Wells Fargo, Criminal Enterprise

ct-wells-fargo-settlement-questions-oversight-20160910New Orleans   I’ve never been a fan of Wells Fargo. We fought them endlessly over predatory lending practices in mortgages and subprime products. They don’t listen, they obfuscate, stonewall, and hide behind layers of lawyers in stubborn refusal even when faced with evidence of clear misdeeds. We were able to fight Citicorp, Bank of America, HSBC, and a ton of subprimes, even Countrywide, and succeed in reforming practices and achieving decent settlements, but Wells Fargo, even when they settled did so narrowly and without conviction. I was clear for ACORN and our members, you just can’t trust a bank like that with your money.

It is some relief that now everyone in the United States is getting a crash course in learning that Wells Fargo is not the community banker it has claimed to be, but a criminal enterprise.

Let’s review the facts, now being widely reported. For five years employees of Wells Fargo opened up to 2 million bank and credit card accounts willy-nilly without any permission from anyone. Often the accounts were closed fairly quickly which is why the penalties now being paid by the bank are less than $200 million. It was a penny ante, amateur scam with employees making up email addresses and sometimes virtually opening up the accounts from Wells Fargo internet domains. The bank has now fired 5300 employees who were involved in this fraud. As the New York Times’ columnist, Andrew Sorkin, points out, “that’s not a few bad apples.”

Wells Fargo has taken out ads apologizing and taking responsibility, but they clearly, as usual, have their fingers crossed behind their backs. A couple of months ago before all of this criminality became public, they allowed Carrie Tolstedt, a 27-year veteran and their head of “community banking,” to retire and walk away with over a $120 million going away present. Various banking analysts are calling for a “clawback” since Wells has rules allowing them to recover monies from executives where there were ill-gotten gains. The Wall Street Journal was so grossed out by all of this that they reported the calls for clawbacks and showed a picture of Ms. Tolstedt, but couldn’t bring themselves to mention the $120 million she took away with her office plants for fear that all of us Visigoths would be clamoring at the gates.

What will they learn? Likely nothing.

But, it’s easy to explain how this happens, and it is the same way that it happened when mortgage brokers were writing fictitious so-called, “lair’s loans,” where many observers of the 2008 financial meltdown are still confused and some think it was the borrower fibbing, rather than the underwriter. In the current Wells Fargo case on cards and accounts, as well as their own and many other situations previously on loans, it is crystal clear that once you link pay to simple production, you can guarantee there will be fraud. The only question will be how long it takes you to be caught, and how much money the bank makes in the interim.

For managers there, just like Carrie Tolstedt, there is a disincentive to impose the kind of controls that would weed out these problems. Top dogs get paid on the numbers, just like the runts of the litter. In bank after bank, once you get them across the table for all of their talk about protection using sophisticated algorithms, risk management, and blah, blah, blah, they simply are culturally and systemically unable to tightly manage on performance and standards, once production is all, and pay is linked to such incentives.

They are all smart enough to know this, but it’s the nature of capitalism in some ways to ignore it. You can only conclude that they didn’t care or thought that they wouldn’t be caught. None of which recommends a bank like Wells Fargo as a place to trust your money, since they are clearly committed to themselves first and their customers last, as little more than numbers being crunched in their back rooms somewhere.

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Please enjoy Phish’s Breath and Burning. Thank you KABF.

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How can Billion Dollar Fines be Little More Than Water off a Duck’s Back?

indexNew Orleans   I hate to admit it, but to me a billion dollars still seems like a whole lot of money.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid saying so makes me hopelessly hide bound and old school.

            Why?

            Because the government seems to be passing out billion dollar fines like candy to banks, utility companies, oil companies, automobile manufacturers, and others and it seems to have no discernible impact on their behavior whatsoever.  I’m sure you’ve noticed the same thing.  The government takes a victory lap, a couple of months or maybe a year goes by, and the same corporate culprit is doing the same perp walk to the ATM to pay out another billion dollar fine.  Billion dollar fines seem to have replaced the space on corporate balance sheets where they once wrote “goodwill,” and now it’s an item called “reserve” for a future expenditure for bad behavior.  Cheating consumers has simply become a mundane part of corporate culture.  Rapacious capitalism is no longer an insult, but a rally cry.

