This piece originally appeared in Bill Moyers & Co.
Consider this. You’re a mob boss. You run a $1.8 trillion network of businesses across state lines and continents. Many of these are legit, but a select subset of them – not so much. Every so often the illegal components flare up; some Washington commission launches an investigation, someone blows a whistle, people lose their homes, a pack of investors sheds a ton of money and lawsuits fly. You get reprimanded and have to pay lawyers and accountants overtime to deal with the paperwork. You settle on fines with the government — $10 billion worth. Then you keep going with no one the wiser, no wings clipped, no hard time. After all of that — you say you’re sorry, forfeit some money you didn’t even make yet, and (maybe) resign with boatloads more of it.
This is what we’re dealing with regarding Wells Fargo CEO and Chairman John Stumpf. He could be a really nice guy and wears some lovely tailored attire. (Hell, even Al Capone cared about proper milk expiration date labels.) But he’s also a crook, plain and simple. He’s cheated shareholders and taxpayers and customers, and used a stockpile of FDIC-backed deposits as fodder for illicit activities that have been repeatedly investigated and fined. And he made hundreds of millions of dollars doing it.
This is not conjecture, nor sour grapes from the nonmillionaire swath of the population. It’s based on documented facts. But by no means is Wells the only guilty bank on the street, or Stumpf the only “apologetic” CEO. Apologies are cheap, and so is money when it’s a small piece of a much larger pie. Somewhere, JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein are sighing in relief that this time it was Stumpf and not one of them, the other two of the three (of the Big Six bank) CEOs left standing since the crisis.
These are just some highlights of those nearly $10 billion in total fines Wells agreed to, rather than take matters to court, since 2009. The sheer sum of those fines reveal a recidivist attitude toward ethics, regulations and the law. The associated transgressions were all committed under Stumpf’s leadership. There’s no way a regular citizen committing a fraction of a fraction of anything like these wouldn’t be in jail. Complexity is no excuse for criminal behavior. Nor is calling these practices “abuses” rather than felony fraud for misleading, at the very least, investors and shareholders in a publicly traded mega-company that violates securities laws.
The list goes on.
For this most recent discovery of fraudulent behavior, creating 2 million fake accounts for which real customers were bilked out of $2.4 million, and after a verbal spanking at the hands of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Stumpf resigned from his Fed advisory post. He has to fork over $41 million in stock awards, part of a “clawback” of the appreciation in the stock value due to manipulating information.
The term “clawback” sounds dramatic, connoting an animal paw grabbing what’s rightly ours, not theirs. It conveys the idea of forcibly parting a crooked CEO from his ill-gotten spoils. But Stumpf’s $41 million “clawback” doesn’t mean very much. Let me be clear. (Yes, I’m channeling Bernie Sanders.) It is money he hasn’t made yet — not cash, or even cars or houses. The clawback refers to a portion of his stock awards that are not vested, meaning not his to liquidate now anyway. His total stock awards are worth $247 million. If Stumpf was a car thief, it’d be like he stole six cars and had to return one, but would still be allowed to profit from selling the other five. Not to mention that he’s not behind bars, nor has he been indicted for theft.
Part of the press and his supporters (yes, including you Warren Buffett) feel he’s being unfairly chastised for a little crime that he might not have actually committed himself (don’t most mobsters have hired guns, except when they’re bored or really pissed off?) They cite the “little” fine of $185 million and the casualties of 5,300 low-level employees and the mere $2.4 million “fudge” as small in comparison to all the good Stumpf has done at the helm. But the directive of falsifying 2 million accounts to meet sales targets comes from the top. It filtered down from Stumpf as the leader and culture-bearer of the firm as a way for low-paid workers to keep their jobs.
I worked in the lower and upper echelons of Wall Street and international banking for 15 years. Nothing — and I mean nothing — happened at the bottom that wasn’t given a license from the top.
The Big Picture
Even if Stumpf resigns with a mighty cushy fallback, it would likely be with the understanding that criminal prosecution or associated punishment would be off the table. President Obama’s Department of Justice has failed to indict a single Wall Street CEO, instead copping to nearly $150 billion in fines and settlements for crimes involving nearly every department of the major US banks that got bailed out, while those they screwed over seethed on the sidelines or lost their homes.
