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Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf Blames Nasty, Scheming Employees for Fake Accounts Scandal

What happened to hoary old ideas of leadership like “The buck stops here”? In our Brave New World of elite impunity, if Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf had been the captain of the Titanic, not only would the crash be the fault of the iceberg, but he would also make sure he got the first seat on the lifeboat.

In an exclusive interview with the Wall Street Journal, Stumpf made the intelligence-insulting claim that the opening of a total of over 2 million bogus accounts was the result of nefarious plotting by ruthlessly clever employees, victimizing Stumpf as much as the customers themselves. From the Journal:

As public and congressional pressure mounted on Wells Fargo & Co. executives, its top two bankers had an explanation Tuesday for allegedly illegal sales practices across the company: It was employees’ fault.

Chief Executive John Stumpf defended the firm and the efforts it had taken to stop the behavior, which included opening accounts for customers without permission. “There was no incentive to do bad things,” Mr. Stumpf said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He called the conduct that led to last week’s settlement with federal and local authorities “not acceptable,” adding that the bank doesn’t “want one dime of income that’s not earned properly.”

At the same time, the San Francisco bank said it would soon eliminate the practices at the center of the controversy: branch-level sales goals that encouraged employees to cross-sell products to customers.

As we’ve stressed, retail banks are highly controlled organizations. Lower level staff and their supervisors are closely monitored and have very little discretion. Branch-level activities are subject to strict protocols designed and rolled out across the entire retail banking operation. Needless to say, it wan’t hard for the Journal to find sources that disputed Stumpf’s flattering account:

Many of the employees felt pressure to sell customers multiple products or services—for example, home-equity lines to certificate of deposit holders—to stay in their jobs or earn bonuses tied to sales goals, according to interviews with current and former Wells Fargo workers. Some branch employees met with their managers several times a day to report their progress on meeting cross-selling targets, they added…

Some employees who recently left were critical of the executives’ message. Mita Bhowmick, a former Wells Fargo teller in Pennsylvania, said of responsibility for the sales tactics, “It was all management: their boss, then their boss, then their boss.” Ms. Bhowmick took early retirement from the bank in 2014 at age 58. “They are putting pressure on employees, and it’s sad,” Ms. Bhowmick added. “People need their jobs.”

As members of the commentariat pointed out, and we neglected to mention in our coverage, most of the 5,300 employees that Wells piously claims were fired for cross-selling abuses from 2011 to 2015 were almost certainly booted for missing targets or other issues. The Los Angeles City Attorney didn’t begin its investigation until early 2014, which means it’s highly unlikely anyone was terminated prior to then for being overly zealous.

Even the normally pro-big-business, anti-regulatory readers of the Wall Street Journal weren’t buying Stumpf’s spin. The comments were overwhelmingly skewed against him. Some examples:

Mark Sullivan
Mr. Stumpf’s response was despicable…

Jeffrey Krantz
This CEO’s public statements are worse than the BP CEO complaining that his weekend was interrupted. “there was no incentive to do bad things”. What about the “keeping our jobs” incentive???

Thomas Huynh
In his mind, Mr. Stumpf probably thinks he didn’t tell them to lie and cheat even though he created a culture that allowed lying and cheating. At the very least, even for the minuscule possibility he knew nothing about what his 5,300 employees were doing, he should be fired for incompetence and mismanagement.

Alexander James
Blaming the employees and pretending you have a corporate culture of peaches and roses is like binding 250,000 people to a wall and blaming the 1% who decided chewing off their own feet to escape was better than starving to death. And believe me, in retail banking you either get promoted or you get fired.

The San Francisco bank also promised to turn over a new leaf by ending cross-selling targets. But experts don’t find that credible. Again from the Journal:

“Cross-selling has been a religion there,” said David Hendler, founder and principal of bank research firm Viola Risk Advisors, LLC. “They can’t say we’re not going to do that and not have another idea to roll out in the meantime,” Mr. Hendler said.

Stumps apparently thinks he can brazen things out with his “blame the little people” version of events next Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee. Perhaps he is betting on Elizabeth Warren not being as tough as usual because she praised the conduct of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which represented $100 million of the $185 million settlement. Coming down on Stumpf for not taking responsibility or clawing back pay would undermine the story that Warren wants to tell about the CFPB, that it did a great job, which means believing its punishments were adequate.

The media and investor community has already taken note of the failure to claw back the pay of Carrie Tolstedt, head of community banking during the entire period of the fraud and thus the immediately responsible executive. She received $125 million worth of compensation upon her retirement at the end of July, and had received multi-million annual pay awards on top of that.

In the London Whale scandal, once Jamie Dimon got the memo it was not going away quickly, he threw the manager of the Chief Investment Office, Ina Drew, under the bus, even though we and others described at length why Dimon was also culpable. Similarly, now that Stumpf is being criticized by investors, the logical survival move would be to seek to claw back some of Tolstedt’s pay. The total amount that customers were falsely charged is reportedly a mere $5 million. That’s a teeny proportion of Tolstedt’s payout. Dinging her for that would seem to be an easy face-saving gesture for Stumpf and the bank.

Sp why isn’t Stumpf going that route? The timing of Tolstedt’s departure, as settlement negotiations were almost certainly underway, raises the possibility that her exit was an informal concession, or even part of the deal but agreed by all parties to be kept secret. If that’s the case, the fact that the regulators and Wells badly misread how the public would react makes it hard to execute a do-over, since Tolstedt will (perversely) believe she already took a fall by leaving the bank earlier than she wanted to.

Even if Tolstedt instead left out of a sense of self preservation, it’s likely that the receipt of her retirement/deferred comp payout was conditioned on her signing a non-disparagement agreement (and these agreements often contains the provision that the party also agree to keep the agreement confidential). It would be normal for her lawyer to try to have the deal be mutual, as in have the bank agree not to criticize Tolstedt. So watch and see if Stumpf or any other Wells Fargo officials go to some lengths to avoid saying anything bad about her.

Stumpf may be correct: that the short amount of time that each Senator has to interrogate him means that no one will be able to mark him up all that badly, and this fiasco will blow over in a few weeks. But the continued glare of the media hot lights and the fact that Wells’ stock has taken a hit says Stumpf is in hot water. If he has bet wrong and the Tuesday hearing goes badly for him, he may be find out the hard way that his board can and will make the buck stop with him by ending his reign.

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57 comments

  1. allan

    It’s a good thing Stumpf didn’t sign any of those pesky Sarbanes-Oxley declarations … oh wait.

    Has `You Don’t Want to Mess With’ Mary Jo White finally found her Great White Defendant?

  2. voteforno6

    Why isn’t there a criminal investigation of this? Are they using the fine levied by the CFPB as a fig leaf to not go after these people?

    1. Bottom Gun

      Wasn’t that obvious years ago? These abuses will stop when Eric Holder shows up in Jamie Dimon’s corner office to very nicely ask for the return of the tiny little box in Dimon’s desk drawer with Holder’s testicles in it. I’m not waiting up nights for that to happen.

      Very disappointed, though, to see CFPB playing this game too. I had really hoped for better from them.

      1. beth

        Please correct me if I am wrong but I thought that CFPB didn’t have the power to prosecute. If Justice wants to do anything, I am sure Cordray will be happy to hand over any pertinent information. He may have sent over the information anyway.

    2. diptherio

      I hate to break it to you, but that’s the point of all of our regulatory agencies (despite the best intentions and efforts of most rank-and-file employees).

      1. Bottom Gun

        I was an official at two financial regulatory agencies, so I became well aware of that. After three years I got sick and tired of getting bearing, range and windage on my target, but always hearing some pathetic excuse over the radio not to shoot. If the Navy did its job the way DOJ does theirs, Osama bin Laden would be living comfortably on the Upper West Side today.

  3. Clive

    That Stumpf’s account is a load of old baloney is evident to anyone who has ever worked in a bank — even at a junior level, let alone at the top table — for more than about 5 minutes.

    Opening up fake products to claim a sale is a trick which goes back to when a TBTF tried to sell Noah Ark insurance. When I started in retail at a TBTF nearly 30 years ago, senior management (as a minimum the VP or equivalent in charge of a geographical area) would get reporting from the internal compliance or risk function about the number of accounts opened which had low turnover. A low turnover account is a serious red flag for either mis-selling or even (as was the case that has been exposed at Wells’) the salesforce boosting their figures by robo-applications. It was easy enough (and sufficiently widespread there were operating procedure to check on it) in the days of paper applications. You’d just, during the course of a sales interview, present the customer with another thing to sign, usually at the end when they wanted to leave, in a flurry of other paperwork that needed them to put pen to paper.

