New Orleans Ok, I’ve always been clear that Wells Fargo for more than a decade has led my list as the most evil and customer-exploiting of the nation’s big banks, and I am loving the fact that they have been caught red handed in fraud and are having their comeuppance. No one can ever take a victory lap with the megabanks though, but for a fleeting minute there’s hope that just maybe the government might be forced to finally start taking the steps to straighten out some of their commonplace, but predatory business practices.
First, let’s savor the hot mess that is now Wells Fargo. The California state treasurer, where Wells Fargo is headquartered and has been frequently sanctified, has reacted to the bank’s fraud by suspending the bank from handling municipal bond sales in California and a number of other lucrative practices. The Wells Fargo board, realizing the light hand slap to bank executives and their efforts to push this off as if 5000 fired fraudsters were just a few bad apples wasn’t getting it, finally starting to at least pretend to do its job. They permanently retired the head of community banking who had presided over this mess and clawed back $19 million from her golden handshake. They told the CEO who had snoozed and covered up all of this mess that he was working for free during their investigation of this mess and would not get a bonus for 2016 and clawed back $41 million in stock awards from him. Congress is taking another shot at the CEO soon as well. His head still may roll, as rightly it probably should. A couple of fired workers are suing the company, because they had refused to go with unethical and unrealistic sales practices.
At the heart of this mess is Wells Fargo’s boiler room sales operation and the holy grail of a lot of big bank and financial institution mischief: cross-selling. Cross-selling is simple to understand. Once a bank has a customer, they view that customer as a mini-market for them to hustle all manner of products to Joe Schmoo. In the belly of these beastly banks they all do this, and they all have giant boiler rooms trying to move product with little supervision and high sales quotas.
Wells Fargo was caught, but it is something they are all doing in general, even if some of them may not have gone with outright Wells Fargo fraud. The Wall Street Journal looked at complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and found that Wells had 1576 complains about account management, while Citigroup had 1722 or 1.8 complaints per billion dollars of deposits. Bank of America had 1.7 compared to Wells Fargo’s 1.3 complaints per billion and JP Morgan Chase had 1.1 complaints per billion. I’m grasping a straw of hope in reading that “Analysts say the problems at Wells Fargo put pressure on government agencies to more closely regulate the cross-selling of products and incentive compensation tied to tough sales goals.” Hosanna!
It’s a safe bet that since they are all doing it, they are likely all dirty on this as well. While the government and politicians are finally starting to grow a backbone in dealing with banks, we can hope it lasts long enough to clean up this high pressure, direct theft from customers.