Wells Fargo probes widen as Fed says sanctions to be lasting

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Wells Fargo's legal and regulatory struggles expanded to previously untarnished businesses Thursday as the company revealed new allegations of improper sales practices. The Federal Reserve vowed to keep unprecedented sanctions in place for a "significant period."

The bank, still trying to steady itself from a bogus-account scandal that took down former Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf, said government agencies had inquired about improprieties in the wealth-management business related to 401(k) rollovers and other products. The lender is also responding to queries from government agencies into its foreign-exchange business, the company said in a regulatory filing.

Wells Fargo has yet to put behind it 18 months of scandal in its retail-banking business, where employees under pressure to meet aggressive sales goals may have opened millions of accounts in customers' names without permission. The bank has said it's facing at least three major probes, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice. Last month, the Fed put in place sanctions preventing the bank from getting any bigger until it fixes its problems.

"We will not lightly lift" that restriction, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers at a Senate Banking Committee hearing Thursday, responding to Senator Elizabeth Warren's call for the agency to stand firm. Wells Fargo will probably be subject to the sanctions for a "significant period," Powell said.

Shares of the company fell 1.9 percent to $57.31 in New York trading, extending this year's decline to 5.5 percent.

"We are working with the Federal Reserve to ensure our company fully satisfies the consent order's requirements," Wells Fargo said in a statement after Powell's remarks. Meanwhile, "we continue to serve our customers' varied financial needs and operate well within the order's required cap on the value of our total assets."

'Inappropriate referrals'

The wealth-management review, which the board is conducting in response to inquiries by federal government agencies, "is assessing whether there have been inappropriate referrals or recommendations" given to 401(k) plan participants and customers seeking alternative investments, the bank said in the filing. Wells Fargo also said that the probe is examining referrals given to brokerage clients to use services provided by its investment and fiduciary-services business, which is a part of the wealth-management division run by Jonathan Weiss.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has opened an investigation and is concerned the bank might have made customer referrals that violated securities laws, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be named because the agency's involvement hasn't been announced.

Shearman & Sterling, the law firm that conducted the board's investigation into sales abuses at the retail bank, is also spearheading the bank's wealth-management review, another person said.

CEO Tim Sloan said in a Feb. 12 interview with Bloomberg that the bank hadn't uncovered issues similar to the consumer bank scandal in the wealth-management unit. "I'm not going to provide any absolute guarantee — ever, ever — that we're ever not going to find an issue in any of our businesses," Sloan said.

On Thursday, he sent an message to employees, acknowledging that regulators' latest moves "may seem discouraging" but that the firm is making progress. "When we discover a problem, we are moving to find the root cause and fix it."

'Incorrect fees'

The company is conducting a separate review of "incorrect fees" charged to customers' fiduciary and custody accounts, according to Thursday's filing, which said outside consultants are trying to determine how it miscalculated the value of certain assets. Wells Fargo said the review is in its "preliminary stages" and centered around non-publicly traded assets.

The foreign-exchange review follows the bank's disclosure late last year that four currency traders left the firm over a transaction conducted for a client. The bank said its "leadership took steps to hold accountable the individuals who were involved."

Adding to the list of probes and reviews are allegations by a former Wells Fargo financial-crimes investigator who said in a complaint filed Wednesday that the bank improperly follows up on allegations of fraud in customer accounts.

Matthew Valles, who worked at the bank until January, said that instead of investigating potential fraud, the bank would close the accounts, leaving some customers on the hook for unauthorized withdrawals, according to a copy of the complaint filed in Multnomah County circuit court in Oregon.

"We take seriously the concerns of current and former team members, and we investigate them thoroughly," Jim Seitz, a Wells Fargo spokesman, said in an emailed statement. "Wells Fargo is reviewing the legal complaint that was filed on Wednesday afternoon."

The bank also disclosed on Thursday that it raised its internal measure of the risk of potential losses from human error or system failures by 17 percent since the end of 2015.

Wells Fargo set aside $3.7 billion last year for litigation, according to the filing, a figure that wasn't included in its last annual report. The amount, which isn't tax-deductible, includes $1 billion the bank set aside in the quarter ended in September for mortgage-related investigations by government authorities.

Bloomberg News