it was renamed following Wells Fargo's acquisition of Wachovia Corporation.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed suit against Wells Fargo on July 31, 2009, alleging that the bank steers African Americans and Hispanics into high-cost subprime loans. A Wells Fargo spokesman responded that "The policies, systems, and controls we have in place – including in Illinois – ensure race is not a factor..." An affidavit filed in the case stated that loan officers had referred to black mortgage-seekers as "mud people," and the subprime loans as "ghetto loans." According to Beth Jacobson, a loan officer at Wells Fargo interviewed for a report in The New York Times, "We just went right after them. Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans." The report presented data from the city of Baltimore, where more than half the properties subject to foreclosure on a Wells Fargo loan from 2005 to 2008 now stand vacant. And 71 percent of those are in predominantly black neighborhoods. Wells Fargo agreed to pay $125 million to subprime borrowers and $50 million in direct down payment assistance in certain areas, for a total of $175 million.
In 2010, Wells Fargo launched what it believes to be the first blog among its industry peers to report on its environmental stewardship and to solicit feedback and ideas from its stakeholders.
In 2010, hedge fund administrator Citco purchased the trust company operation of Wells Fargo in the Cayman Islands.
In a March 2010 agreement with US federal prosecutors, Wells Fargo acknowledged that between 2004 and 2007 Wachovia had failed to monitor and report suspected money laundering by narcotics traffickers, including the cash used to buy four planes that shipped a total of 22 tons of cocaine into Mexico.
In August 2010, Wells Fargo was fined by United States district court judge William Alsup for overdraft practices designed to "gouge" consumers and "profiteer" at their expense, and for misleading consumers about how the bank processed transactions and assessed overdraft fees.
In 2011, the company hired 25 investment bankers from Citadel LLC.
In December 2011, Public Campaign criticized Wells Fargo for spending $11 million on lobbying during 2008–2010, while increasing executive pay and laying off workers, while having no federal tax liability due to losses from the Great Recession. However, in 2013, the company paid $9.1 billion in income taxes.
On February 9, 2012, it was announced that the five largest mortgage servicers (Ally Financial, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo) agreed to a settlement with the US Federal Government and 49 states. The settlement, known as the National Mortgage Settlement (NMS), required the servicers to provide about $26 billion in relief to distressed homeowners and in direct payments to the federal and state governments. This settlement amount makes the NMS the second largest civil settlement in U.S. history, only trailing the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. The five banks were also required to comply with 305 new mortgage servicing standards. Oklahoma held out and agreed to settle with the banks separately.
The company has invested its clients' funds in GEO Group, a multi-national provider of for-profit private prisons. By March 2012, its stake had grown to more than 4.4 million shares worth $86.7 million. As of November 2012, Wells Fargo divested 33% of its holdings of GEO's stock, reducing its stake to 4.98% of Geo Group's common stock, below the threshold of which it must disclose further transactions.
In April 2012, Wells Fargo acquired Merlin Securities. In December 2012, it was rebranded as Wells Fargo Prime Services. In December of that year, Wells Fargo acquired a 35% stake in The Rock Creek Group LP. The stake was increased to 65% in 2014 but sold back to management in July 2018.
On April 5, 2012, a federal judge ordered Wells Fargo to pay $3.1 million in punitive damages over a single loan, one of the largest fines for a bank ever for mortgaging service misconduct, after the bank improperly charged Michael Jones, a New Orleans homeowner, with $24,000 in mortgage fees, after the bank misallocated payments to interest instead of principal. Elizabeth Magner, a federal bankruptcy judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana, cited the bank's behavior as "highly reprehensible", stating that Wells Fargo has taken advantage of borrowers who rely on the bank's accurate calculations. The award was affirmed on appeal in 2013.
In October 2012, Wells Fargo was sued by United States Attorney Preet Bharara over questionable mortgage deals.
From December 2012 through February 2018, Wells Fargo reportedly helped two of the biggest firearms and ammunition companies obtain $431.1 million in loans. It also handled banking for the National Rifle Association and provided bank accounts and a $28-million line of credit. In 2020, the company said that it is winding down its business with the National Rifle Association.
In 2013, the company was recognized by the EPA Center for Corporate Climate Leadership as a Climate Leadership Award winner, in the category "Excellence in Greenhouse Gas Management (Goal Setting Certificate)"; this recognition was for the company's aim to reduce its absolute greenhouse gas emissions from its US operations by 35% by 2020 versus 2008 levels.
In April 2013, Wells Fargo settled a suit with 24,000 Florida homeowners alongside insurer QBE Insurance, in which Wells Fargo was accused of inflating premiums on forced-place insurance.
