Don’t let the headlines fool you: Despite its recent $1 billion penalty, Wells Fargo and its top executives are having a pretty good spring.
The bank reported quarterly earnings earlier this month of nearly $6 billion. And executives appear to be getting off the hook for problems in the bank’s mortgage and auto businesses, which spurred the latest penalty from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. No executive is even named in the government’s documents.
On top of that, the bank is doing well as a result of the tax-cut package passed late last year.
Goldman Sachs’ investment research team estimated that Wells Fargo would see the biggest windfall out of all financial institutions from that law going into effect — gains worth an estimated $3.7 billion annually. And unlike the one-time penalty it now faces, the benefits occur this year, next year and so on into the future.
President Trump’s tax-cut apologists, led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, claimed that American corporations would return these savings to employees. Wells Fargo announced it would spend about $78 million increasing the hourly wage for workers. What about the other $3.622 billion? Much of it seems intended for share buybacks. The bank announced in January that its board approved the repurchase of 350 million shares, which, according to one estimate of its share price, equals $22.6 billion worth of stock.
When a firm buys its own shares, it generally raises the share price. When demand for any product increases, economics says the price should rise. Buying back stock also reduces the number of shares, so the profits are concentrated in fewer hands. That can be appealing to average shareholders — although it’s especially rewarding for senior executives.
Knowing this fine was coming, the Wells Fargo board nevertheless gave Tim Sloan, the bank’s chief executive, a 36% pay raise, announced last month. In total, Sloan’s 2017 compensation exceeded $17.5 million. Of this, $15 million comes in the form of stock awards. However, that’s only an estimate of what the shares would be worth when he’s allowed to sell them. They could be worth much more. One way to help make them worth more is through a share buyback that raises the stock price. Thanks to the corporate-tax giveaway, Sloan and other senior executives who oversee a bank that the Trump administration claims committed a massive fraud will be able to pocket millions more than under the previous tax rates.
Compare this to the median paid Wells Fargo employee who received total compensation of $60,000, including health care and other noncash benefits.
It’s average Americans who are really paying for these corporate tax cuts. That’s because, if corporations pay less, everyone else must pay more to fund the same government services. Americans will either pay more now and in the future, or Washington will reduce spending, meaning cuts to popular programs including Medicare and nutrition assistance.
Of course, the $1 billion settlement does include some pay restrictions. Wells Fargo can’t make a new payment to a senior officer unless the bank declares he or she was not “substantially responsible” for the misconduct. But that’s hardly justice. If an officer was responsible, they should pay the price in prison time, as criminals outside of Wall Street who commit fraud routinely do.
Critics on both sides of the aisle have asked regulators to do more to identify those to blame for the bank’s problems. As Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, said last week: “It is not enough to hold a bank accountable. The actual individuals responsible for the wrongful deeds must be held responsible as well.”
Major banks, including Wells Fargo, committed massive frauds leading to the 2008 financial crash. Yet not one senior executive served prison time. Wells Fargo’s size — and legal firepower — must not insulate its senior executives from basic accountability. Again.