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Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf Has His Wall St. Comeuppance

Michael Corkery

Long before he ran Wells Fargo, one of the nation's largest banks, John Stumpf grew up on a dairy and poultry farm, one of 11 children. He started his career as a community banker in Minnesota and married the local banker's daughter.

Over the years, Mr. Stumpf has cultivated his image as a community banker and that of his bank as the antithesis of a giant global lender.

While its rivals were mired in mortgage and trading scandals, Wells boasted that it was helping small businesses and families prosper in what Mr. Stumpf called the "real economy."

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But now Mr. Stumpf, 63, is having his own Wall Street moment. On Tuesday, the Wells Fargo chief executive will face questions from the Senate Banking Committee over the creation of as many as 1.5 million phony bank accounts — a widespread scandal that has cost 5,300 Wells employees their jobs and raised questions about a broad failure of oversight inside the bank.

John Stumpf, CEO, Wells Fargo
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

In the years immediately after the financial crisis, a congressional grilling was a sort of rite of passage for bank chief executives or top Wall Street traders.

But not since Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase was taken to task for a $6 billion trading loss — the London Whale episode — in 2012 has a banking executive faced such intense political heat.

In his prepared testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, a copy of which was reviewed by The New York Times, Mr. Stumpf apologizes profusely to the bank's customers for selling them accounts they did not authorize. But he says the accounts were not part of an "orchestrated effort, or scheme as some have called it, by the company."

"That said, I accept full responsibility for all unethical sales practices in our retail banking business," Mr. Stumpf plans to say in testimony.

He adds, "I am deeply sorry that we failed to fulfill our responsibility to our customers, to our team members and to the American public."

As the scrutiny of Wells intensifies, there is a particular feeling of schadenfreude on Wall Street and in certain circles of Washington, where Mr. Stumpf was seen as portraying Wells as being different than the risky global investment banks behind the mortgage crisis.

While his star was rising on Wall Street and he became the industry's highest-paid banker, Mr. Stumpf criticized the "plethora of new regulations" on banks.

"I think we have gone too far" in terms of regulation, he told an interviewer in 2013, the same year he was named Banker of the Year by The American Banker, a trade publication.

It was also the same year that the creation of the sham bank accountants hit their peak, as did the firings of lower-level employees responsible for creating them.

"This is a particular reversal for him," said Barney Frank, the former congressman from Massachusetts who co-wrote Dodd-Frank, the 2010 legislation that overhauled the financial industry. "He regarded himself as the best person situated to criticize what some people regarded as regulatory excess."

At the same time that Mr. Stumpf assailed some of the new regulations ushered in during that era in interviews and opinion pieces, officials at other banks said that Wells seemed reluctant to be associated with Wall Street's lobbying efforts in Washington.

Wells's head of government relations is based not in Washington, where all the regulations were being hashed out, but in Minnesota. A bank spokeswoman said that members of the government relations staff are based in the nation's capitol.

From Mr. Stump's Prepared Testimony:

I am deeply sorry that we failed to fulfill our responsibilities to our customers, to our team members and to the American public. I have been with Wells Fargo through many challenges, none that pains me more than the one we will discuss this morning. (Read John Stumpf's prepared testimony to Congress.)

This year, Wells Fargo departed the industry trade group Financial Services Roundtable, which has been working to improve the banking industry's image, particularly in this election year.

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman said the bank decided to leave the roundtable because "other trade associations are more closely aligned to our business model and our footprint, which is concentrated in the United States."

For all the apple-pie image that Mr. Stumpf has sought to project over the years, his compensation is hardly humble.

From 2011 to 2015 — the time during which regulators are focusing their investigation into the fake accounts — Mr. Stumpf's compensation in cash, stock and other benefits totaled roughly $103 million.

Indeed, he was paid more than any of the chief executives at the traditional Wall Street firms like JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley, according to an analysis by Equilar, an executive research firm.

Analysts say Mr. Stumpf's compensation was higher than that of his rivals because Wells's stock price and profits generally outperformed those of other banks during that period.

Mr. Stumpf's first job was as a baker in his hometown, Pierz, Minn., which has a population of about 1,400.

After attending St. Cloud State University, he began his banking career in the 1970s as a "repo" agent charged with collecting defaulted debt for a small bank in Minnesota.

In 1982, he joined Norwest, a large Minneapolis bank, where he worked under Richard M. Kovacevich, the bank's larger-than-life chairman.

Norwest and Wells Fargo merged in 1998. The newly merged bank adopted the Wells name and its stagecoach label, commemorating its history as a delivery service across the American West.

Mr. Kovacevich is credited as the architect of Wells Fargo's intense push to "cross-sell" customers as many accounts and services as they could.

"Kovacevich is really the person who created what Wells is today," said Fred Cannon, a banking analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. "Stumpf is his heir."

Mr. Stumpf became chief executive of Wells Fargo in 2007, as the broader financial system began to swoon from the trillions of soured mortgage debt on bank balance sheets.

While not totally immune, Wells avoided many of the crippling mortgage losses befalling other banks. Initially, Wells tried to reject bailout money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, even as federal officials emphasized that it was important for all large banks to accept the money for the greater stability of the financial system.

As other banks' profits were weighed down by the costs of settling government investigations over their mortgage practices, Wells's auto and energy lending was booming. The bank also took advantage of a wave of home refinancings to become the nation's largest mortgage lender.

With its recent success, Wells had grown to become the nation's largest bank by market capitalization. But the scandal over the sham accounts — which resulted in a $185 million settlement with regulators — has knocked Wells's stock price down by as much as 7 percent.

"Banks are built on trust, and this is a chink in that armor," Mr. Cannon said. "It is still early days in how this plays itself out. We have a long way to go."