Warren Buffett defends Wells Fargo's 'cardinal sin'

Warren Buffett said on Saturday that Wells Fargo committed a "cardinal sin" by turning a blind eye t...

Posted: May 6, 2018 12:53 PM
Updated: May 6, 2018 12:53 PM

Warren Buffett said on Saturday that Wells Fargo committed a "cardinal sin" by turning a blind eye to the bad behavior caused by its horrible incentive system.

But, the billionaire Wells Fargo shareholder defended the scandal-ridden lender, arguing its misdeeds aren't much worse than what other big banks have done.

Buffett said at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, that Wells Fargo had the "wrong incentives."

Wells Fargo's wildly unrealistic sales goals led workers to create millions of fake accounts and the bank has admitted to charging customers for auto insurance they didn't need and mortgage fees they didn't deserve.

"That was bad," Buffett said. "But then they committed the much greater error" by "ignoring the fact that they had a faulty incentive system." He said unrealistic sales goals encouraged workers to do "crazy" things, like opening millions of fake accounts.

"That is the cardinal sin at Berkshire," he said.

Despite Wells Fargo's 20-month nightmare, Berkshire Hathaway has largely stood by the bank. Buffett's holding company still owns more than 458 million shares, a 9% stake.

Buffett reiterated his support for Wells Fargo and its embattled management team even though the bank's legal troubles have persisted.

"I see no reason why Wells Fargo as a company - from both an investor standpoint and a moral standpoint going forward - is in any way inferior to the other big banks with which it competes," Buffett said.

He pointed to the legal problems that plagued American Express in the 1960s, noting that the company emerged stronger.

Yet a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder noted that Buffett has famously said that if you find yourself in a "chronically leaking boat," it would be more productive to devote energy to "changing vessels" than "patching leaks."

"At what magnitude of leakage would Berkshire consider changing boats?" the shareholder asked Buffett about Wells Fargo.

Related: Wells Fargo will pay $480 million to settle securities fraud lawsuit

While Wells Fargo made a "big mistake," Buffett said "all the big banks have had troubles of one sort or another."

"I like Tim Sloan as a manager," Buffett said of Well Fargo's CEO, who has had to fight off calls for his resignation. "He is correcting mistakes made by other people."

Just a day earlier, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $480 million to settle claims it misled shareholders about its fake-account scandal. Wells Fargo denied the allegations in the securities fraud class action, but said it agreed to pay to "avoid the cost and disruption of further litigation."

Wells Fargo's troubles aren't limited to the fake-account scandal. Last month, federal regulators fined Wells Fargo $1 billion for auto insurance and mortgage abuses.

And in February, the Federal Reserve slapped Wells Fargo with unprecedented sanctions for "widespread consumer abuses." The penalties prevent the bank from growing any bigger until it cleans up its act.

Wells Fargo remains under investigation from the Department of Justice, Department of Labor and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Federal regulators also recently urged Wells Fargo's board to probe whether the bank made inappropriate recommendations to customers about their 401(k) plans.

Charlie Munger, Berkshire's vice chairman, argued that it's precisely because of all of these legal problems that Wells Fargo will be stronger in the future.

"I think Wells Fargo is going to be better going forward than it would have been if these leaks had never been discovered," Munger said.

"If I had to say which bank is more likely to behave the best in the future," Munger said, "it might be Wells Fargo."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 145636

Reported Deaths: 3745
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto963299
Hinds9584195
Harrison6848109
Jackson6124118
Rankin528598
Lee484295
Madison4633105
Forrest368186
Jones345287
Lauderdale3350143
Lafayette315049
Washington3097107
Lamar281849
Oktibbeha239261
Bolivar239083
Lowndes228863
Neshoba2164115
Panola211749
Marshall208350
Leflore200890
Pontotoc194728
Monroe190277
Sunflower189755
Lincoln186165
Warren172257
Tate164251
Union160925
Pike160458
Copiah158940
Yazoo151239
Scott150229
Itawamba147634
Coahoma147443
Pearl River144467
Simpson144253
Alcorn143925
Prentiss140429
Grenada136945
Adams136548
Leake131843
Holmes124961
George122224
Tippah121530
Covington117636
Winston116624
Wayne115823
Hancock114139
Marion111046
Attala107833
Tishomingo106142
Newton102729
Chickasaw102432
Tallahatchie95527
Clarke88553
Clay87027
Jasper81122
Walthall75028
Stone72414
Montgomery71925
Calhoun71613
Carroll70614
Lawrence70214
Yalobusha69427
Noxubee69217
Smith68816
Perry65225
Tunica59619
Greene58422
Claiborne57416
Jefferson Davis54217
Humphreys52618
Amite51214
Benton48417
Quitman4796
Webster42014
Kemper40917
Wilkinson38622
Jefferson33811
Franklin3235
Choctaw3077
Sharkey30617
Issaquena1114
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 236865

Reported Deaths: 3472
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson31043491
Mobile19446360
Tuscaloosa12684150
Madison12528146
Montgomery12122235
Shelby992276
Baldwin837684
Lee759765
Morgan626247
Calhoun6049113
Etowah600564
Marshall596153
Houston510838
DeKalb469635
Cullman421136
Limestone408844
St. Clair403955
Elmore398961
Lauderdale387253
Walker356199
Talladega339044
Jackson302524
Colbert297641
Blount282236
Autauga266139
Franklin246233
Coffee236615
Dale228454
Dallas222331
Russell21923
Chilton218537
Covington215933
Escambia196931
Tallapoosa171790
Chambers171448
Pike156014
Clarke155319
Marion135535
Winston126623
Lawrence123936
Geneva11848
Pickens117618
Marengo117424
Barbour116710
Bibb115717
Butler114341
Randolph100321
Cherokee99624
Hale93231
Washington89918
Clay89623
Fayette86216
Henry8436
Lowndes78929
Monroe77911
Cleburne75614
Macon71720
Crenshaw70330
Bullock69019
Conecuh68214
Perry6726
Lamar6337
Wilcox62818
Sumter56222
Choctaw41813
Greene41317
Coosa3144
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