In May 2013, New York attorney-general Eric Schneiderman announced a lawsuit against Wells Fargo over alleged violations of the national mortgage settlement. Schneidermann claimed Wells Fargo had violated rules over giving fair and timely serving. In 2015, a judge sided with Wells Fargo.
In May 2013, Wells Fargo paid $203 million to settle class-action litigation accusing the bank of imposing excessive overdraft fees on checking-account customers.
On August 28, 2020, Wells Fargo agreed to pay a fine of $350,000 as well as $10 million in restitution payments to certain customers after the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority accused the company of failing to reasonably supervise two of its registered representatives that recommended that customers invest a high percentage of their assets in high-risk energy securities in 2014 and 2015.
With CEO John Stumpf paid 473 times more than the median employee, Wells Fargo ranked number 33 among the S&P 500 companies for CEO—employee pay inequality. In October 2014, a Wells Fargo employee earning $15 per hour emailed the CEO—copying 200,000 other employees—asking that all employees be given a $10,000 per year raise taken from a portion of annual corporate profits to address wage stagnation and income inequality. After being contacted by the media, Wells Fargo responded that all employees receive "market competitive" pay and benefits significantly above US federal minimums.
In 2015, Wells Fargo Rail acquired GE Capital Rail Services and merged in with First Union Rail. In late 2015, Wells Fargo acquired three GE units focused on business loans equipment financing.
The company operates the Wells Fargo History Museum at 420 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. Displays include original stagecoaches, photographs, gold nuggets and mining artifacts, the Pony Express, telegraph equipment, and historic bank artifacts. The museum also has a gift shop. In January 2015, armed robbers in an SUV smashed through the museum's glass doors and stole gold nuggets. The company previously operated other museums but those have since closed.
In February 2015, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $4 million, including a $2 million penalty and $2 million in restitution for illegally taking an interest in the homes of borrowers in exchange for opening credit card accounts for the homeowners.
In May 2015, Gregory T. Bolan Jr., a stock analyst at Wells Fargo agreed to pay $75,000 to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to settle allegations that he gave Joseph C. Ruggieri, a stock trader, insider information on probable ratings charges. Ruggieri was not convicted of any crime.
In 2016, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle allegations that the company violated the False Claims Act by underwriting over 100,000 Federal Housing Administration (FHA) backed loans when over half of the applicants did not qualify for the program.
In September 2016, Wells Fargo was issued a combined total of $185 million in fines for opening over 1.5 million checking and savings accounts and 500,000 credit cards on behalf of customers without their consent. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued $100 million in fines, the largest in the agency's five-year history, along with $50 million in fines from the City and County of Los Angeles, and $35 million in fines from the Office of Comptroller of the Currency. The scandal was caused by an incentive-compensation program for employees to create new accounts. It led to the firing of nearly 5,300 employees and $5 million being set aside for customer refunds on fees for accounts the customers never wanted. Carrie Tolstedt, who headed the department, retired in July 2016 and received $124.6 million in stock, options, and restricted Wells Fargo shares as a retirement package.
On October 12, 2016, John Stumpf, the then chairman and CEO, announced that he would be retiring amidst the scandals. President and Chief Operating Officer Timothy J. Sloan succeeded Stumpf, effective immediately. Following the scandal, applications for credit cards and checking accounts at the bank plummeted. In response to the event, the Better Business Bureau dropped accreditation of the bank. Several states and cities ended business relations with the company.
In November 2016, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $50 million to settle allegations of overcharging hundreds of thousands of homeowners for appraisals ordered after they defaulted on their mortgage loans. While banks are allowed to charge homeowners for such appraisals, Wells Fargo frequently charged homeowners $95 to $125 on appraisals for which the bank had been charged $50 or less. The plaintiffs had sought triple damages under the U.S. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act on grounds that sending invoices and statements with fraudulently concealed fees constituted mail and wire fraud sufficient to allege racketeering.
In December 2016, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority fined Wells Fargo $5.5 million for failing to store electronic documents in a "write once, read many" format, which makes it impossible to alter or destroy records after they are written.
In 2017, Wells Fargo ranked 182nd out of 500 in Newsweek Magazine's "Green Rankings" of the largest US companies;
In May 2018, the company discovered that its business banking group had improperly altered documents about business clients in 2017 and early 2018.
In February 2017, the city councils of Seattle, Washington and Davis, California voted to move $3 billion of deposits from the bank due to its financing of the Dakota Access Pipeline as well as the Wells Fargo account fraud scandal.