    With digital fulfilment of many retail products in branch (sorry, I should say “store” if we’re talking about Wells Fargo shouldn’t I) it is even easier. You walk the customer through a myriad of screens, let’s say for a loan application. The CRM system will already have been spamming the bank employee and the customer to sell them anything and everything else they’re eligible for. If, for example, they are pre-approved by their FICO score for a credit card product with a line of credit built in already, it’s often enough to just tick a box on screen to complete that product sale as part of the sales process for the loan. At the end, the printer will spew out a load of paper for the Terms and Conditions, the product details and (if required) a space for a signature. If a (as in my illustration) credit card product has been added, and the bank employee doesn’t tell the customer then it is highly likely the customer won’t be aware. If they notice later, maybe when they’re back home filing the documentation, they may think to themselves “oh, that’s a mistake, I didn’t ask for that” and make a mental note to contact the bank to tell them and maybe cancel the product. They’ll more than likely forget or have better things to do with their time.

    Even if they do make that call, they’ll get put through to the “customer retention” team who will try their level best to talk them out of cancelling the product.

    Of course, it all comes out in the wash eventually — the customer didn’t want the product in the first place and if they didn’t want it, they almost certainly won’t use it. This will result in a low (or no) activity account.

    Simplistic attempts are generally made in the bank’s operations to prevent this kind of sales practice. The most common is that if within in a certain timeframe (a month or 6 weeks is usual) there hasn’t been a transaction on the account or the card hasn’t been activated, the account will be closed and this low activity account sale will be clawed back from the salesforce. But of course, this is widely known in the bank employees, so the standard ruse is to diarise a follow-up customer service call, tell the customer some cock-and-bull story about how the bank employee has noticed a potential security issue with one of their cards and could they phone the security team just to confirm the card is still in their possession. Or another variation is to tell the customer If they want to call into the branch, they can sort the “problem” out, while in the branch they get the customer to phone the activation line, then “check” everything is okay by doing a cash advance at the counter on the card (they’ll even refund the fee, how kind!).

    These are just some tricks, readers can get the gist of how it works and probably even think of their own alternatives.

    But there’s still a trail of evidence which the bank should be following — accounts which are very light in transactions after 6 months or dormant in a year. These are always investigated, not for the customer’s benefit but because it costs the bank money to maintain the account. They are invariably force-closed due to low activity (this will be in the product’s standard Terms and Conditions, to give the bank the ability to do this). This management information is collated and picked over endlessly by the P&L accountants. Too many customers attracted to the brand, sold product to, but who then walk away are value-destructive. Senior management (one part of the senior management team, anyway) are all over this metric like a rash.

    Of course, another “arm” of senior management — those who’s bonus is simply determined by sales volume, not long-term profitability — don’t care and unless the one at the top (and I do mean the top, the CEO is the only one who can wield the big stick in this sort of management turf war) has his or her finger on the pulse and determines to stop the rot, the rot will go on and get rottener and rottner until the stench (the stinkyness being the Average Revenue Per Customer declines) becomes too obvious to ignore.

    Rot, I would surmise, is Well Fargo’s middle name, unfortunately.

    1. cnchal

      Thank you for your comments and posts about the gory guts of banking. They have all been enlightening, and the only conclusion I can come to is that banks have clearly become a gigantic criminal enterprise, if it perhaps wasn’t so in the distant past.

      Some of the numbers bandied about here make no sense to me, in particular the claim by the crooks that they only harmed all of their victims to the tune of $5 million or $25 each implying 200,000 marks. How can stealing $25 from 200,000 people “earn” Tolstedt a $125 million bonus? It looks like Wells is lowballing the harm they have done.

      It is at the point where no one in high levels of banking and government have any credibility, and it’s all lies all the time.

