For more than four hours Tuesday, Wells Fargo chief executive Tim Sloan fought to convince lawmakers that the years of scandals that had tarnished the bank’s image were in the past. Wells Fargo has shaken up its executive ranks, raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour and given millions to charity, he told them.
The House Financial Services Committee appeared skeptical.
“All the changes that you said you have made are not evident,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the committee.
Wells Fargo has admitted to several misdeeds over the past two years: opening millions of accounts that customers didn’t want or ask for; improperly repossessing thousands of cars, including from some members of the military; mistakenly foreclosing on hundreds of homeowners; and miscalculating the fees it charges customers.
Sloan has spent years attempting to repair the bank’s image, including making regular visits to Capitol Hill. As he entered the packed committee room Tuesday morning, he shook hands and greeted several lawmakers. But that personal touch didn’t appear to quiet bipartisan criticism of the bank.
“Each time a new scandal breaks, Wells Fargo promises to get to the bottom of it. It promises to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), the ranking Republican on the committee. “But then a few months later we hear about another case of dishonest sales practices or gross mismanagement, another case of the consumer who has been harmed by the bank’s business practices.”
The hearing is probably a preview of what is expected to be tough oversight of the country’s biggest banks by Waters, who has been critical of the Trump administration and Republicans for loosening banking regulations. The committee is also expected to hold a separate hearing with the CEOs of other big banks, such as Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, soon.
During Tuesday’s hearing, several lawmakers revisited a question that has dogged many big banks since the global financial crisis a decade ago: Was Wells Fargo simply too big? The bank has nearly $2 trillion in assets, more than 260,000 employees and 70 million customers.
"You’ve not been able to keep Wells Fargo out of trouble. Why should Wells Fargo continue to be the size that it is?” Waters asked. “Is Wells Fargo too big to manage?”
“No, we’re not,” Sloan said.
Wells Fargo’s regulators could simply remove Sloan as CEO — Sloan is also president of the bank — and break the bank into smaller parts, said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.). “Robbing your customer is not an error in business,” Lynch said. It “is something more sinister.”
Sloan faced tough questioning on Wells Fargo’s relationship with gun manufacturers and for-profit immigration detention companies, how it is repaying customers who lost their homes to foreclosure because of a computer error and other topics. In another contentious exchange, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) asked Sloan whether Wells Fargo would allow disgruntled customers to sue rather than forcing them into arbitration. Sloan said that customers’ concerns were being addressed and that they didn’t need to go to court.
“So you’re smart, they’re dumb, you have their best interests at heart,” Sherman said. “You are telling them that they are stupid for wanting to go to court.”
“I don’t think our customers are stupid,” the CEO responded.
Sloan repeatedly attempted to defend the bank. It has made fundamental changes to how it operates and its culture, he said under intense questioning. The bank no longer relies on incentives to reward employees, which was blamed for many of the bank’s missteps, he said. And the bank is working to comply with the demands of its regulators, which have fined Wells Fargo more than $1 billion over the past two years.
"Wells Fargo is a better bank than it was three years ago, and we are working every day to become even better,” Sloan told the committee.
But just hours after the hearing ended, one of the bank’s chief regulators, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, indicated that Wells Fargo has a long way to go. “We continue to be disappointed with [Wells Fargo’s] performance under our consent orders and its inability to execute effective corporate governance and a successful risk management program,” Bryan Hubbard, an agency spokesman, said in a statement. “We expect National Banks to treat their customers fairly, operate in a safe and sound manner, and follow the rules of law.”