In March 2017, Wells Fargo announced a plan to offer smartphone-based transactions with mobile wallets including Wells Fargo Wallet, Android Pay and Samsung Pay.
An investigation by the Wells Fargo board of directors, the report of which was released in April 2017, primarily blamed Stumpf, who it said had not responded to evidence of wrongdoing in the consumer services division, and Tolstedt, who was said to have knowingly set impossible sales goals and refused to respond when subordinates disagreed with them. Wells Fargo coined the phrase, "Go for Gr-Eight" – or, in other words, aim to sell at least 8 products to every customer. The board chose to use a clawback clause in the retirement contracts of Stumpf and Tolstedt to recover $75 million worth of cash and stock from the former executives.
Wells Fargo is ranked 37th on the Fortune 500 list of the largest companies in the US. The company has been the subject of several investigations by regulators. On February 2, 2018, account fraud by the bank resulted in the Federal Reserve barring Wells Fargo from growing its nearly $2 trillion-asset base any further until the company fixed its internal problems to the satisfaction of the Federal Reserve. In September 2021, Wells Fargo incurred further fines from the United States Justice Department charging fraudulent behavior by the bank against foreign-exchange currency trading customers. Bloomberg Businessweek reported in March 2022 that Wells Fargo was the only major lender in 2020 to reject more home refinancing applications from Black applicants than it approved.
In April 2018, the United States Department of Labor launched a probe into whether Wells Fargo was pushing its customers into more expensive retirement plans as well as into retirement funds managed by Wells Fargo itself.
In June 2018, Wells Fargo sold all 52 of its physical bank branch locations in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio to Flagstar Bank.
In June 2018, about a dozen female Wells Fargo executives from the wealth management division met in Scottsdale, Arizona to discuss the minimal presence of women occupying senior roles within the company. The meeting, dubbed "the meeting of 12", represented the majority of the regional managing directors, of which 12 out of 45 were women. Wells Fargo had previously been investigating reports of gender bias in the division in the months leading up to the meeting. The women reported that they had been turned down for top jobs despite their qualifications, and instead the roles were occupied by men. There were also complaints against company president Jay Welker, who is also the head of the Wells Fargo wealth management division, due to his sexist statements regarding female employees. The female workers claimed that he called them "girls" and said that they "should be at home taking care of their children."
In September 2018, Wells Fargo announced it would cut 26,450 jobs by 2020 to reduce costs by $4 billion.
In March 2019, CEO Tim Sloan resigned amidst the Wells Fargo account fraud scandal and former general counsel C. Allen Parker became interim CEO.
On June 10, 2019, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $385 million to settle a lawsuit accusing it of allegedly scamming millions of auto-loan customers into buying insurance they did not need from National General Insurance.
In July 2019, Principal Financial Group acquired the company's Institutional Retirement & Trust business.
On September 27, 2019, Charles Scharf was announced as the firm's new CEO.
In 2020, the company sold its student loan portfolio.
In February 2020, the company agreed to pay $3 billion to settle claims by the United States Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The settlement did not prevent individual employees from being targets of future litigation. The Federal Reserve put a limit to Wells Fargo's assets, as a result of the scandal. In 2020, Wells Fargo sold $100 million in assets to stay under the limit.
In August 2020, the company agreed to pay $7.8 million in back wages for allegedly discriminating against 34,193 African Americans in hiring for tellers, personal bankers, customer sales and service representatives, and administrative support positions. The company agreed to provide jobs to 580 of the affected applicants.
Wells Fargo & Company reported Total CO2e emissions (Direct + Indirect) for the twelve months ending 31 December 2020 at 776 Kt (-87 /-10.1% y-o-y). There has been a consistent declining trend in reported emissions since 2015.
In 2021, the company sold its asset management division, Wells Fargo Asset Management (WFAM) to private equity firms GTCR and Reverence Capital Partners for $2.1 billion. WFAM had $603 billion in assets under management as of December 31, 2020, of which 33% was invested in money market funds. WFAM was rebranded as Allspring Global Investments.
In May 2021, the company sold its Canadian Direct Equipment Finance business to Toronto-Dominion Bank.
On March 2, 2022, Wells Fargo announced $1 mil donation to the American Red Cross that will be used for Ukrainian refugees fleeing from the Russian invasion.
In April 2022, The Wells Fargo foundation announced its pledge of $210 million toward racial equity in homeownership. With $60 million of the donation awarded in Wealth Opportunities Restored through Homeownership (WORTH) grants which will run until 2025. Additionally, $150 million will be committed to lower mortgage rates and reducing the refinancing costs to aid minority homeowners.