Sen. Elizabeth Warren took Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf to task yesterday, and she pointed out that nothing will change on Wall Street or in the boardrooms of the US’s banks until we start prosecuting executives who oversee fraud.
She’s right, but to avoid scandals like this one, we also need to fundamentally change the way that corporate executives get paid.
Ever since the Reagan administration, instead of actually investing in research and development or raising workers’ wages, corporate executives have focused more and more on inflating a company’s stock prices and dividends.
This is because, over that same time, changes in the tax code made it so that CEOs like Stumpf are better off getting most of their income from so-called “performance based pay,” also known as stock options.
Between the “shareholder revolution” of the 1980s and the changes to how executives can be paid, our economy is now riddled with perverse incentives that distort the values and priorities of US businesses.
And Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf is proof.
Earlier this month, Wells Fargo settled with a Los Angeles prosecutor and with federal regulators who accused the bank of opening more than 2 million checking and credit accounts for customers, without the customers’ knowledge!
And while Stumpf has repeatedly claimed to be accountable for the scandal, he hasn’t DONE anything to make himself, or any of the other senior executives, accountable for this massive scandal.
“Did you fire any of those people? […] No. OK, so you haven’t resigned, you haven’t returned a single nickel of your personal earnings, you haven’t fired a single senior executive. Instead evidently your definition of ‘accountable’ is to push the blame to your low-level employees who don’t have the money for a fancy PR firm to defend themselves. It’s gutless leadership.”
Warren went on to explain how Stumpf borrowed logic from Dr. Seuss to encourage Wells Fargo employees to push cross-selling.
“In your time as chairman and CEO, Wells has been famous for cross-selling, which is pushing existing customers to open more accounts. Cross-selling is one of the main reasons that Wells has become the most valuable bank in the world. Wells measures cross-selling by the number of different accounts a customers has with Wells. Other big banks average fewer than three accounts per customer. But you set the target at eight. Every customer of Wells should have eight accounts with the bank. And that’s not because you ran the numbers and found that the average customer needed eight banking accounts. It is because, ‘Eight rhymes with great.’ “
But that logic is about as good as any, because the truth of the matter is that cross-selling isn’t meant to be good for customers.
It’s meant to inflate stock prices, and consequently enrich investors and executives, like Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf himself.
When Senator Warren pressed Stumpf on that point though, he denied the claim and declared that “cross-selling is about deepening relationships,” a response that Warren rejected with evidence.
“You say no? Here are the transcripts of 12 quarterly earnings calls that you participated in from 2012 to 2014, the three full years in which we know this scam was going on. I would like to submit them for the record if I may, Mr. Chair. Thank you. These are calls where you personally made your pitch to investors and analysts about why Wells Fargo is a great investment. And in all 12 of these calls, you personally cited Wells Fargo’s success at cross-selling retail accounts as one of the main reasons to buy more stock in the company.”
Wells Fargo wasn’t just ripping off customers to pad their bottom line either, this is a scam that personally made Stumpf A LOT of money.
“While this scam was going on, you personally held an average of 6.75 million shares of Wells stock. The share price during this time period went up by about $30, which comes out to more than $200 million in gains, all for you personally. And thanks, in part, to those cross sell numbers that you talked about on every one of those calls.”
That’s right, over the three years that this scam went on and employees were pressured to cross-sell products, Stumpf personally saw his portfolio grow by more than $200 million!
That shouldn’t come as a surprise though.
Ever since the “Greed Is Good” era of the 1980s, the motto for big business in the US has been simple: forget the employees, forget the customers, forget the products, forget the environment, forget the community and forget ethics in general.
Forget all of those things, the new motto is “do whatever it takes to pump up the stock value and guarantee big payouts to the CEO and senior executives.”
And if anything goes wrong, like it did at Wells Fargo, there’s plenty of scapegoats at the bottom of the business who can take the fall.
“[Y]ou squeezed your employees to the breaking point so they would cheat customers and you could drive up the value of your stock and put hundreds of millions of dollars in your own pocket. And when it all blew up, you kept your job, you kept your multimillion dollar bonuses and you went on television to blame thousands of $12 an hour employees who were just trying to meet cross-sell quotas that made you rich. This is about accountability. You should resign. You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on and you should be criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.”
Warren’s right to call for a criminal investigation, but without more support from Republicans in Congress, this may sadly just have been another impassioned speech rattling around the halls of Congress, and not a catalyst for real change.
We need real bipartisan efforts to rein in corporate greed and to hold executives accountable when they exploit their employees and defraud their customers.
And if we really want to rein in the excesses in corporate executive suites, we need to return to the pre-Reagan tax and compensation system that encouraged businesses to take up a “stakeholder model,” where businesses account for the well-being of customers, employees and community members and not just financial investors..
And that means doing away with executive stock options so that CEOs aren’t so focused on inflating stock values, even criminally, as we’ve seen over and over again, just to inflate their own personal wealth.