The bipartisan shellacking Senators gave John Stumpf, the Wells Fargo CEO, last week made for great television, but did nothing about the real scandal: Our government continues to look the other way as many top bankers thumb their noses at fraud laws.
There is a term for the criminality that infects our biggest banks and damages the economy, and there is a solution to this problem. But there is also an obstacle.
The term is “control fraud.” That’s when executives use their control of a corporation to run frauds because they make much more money that way. The term comes from a white-collar fraud theory developed by William K. Black, who was an especially diligent bank regulator before he got a doctorate in criminology and became a professor of law at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
The solution is to apply the lessons from the savings-and-loan scandals of a quarter century ago when Black’s insights and diligence resulted in the convictions of more than 1,000 senior bankers, more than 800 of whom went to prison, including Charles Keating and David Paul whose crimes cost taxpayers more than $5 billion.
The problem is that Black is persona non grata in Washington.
No one in the Obama administration and no committee on Capitol Hill will even return his telephone calls because, if they did, they would have to admit that we do not have to let corrupt banking continue.
President Obama has explained away his failure to prosecute Wall Street crooks by saying what they did was wrong, but not illegal. Eric Holder, when he was attorney general, lied again and again, saying that many prosecutions were underway even though an inspector general’s report showed he knew that was not so.
We need a government that will prosecute corrupt bankers without fear or favor – and the top candidate at the moment should be Stumpf, who wants us to believe that low-level bank workers were the problem, not top executives.
The Real Rogues at Wells Fargo
No one can seriously believe that the 5,300 low-level employees Wells Fargo fired were rogues. They did what top management didn’t just order, but hounded them to do for years, as E. Scott Reckard reported in the Los Angeles Times in 2013. His exposé cited the daily dread experienced by Wells Fargo branch manager Rita Murillo each time her phone rang:
Regional bosses required hourly conferences on her Florida branch's progress toward daily quotas for opening accounts and selling customers extras, such as overdraft protection. Employees who lagged behind had to stay late and work weekends to meet goals, Murillo said.
American Banker’s Kate Berry described a “cutthroat sales culture,” with 20 different Wells Fargo management reports tracking cross-sales, even as no one in upper management was held accountable for the frauds then committed by low-level employees told to do the impossible or lose their jobs.
Wells Fargo, Black told me last week, is “a clear example of control fraud. It was the defining policy of Wells Fargo. Indeed, it was the defining policy of Norwest before it acquired Wells Fargo.”
That takes us back to 1998 when the Minneapolis bank holding company Norwest Corporation acquired Wells Fargo, and adopted its name, for a figure variously reported at $31 billion to $34 billion (nearly $50 billion in today’s money).
Stumpf’s predecessor, Dick Kovacevich, sold himself to the press as a great banker who took equally good care of employees and customers. “Is This Guy The Best Banker In America?” read the headline on a Fortune Magazine article that year.
In 2000 the same magazine gave the new Wells Fargo a glowing review, citing “topnotch customer service, emphasizing careful execution, making employees feel well loved."
But that same piece contained a hint of the trouble to come. Fortune reported that the new Wells Fargo management was “obsessed with cross-selling. The bank boasts that its households each own about 3.4 of its products on average – double the industry average – and Kovacevich wants to drive that number up to eight.”
Not many people need eight bank accounts, not many at all.
Wells Fargo is paying $185 million to settle claims about the unauthorized accounts those 5,300 employees opened in the names of customers who had not asked for them. But the focus needs to be on Stumpf – who, Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out, saw the value of his stock options grow by more than $200 million while the fraud was taking place.
Predictably, some low-level bankers Wells fired have sued, saying their discharges were used to encourage others to open unauthorized accounts. In other news, if Stumpf resigns his golden handshake will be worth at least $123 million, nearly a year's pay for all 5,300 people Wells fired.
Bankers Who Loot BanksWells Fargo illustrates what I have long written about: a major breakdown of ethics at the top of American society, especially in accounting and law. A good illustration of this is what N. Gregory Mankiw, the Harvard economics professor who was President George W Bush’s top economic advisor, says about bankers who loot the banks they control.
Mankiw says we should expect bankers to be thieves. Seriously. Here is what he told a 1993 Brookings Institution conference on the S&L scandals and all the prosecutions resulting from Black’s diligence: "Given the incentives that regulators set up, it would be irrational for operators of the savings and loans not to loot."
Black derides this as “Mankiw morality,” and says government is failing in its duty to enforce the laws against corrupt bankers.
Mankiw is not alone in looking at everything and anything but crime and lack of punishment. Consider how Priyank Gandhi, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Notre Dame, described the issues right after the Senate hearings in a commentary for CNBC:
If the [Wells Fargo] fraud is not more widespread than it currently appears, and if further investigation does not reveal any new material facts, I would think that in time, pessimism about the bank will peak, the share price will stabilize (or dare I say even rebound), and there will be no serious repercussions or consequences from the scandal.
The focus should not be on the stock price, but on integrity.
The Congressional Commission Congress Ignored
For more than a quarter of a century the news has been filled with tales of top bankers who abused their positions of trust to cheat, lie and steal, including all the mortgage securities fraud that sank the economy in 2008.
Congress created the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to find out how the 2008 economic collapsed happened. The commission laid it all out in detail in a report that no one has ever shown contains a single error. It is a story of corrupt bankers, dishonest brokers and liars everywhere – as well as sightless sheriffs who saw the evidence of criminality and did nothing.
Congress threw the report into the trash. It did nothing to enforce the law, only to enact new rules that bankers continue to flout.
There will be a price to pay for not listening to the commission or to Black. As commission chairman Phil Angelides, a businessman and politician, told me five years ago: If the government fails to enforce the law, “it’s going to happen again."
If you’d prefer not to repeat 2008, here’s a suggestion. Write, email, call and – the next time he or she is in town – confront your representative in Congress and demand that Bill Black be appointed to make cases against corrupt bankers until enough of them go to prison to get the rest to act lawfully.
We need to get control of control fraud, and Black is the one to do it.