Sunday, October 16, 2016

Stumpf, Wells Fargo and Wild West Capitalism

Source - Wells Fargo Stage Coach History
It is fitting that Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf who assumed all powerful Chairmanship of the board in the first year of Obama term ends his term in the last year of Obama Administration. John Stumpf started his leadership when his then powerful boss - Chairman Kovacevich called Federal Bank Stress Tests as 'asinine'. Wells Fargo was upset then that it was forced to buy Wachovia and was forced to accept TARP money. Some resistance from Wells Fargo bosses was expected because Wells Fargo had been one of the rare banks which was sure to avoid financial hits in 2008-9 recession. Wells Fargo had benefited from conservative banking practices evolved over decades. The bank had it's origins famously in Californian Gold Rush of 1849 - hence the romantic horse carriage with Gold borders as it's logo. Since then Wells Fargo has embodied the culture of profiting from 'arms race'. In a sense, that is the most successful and effective tradition of Capitalism. Stepped in that tradition, it was clear that Wells Fargo was bound to scale new heights during 2008-9 recession when other banking stalwarts were falling (Citibank notably). What was required then by the bank's leadership was  acquisition to the looming industry leadership role for Wells Fargo. Even more than JP Morgan and any other bank in the land at that time, it was evident to the market that Wells Fargo with it's strong balance sheet, solid focus on retail banking in lucrative area and much more controlled risk portfolio was the bank to assume the penultimate role in American Banking Industry.[1] However on the cusp of that leadership role, behavior of messers Kovacevich and Stumpf was likes of bunch of privileged rich big boys unwilling to accept any responsibility. Here was the bank which destined to enter the global stage when some contrite and leadership was required on-behalf of the industry, but its leaders played "nothing to do with us, don't destroy our little party going on without the world attention". I guess as like many other corporate titans, Wells Fargo brass had contempt only for the young Obama Administration which would not know anything about Capitalism in eyes of these 'masters of the universe'.

Wells Fargo has been my only personal banker in this country all along, for more than a decade. I am not a unhappy customer of the bank. But I always felt that this is the bank which would never hesitate to throw a small customer like me under the bus if that suited the bank. Three personal incidences stand out for me:

- During the 2008-9 recession, we were looking for some advise in setting up a 529 plan for our son with some corpus money. As usual the quality of the financial advise we got was very poor. It was just some homework from our side which helped us to avoid the risky bets which the bank representative was offering. It was clear that the representative was poorly prepared for the task and  worse, offering really risky choices to bank clients. Given the context of financial carnage happening in outside world, it was obivious that that financial representatives of the bank had no 'supervision'.

- Again during the recession of 2008-9 when I was inquiring about home mortgage finance with the bank; the mortgage expert asked me "why do I think Wells Fargo will finance this mortgage" implying that it matters little whether I have been doing business with them for over decade; what matters for the bank is whether my mortgage will make the bank enough 'mark up profit or not'. [2]

- Finally, I remember the period of 2012-15. Whenever we would visit a local branch, the staff would deluge us with offers to open new accounts (of any type, if you have one checking account, open another one for security reasons, as if the second one will be safe when the first account is hacked!). The greetings and engagements of the staff have been so artificial, so privacy intruding and so nauseating, that my daughter stopped coming to the branch altogether. It was clear that all that mattered for the branch staff was getting new accounts whether customers needed or not. The staff would behave this way only if its compensation is linked to opening of accounts and so clearly that is where the bank went going.

Self appointed guardian of American Capitalism - Wall Street Journal - may see resignation of John Stumpf as 'one hit' by Queen Elizabeth Warren. But keep aside whether Warren was right in demanding this resignation, the testimonies what John Stumpf gave in Congress were really poor and devoid of any leadership. Why was it hard for him to say that he will forgo his compensation for a year? He is already 'quarter billion' worth so there is no question of he cannot afford to forgo some 40 odd million dollars or so. I guess 'bankers and greed' - these two things are not separable in this world. The more 'near you are to money, more greedy you are'; that is the kind of wrong Capitalism American Banking Industry and many corporations in American are propounding.[3]

Truth is John Stumpf picked up this moment to resign because apart from the largest share holder of Wells Fargo - Warren Buffett - who might have pushed away this incompetent leader; after the 2016 elections, even President Donald Trump would not tolerate these bad poster children of Capitalism. Americans are revolting against the excess of Capitalism as is practiced today. May be Stumpf and Wells Fargo Board have realized that pulling down the failed leadership now, before the election, is much more cost-effective than the tsunami which may come after the 2016 American election.


[1] - I am a minuscule share holder of Wells Fargo as a part of IRA savings. But I can attest that gains by being a tiny, tiny share holder of the bank hardly compensates with the mistreatment one receives being a small customer.

[2] - On the same occasion, my humble credit union offered me a good deal for the mortgage. That saved me some money and far more, offered me the sense that after all I am not so worthless a customer for a bank.

[3] - Sure, White Male face of American Corporations is no good. But even some women heads of Corporations fall to same indulges: Theranos chief and daughter of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia; both are as loathsome as like any other white male CEOs of America. 

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