Banking

Wells Fargo – bankers should not be retailers

Wells Fargo – bankers should not be retailers. Main image: Alexander_P, Shutterstock.com
Written by Chris Skinner

The Wells Fargo “scandal” is making headlines. Chris Skinner asks, could this be America’s PPI moment?

5,300 Wells Fargo employees have been caught faking customer account openings in order to hit their sales targets. That sounds pretty disgusting doesn’t it, but it’s nothing new. In fact, we here in “Old America” – or, as some call it, Britain – have been living with this for half a decade. During the 2000s, leading up to the crisis, UK banks became hardcore retail banks. By retail, I mean retail. They hired people from big retailing companies such as Asda, now part of Walmart, and told staff to get out there and “sell, sell, sell”.

And sell they did. Some say this was part of the crisis conspiracy – the sale of mortgages to those who couldn’t afford them, for example – but the real mistake was thinking of retail banking as the same as retailing. There’s one critical difference, and that’s risk. In retailing, there’s no risk when someone buys your product, because once paid, the deal is done. In retail banking, the whole operation is about managing and minimising risk, because once the deal is done, will the customer ever pay back? Hence, when bankers loaded their customers with credit to their eyeballs, no wonder the customer felt betrayed when the banks started to squeeze them for payback.

So what’s all this got to do with Wells Fargo’s staffers faking accounts? The key is that it’s part of that pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap retailers’ mentality, because in a retail operation, every member of the frontline workforce is given sales targets. In a clothes store, the manager may have a target of $5,000 sales per day and a special promotion on jackets. In a bank, it’s 50 account openings per day and a special promotion on credit cards. Fail to reach those targets for 90 days in a row and you’re out. That fear of losing your job then creates bad behaviour based on fear, such as faking customer account openings in the case of Wells Fargo. But as I said, we Brits have seen this for a while now, so what happened here?

A right royal stitch-up

Well, during the last decade, all the UK banks felt it was a good idea to sell payment protection insurance, or PPI for short. PPI is an easy product to understand, with a very specific purpose which is that if you borrow from the bank and have problems later (such as losing your job), the insurance will cover your loan repayments until you find a new job. Great. The issue that arose is that the retail bank senior management teams felt this was such an easy sell that they targeted every member of the banks’ front office teams to sell, sell, sell it. And sell it they did. In fact, they sold it so hard that the customers got hit. Millions of customers were signed up for PPI without even knowing what it was. Some were signed up because staff ticked the PPI box without telling them what it was for. Others were signed up when staff filled in the applications for them, and signed signatures on their behalf after the customer had left the branch. In other words, it was a right royal stitch-up.

When the complaints authority saw a swarm of angry customers asking for their money back, they eventually acted, with the regulator stating that these activities were illegal and the banks must pay back all the premiums with interest if the customer asked. That was in 2011, and so far that decision has cost UK banks $50bn in paybacks and interest. That’s not including internal bank costs of dealing with the millions of PPI payback applications.

So, for Wells Fargo, a $190m fine seems puny by comparison. But what if they were not alone? What if many US banks were indulging in such illicit activities? Could this be America’s PPI moment?

I hope not, but just remember that retail banking isn’t the same as retailing. One lives with high risks while the other does not, and mixing the two mentalities is always going to be dangerous.

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– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Main image: Alexander_P, Shutterstock.com

About the author

Chris Skinner

Chris Skinner is an independent commentator on the financial markets through the Finanser, and chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club, which he founded in 2004. He is an author of numerous books covering everything from European regulations in banking through to the credit crisis, to the future of banking.

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