      1. readerOfTeaLeaves

        +1

        We are watching a lot of institutions slowly imploding, due to lack of credibility and dwindling integrity.
        Stumpf’s remarks are Exhibit A in Corporate Cluelessness.
        Banking seems to be undergoing a fairly spectacular implosion but these institutions are so large that it is taking a long time.

        1. flora

          20 years ago: “The business of America is business.”
          Today: “The business of America is business destruction … for fun and profit.”

          1. Chauncey Gardiner

            Excellent observation, flora. To me the poster child and biggest tell has been the massive debt-leveraged corporate stock buybacks at price highs to optimize CEO bonuses while forsaking productive reinvestment of operating cash flows, but there are many other indicators.

            1. sgt_doom

              Excellent observation, also, Chauncey, add to that the multiple, varied attacks on small business from mega-business (whether the legislation which passed a few years back giving SBA loan preference to those companies already invested in by hedge funds and/or private equity firms) or the more onerous regulations only applying to small business, plus if the TPP passes, the ultimate onslaught against small and local businesses and workers’ rights!

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Hear hear!

      As a former branch level employee at what seems like the last not TBTF bank (WAMU – the old money like JP Morgan and Citi couldn’t allow this upstart to cut into their racket), what you describe is spot on.

      We were paid a very low wage but got a monthly bonus based on certain metrics (like how many new accounts were opened at the branch, etc). The bonus was the only thing that made the total compensation enough to live on – depending on the month it could be as much as a regular paycheck.

      To get this bonus however we were required to attempt to cross-sell products to a certain number of customers every month. My branch had a lot of repeat customers who worked in the same building and clearly didn’t want to be hassled about whether they wanted a new account when they came downstairs to take out 10 bucks to go have lunch. When I asked my manager how I was supposed to meet the target when I’d already asked pretty much everyone at least once, he told me that he thought I was smart enough to figure out what to do, ie lie on the paperwork we were supposed to fill out.

      Rest in Pieces WAMU – may the rest of these criminal enterprises follow your lead.

  4. Northeaster

    Read the Proxy.

    Like most companies, executive compensation is a multi-tiered level of compensation for performance.WFC is no different. The question a reporter should ask is: “Will executives will return or donate their ill-gotten gains they received as part of their performance compensation?”

    Don’t bet on Stumpf resigning either, it would jeopardize his $25 million-dollar kiss good-bye.

    https://www08.wellsfargomedia.com/assets/pdf/about/investor-relations/annual-reports/2016-proxy-statement.pdf

    1. MED

      Forget the donate, it would be in WFC name not you name and maybe to one of the foundations in the news lately. It should be return the stolen property.

  5. Dogstar

    Fun fact: Easy to forget that Wells Fargo was purchased by Norwest of Minneapolis. Norwest kept the more marketable “Wells Fargo” name and of course the fabled stage coach.

  6. anon

    Journalists have been doing a poor job of staying on top of this story. I have heard rumors that the kind of illegal activity going on at Wells Fargo has been regularly going on at other US banks as well, with similar causes fueling the bad behavior.

    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      … the Code of Silence?

      Yes, it’s interesting that we haven’t heard bupkis about this matter from other leading lights of “the banking industry” condemning these practices, nor federal bank regulatory agencies or the SEC.

      My, how things have changed since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and the Glass-Steagall Act was overturned.

    2. kimsarah

      Sure there are plenty of bad journalists, but in the larger picture their days are numbered. Large companies with Wall Street ties that have executives who serve on boards like Wells Fargo have bought up most newspapers to milk every last ounce of their value, crush all investigative reporting and protect the banksters and crony politicians. This has been in the making since the good old Reagan days and is a major reason why nobody trusts mainstream media anymore. People can see through it.
      http://www.nj.com/bergen/index.ssf/2016/09/gannett_announces_layoffs_at_the_record_2_month_af.html

  7. Spencer

    Yeah, I saw Cramer interview Stumpf last night. You can’t manage #s the way he explained. He had no idea what those #s meant. Sheila Bair was a God send.

    But The CBs should be nationalized. The CB system is a payment, clearing, and settlement system. From the standpoint of the CBs, the monetary savings practices of the public are reflected in the velocity of their deposits and not in their volume (fractional or prudential reserve banking).

