Wells Fargo scandal reignites debate about big bank culture

Wed Sep 28, 2016 9:43am EDT
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By Olivia Oran

(Reuters) - In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the banking industry sought to address an ethics crisis with surveys, town hall meetings, appointments of overseers and mechanisms for employees to report malfeasance.

Now, the high-pressure sales scandal at Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N: Quote) provides more evidence that large U.S. banks may have little to show for the effort.

Bank consultants say tens of millions of dollars are spent each year on initiatives to build a culture of integrity, partly at the urging of regulators such as the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Octavio Marenzi, co-founder of Opimas, a management consultant that focuses on the finance industry, said banks have spent a lot of money researching their culture and updating ethics handbooks - with little impact.

"A lot of what the banks are doing are superficial attempts," said Marenzi. "It's more window-dressing than anything else."

The continuing spate of scandals reinforces doubts about the effectiveness of such efforts. Wells Fargo's debacle - involving the creation of as many as 2 million accounts without customers' permission – is only the latest black eye for bankers.

Other recent lapses have included widespread rigging of benchmark interest rates by traders at several banks; reports that JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N: Quote) hired children of high-ranking Chinese officials to curry favor; and allegations in a London court that Goldman Sachs Group Inc (GS.N: Quote) bankers hired prostitutes for officials at Libya's sovereign wealth fund to win business.

Wells has also previously faced accusations of discriminatory mortgage lending practices from local and federal authorities. Wells, which has denied the accusations, reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012.   Continued...

Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf testifies before a Senate Banking Committee hearing on the firm's sales practices on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 20, 2016.   REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo