Cross-selling scandal tarnishes Wells Fargo CEO's 'Mr. Clean' image
(Bloomberg) — Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, once the Mr. Clean of American banking, now has to clean up a growing scandal.
In a remarkable turnabout for Stumpf, the bank he’s run to the envy of peers and the delight of top shareholder Warren Buffett, has been swept up in one of the industry’s most embarrassing episodes since the financial crisis.
Last week, the San Francisco-based lender agreed to pay $185 million to settle allegations that it opened 2 million credit-card and other accounts for customers without their knowledge.
While the penalty is a pittance for Wells Fargo, the brouhaha has left Stumpf, 62, struggling to contain the damage to the bank’s reputation and his own legacy.
The pressure isn’t about to let up: Stumpf is set to testify next week in Washington, handing lawmakers an opportunity to swing at Wells Fargo during a campaign season in which Wall Street has taken hits from the presidential nominees of both major parties.
“I’m prepared to go there and share our side, and how seriously we take this,” Stumpf told Bloomberg on Tuesday. In a subsequent interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer, who asked the CEO to respond to calls that he resign, Stumpf said “the best thing I can do right now is lead this company, and lead this company forward.”
He might ask Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase's Jamie Dimon for advice when he appears before the Senate Banking Committee on September 20.
Six years ago, senators peppered Blankfein after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued his Goldman Sachs Group Inc. over the sale of the Abacus collateralized debt obligation. While Blankfein repeatedly said the firm had done nothing wrong, it paid a $550 million fine to settle with the SEC.
In 2012, Dimon testified before a Senate committee about the “poorly conceived and vetted” bets made by his traders at JPMorgan Chase & Co. that resulted in more than $6.2 billion in losses. The firm paid more than $900 million in regulatory sanctions because of the so-called London Whale debacle, and Dimon’s pay for that year was cut in half.
Employees “secretly opened unauthorized accounts to hit sales targets." - CFPB Director Richard Cordray
Wells Fargo today is the biggest U.S. home lender and a marquee investment for billionaire Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns 10 percent of the bank.
ALL AMERICAN IMAGE
Stumpf eschewed the toxic dangers that lurked within Wall Street trading desks and instead pursued a strategy concentrated around Main Street mortgages and checking accounts. He’s the driver of the Wells Fargo stagecoach — what the company calls an "enduring symbol" that shows its "heritage of service, stability and innovation."
All the while, Stumpf has been hailed by other banking executives. The CEO of Germany’s embattled Deutsche Bank AG, John Cryan, once said he wished he instead could have "a relatively easy life" at the helm of Wells Fargo, making a good return on retail banking. Even Dimon couldn’t match Stumpf’s total return and pointed earlier this year to Wells Fargo as a competitor he must most keep an eye on.
"He’s like Americana in the form of a large bank CEO," Mike Mayo, a bank analyst at CLSA Ltd., said of Stumpf in an interview Tuesday. "He’s the preeminent retail banker."
Wells Fargo’s strategy included a heavy emphasis on cross-selling products — a consumer opening a checking account was pushed to take a credit card, for example.
But it was that technique that landed the bank in trouble, according to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which investigated the wrongdoing along with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Employees “secretly opened unauthorized accounts to hit sales targets and receive bonuses,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement.
Wells Fargo, which said it fired 5,300 employees over five years for the practices, also plans to eliminate product sales goals and instructed U.S. call center workers to temporarily halt cross-selling of financial products.
“The regulators’ findings are consequential for a bank such as Wells Fargo, which historically has had strong customer satisfaction scores and a reputation for sound risk management,” Moody’s Investors Service wrote in a report Monday. “We do expect some immediate damage to Wells Fargo’s reputation from this embarrassing episode.”
HIT TO IMAGE
In an e-mail to Wells Fargo customers Wednesday, Stumpf said the bank is always trying to do the right thing. “In this instance we did not -- and that is simply not acceptable,” Stumpf wrote. “Last week’s news did not reflect Wells Fargo at its best.”
Ed Mills, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, said the Senate hearing has the potential to inflict further damage on Wells Fargo’s brand and that he wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. Justice Department launches an investigation.
“In Washington, when you are explaining, you are losing,” Mills wrote in a note to clients Wednesday.
Borrowing a page from Dimon and Blankfein, Wells Fargo mostly blamed rogue or lower-level employees for the misconduct. Chief Financial Officer John Shrewsberry said most of the workers involved weren’t seeking to generate revenue.
“It was really more at the lower end of the performance scale, where people apparently were making bad choices to hang on to their job,” he said at an investor conference Tuesday in New York.
WHO'S MINDING THE STORE?
But the OCC, in its consent order, said Wells Fargo’s community bank group — led by Carrie Tolstedt, who reported directly to Stumpf — "failed to adequately oversee sales practices and failed to adequately test and monitor branch employee sales practices." Tolstedt oversaw the unit until July.
Wells Fargo has taken unrelenting fire ever since the regulators announced the settlement Thursday. First, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, said she called Stumpf to talk about "his willingness to take full responsibility."
Then, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton weighed in, using the scandal to praise the work of the CFPB, the consumer watchdog created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, the regulatory overhaul intended to prevent another financial crisis.
By Monday night, Stumpf was being asked to testify in Washington after five U.S. senators including Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown wrote to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby calling for an investigation.
Lawmakers are likely to focus on "establishing a narrative that Wells Fargo is either too big to manage, or its management was willfully complicit in the fraud,” Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at Compass Point Research & Trading LLC, wrote Tuesday in a note to clients.
They’re also likely to want to make an issue of clawing back pay from executives who were responsible and may seek to request testimony from Tolstedt, Boltansky said.
The investigation has already cost Wells Fargo its title as the world’s most valuable bank. Its stock fell 3.3 percent Tuesday, reducing its market value to $236.9 billion, compared with $240.3 billion for New York-based JPMorgan. The slide also wiped out $1.4 billion of Buffett’s fortune.
"They have a lot of work to do in the public eye in order to shore up their reputation," said Kevin Barker, a Piper Jaffray analyst. “When you have presidential candidates admonishing you in their public comments, you certainly need to go on a charm offensive in order to make up the ground that you lost.”