            How many gazillions has Bank of America now paid out for example due to the mortgage mess and their acquisition of Countrywide?  It hardly matters it seems as they get ready to pay another $800 million because they couldn’t keep themselves from selling non-existent products to their credit card holders.  One financial institution after another these days from HSBC to storied European banks are lining up to pay huge, billion plus fines for laundering money for Iran and other countries under sanctions by the international community.  JP Morgan Chase, only a few years ago was basking in arrogance with financial folks hanging on Jamie Dimon’s every word, but the number of fines it has paid for cheating and stealing from its customers makes him seem like the boss for a serial criminal mob.  Citicorp is running around in crisis having failed a “stress test,” not because they want to get a good grade on Wall Street it seems, but largely because they may be the only big bank fine payer not able to increase the dividend to their investors, and of course having somehow lost $400 million through their Mexican subsidiary they are claiming fraud, and the government is investigating, what else, but money laundering to drug cartels in that country.

            But speaking of a criminal enterprise, how about Wall Street itself?  I’m more than half-way through Michael Lewis’ new book called Flash Boys, where the real story is about the billions that some companies are making and that all of the big banks are abetting of front-running stock trades through high-frequency trading , which is of course totally illegal,.  And, yes, the FBI is now investigating, and the SEC is embarrassed, and the Attorney-General of New York State is letting subpoenas rain down like tickertape on Wall Street, but all that means is that the outcome of this latest scandal is likely to be, yes, you know, more fines!   An analysis of super-investor Warren Buffet’s portfolio over the last 5 years says he has even underperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.  Friends, if he can’t beat the house on Wall Street in the biggest gambling casino in the world, you know on one else has a fair chance.

What’s the answer?  If it’s not fines, is it jail?  Hardly, since the big whales only offer up the small fry to do time. 

It’s time to clean house, but it looks like the walls are so rotten and the foundation is so shot, that it’s gut rehab time, but from top to bottom there doesn’t seem to be anyone willing and able to take on the job.

What a heckuva a mess!  Seems like if we have five dollars we might as well hide it in our shoe and take our chances on street crime, since no one seems able to stop Wall Street crime.

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LIBOR: Banking as a Criminal Conspiracy

Little Rock   Put London and banking in the same phrase, squeeze it into an acronym and snores start rising from nodding heads all around the world, and that’s too bad, because the LIBOR scandal that has erupted at Barclay’s and in Parliament will engulf the big US-based banks like Chase and Citicorp and might finally yield enough total revulsion and disgust at the greed and lack of good faith that has warped the culture of all banking institutions that reform might finally be possible, if not inevitable.

I used to hear the phrase LIBOR all of the time when we were in negotiations around banking agreements and home mortgages.  I can still remember having to ask one of my colleagues what the heck it was and then having to Google it later.  LIBOR is the London Interbank Offered Rate.   In plain English, that means that this is the rate used by banks when they loan money between each other.  An interesting article on its derivation ran this week and essentially it emerged over the last 20 or more years to replace the “prime” rate in prominence as a banking benchmark standing for the fairest lending rate fixed at a particular place in time.  The rate was arrived by consulting all of the major banks on what the rate they were using that day in lending money in major areas, throughout the high rate and the low rate, and then taking the average of the rest of the rates to equal the LIBOR for the day.

This was the gold standard of banking practice backed by the full confidence and good faith of the financial systems that this stood for something fair and certain about what constituted the real interest rates.  Results of the investigations revealed thus far have now proven that that was a total lie and what’s more, it is fairly clear that banking at the very top is certainly more of a criminal conspiracy than the MAFIA or the drug cartels might have ever imagined practicing.

Barclay’s will pay close to a half-billion in fines in Britain for their manipulation of the rates.  Unlike other criminal conspiracies, the $10 million dollar a year CEO of Barclay’s recognized no code of omerta and in trying to rationalize his own inept management (I’ll come back to this!), pointed his finger with clear evidence that the regulators turned a blind eye to the rate manipulations and other banks, like the big boys in the USA, were also involved in the interest rate fixing.   It is now clear that what was happening was the bankers and their traders were setting the average rates falsely during the financial crisis so that they seemed more financially solid than they were and with less interest rate cost and liabilities, and furthermore their own traders in some cases were gaming the rates both higher and lower, sometime against the interests of their employers in order to maximize their short term trades and therefore returns and therefore their personal rewards.

Whether subprime mortgage brokers, trading desk cowboys and cowgirls, or your regular banking shysters is it not finally abundantly clear that if you pay people based on their percentage of the kill, their systemic self-interest will bleed everything dry including their employers?  These CEOs are simply unable to surprise their employees on a banking model that is pay-as-you-go.  For all of their “not me’s” there are not enough mea culpas where they admit they simply are unable to curb the greed of their troops on a business model from the City of London financial district to Wall Street and beyond which incentivizes greed and therefore destroys institutions and makes the concepts of “trust” and “good faith” oxymoronic when it comes to banking.

Furthermore, who do you think was responsible for setting the LIBOR?   If you guessed the government or regulators, go to the back of the class.  The British Bankers’ Association was in charge and the very banks that were part of the criminal conspiracy were in fact heading up the committee that surprised the LIBOR rate setting for trillions of dollars worth of loans costing companies and governments billions and ordinary citizens thousands as well.  Unbeliveable!

Supposedly the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is looking at criminal charges now, but the Wall Street Journal was pretty clear that their record to date is lame and, mostly noted by the Times, they have buckled in the face of business interests.  It is hard to believe that we will get much more from the USA side.

The least we should be able to expect is the end to the fiction that banks can self-regulate, that banks can supervise both trading and security of funds (how can we not bring back some form of Glass-Steagall?), and banking isn’t much more than criminal enterprise until government and citizens clean this mess up.  Given the low level of current interest rates and the practices of banks, it seems under the mattress may once again be a viable and secure option for handling your personal funds.

Traders crowd the sidewalks outside the New York Stock Exchange on the day of the 1929 market crash. The Glass-Steagall act followed. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS

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Crisis of Accountability for Microfinance in India

New Orleans

Vikram Akula of SKS Microfinance

Vikram Akula of SKS Microfinance

Microfinance has many positives, but should never be confused or misnamed as a “poverty reduction” strategy.   There is simply no way to reduce poverty through debt.  Microfinance or microcredit or micro-lending or whatever the name has a value for the poor as a way to access minimal credit to create or improve livelihoods, but such livelihoods, usually in the informal sector are marginal and fraught with the same risks common to all informal work and small business for that matter.  ACORN International’s experience around the world is also very clear that there should never be any confusion about whether or not many of these loans are charitable because in fact they are often simply predatory.

I say all of this to put in some context a confusing article in today’s Times entitled “Microcredit is Imperiled in India by Defaults” by Lydia Polgreen and Vikas Bajaj.  The handwringing in the article painted the problem as a “subprime” crises because 80% of the money being lent in India comes from the state banks and in Andhra Pradesh the article says, “…almost all borrowers have stopped repaying their loans, egged on by politicians who accuse the industry of earning outsize profits on the backs of the poor.”

Indian politicians have deservedly earned a lot of skepticism and abuse for their probity and fairness, but in this case there’s a lot more to the story, and the politicians are right about this, as even some of the industry officials partially concede.

Here’s the real story in India in a nutshell.   The microfinance industry is no longer your older brother’s microfinance industry of even a decade ago with small non-profits and NGO’s and do-gooders.

Fueled by private bank money, many private finance operations have swooped into this lucrative market for lending to poor families and poor workers.  Microfinance is a major player in South Asia in India and Bangladesh particularly.   Andhra Pradesh is leading the accountability parade because the penetration of microfinance in the lending market in that state now accounts for about 12.5% of the loans outstanding.  Karnataka, where Bangalore is located is next with over 9%, Tamil Nadu, where Chennai (Madras) is the largest city has almost 5%, as does West Bengal, home of Kolkata (Calcutta).

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