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Should Investors Forgive Wells Fargo's Bad Behavior?

By Matthew Frankel, CFP® - Jan 20, 2021 at 6:52AM

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There's no question that Wells Fargo did some bad things. But should investors move on?

When you consider Wells Fargo's (WFC -0.79%) fake accounts scandal, where more than 3 million accounts were fraudulently opened under customers' names, as well as the bank's other scandals involving auto insurance, mortgage rates, and more, one thing is for certain. This is a bank that behaved very badly in the not-too-distant past. 

On the Jan. 11 Fool Live recording of our Industry Focus: Financials podcast, a viewer asked whether investors are just supposed to "forgive" Wells Fargo's numerous scandals. Here's a video clip of what contributor Matt Frankel, CFP, and host Jason Moser had to say about it. 

Matt Frankel: JD says, regarding Wells Fargo, can you just ignore the years of cultural issues involving creating accounts and lying? Before I answer, I was a target of one of their fraudulent things [laughs] what they did their auto insurance. They were improperly billing people for auto insurance they didn't need. I was one of those.

Jason Moser: You felt that pain.

Frankel: I would push back a little bit and say that, can you forgive Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) and Citigroup (NYSE: C) for all the years of irresponsible lending before the financial crisis?

Moser: Yeah.

Frankel: Could you forgive General Motors (NYSE: GM) for its bankruptcy before the financial crisis?

Moser: Can my wife forgive me for just constantly leaving the toilet seat out?

Frankel: There you go. I'd say it's not a matter of condoning what they did. It's a matter of saying, did they learn and move on from it.

Moser: Yeah.

Frankel: For the first couple of years after the fake account scandal, my answer would have been no. They should have hired an outside CEO right from the start, but what did they do? They promoted somebody who had been there from the beginning. They should have immediately changed the culture, immediately clean the house, but it took some years to do that. I don't blame the Federal Reserve for not lifting the penalty that was put on them. Everyone thought that was only going to last for a few months and I wasn't so sure. It's three years later, here we are. I don't blame them for their mistakes as long as they're learning from them and moving on, which it looks like they're finally doing.

Moser: Yeah. I think you're right. When you look at something's squishy culture. I mean culture is fixable and I think that's ultimately where I come down on this. I mean I would discuss it with anyone. I wasn't surprised honestly. It's not good to see. But by the same token, it's fixable. Now, I was really disappointed when they hired their new CEO and they hired internally. That to me was the sign that they had not learned anything. I think we were pretty hard on them on some of our shows for that as well. That was a red flag honestly. That was a sign that they haven't learned anything at all. I think though that with Scharf, like you said, that was a smart move, and I think that's a sign that maybe they finally get it. Yeah, I'm with you. I mean, it is a case-by-case basis and I think it certainly depends on the business. I can't forgive. I wouldn't say ignore, I can forgive as long as I see the signs that lessons have been learned and things are being fixed. I think in this case we're starting to see signs that things are being fixed. Yeah, I think that when they hired that CEO, it was the CFO, I think they promoted up to CEO. I can't remember his name. Smoke or something like it, but whatever. It's not for the CEO who resigned.

Frankel: That's right.

Moser: Then it was whoever, but anyway.

Frankel: [inaudible] bothered alert as David.

Moser: Well, that was a sign that I just [laughs] absolutely couldn't ignore it.

Frankel: Yeah.

Moser: I would've never ever even consider recommending Wells Fargo as any kind of an investment because that to me was a sure-fire sign that they hadn't learned anything at all.

Frankel: Right.

Moser: Now, we're seeing signs maybe they have. So yeah, I think maybe you don't forget it, but you can forgive it.

Frankel: Yeah. I'd agree with that. That's my whole feeling on that.

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