Michael Maiello's picture

    It's Fine To Destroy Wells Fargo

    To most people, and for good reason, a bank is a bit like a doctor's office or a mechanic's. It is supposed to employ experts who give well-meaning advice in areas where the lay person, busy with work, friends and family, cannot be an expert.  Yes, there is potential for abuse in this.  My doctor could milk me for a lot of money by convincing me I am sick when I am not.  A mechanic could scam me for a new flux capacitator.  A consumer banker could push me into inappropriate loans or sell me investment products that are too expensive or that I don't need.

    The only incentives against such behaviors, really, are the expert's desire to build a long and dependable book of business based on a reputation for honesty and expertise, and the threat of harsh legal sanctions for those who take advantage of people.

    This is why I was surprised and disappointed to see James B. Stewart, one of the country's best financial journalists, take to The New York Times today to argue that the $1 billion in penalties leveled against Wells Fargo "for infractions related to mortgage rate extensions, auto loans, risk compliance and other matters," amount to "beating a dead horse."

    Stewart thinks that the government has now gone too far.  The top executives responsible for consumer fraud at Wells hve all been fired, he says, even as he admits that they walked away with hundreds of millions even after penalties and clawbacks.  The branch level employees who actually committed most of the fraud (based on incentives sent down from the executive suite) have also all been fired.  All we're doing now, says Stewart, is punishing Wells Fargo's beleaguered shareholders.

    This is nonsense.  Nobody is required to own Wells Fargo stock, and that includes index fund investors (if it's important to you, go find an index without Wells Fargo in it).  If you owned Wells Fargo stock prior to the fraud revelations, then you were benefiting from the fraud as part owner of the company and now you're paying for it.  If you don't like that, sue the fired executives for causing the mess.

    If you bought Wells Fargo stock after the scandal, hoping to pick up on the rebound, well those are the risks you take.  Besides, the trade might still work out for you.  Eventually, these liabilities will be run off and if further dishonest behavior is not revealed, the stock will be re-rated. If you don't have the patience for that or tolerance for that risk, by all means sell.

    At the heart of this column is the notion that we're all better off with a thriving Wells Fargo than without one.  I don't buy that.  Wells Fargo is lucky to be allowed to continue to exist.  Had the government determined that its fraudulent behavior was enough to revoke its right to participate in the financial services industry, I think it would have been an appropriate decision, even if debatable.  I doubt that my life without Wells Fargo would be any less rich and fulfilling than the years I have spent on an Earth without Bear Stearns or Lehman Bros. If you're going to be sentimental, save it for something other than a faceless financial institution.

    In the end, it has had to pay fines, remove executives and board members and institute compliance reforms.  Hopefully, the government has done enough so that Wells Fargo will never transgress again and other banks have been put on notice. I see no point in worrying about Wells Fargo shareholders. Some of them might even make money.



    Good post.

    If Wells Fargo ceased to exist, its assets would continue to exist. They would just have new, smaller owners: a number of smaller banks

    The problem with Too Big to Fail is that the whole enterprise comes crashing down at once if the institution fails, so that the healthy parts of the business become insolvent because the toxic ones are. Splitting up an arguably criminal enterprise like Wells Fargo lets the sound parts of the former company continue to exist and meet their obligations (although without access to the same economies of scale), while letting the deadwood fall.

    And the fine is quite relative! What struck me reading  the Times' April 19 news story on it is this line:

    Wells Fargo, for example, said last week that it earned $5.9 billion in the first three months of the year.

     Less than a month of earnings....

    I kinda missed out by not becoming a shareholder of Citibank when it hit 97 cents at the  final götterdämmerung of the last Republican administration. 

    Was hoping it would hit zero.

    I also have a hard time buying stocks in the face of just desserts.

    Well, I’m doing my part.  My only experience with Wells Fargo is an interest-free loan for $10,000.  I have all the payments on automatic, and will have it paid back before the 36 month deadline so I truly got the best deal possible for my new HVAC system that unexpectedly went south last summer.  I wonder how many people they gave similar loans to who didn’t understand the strict terms.

    I love it! Punish the banks with prepayment risk!

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