When something is working well, it becomes invisible. You don't notice your refrigerator or your car's transmission unless something goes wrong with them. Your bank should be invisible. When it starts getting your attention, trouble's probably brewing — or has been brewing for a while. That brings me to the Wells Fargo scandal.
Since 2011, Wells Fargo created millions of bogus accounts, generated fraudulent fees levied against unknowing customers and illegally boosted the bank's profit statements. The result of this massive, years-long criminal activity was billions of dollars in inflated stock value, bonuses to employees and undeserved millions going to John Stumpf, the bank's CEO. This rip-off came about because Wells Fargo told its employees "sell more add-on services or get fired." The scandal came to light when customers began filing lawsuits against the bank for unauthorized charges and a local newspaper picked up the story in 2013. It reached a head last month when Wells Fargo was fined $185 million for signing customers up for revenue-producing services they had not asked for or needed, such as credit card insurance and extra accounts.
Wells Fargo's size makes it almost impossible to find fraud, even the large-scale violations they carried out. Federal reviews rely on the bank's internal audits to report improperly created accounts; even when they're found and reported, the regulators can only demand that a bank take steps to correct the process and levy fines when it doesn't. But when a bank makes around $25 billion a year, $185 million is just a fleabite. Would you risk a $7.50 fine against a $1,000 profit? That's what Wells Fargo did, just on a much larger scale.
Congressional Republicans blamed the scandal on the lack of federal oversight, but after decades of calling for government deregulation of business, I find it hard to believe their sincerity. In the decade before major investment firms like Lehman Brothers had collapsed, and impending failures of banking giants like Wells Fargo, BB&T and Bank of America forced Congress to pass TARP, the Troubled Assets Relief Program, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act and passed the Commodities Futures Modernization Act.
Repealing Glass-Steagall tore down the wall that kept commercial and investment banking separate. The Commodities Modernization Act deregulated those banks even further and removed the safeguards that kept financial institutions from playing roulette with investors' money, and now we have the Wells Fargo scandal.
What should have been the takeaway from the disaster that followed was "bank activity needs to be regulated and monitored," and not the Republicans' call for even less regulation.
Bank CEOs and CFOs are required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Law to certify that their organizations have adequate controls in place to detect operational fraud and financial risk. If Stumpf knew about the bank's illegal conduct and didn't take steps to correct it, his behavior was criminal. And if he didn't know, his management was reckless. Either way, the way they did business should convince you that you really do not want anything to do with them.
When the really bad news hit, Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees it blamed for illegally and surreptitiously adding the services. Stumpf was forced to return $41 million in bonuses. Forbes magazine said this scandal is "like cockroaches" — when you see one, you know more of them are hiding. In other words, it's not just Wells Fargo going out of bounds. With the enormous amounts of money involved, more than just one bank will succumb to temptation.
You don't need to use commercial banks like Wells Fargo. You can always go to a credit union. Your accounts are insured, just as they are in a commercial bank. Your credit union account makes you one of its owners. Members, elected by the membership, make up the Board of Directors. A credit union's CEO is accountable to members, not shareholders. Credit unions offer a full array of services, like credit cards, money markets and CDs with rates that compare very favorably to commercial banks. Credit unions' investment holdings, expenses and finances are completely open to membership review. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a credit union member and a volunteer on my credit union's supervisory committee, responsible for assuring that it complies with federal and state regulations. Like the rest of our volunteer directorate, I take my responsibilities very seriously. I invite you to check out a local credit union. You'll like what you see.
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Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at email@example.com.