When Wells Fargo was hit last week with $185 million in fines after thousands of its employees were caught setting up fake accounts customers didn't ask for, regulators heralded the settlement as a breakthrough.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau noted that the $100 million it will collect as part of the deal was the agency's "largest penalty" ever. The head of Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a banking regulator, said its $35 million penalty would "demonstrate that such practices will not be tolerated and banks will be held responsible.” “This is a major victory for consumers,” said Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, touting the $50 million the city extracted from the bank.
But the fines being levied against Wells Fargo pale in comparison to the bank's yearly profit -- more than $20 billion in 2015.
It is also less than the more than $200 million that the stock in the company held by company's chief executive, John G. Stumpf is worth. The fines also are not that much more than the $125 million one of its top executives, Carrie Tolstedt, will walk away with when she retires this year. An 27-year veteran of the bank, Tolstedt ran the community banking division where regulators said aggressive sales goals fueled illegal behavior by bank employees,
"Tolstedt’s team is a leader in building and deepening customer loyalty and team member engagement across the business, which today serves more than 20 million retail checking households and 3 million small business owners, and employs 94,000 team members," the company said in a statement last July announcing her retirement.
As first noted by Fortune Magazine, Tolstedt, 56, retirement package is expected to reach nearly $125 million, including thousands of shares of Wells Fargo stock, options, and restricted shares. Tolstedt's has earned a base salary of $1.7 million for at least the last four years, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. That was set to reach $1.75 million this year before Tolstedt announced her retirement. She has typically awarded millions a year in bonuses and Wells Fargo stock.
According to regulators, thousands of Wells Fargo employees were allegedly involved in a widespread scheme to reach aggressive sales goals -- and earn bonuses -- by creating 2 million accounts, including credit cards, customers didn't authorize. The employees created phony email addresses to enroll existing customers in online-banking services, for example, and issued them debit cards they didn’t request. Customers were then often hit with assorted fees for accounts they didn't know they had, the regulators charged.
Wells Fargo said it has dismissed 5,300 workers, including some managers, during the past five years for such illegal practices. They all worked in Tolstedt's community banking division, the company said.
The bank is "working to significantly strengthen our training, monitoring, oversight and compensation structure, which led to a reduction in this behavior," Wells Fargo spokeswoman Richele Messick said in an email. "We believe the changes we have made have strengthened Wells Fargo and will help ensure this behavior doesn’t happen in the future."
At the center of the bad behavior appears to be an effort by the bank to persuade customers to sign up for multiple products, known as "cross selling." A customer who opened a checking account would be encouraged to consider a debit card or savings account. This strategy is common in banking industry, but Wells Fargo is considered particularly aggressive.
The case has thrust the San Francisco-based bank into a harsh spotlight at a time when big U.S. banks are still attempting to repair their reputations following the 2008 financial crisis. Anti-Wall Street rhetoric has become a common refrain during the presidential campaign and some advocates are hoping to turn that populist anger into an aggressive legislative push to rein in the financial industry next year.
The Wells Fargo case could be used to further galvanize criticism that the Obama administration has not done enough to banking industry executives responsible for bad behavior, consumer advocates say.
"There are two possibilities: Customer abuse was part of business model, in which case lots of high ranking people need to go to prison," said Bart Naylor, a financial policy advocate for Public Citizen. "Or the bank is too big to manage, and folks high up don’t even know that laws are being broken a few levels down."
The magnitude of the fraud described by regulators should be thoroughly investigated, five Democratic lawmakers said in a letter to the head of the Senate Banking Committee, Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), asking for a hearing on the case. The lawmakers, including Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said Wells Fargo's CEO, John G. Stumpf, should be called to testify.
"It is difficult to believe a large-scale, coordinated [scheme] like this took place without knowledge of some higher ups," Menendez said in an interview.