Wells Fargo in 2016 was fined $185 million for issuing millions of fake credit card accounts. In 2017, it was caught overcharging clients on currency trades and improperly charging homebuyers to lock into low mortgage rates.
And in 2018, it could be about to get the best tax deal of all the big banks.
The Republican tax bill, which seeks to lower the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent, would lead to an average 14 percent in earnings growth for seven of America’s largest banks next year, according to a Monday note from Goldman Sachs analyzing the plan’s implications. (Goldman does not include itself in its analysis.) The biggest winner: Wells Fargo, which would see its earnings jump by 18 percent thanks to the GOP proposal.
PNC Financial Services, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup would also see their earnings jump by somewhere between 16 and 10 percent. But some of those banks, such as Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, also have substantial overseas earnings. Because Wells Fargo derives nearly all of its profits from the United States, it would make out best.
“In our analysis, [Wells Fargo] looks to be the biggest beneficiary of the statutory rate falling,” analysts Richard Ramsden, James Yaro, and Sal Saroni wrote.
Another change in the bill could hurt banks’ earnings, according to Goldman’s analysis: Right now, the deposit insurance fees banks pay to the FDIC are tax-deductible. The GOP proposal would end their deductibility, which could wipe 1 percentage point off that earnings boost. That would still mean 13 percent earnings growth on average for the biggest banks and 17 percent for Wells Fargo specifically.
If anybody deserves a big tax cut, it probably isn’t Wells Fargo
Wells Fargo has earned a reputation as one of the financial industry’s worst actors in the wake of a string of recent scandals.
The San Francisco-based firm created up to 3.5 million fake accounts for its customers over a more than seven-year span, resulting in a $185 million fine levied in September 2016, including $100 million to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the federal government’s top consumer watchdog. Wells Fargo fired at least 5,300 employees who were involved in the scam, in which they issued credit cards without customers’ consent that were only discovered when they began accumulating fees. The bank’s CEO, John Stumpf, was forced into retirement.
And the trickle of bad behavior out of Wells Fargo has continued.
In July, Wells Fargo said it was “extremely sorry” for charging 570,000 customers for auto insurance they didn’t need. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that some of Wells Fargo’s employees overcharged hundreds of clients for foreign exchange operations in pursuit of higher bonuses.
The company in October admitted to wrongly charging thousands of homebuyers fees to lock in low mortgage rates and said it would refund the money. Reuters reported in December that the CFPB had been investigating the issue since early this year and set settlement terms with Wells Fargo in mid-November. It also reported that Office of Management and Budget head Mick Mulvaney, whom Trump has tapped as acting director of the CFPB, was considering easing fines, something Trump denied on Twitter.
Fines and penalties against Wells Fargo Bank for their bad acts against their customers and others will not be dropped, as has incorrectly been reported, but will be pursued and, if anything, substantially increased. I will cut Regs but make penalties severe when caught cheating!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2017
“Rather than holding Wells Fargo responsible for cheating its customers, Republicans are looting the Treasury to funnel billions of dollars to the bank,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said in an emailed statement to me, reacting to Wells Fargo’s steep benefits from the tax bill. “For the Republican Party, there is no accountability for the rich and powerful — only more handouts.”
The Massachusetts progressive has emerged as one of Wells Fargo’s fiercest critics. In an October 2017 interview with Vox, she slammed the bank as a “case study in fraud that benefits those at the tippy, tippy top.”
In a recent Senate Banking Committee hearing with current Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan, she matter-of-factly declared he should be fired:
You enabled this fake account scam, you got rich off it, and then you tried to cover it up. At best, you are incompetent. At worst, you are complicit. Either way, you should be fired. Wells Fargo needs to start over, and that won't happen until the bank rids itself of people like you who led it into this crisis.
Ancel Martinez, head of corporate communications at Wells Fargo, said the company is a “responsible corporate citizen and believes that it has fulfilled its obligations to federal, state, and local communities where we serve our customers” in an email. He noted that Wells Fargo’s effective tax rate in 2016 was 31.5 percent, and it paid $8.1 billion in US federal and state corporate income taxes. “We are and will continue to be one of the largest corporate taxpayers in the US. Like other corporate and individual taxpayers, the amount of income taxes paid each year will vary based on the level of income subject to tax. Wells Fargo fulfills its tax obligations and is committed to being a responsible corporate citizen,” he said.
The bank also directed me to its progress report, which outlines steps Wells Fargo has taken “to address improper sales practices” and “critical changes to rebuild the trust of our customers and team members.”
But the money Wells saves on its 2018 tax bill probably won’t go to customers it has wronged. As CNN’s Lydia DePillis pointed out, Sloan, who in 2016 made $13 million, in an investor presentation earlier this month that he was looking to return more money to shareholders.
“Is it our goal to increase return to our shareholders and do we have an excess amount of capital? The answer to both is, yes,” Sloan said. “So our expectation should be that we will continue to increase our dividend and our share buybacks next year and the year after that and the year after that.”
Update: Story updated with comments from Sen. Warren and Wells Fargo.