Is Bilt Rewards a Scam?

In a widely publicized article, the Wall Street Journal Reports that Wells Fargo miscalculated their deal with Bilt Rewards, and they lose ten million dollars every single month! While Bilt makes a profit, Wells Fargo is angry and wants to renegotiate the contract, which is expected to run until the end of 2029.

This article makes it seem like the entire Bilt Rewards program is a scam, But, is it really so? Let’s see

Let’s give the mic for the Wall Street Journal:

Wells Fargo partnership background

When the new Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf took office in 2019 a few years after the fake accounts scandal that nearly brought down the bank, one of his big plans was to expand the credit card division at Wells Fargo, using his expertise From the time he was the CEO of the Chase credit card division, and the CEO of Visa, in this regard you can see the huge progress that Wells Fargo has made.

Bilt partnership background

In 2019, Ankur Jain established the Bilt platform which mainly consists of an app with the ability to link cards and receive rewards on various spending, as well as 250 points for rent, and also the Bilt Rewards program which is a very powerful program, Bilt has grown a lot.

At the next level, Ankur decided to issue a credit card, He tried hard to find a bank to partner with, since Bilt cannot legally lend any money.

Use your Bilt points to visit the mystical city of Safed

Bank Hiking

The first to join the Bilt wagon was Bank & Trust Bank, a small bank in Tennessee. When Bilt wanted to grow bigger, Ankur proposed to Chase, Synchrony Bank, and US Bank, but they all turned him down.

He came to Wells Fargo and was welcomed with open arms. They needed something splashy that would help their damaged brand and they thought Bilt would create a lot of positive buzz and attract a lot of young customers.

Card Launch

In 2022, the Wells Fargo/Bilt Mastercard was launched with great pride! It included various benefits, and possibility to pay rent and receive points, leading to the unbelievable result that over a million customers, mostly young people, have signed up.

But…

Ironically the Wall Street Journal reports that by interviewing current and former Wells Fargo employees, it turns out that they are facing significant losses, reportedly losing $10 million every single month!

Their false predictions on Bilt failed badly, thanks to this, Wells Fargo put an abrupt stop to all their negotiations with other co-branded cards programs, and the employees were let go.

Wells has been trying to rework for the past few months, the contract between them and Bilt, who still has to continue until 2029, without any possibility of being renewed.

The Deal

  • Wells Fargo is paying Bilt 0.8% of all rent payments, Bilt uses the money to give the points to the Bilt Customer, (it looks like it only costs Bilt 0.8 cents per point.)
  • Wells Fargo pays Bilt $200 per card approval which is the normal standard for a co-brand.
  • Bilt and Wells Fargo split the transaction fee income.
  • Bilt keeps all its profits from the various agreements they have with other companies such as real estate companies, restaurants, Lyft, etc. as well as advertising fees.
  • Wells Fargo receives the interest payments and the late fees.

The Predictions

  • 65% of the card spending will be non-rent.
  • Between 50% and 75% of cardholders will carry over balances and pay interest!
  • Customers will pay their card for the rent payment at the due date, allowing Wells Fargo to earn through the fractional reserve system.
  • Bilt cardholders will apply by Wells Fargo for mortgages.

In other words, a group of young broken people.

The Reality

  • 65% of spending is rent! Quite the opposite of the estimate.
  • Only between 15% and 25% are paying interest, far less than the national average of 47%.
  • Most customers pay off the rent immediately.
  • Wells Fargo no longer issues mortgages.

In other words, a group of savvy miles and points players.

Comments to the Wall Street Journal

The Journal asked the companies concerned for comments on the article,

Wells Fargo responded: “The co-brand division is only a modest part of the credit card business, and like with all credit cards it takes a few years to become profitable, we look forward to continuing to work with Bilt and Making sure it’s profitable for both Bilt and Wells Fargo.”

Bilt responded: “The entire article is not accurate, and we are committed to a long-term partnership that benefits all parties.”

Bilt had a massive transfer bonus of up to 100% to Emirates

Statements

Wells Fargo issued a statement that read: “There has been no conversation among decision-makers to exit the BILT agreement. To suggest otherwise is false.”

