In this segment from the MarketFoolery podcast, host Chris Hill is joined by special guest Bill Mann of Motley Fool One to discuss the current situation at financial giant Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC). In the wake of yet another set issues involving widespread, institutionalized malfeasance -- and a $1 billion fine -- the head of the bank said this week that the priority is to earn back the trust it has lost.
Its supposed customer-service focus had been a big part of its luster, but for investors, another part had been the backing of major shareholder Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B) holds close to 10% of the bank's stock. Figure that the evolving situation is an issue Buffett will have to address when the Berkshire meeting convenes in early May.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on April 24, 2018.
Chris Hill: Today is the day that Wells Fargo is having its annual meeting in Des Moines, Iowa.
Bill Mann: I wonder why they chose Iowa.
Hill: I don't know. Are they not based there? I just assumed they were based there.
Mann: No. They're based in ... Chicago?
Hill: You go ahead and look that up.
Mann: I'm going to look that up. They're not based in Iowa.
Hill: I hear Iowa is lovely this time of year, though.
Mann: Iowa is also not on the way for a lot of people. I mean, for a company that's had the news cycle that Wells Fargo has had over the last year, I would think it would be of benefit to them to put their meeting someplace where people aren't that excited to go. And I mean nothing bad about Des Moines, Iowa, it's just not on the way. Alright, I'm looking now.
Hill: Iowa residents, go ahead and send your angry emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mann: No! Gosh!
Hill: So, Tim Sloan, the CEO, told shareholders in his annual letter that the No. 1 priority for Wells Fargo is rebuilding trust after their recent scandals.
Mann: [laughs] I have a super great idea there. How about making sure there's no further scandals? Right? Because usually, when you have multiple scandals like that, to my mind, that means that there's something rotten throughout the company. Right?
Hill: And we're not talking about the same scandal over and over. At first -- and we talked about this earlier -- when the first scandal broke about the fake accounts that they were creating, which, that's just sort of a skeezy thing to do, but it didn't necessarily harm people -- there was anywhere from surprise to genuine shock that this was going on because of Wells Fargo's sterling reputation.
Mann: It's a Buffett company and deserved the halo.
Hill: Absolutely. And now, this latest one, with the billion-dollar fine --
Mann: A billion dollars! Which is such a weird number. Like, I don't get the feeling that Mulvaney at the CFPB went through and really thought of, "What are the true damages to people?" Basically, what was happening, people who were getting car loans through Wells Fargo were also being forced to get car insurance from Wells Fargo, regardless of whether they already had car insurance. So, unlike the cute fake accounts -- which is such a good branding for a fraud, like, what a great fraud branding fake accounts is. But, forced insurance is not so great, but it's actually one that's much more expensive to people. So, there were actual losses and actual damages, and they're being hit very hard for it. A billion dollars, I am told, is quite a bit of money.
Hill: It is, and they'll have no trouble paying it.
Hill: But I think the signal that it sends is, maybe, stronger than the actual impact of the fine itself. But, this is not a shock, this is just, "Oh, there they go again." And I'm wondering, with the Berkshire Hathaway meeting coming up in a couple of weeks here, how much do you think Buffett is going to be asked about this? A few months ago, he was asked about it, and he expressed his full faith in Tim Sloan. Tim Sloan, who, by the way, was in the executive ranks the whole time that the first scandal was going on.
Mann: Right, he's not Mr. Clean Up Man.
Hill: Yeah. He's not from the outside.
Mann: No. I would hope, and, as someone who studied Buffett for a long time, he has a very light hand with his managers, he doesn't come in and berate them. But, there's also a video of him testifying before Congress after the Salomon scandal in the 1990s, and he said, "If you lose reputation for the firm, I will be merciless." Well, there are people at Wells Fargo -- and I don't mean the rank-and-file, I mean people in the C-Suite -- who have lost reputation for Wells Fargo, and for Buffett, if he doesn't stand up and do or say something about it. So, it'll be really interesting to see what he is asked and how he answers. And he absolutely should be asked.
Hill: You've been to the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting before.
Mann: I have, yeah.
Hill: What stands out to you, whether it's in terms of visiting the city of Omaha, Nebraska, or just the event itself?
Mann: I should talk about how close it is to Iowa, which I truly love. [laughs] It's amazing. We feel it here at The Motley Fool sometimes because we interact with investors a lot, but, when you go into a room and there are 20,000 shareholders, and then there's an overflow room ... it's an amazing, amazing event. And I've met people who started going to the Berkshire Hathaway meeting even in the mid-80s, and it was in the lunchroom at Kiewit Plaza, and just to think that they had the access where, like, "Does anybody have any questions? No?" [laughs] You know, as opposed to now, where the moment in which they ask for questions, it's this mad dash for the microphones.
It's an incredible event. I don't know how many more they're going to do. I think Charlie Munger is 92, maybe. But, they have a lot of energy when they're up there on stage. And the most amazing thing to me is and has always been -- as I stumble through this -- when they get asked questions, they generally answer in complete sentences with syntax, in paragraphs. It is amazing how their minds work.