Wells Fargo on Thursday said it had potentially opened an additional 1.4 million sham accounts customers didn’t want, 67 percent more than it initially estimated, escalating an already contentious battle over the future of the mega bank.
The bank revised the total, now up to 3.5 million, after discovering that employees may have been opening unauthorized credit card and bank accounts for customers for far longer than originally acknowledged. The eye-popping figure will likely hamper the bank’s efforts to move beyond the nearly year-long scandal as lawmakers and regulators delve deeper into its inner workings and demand changes.
The revision also comes amid a simmering debate over whether Wall Street has learned from its mistakes during the 2008 financial crisis and should have it regulatory reins loosened. Republicans in Congress who support such relief have acknowledged that Wells Fargo’s repeated stumbles could make that effort more difficult.
“We apologize to everyone who was harmed by unacceptable sales practices,” Wells Fargo chief executive Timothy J. Sloan said. “We are working hard to ensure this never happens again and to build a better bank for the future.”
But even the new estimates could be underestimating the extent of the problem. For its latest review, Wells Fargo examined internal data dating back to 2009 rather than 2011 as it had done initially. Yet, the bank has previously acknowledged that instances of unauthorized accounts have been found as far back as 2002.
The bank doesn’t plan to extend its review any further, Sloan said. “The data just is not as available or as high-quality,” he said. “We’ve cast a wide net to reach customers and address their remaining concerns.”
The latest review also does not address other scandals that have beset the firm recently, including that 570,000 of its auto loan customers were charged for insurance they didn’t need, driving some to default and have their cars repossessed.
Even one of Wells Fargo’s largest shareholders, Warren Buffet, appears to have become weary of the controversy. “Anytime you put focus on an organization that has hundreds of thousands of people … you may very well find that it wasn’t just the one who misbehaved that you find out about,” he said on CNBC Wednesday.
“What you find is there’s never just one cockroach in the kitchen.”
The latest revelations will keep the “political and regulatory spotlight” on the bank for some time, Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with Cowen, said in a research report Thursday. “What the bank needs to do is build political capital so it can escape this controversy,” Seiberg said. “Hurricane Harvey could provide that opportunity if the bank is seen as taking the lead in helping with the recovery.”
Wells Fargo said earlier this week it was donating $1 million to relief efforts related to Hurricane Harvey, sending $500,000 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and $500,000 to nonprofits in the affected area.
Regulators have already fined the bank $185 million after it acknowledged that employees had opened unauthorized accounts for customers to meet aggressive sales goals and qualify for bonuses. Wells Fargo fired 5,000 employees over several years for the practice. It declined to comment on whether more employees were fired for the practice during the additional years reviewed.
Of the 3.5 million potentiality unauthorized accounts the bank has now identified, about 190,000 incurred fees and other charges, Wells Fargo said, up from its initial estimate of 130,000. It is now expected to issue refunds of more than $6 million, double its initial estimate.
The expanded review also found problems in another part of the bank’s business. About 528,000 accounts were potentially enrolled in online bill pay programs without customers’ knowledge. The bank said it would refund $910,000 to those customers who incurred fees or charges.
Sloan stressed that some of the additional accounts identified during the latest review may have been properly authorized by customers. He said the accounts were nonetheless included in the totals because they were not being actively used.
The scandal has grown to dominate Wall Street and Washington’s conversations about one of the country’s largest and oldest banks and the corporate culture that allowed the practice to go on for so long. The bank’s longtime CEO John Stumpf resigned and was forced to give up millions in bonuses. Wells Fargo is still under investigation by regulators and has seen customers shy away. Congressional leaders have repeatedly summoned company executives to Washington for hearings.
Under pressure, the bank announced earlier this month that it would shake up its board of directors. Stephen W. Sanger, former chief executive of General Mills, is being replaced by Elizabeth “Betsy” Duke as board chair starting in 2018. Two other long-serving members of the board, Cynthia Milligan and Susan Swenson, also announced they would retire.
But the move falls short of what Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other critics have called for. The Federal Reserve should remove every Wells Fargo board member who served during this scandal, Warren said on Twitter Thursday. “I don’t know what they’re waiting for,” she said.
On a conference call with reporters, Sloan defended the company’s board. “I appreciate that there are a number of folks that continue to question … what our board has done,” he said. “My personal perspective is that the board has taken significant action.”
The troubles surrounding Wells Fargo have become a proxy battle on Capitol Hill over the future of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency established after the 2008 financial crisis. The bureau levied the biggest fine in its history against Wells Fargo for the sham accounts.
Democrats and consumer groups argue that the bank’s problem show the need for the agency. But Republicans, who have long been critical of the CFPB, argue that the agency should have done more. “Wells Fargo remains the poster-child for protecting, not destroying, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” Ed Mierzwinski, program director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement. “Congress and the administration should reject demands by powerful special interests to weaken the bureau.”
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee has repeatedly lambasted the agency and proposed stripping it of many of its powers. “This latest revelation of customer abuse is further evidence of catastrophic mismanagement at the bank,” Hensarling said in a statement. The Financial Services Committee is still investigating the matter, he said. “Regrettably, the CFPB’s failure to provide documents the committee subpoenaed is slowing progress on our investigation,” he said.
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