It’s hard to miss the recent news about Wells Fargo. Not only has the company’s actions resulted in the largest fine that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has issued so far in its five-year history, the bank must now return all the money it wrongly took from those that should matter most to a financial institution: its customers.
This circumstance illustrates an integral difference between massive for-profit financial institutions such as the bank in question, which inevitably treated customer relationships secondary to high sales goals, and credit unions, where members not only own the institution but where members consistently come first—no matter what.
Considering that both institutions offer consumers by and large the same services, this incident serves to spotlight something that bank account holders may have been considering for some time: the benefits of switching from a profit-oriented financial institution to a credit union.
While there’s been a lot of discussion regarding this instance, exactly what happened may be blurry to some, and the circumstance is so illustrative of the difference between credit unions and banks that it’s certainly worth recapping.
In early September of 2016, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that Wells Fargo had created millions of accounts under the names of some of its customers without customer permission or knowledge.
These accounts appear to have been created to meet extremely high sales goals instituted by Wells Fargo administration, including an ever-increasing list of additional products, an approach known as cross-selling. In their desperation to meet these goals and maintain their employment (or even receive bonuses), employees ignored basic ethics. This was something that required significant effort on the part of employees: they created new e-mail addresses for customers, enrolling them in online services, even inventing PIN numbers.
The accounts that employees created, which CNN Money refers to as “ghost accounts,” were subject to fees by the bank just like any other. Over 1.5 million unauthorized deposit accounts were produced in this matter. This began in 2011 and it became so common that employees had a name for it: sandbagging.
In September 2016, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau not only fined Wells Fargo $185 million dollars, but the bank also agreed to return $5 million dollars to the customers it abused. The bank claims to have fired employees responsible for producing these fake accounts. However, only low level managers were fired and, as Fortune reported, the Wells Fargo executive who oversaw the unit that produced the millions of unauthorized accounts, Carrie Tolstedt, left the bank a month before the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announcement—without penalty.
In fact, while Wells Fargo could have used clawback provision options to penalize Tolstedt, the executive appears to have been rewarded for her actions: not only did Tolstedt receive praise from Wells Fargo during her exit announcement, but because she technically retired, she walked away from the situation with not only $124.6 million dollars in stock, options, and company shares, but also a multi-million dollar salary.
Profits over People
The bank’s actions have garnered no shortage of scathing criticism from all sides of the American political spectrum. And it’s not hard to see why: this circumstance is a cut and dry example of violation of consumer trust.
It’s also a symptom of the way that many large national banks operate. While banks and credit unions offer consumers most of the same services, they go about it in very different ways. The primary reason for this is that banks are owned by shareholders and the goal of the bank is, quite simply, to make as much money as possible for those shareholders. The result is a financial service culture that concocts fee after fee for bank customers to increase that profit ratio. Whether it’s for simple customer service or any number of actions that a customer may need to routinely perform, chances are that a bank now has a fee attached to it somewhere—and that fee money ultimately goes to a shareholder’s bank account.
On the other hand, credit unions operate with a very different philosophy. Because credit unions are nonprofit by definition and are in fact owned by the employees of the credit union (credit unions have members with shares rather than customers with accounts), the primary goal of a credit union is not to squeeze every dime possible from its members, but rather to maintain a personal relationship and provide the best possible rates and services for its members.