The CEO of Bilt tweeted:

”…let’s set the record straight. Because you can’t believe everything you read in the news. Here’s some facts on Bilt + our partnership with WF:

A) Wells Fargo went on the record with the WSJ stating: “There has been no conversation among decision makers to exit the BILT agreement. To suggest otherwise is false.”. The WSJ chose not to run this.

B) Bilt is a loyalty network driving spend between local residents and merchants. 85% of our members use Bilt’s platform with their other linked Amex/Visa/Maatercards. And while less than <15% of our members are Wells Fargo cobrand credit cardholders, we are excited and committed to our partnership with Wells. The Bilt Cobrand has resulted in:

-70% of Bilt cardholders being new customers to WF

-Average age of 31

-Average FICO of 760

These are highly valuable customers to any bank being acquired at a far lower cost. (banks often spend $1k-$2k on acquisition costs for premium, next gen customers – look at Chase Sapphire as an example).

And we are only 18 months into the cobrand partnership with lots of opportunity to drive even more everyday spend behavior. And are committed to making this a win-win together.

C) Bilt’s platform is much broader than our cobrand card. We work with all the major banks and networks to help drive spend on rent and at neighborhood merchants. And like Visa or Mastercard, merchants fund the loyalty rewards when Bilt drives spend from our residents (on any debit or credit card).

Analysis

From the article, it appears that Wells Fargo had a peculiar prediction that upon entering into the Bilt partnership, money would start flowing into the Wells Fargo treasures. However, according to the Journal, it turned out that WF is losing money, and Bilt has no clear path to profitability.

The entire Bilt Rewards program seems to be nothing more than a well-conceived dream.

Currently, Wells Fargo entered damage control mode, desperately trying to renegotiate the contract for the next 5 years to minimize their losses.

However, the facts presented by the Wall Street Journal about Bilt paint a very different picture.

Bilt has successfully built a new rewards program that has the potential to become profitable, even though it is currently facing financial losses. Moreover, it is proving to be in better shape for Wells Fargo than experts initially thought.

There is no indication of any issue with the Bilt program itself; the worst-case scenario seems only to be a problem with Wells Fargo, but even this appears to be a spin from the journal. what I see here is that highly valuable customers were acquired by WF at a remarkably low cost of $180 per cardholder.

Regarding the losses, it would be a significant surprise if Wells Fargo were already making money on this deal just 18 months after issuing the card, especially considering that just 6 months ago the main changes to encourage non-rent spending went into effect,

in a side note, It is expected that more changes will be implemented in the coming months (Bilt continues to work on adding additional bonus points categories) that will further drive spending.

Take in mind, that when you look at the history of other popular cards, it is evident they faced challenges initially. For example, Chase struggled with the Sapphire card for a few years before turning a profit. Even now, they spend significantly more money per new customer (through welcome bonuses, referrals, marketing, etc.) than WF.

Also, the points highlighted by the Bilt CEO are solid, with numerous data points from Bilt customers who have opened checking accounts at Wells Fargo and obtained other WF credit cards, providing WF with an additional income source.

The risk profile of Bilt customers is very low, meaning WF does not face significant losses from non-payment. 

An interesting point is: that Wells Fargo’s 10 million dollar a month losses on Bilt are relatively small compared to Wells Fargo’s $19 billion net income in 2023.

Certain parts of the article lack clarity

  • How did Wells Fargo intend to attract such low-quality customers and they should still be able to take out mortgages with them? 
  • It is unclear when the Wall Street Journal calculated the $10 million per month figure – was it 18 months ago or is it the current rate?
  • These strange predictions do not make sense when considering the CEO of Wells Fargo, a seasoned professional with over 30 years of experience in the credit card industry, or the Bilt board chairman, Ken Chenault, who was the CEO of American Express and designed the Amex Membership Rewards program. Additionally, the design of the Bilt app clearly targets the miles and points players, a group known for diligently paying off their expenses.

Takeaway

It appears that the part about Wells Fargo losing money on Bilt is true. What remains unknown is how much it has improved in recent months and the direction of the trend. There is a possibility that contract negotiations are ongoing, given that the current contract heavily favors Bilt. Such discussions are common for a new company, and the outcome is yet to be seen. For now, let’s take advantage of the free points offered by Bilt.

What do you think?

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