Let's face it: Big banks aren't exactly Americans' favorite businesses. But in recent years, Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) has done everything imaginable to lose the trust of consumers and its shareholders.
After getting through the Great Recession relatively unscathed compared to its peers, Wells Fargo's conservative focus on loan and deposit growth, as well as its avoidance of derivatives and other risky investments, was exalted. Little did investors or Wall Street know the magnitude of problems that lay beneath the surface.
A veritable laundry list of scandals engulfs Wells Fargo
In 2016, those problems came to a head when Wells Fargo announced that employees at its branches had created up to 2.1 million accounts for customers without their knowledge or consent between May 2011 and mid-2015, leading, in many cases, to fees being charged to these accountholders. These accounts were created as a result of the company's aggressive cross-selling tactics at its physical branches in order for employees to meet sales goals. In effect, these fake accounts gave the (false) impression of growth, and helped perpetuate the idea that Wells Fargo's return on assets (ROA) was superior to that of its peers. This ROA has been a big reason why Wells Fargo's stock has been valued at a premium to many of its peers.
However, this was really just the beginning. Roughly a year later, following an internal review, the company announced that the number of fake accounts created at its branches between January 2009 and September 2016 was actually as high as 3.5 million, or 67% higher than originally reported.
In addition, these internal reviews found some 528,000 unauthorized online bill-pay enrollments, which it claimed would result in an aggregate of $910,000 being returned to those affected. Most of the online bill-pay fees totaled around $1.
And, as icing on the cake, the internal review uncovered that as many as 570,000 customers with car loans between 2012 and 2017 were charged for comprehensive and collision insurance coverage -- which is a requirement for an auto loan through Wells Fargo -- even in instances where the customer already had this coverage or had their vehicle repossessed. Wells Fargo set aside $80 million in restitution for those individuals affected, but has since come under fire via a probe from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco for failing to follow through with these refunds.
More recently, in early February, the Federal Reserve put its foot down and halted Wells Fargo's ability to grow and expand. Citing "widespread consumer abuses and compliance breakdowns," the U.S. central bank disallowed Wall Street's once-darling bank from growing any larger than its total asset size at the end of 2017 until it strengthens its corporate governance and the oversight of its board of directors.
Finally, within the past few weeks, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Justice requested Wells Fargo investigate its own wealth management operations following allegations from whistleblowers that the unit was pushing inessential products and services. In effect, the whistleblowers suggest that Wells Fargo's wealth management employees were selling products or services that would pad their wallets, rather than those that were the best fit for a client.
This makes sense... not
Long story short, Wells Fargo has had an epically bad run for the past year and a half. Consumers do tend to have short-term memories when it comes to scandals, but the sheer magnitude of underlying issues presented by Wells Fargo over the past 18 months could make it extremely difficult for this once-trusted bank to overcome. In fact, the company's ROA has pretty much been in a steady decline since 2014, and is no longer head and shoulders above its peers.
Yet, in spite of a declining ROA, the inability to grow per the Fed, the need to make right with a lot of customers, and the company's stock underperforming both the broader market and its peers in 2017, Wells Fargo's CEO, Tim Sloan, netted himself a 36% raise.
In total, Sloan saw his base salary rise by more than $70,000 from 2016, with his stock-based compensation (mostly restricted stock) increasing by $4.5 million. The board also approved an $87,000 one-time payment to upgrade a security system at Sloan's home, according to Bloomberg. All told, Sloan walked away with $17.4 million in compensation in 2017 for a job not well done. It's also worth pointing out that while Sloan requested not to receive a bonus in 2017, other Wells Fargo senior managers, including Chief Financial Officer John Shrewsberry, did get theirs.
Absolute shenanigans and a slap in the face of any financial regulators, shareholders, and Wells Fargo customers who've been affected. Sure, Sloan stepped into the cauldron after former CEO John Stumpf stepped down in 2016, but it's not as if Sloan was a Wells Fargo novice when taking the job. He's worked his way up Wells Fargo for the past three decades, and knew full well what he was getting himself into with the CEO role. In fact, the Los Angeles Times cites an instance in December 2013 where Sloan, who was then CFO, was made aware of the fake account issue at his bank and he dismissed it. Said Sloan at the time, "I'm not aware of any overbearing sales culture."
When scandals hit Wells Fargo's key rivals in the past, they've hit the brakes and reassessed their situation. When Citigroup was facing backlash following the Great Recession, former CEO Vikram Pandit was being paid only $1 a year. Similarly, following a rocky 2011 that saw Bank of America announce 30,000 job cuts over the coming five-year stretch, and unsuccessfully implement a debit-card use fee, it slashed bonuses for its investment managers and reduced total compensation for its CEO. Even JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon took a pay cut following the London Whale debacle that cost the company more than $6 billion in 2012. But not Tim Sloan. He and his senior managers are netting raises and bonuses amid countless scandals.
The fact that Sloan and his senior managers aren't taking a pay cut demonstrates pretty clearly that they don't understand how serious this crisis of confidence may be. Should this management team not step up to the plate soon and rectify these corporate governance issues, this once-pristine bank could lose the trust of consumers and investors.