As CEO, Tim Sloan says he wants to solve problems at Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) that enabled the creation of millions of fake accounts and forced out his predecessor.
But with a total career of three decades at the San Francisco company — including a string of high-ranking jobs in the period the unauthorized customer accounts were set up — he’s more likely part of the cause, some members of the Senate Banking Committee argued during an acerbic hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
“At best, you were incompetent and at worst, you were complicit,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, said after citing comments made by Sloan that appeared to support aggressive sales tactics later blamed for the scandal. “Either way, you should be fired.”
Prior to Wells Fargo’s $185 million settlement with regulators in the fall of 2016, Wells Fargo’s community bank had set a goal of selling as many as eight different products to each customer household, giving bonuses to employees who succeeded and penalizing those who didn’t.
Ultimately, such tactics fostered a climate in which more than 5,000 employees were dismissed over five years for setting up bogus accounts, although executives failed to eradicate the practice.
The fallout when the chain of events became public led to a $142 million class-action settlement, prompted former Chairman and CEO John Stump’s departure after two bruising Congressional hearings and cost the bank a number of lucrative government bond deals,.
While Wells Fargo initially said more than 2 million unauthorized credit card and deposit accounts were created from 2011 through 2015, it increased that number to 3.5 million after examining 2009 and 2010.
This year, the company further conceded that it had erroneously charged some 490,000 car-loan customers for insurance they didn’t need.
The scandals continue to weigh on the bank’s shares. Wells Fargo’s 11% gain since the phony accounts were made public is far short of the 39% growth by the broader KBW Bank Index, and the company concedes it still has work to do.
Warren, who has repeatedly urged the Federal Reserve to use its regulatory authority to remove Wells Fargo board members who served during the affected period, said the executives who ran the bank at the time the bogus accounts were being set up can’t make the needed improvements.
“Wells Fargo is not going to change with you in charge,” she told Sloan.
The 57-year-old CEO demurred. “The reason that I’m the right person to run this company today, notwithstanding your criticism, is because I have been making change at this company for 30 years,” he said. “I’m not afraid to make hard decisions when it’s needed, and I have the support of 270,000 people.”
Warren didn’t buy it.
Wells Fargo’s failing, said senators including John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, is that its culture has put the company’s interests ahead of those of its customers.
“I’m not against big,” he said. “With all due respect, I’m against dumb. I’m against business practices which have Wells Fargo first and the customers second. I think it ought to be the customer first and Wells Fargo second, I think that’s better for the customer, and better long-term for Wells Fargo.”
The Wells Fargo-first attitude appears to be entrenched, despite changes over the past year, said Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, who asked Sloan point-blank if he’d be willing to stop forcing customers to resolve complaints through private arbitration rather than the court system.
“No,” said Sloan. “The reason is because we have made fundamental changes to the way we do business, so we have reduced the number of times that that ever is an issue.”
His reluctance reflected the value of arbitration to the banking industry as a whole. The American Bankers Association, in fact, has joined Congressional Republicans in fighting an effort by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to block companies from requiring it as a condition of loan approval.
Consumer advocates, on the other hand, have argued that such arbitration — which is paid for by the companies — is tilted in their behalf.
While Sloan wouldn’t commit to ending the practice overall, he did agree not to use such clauses on legitimate accounts to keep customers from suing over fake ones.
“If we have an account that was inappropriately set up, fraudulently set up, there’s not going to be a reason to even have that conversation because we’re making it right for that customer,” he said.