Senator Elizabeth Warren grills Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf during a Senate hearing on Sept. 20.
WHEN WELLS FARGO'S longtime CEO, John Stumpf, appeared before the Senate Banking Committee recently, Senator Elizabeth Warren tore into him with the relish of a Rottweiler mauling a favorite chew toy.
"You should resign," a wrathful Warren told Stumpf, who was summoned to testify after Wells Fargo acknowledged that thousands of its low-level employees had opened sham deposit or credit-card accounts for customers who never authorized them. "You should be criminally investigated." For the senior senator from Massachusetts, few pleasures compare with making the leader of a great financial institution squirm, and she milked the session for all it was worth.
"Have you returned one nickel of the millions of dollars that you were paid while this scam was going on?" demanded Warren three times as the cameras rolled. "You 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." She charged Stumpf with "gutless" leadership, and accused banks like his of routinely "cheating as many customers, investors, and employees as they possibly can." Wall Street will never change, Warren said ominously, until "executives face jail time when they preside over massive frauds."
In truth, Wells Fargo mostly cheated itself. The bank's aggressive "cross-selling" strategy, which tempted employees to sign customers up for accounts they never asked for, has cost the company far more than it gained. The fraudulent accounts generated only about $2.6 million in fees, which the company has refunded. That amount is dwarfed by the $185 million penalty imposed by federal regulators. Even more costly is the hit to Wells Fargo's reputation, and the loss of some of its biggest customers — including the state of Illinois, which this week suspended its annual $30 billion investment relationship with the bank.
Meanwhile, Stumpf himself has agreed to forfeit $41 million in stock awards and serve without pay for as long as the investigation lasts. Carrie Tolstedt, head of the Wells Fargo division where the misconduct was concenterated, will forfeit $19 million. Neither will be eligible for a bonus in 2016. And who knows? If Warren and other grandstanding members of Congress get their way, there may be worse humiliations to come.
If only members of Congress were held to the same standard.
Let's agree that Wells Fargo executives deserve to be flogged around the fleet because their ill-crafted policies resulted in perverse incentives that caused harm to hundreds of thousands of Americans. Shouldn't lawmakers expect comparable treatment when they blunder? If bank CEOs must submit to public excoriation and demands for salary "clawbacks" when their bad decisions injure the public, surely senators and representatives ought to face no less.
The hounds bay for Stumpf, Tolstedt, and other Wells Fargo officials to pay through the nose for abuses caused by their high-pressure sales culture. Yet where is the penalty for those who enacted — just for example — the disastrous Affordable Care Act? That fiasco, which has caused at least 7 million Americans to lose their employer-based health insurance, was premised on a gargantuan deception that has done vastly more damage than the Wells Fargo debacle. Even Bill Clinton describes Obamacare as a "crazy system" under which some of the most exhausted workers in the country "wind up with their premiums double and their coverage cut in half."
When will clawbacks be in order for that ruinous decision?
Or, to take another example, when will restitution be exacted from those responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis and the financial devastation it triggered? As former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted in 2011, one of the key culprits in the meltdown "was, plain and simple, Congress." Obsessed with boosting homeownership rates, Congress passed laws that forced lenders to soften underwriting standards and make it easier for homebuyers with weak credit to get mortgages. When the inevitable day of reckoning came, millions of ordinary Americans suffered. But no Capitol Hill eminence resigned in disgrace or gave up a paycheck.
Time and again, members of Congress make foolish decisions that have terrible impacts. Fuel-economy standards imposed by Washington lead manufactures to make cars smaller and lighter — and therefore deadlier. Collective bargaining in the public sector forces ordinary taxpayers to bear the cost of government employees' exorbitant perks and pensions. Agricultural subsidies drive up the price of food. Federal minimum-wage hikes make it harder for low-skilled workers to get jobs. The ban on incentives for organ donors condemns hundreds of patients to die needlessly every year.
If corporate leaders like John Stumpf deserve to be raked over the coals when their business actions lead to wretched outcomes, there is no reason why government leaders like Elizabeth Warren shouldn't be subjected to equally withering denunciations when their legislative actions cause widespread harm. But it never seems to work that way, does it? Members of Congress don't hesitate to unleash the Furies on anyone whose misjudgments it is politically advantageous to attack. Of their own misjudgments they are infinitely tolerant — and voters, they know, have short memories.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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