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Wells Fargo CEO heads to Congress amid claims that reforms are slipping

Editorial: The embarrassment that is Wells Fargo
A Wells Fargo branch in New York City.
(Richard B. Levine / TNS)

As the chief executive of Wells Fargo & Co. gets set to tell lawmakers that the bank is moving past its history of consumer abuses, a new report contends the embattled San Francisco financial institution is backsliding.

Some current and former employees said new customer-unfriendly sales incentives were replacing those eliminated after the bank’s unauthorized-accounts scandal exploded three years ago, according to a report released Monday by the Committee for Better Banks, an advocacy group.

“As far as pressure, it’s still there,” said Meggan Halvorson, 35, who works in Wells Fargo’s private mortgage banking division in Minneapolis and feels the constant push to get transactions “out the door.”

“Honestly, it’s perceived as a joke — ‘Oh yeah, they’ve changed things,’ ” she said of the bank’s message of major improvements in how it treats employees. “I haven’t met anybody, personally, who believes what they’re saying or that it’s the case.”

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Halvorson spoke to The Times and was quoted in the report, released for maximum effect the day before CEO Tim Sloan is scheduled to testify before the House Financial Services Committee at a hearing titled “Holding Megabanks Accountable: An Examination of Wells Fargo’s Pattern of Consumer Abuses.”

In prepared testimony he is expected to give Tuesday, Sloan says Wells Fargo has faced “unprecedented and well-deserved scrutiny” for its practices. But he says the bank has “worked to address the root causes” of the problems, including eliminating sales goals for credit cards and other products.

“As a result, Wells Fargo is a better bank than it was three years ago,” he says, “and we are working every day to become even better.”

The committee’s new chairwoman, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), has been highly critical of Wells Fargo in the wake of the accounts scandal and other consumer abuses that led to the ouster of previous CEO John Stump and have cost the bank more than $1 billion in settlements with regulators and plaintiffs who have brought private lawsuits.

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Wells Fargo spokesman Mark Folk disputed the thrust of the report, saying the bank has taken “decisive leadership actions” to reform itself, and “any instances where we learn there may be inconsistency, we take immediate action.”

Sloan is the first chief executive of a giant bank whom Waters has summoned to appear before her committee since she took the gavel in January. He also is likely to appear at a hearing by the committee this spring with chief executives of other large banks.

“We’re focusing our attention on Wells Fargo because Wells Fargo has emerged with the kind of problems that lead everyone to wonder what is going on over there,” Waters told The Times in November.

She introduced legislation last year that would allow regulators to break up big banks that “repeatedly harm consumers.” Waters has called Wells Fargo an example of the “recidivist financial institutions” that would be punished under the bill.

Maxine Waters wields gavel on powerful committee, but freshmen could make it challenging »

Wells Fargo’s high-pressure sales practices were first reported by the Los Angeles Times in 2013 and were attributed to onerous sales goals. In 2016, the bank acknowledged that its employees had opened millions of checking, savings and credit card accounts that customers never authorized.

A year ago, Federal Reserve regulators ordered the bank to cap its growth until it could show it had improved its corporate governance.

In the bank’s most recent earnings call, Sloan said he was “proud of the transformational changes” that Wells Fargo had made.

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In 2017, the bank said it was overhauling the incentive compensation system that was at the root of the unauthorized-accounts scandal.

The new incentive system would no longer reward branch employees simply for opening accounts, Wells Fargo said. Instead, workers would be judged on how often customers used their accounts and whether customers were satisfied with the bank’s services.

But the bank “has not fixed its culture of fear and intimidation,” according to the report by the Committee for Better Banks, composed of current and former employees of Wells Fargo and other banks, as well as labor unions and consumer and community groups.

“What we found is what seems to be a return to incentives and metrics where the pressure to sell is increasing,” said Nick Weiner, a senior organizer with the group and one of the report’s primary authors.

The report, citing interviews with tellers and call center workers, along with bank documents, says that the incentives and assessments in the retail banking division are geared toward how well they hand off customers to other employees whose bonuses are tied to increasing loan volumes and customer activity.

A new incentive that Wells Fargo put in place in the wake of the accounts scandal is supposed to reward the “customer experience” based on feedback from customer surveys. But the report says those bonuses are small and shrinking compared with those for generating higher customer loan volumes, which are rising.

The maximum amount of quarterly bonus pay this year linked to loan volumes for one category of personal banker is $5,700, or 66% of total incentive compensation, the report says. In 2017, the maximum loan volume bonus was $2,500, or 47% of total incentive compensation.

Meanwhile, the maximum bonus for “customer experience” this year is $875, or 10% of total incentive compensation, Weiner said. That is down from a maximum of $1,425, or 27% of total incentive compensation in 2017.

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Folk, the Wells Fargo spokesman, disputed the report’s figures on bonuses. He said there was no maximum for the loan volume incentive and that while the maximum for the individual customer experience bonus had decreased, team-based incentives for customer experience have increased.

Although tellers no longer have direct sales quotas, they are upset about being evaluated based on how well they engage in “conversation starters” with customers, the report said. Through prompts that appear on their computer screens, tellers are supposed to make customers aware of other bank products and services.

But the conversation starters are designed to sell customers other products by handing them off to other Wells Fargo employees whose bonuses are focusing more on boosting loan volumes, the report says.

Workers complain that guidelines for the “customer experience” bonus are “inscrutable and unobtainable,” while assessments for a new “leadership” bonus seem to be arbitrary and sometimes are used by managers to retaliate against employees.

Folk said, however, the bank’s “entire system of how we pay, coach and develop team members” that was put in place in 2016 “is designed to focus on customer experience and customer outcomes.”

“We’ve redesigned jobs, changed our compensation structure, enhanced recognition, and improved coaching and career development to help team members succeed,” he said. Incentives also make up a small portion of employee compensation and make up a smaller percentage for many workers after the bank raised its base pay for many workers last year.


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