    Whether the public saves or dis-saves, chooses to hold their savings in the commercial banks or transfer them thru non-bank financial institutions, will not, per se, alter the total assets or liabilities of the CBs nor the forms of these assets or liabilities. The CBs, NBs, and saver-holders would all receive higher incomes if the CBs were driven out of the savings business altogether. I.e., since the CB’s interest expense is their largest expense item, therefore the CB’s system’s size isn’t synonymous with their profitability.

    1. Clive

      It is a fraud. Bank staff face criminal proceedings if they pull the same stunt for their own personal gain. It’s even in the training videos, the ones on whistleblowing and what sort of suspicious going’s on you should be alert to in your colleagues!

      That’s how come Wells Fargo could fire their employees, they were engaged in illicit activity. Of course, Wells then just went out and hired another employee and got them to do the same thing…

      1. cm

        But how do we know the employees were fired for setting up bogus accounts? At this point all we have is WFC’s statement that that is why they were fired. More likely, they were fired for not setting up enough bogus accounts!

    2. sgt_doom

      Because Obama of Wall Street placed the CFPB within the purview or authority of the Federal Reserve — the rest should be obvious.

  8. flora

    per WSJ report:
    “At the same time, the San Francisco bank said it would soon eliminate the practices at the center of the controversy: branch-level sales goals that encouraged employees to cross-sell products to customers. ” (my emphasis)

    “Soon” is such an elastic time frame.

  9. WatchingEthosInFreefall

    Apart from the pressures from above, one can’t help wonder how a ‘lower level’ employee (i.e., the ones that actually work) wouldn’t simmer to a boil over time watching upper management receive inconceivably high levels of ‘compensation’ while they themselves get paid so poorly and receive terrible benefits.

  10. Louis

    Even assuming for the sake of argument that all the thousands of employees fired were shown the door because fraud–not as the article says because of missing targets–it still points to a management problem.

    An isolated instance of fraud could be considered a bad apple However, employees don’t commit fraud en mass unless management is either looking the other way or actively encouraging it.

  11. Benedict@Large

    Lower level staff and their supervisors are closely monitored and have very little discretion.

    I was thinking, how can anyone stand to work in such an environment, when I realized that this is the environment that most Americans work in. Which make me wonder why anyone puts up with working in these jobs as they are at all.

    People, if you let then do it to you, they will.

    1. Vatch

      why anyone puts up with working in these jobs as they are at all.

      I suspect a lot of people prefer to avoid homelessness, hope to be able to eat three meals per day, and even support their children.

      The rest of us can help, by refusing to buy products or services from companies that are known to treat their employees badly. Even that becomes difficult if most of the companies in an industry abuse their employees.

      1. Clive

        Yes, choose between having to engage in criminality or else join the unemployment line. This is the unpalatable choice for many, perhaps most, of our age.

      2. jrs

        all problems a guaranteed income would fix …

        Enough of the lies of capitalism, that the motive of money which to most is the motive of survival motivates people to contribute to society. It can. But it will also motivate them to destroy society if that’s what they are paid for. Which they are in many cases.

  12. robnume

    How these “bankers” are not charged under RICO statutes is beyond me. We should all be contacting our states’ attorneys general to press criminal charges. Of course, the attorneys general are all in the pockets of Wells, et. al. So nothing will be done here. Anyone hazard a guess as to how many accounts are being closed by consumers?

    1. sgt_doom

      Criminality in many countries, and most certainly in the US of A, is a multi-generational enterprise.

      In Joan Mellen’s latest and outstanding book, Faustian Bargains, on LBJ’s life and presidency and specific criminality, she mentions (pp. 207 — 214) the assault on the USS Liberty, and perfectly proves how Lyndon Johnson, and Admiral John McCain (Sen. McCain’s daddy) were most definitely war criminals under Articles 99 and 118 of the UCMJ (and yes, as commander-in-chief, it applies to the president in military matters).

      One of those complicit was Cyrus Vance, whose son, Cyrus Vance, Jr., would later ignore all those banksters guilty in the global economic meltdown, but go after a small Chinese bank for similar reasons?!?!

      Un-frigging-believable, until one realizes the multi-generational criminality of such families, including the Bushes and Clintons, of course!

