The ultimate sign that Wall Street's pecking order has been totally upended

Trading PlacesTrading Places screenshotTalking about changing the pecking order — in the classic movie, ‘Trading Places.’

If Wells Fargo becomes a bank where Wall Street’s top talent wants to be, then financial crisis era regulators really would have pulled off something.

They will have, at least in part changed, the calculus Wall Street bankers make to one that looks like risk/reward culture to one that looks more like safe/secure.

We already know there’s been a seismic shift on Wall Street since the financial crisis. Big banks are getting smaller and simpler to deal with new regulation. The question is whether or not that will really change the pecking order of which banks people want to work for.

Before the crisis, the pecking order was clear. Traders were on top, and so were banks with storied trading operations. That meant everyone wanted to work at those shops — shops like Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.

Now trading — and other risky operations — are hamstrung by regulations, so simpler banks are doing well. Wells Fargo, once derided in Wall Street circles for not even having an investment bank, is now looking really good.

In terms of assets, it’s right about to catch up the U.S’s third largest bank, Citigroup, it’s grown its assets by 20% in two years, and it’s also about to purchase a bunch more in the GE Capital fire sale.

Wells Fargo could continue to expand its traditional lines of business — like its retail banking division — picking up retail assets being peeled off international firms like Credit Suisse, or potentially, HSBC, as foreign banks appear increasingly willing to throw in the towel on US expansion plays.

Of course, this is Wall Street, and this revolution won’t really be complete until top talent heads to Wells — until the stigma of Wells being a simple retail bank has faded away.

We did a quick fly-around of the Street to see what people are saying about that. Here’s what we found on the pro Wells side:

  • Some Wall Street vets think Wells is doing an excellent job of marketing to young people. Millennials like that it’s U.S. focused and that they have a relaxed culture that doesn’t resemble a big institution.
  • And it’s not just young people. Bankers who’ve left brand name banks are loving it over at Wells. A perfect example is Wells’ 2012 acquisition of Merlin, a primer brokerage. A bunch of bankers from a bulge bracket we will not disclose moved over there, and they’re loving it.
  • If that continues, Wells could be a big contender to fellow big bank, JP Morgan in the coming years.

The again, some say that stigma reigns:

  • While some bulge bracket bankers agree that Wells has gotten their business model right in terms of playing ball with regulation, it will still always be a second tier bank. “Not sure who they paid off in government to keep such a low profile but it’s working,” said one banker.
  • Wells Fargo’s banking operation still lags other bulge bracket banks, in terms of sophistication. To Wall Street vets, it sounds like they’re trying to raise a boutique within a grown institution, rather than buying one, so good on them for that.
  • Big bulge brackets could eat Wells’ lunch when interest rates rise and the market normalizes — but then again who knows when that will be.

Stigma or no stigma Wells is going to continue growing at an amazing clip. The bank is stepping up lending and getting into larger credits, it’s grown investment securities as well.

So maybe at a certain point Wall Streeters won’t be able to resist looking at Wells.

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