Our Justice Department is so pathetic, so flippant about the reality of mega financial criminal behavior and suitable punishment that this CEO of the nation’s second-largest bank can stand before the Senate on national television and the vastness of the internet and say he’s sorry. He can use words to the effect of taking responsibility for the actual fraud that people under his supervision were directed to commit, and nothing happens. He gives back some money, and what — maybe — resigns? That’s just the price of doing business — for a long time.
He flat-out told the Senate commission, “I accept full responsibility for all unethical sales practices in our retail banking business, and I am fully committed to doing everything possible to fix this issue, strengthen our culture, and take the necessary actions to restore our customers’ trust.” What’s unethical and unlawful is stealing money from other people. Saying you take full responsibility requires you to step down. It means a criminal confession, if a crime has been committed.
But unethical? That’s what he’s going with. Not, say, criminal. The bank stole money from people. We’re supposed to be okay with the fact that — this time — the collective heist was only a few million dollars. What about that car thief who stole a ‘98 Chevy from a nearby lot and is doing time? Why is that less okay?
Even if he does resign, Stumpf’s exit stash is secured. Even if he were found to have played a role in committing or directing the fraud to which he admitted responsibility before the Senate, he’s coming out way ahead. Let’s say Stumpf was fired. First, he wouldn’t be, because he conveniently happens to be chairman of the board that would have to vote to fire him. But in that fantasy, he would still pocket around $102.7 million on his way out the door toward his gilded retirement. If he retired before the board of directors that he chairs told him to (or decided it was better for him financially to do so), he’d get to keep about another $25.2 million worth of unvested stock and options.
On Thursday, he offered a better-crafted dodge before the House Financial Services Committee. Its chairman, Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), asked the first question. Just this year (2015-16), Hensarling’s campaign took in $10,000 from Wells Fargo.
As a concession between congressional investigation sessions, Wells Fargo decided to end its product sales goals for retail bank employees by Oct. 1, after previously saying it would make that change Jan. 1. That’s not getting serious. That’s camouflage.
The Obama administration, which was supposed to be about change, has been anything but for the cronyism and banking mobsters. These individuals not only have broken the law, but they have left the majority of Americans in the fray of an unprecedented financial crisis.
In our justice system, 1 in 5 people is incarcerated for drug offenses, whereas zero big bank CEOs have even been indicted. The majority of youth incarcerated are locked up for non-violent crimes, while their Wall Street counterparts commit multibillion-dollar fraud and walk the streets.
The Word from Our Candidates
Donald Trump wants more deregulation and to bring back Glass-Steagall to break up such big banks, simultaneously, which doesn’t even make any sense. He only mentioned Glass-Steagall once — around the Republican Convention — because someone probably told him it’d be a good way to siphon off a few votes from frustrated Bernie supporters. As for Hillary Clinton, all the bank CEOs are her friends. You don’t indict your friends. Instead, you talk platitudes about how Wall Street should not be allowed to hurt Main Street and have some awesome plan to “fix” it. You change nothing. She won’t bring back Glass-Steagall because her “people” supposedly have a better plan than reducing the size and power of big banks and their Teflon CEOs.
Who won the first presidential debate? Well, I can tell you who lost: the American people. Neither candidate was asked what they would do to end the vicious cycle of fraudulent activity among the nation’s largest banks. The candidates could not be more similar in their silence, negligence and complicity about demanding real jail time for crimes committed from atop these mega-banks over and over again. To say nothing is to be guilty in permitting Wall Street mobsters to fire thousands of employees, pocket millions of dollars and keep the economy at risk of further upheaval.
Clinton and Trump could demand justice — or at least a modicum of similar treatment for bank CEOs as petty car thieves. Bernie Sanders did. But they didn’t. Wells Fargo has donated to both of their campaigns. Whoever takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. will invite those people to extravagant dinners while someone in a sh***y jail in the worst corner of the capital eats the equivalent of rotting bread and tepid water. That’s not justice. It’s reprehensible.
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This story originally appeared in the Daily Reckoning