Bank Compensation and Wells Fargo: The End of an Era

October 21st, 2016

compensation-10-21-16.pngOne of the biggest scandals among big banks in years is still unfolding as Bank Director heads into its annual Bank Executive and Board Compensation Conference Oct. 25 to Oct. 26 on Amelia Island, Florida. Wells Fargo & Co. announced last week the immediate retirement of CEO John Stumpf, with Chief Operating Officer Tim Sloan taking on the CEO job, as the board struggled to deal with public outrage over accusations that the bank’s employees had opened more than two million fraudulent accounts on behalf of customers to game aggressive sales goals.

The case raised questions about compensation and governance at the most basic level: What impact did the bank’s incentive package have on employee behavior, if any? What impact did the bank’s sales culture and sales goals have on the behavior of employees? What did the bank’s management know about fraudulent account openings and what did it do to stop it? If management failed to stop the fraudulent activity and benefited financially from it, should compensation be adjusted for those individuals, and if so, by how much?

These are all issues of extreme importance to Wells Fargo’s board, whose independent members are conducting an investigation, but also, to any board. No one wants to have a scandal of this magnitude take place while they serve on a board. If employees are complaining about bad behavior and bad culture, how does your bank handle it? How are you ensuring that complaint patterns from employees and customers are recognized and reported to upper management? Should the board also get these reports? What types of behavior are your incentives and sales goals motivating?

Wells Fargo’s board and now, Tim Sloan, are in the unenviable position of having to change the bank’s consumer banking culture even as they try to assess what went wrong. The pressure is strong to show the public and government officials that it is taking action quickly. Wells Fargo has said that as of Oct. 1, it had ceased all sales goals for branch-level employees and instead will start a new incentive program based on metrics related to customer service and risk management.

Since the sales culture had been very much a part of Wells Fargo’s identity, and higher than average profitability, investors are wondering how this will impact the bank’s financial performance. Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analysts Brian Kleinhanzl and Michael Brown downgraded the stock to market perform and wrote last Friday that “Wells' management doesn't know what the consumer bank will look like in the future.”

The stock price has fallen to $45 per share as of Wednesday afternoon from $50 per share at the start of September, before the announcement of a $185 million settlement over the issue with regulators and Los Angeles officials, who had sued the company. Is this the end of an era for Wells Fargo? I think so, as major changes will need to be made.

Community bankers tend to point to scandals like this as a way to differentiate themselves from the big banks. Many of the community banks I know don’t have an aggressive sales culture, let alone sales quotas. It’s also easier to know what’s going on in a small bank than one with more than $1 trillion in assets. Still, many bank boards in the wake of the scandal may be asking questions about their own sales culture, their incentive packages and compliance with company policies and ethical standards. Regulators are certainly asking these types of questions of banks, and I expect this to continue in the wake of the scandal. For more on the topic of culture, and determining your bank’s culture, see Bank Director magazine’s fourth quarter 2015 issue.

When we talk about compensation, we may talk about salaries, stock grants, deferrals and clawbacks. But what we’re really talking about is how to motivate employees to do a good job for the bank. And if you don’t have the culture to match what’s good for the bank and your shareholders, you don’t have much.

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Naomi Snyder is the editor for Bank Directoran information resource for directors and officers of financial companies. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/naomisnyder or get connected on LinkedIn.