  13. nony mouse

    as a somewhat unwilling Wells customer, i woke up this morning to this email in my inbox:

    title-An important message from John Stumpf, Wells Fargo CEO‏

    “To our valued customers,

    You may have seen news recently that some Wells Fargo customers received products and services that they did not want or need.

    Every day we strive to get things right. In this instance we did not – and that is simply not acceptable.

    So we are making it right.

    The first step we’ve taken is to fully reimburse any customers who were affected by these actions.

    We have been making some changes to how we do business over the last several years to ensure we are always aligned with our customers’ interests. To that end, the second change is to ensure Team Members in our Retail Bank are compensated on what matters most: delivering great experiences and ensuring positive outcomes – not on product sales. For more details on this, go to wellsfargo.com/commitment.

    Last week’s news did not reflect Wells Fargo at its best. Your trust and confidence in us is something we hold near and dear. I know I speak for our 268,000 dedicated Team Members when I thank you for giving us the opportunity to continue serving you and supporting your financial future.

    Sincerely,

    John Stumpf
    Chairman and CEO, Wells Fargo Bank”

    1. Mike G

      Hidden in the details is Stump stated they would eliminate cross-selling goals…on January 1st.

      He’s SO sorry they did this fraudulent, reprehensible, awful thing, but they’re going to keep doing it for another three months.

  14. Kris Alman

    This video, “Reality Check: How Does Nobody Go To Jail In Wells Fargo Fraud Case?” points out, the government reaped $185 M. The financial fraud from this identity theft caused many of the customers’ credit scores to lower because of accounts they didn’t even know they had. Their compensation: an average of $25.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJti6MDiOVI

    Doing research, I noticed that Duke Tran, a very brave Vietnamese-American from Beaverton, Oregon, was the “original source” that exposed Wells Fargo’s secret internal policies.

    He was fired November 12, 2014 after working there for ten year. Last year he filed a lawsuit, where he seeks “fair compensation for Well Fargo’s retaliation and wrongful termination”. Michael Fuller is lead attorney. https://consumermediallc.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/1-main.pdf
    http://underdoglawyer.com/policy/

    He “seeks to take back over $1.4 billion on behalf of the American taxpayers; paid by the United States on account of Wells Fargo’s unfair deceptive mortgages practices.”

    His lawsuit further states:
    From 2009 until March 31, 2015, the United States paid out over $1.4 billion in HAMP [Home Affordable Modification Program] incentives based on Wells Fargo loan modification applications … Of the $1.4 billion paid based on Wells Fargo applications, only a relatively small fraction ($246,871,173.00) went to Wells Fargo’s customers. The largest portions went directly to corporate investors ($825,776,921.00) and Wells Fargo ($359,151,497.00).

    This lawsuit is a good read to understand the corporate culture of criminal complicity. The added touch: overt racism (p. 9 of the lawsuit). Oregon is an “at will” state–although the Bureau of Labor and Industries represents employees who can demonstrate discrimination in the work place: http://www.oregon.gov/boli/CRD/Pages/C_Crprotoc.aspx

    No doubt Tran’s lawsuit will be quietly settled. Hopefully, he will be able to survive this assault on his integrity–both with damages he receives and in career opportunities.

  15. VietnamVet

    Colin Powell’s hacked e-mails reek of the privilege of being one of the connected. Hillary Clinton scapegoats the basket of deplorables in flyover America. 5,300 Wells Fargo employees are fired for fraud. These are recent examples of the total contempt for the little people in the corporate “kiss up and kick down” culture.

    PS: I am half way through the first season of “Mr. Robot”. At first I thought it was a satire of hackers and Evil Corporation. I am now starting to think it is reality TV.

  16. Jerri-Lynn Scofield

    File under better late than never. http://www.wsj.com/articles/federal-prosecutors-investigating-wells-fargo-over-sales-tactics-1473881424?mod=djemalertMARKET

    Wondering why DoJ was not called in at an earlier stage– or were they and chose to ignore this?

    Notice that the southern district of NY and northern district of California are conducting the investigation. So, has Preet Bharara finally trained his guns on something other than insider trading? Not holding my breath here but certainly watching.

    Also wondering whether any of the employees– fired or otherwise– chose to approach the SEC under the new whistleblower program.

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