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Why Wells Fargo’s Executives Will Keep Their Bonuses

Above Photo:  Win McNamee/Getty Images

Even After Fake Accounts Scandal

LAST WEEK, WELLS FARGO CEO John Stumpf testified before the Senate Banking Committee after the bank paid fines for creating over 2 million fake customer accounts to boost their sales growth statistics. Stumpf, under fire from senators demanding that the bank claw back executive bonuses as punishment for the scandal, insisted that any such decision would be made by a committee of the board of directors that handles compensation issues.

That board is made up of five current and former CEOs and executive chairpeople who have enjoyed giant salaries throughout their careers. Pulling the trigger on clawbacks would force them to turn on the system that made them rich. They’d also have to bite the hand that feeds them a steady supply of Wells Fargo stock.

This is a common situation, and it helps explain why executive compensation has inflated in recent decades. Corporate CEOs sit on one another’s boards and approve oversized pay packages, in the expectation that they will get the same treatment from their board in return. Some, like Stumpf, serve as both the CEO and board chairperson simultaneously.

Stumpf has said that he would make no recommendations to the board on whether they should claw back any of his compensation, or that of his fellow executives.

The Human Resources Committee of the Wells Fargo board evaluates and approves executive compensation plans for the bank. Here are its five members:

  • John Chen, the executive chair and CEO of Blackberry, Inc. since November 2013. In 2014, as a reward for his employment, Chen received a stock-based bonus of $84.7 million on top of $1 million in salary. The board said that the $84.7 million stock award helped “align the interests of Executive Officers with the achievement of the Company’s long-term business objectives and the interests of shareholders.” Chen’s 2015 compensation, which included even more stock, was $3.4 million, and in 2016, $3 million.
  • Donald James, the retired CEO of Vulcan Materials. James served from 1997 to 2014, and in his final year, he earned $13.36 million. Of that $3.9 million came from stock awards, and another $1.3 million in options.
  • Stephen Sanger, the former CEO of General Mills from 1993 to 2008. In his final two years at the company, Sanger earned $19.15 million and $18.57 million, respectively. The majority of these earnings came in the form of stock grants and options.
  • Lloyd Dean, the CEO of the nonprofit Dignity Health Foundation, one of the three largest hospital systems in California. Since Dignity Health is a privately held company, it’s difficult to find executive compensation statistics, but in 2010 the Institute for Health and Socio-Economic Policy reported Dean’s pay for that year at $4.76 million. Kaiser Health News reported in 2013 that Dean’s compensation had increased to $5.14 million, with $2.05 million of it in “bonus and incentive pay.”
  • Susan Engel, the CEO of Portero, a luxury retail sales company, from 2009-2013, and before that the CEO and chairwoman of Lenox Group Inc., a holiday gift manufacturer, from 1996-2007. Engel received $837,865 in compensation from Lenox Group in 2006, the last year for which a proxy statement can be located. Her salary as CEO of Portero is unavailable because the company is privately held.

In addition to the millions bestowed upon them by their own boards, these current and former CEOs receive a generous stipend for being on the board of Wells Fargo. According to the company’s most recent proxy statement, in 2015 Chen made $279,027; James made $293,027; Sanger made $382,027; Dean made $346,027, and Engel made $331,027. The majority of those payments came in the form of stock as well.

Top executives often receive stock instead of a base salary because of a Bill Clinton-era law exempting “performance-based” pay from a cap on corporate tax deductions for executive compensation.

Under Wells Fargo’s self-imposed “clawback” policy, the Human Resources Committee can revoke executive stock awards in the event of misconduct, including anything that causes the company reputational harm or a failure in risk management. While companies rarely enforce these provisions, as former FDIC chair Sheila Bair told CNBCwhen the false account scandal broke, “If you’re going to use clawbacks, this would be the situation.”

At last week’s hearing, senators of both parties urged Wells Fargo to use the clawback provision, particularly for Carrie Tolstedt, the former head of community banking (chief overseer of retail account sales) who retired this year with career earnings of$125 million. Were Stumpf to retire, he would receive $123.6 million in his own right.

“To not invoke some degree of clawback for yourself and others involved would be committing malpractice from the standpoint of public relations,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., at the hearing. Stumpf replied that any decisions on clawbacks would result from “a board process.”

Federal regulators do not actually have to hope the collection of CEOs on the Wells Fargo board will reject personal self-interest and claw back executive pay. TheConsumer Financial Protection Bureau and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency both have the authority to impose a civil money penalty on individual executives but declined to do so in the Wells Fargo case. Despite the fact that Wells Fargo was fined $190 million in the fake accounts scandal, the executives responsible for the misconduct have paid no price.

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