Risk Insider: Nir Kossovsky

Wells Fargo, Reputation and the Wisdom of Crowds

By: | October 24, 2016 • 3 min read
Nir Kossovsky is the Chief Executive Officer of Steel City Re. He has been developing solutions for measuring, managing, monetizing, and transferring risks to intangible assets since 1997. He is also a published author, and can be reached at [email protected]

My firm relies on prediction markets to inform indices of reputation that provide a quantitative measure of governance, risk and compliance as perceived by stakeholders. We call them reputational value metrics.

In mid-2014, Wells Fargo’s metrics were getting notably more volatile, indicating that members of the crowds of Wells Fargo stakeholders, in their wisdom, were worried.

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Between June and December 2014, Wells was losing in the courts in a number of mortgage-related matters, including additional lawsuits from home lending practices thought to have been settled in 2012; new suits for “equity stripping;” discrimination against pregnant applicants; federal insurance fraud and newly discovered compliance failures.

While publicly there was no mention of the underlying issue of the current reputation crisis, which stems from Wells Fargo’s aggressive cross-selling program, it is fair to speculate that many stakeholders were both experiencing and signaling discomfort with it.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, there are three pieces of evidence pointing to the inevitability of this crisis.

Wells Fargo lost track of the financial importance (and therefore risk) of cross-selling, misunderstood reputation risk, and mismanaged risk management at the board level.

Disclosed in unusual detail in Wells Fargo’s 10Ks of 2013 and 2014–but not 2015-was the operational risk of…

…’cross-selling’ efforts to increase the number of products our customers buy from us …[which] is a key part of our growth strategy… [with the risk being that] we might not attain our goal of selling an average of eight products to each customer.

Wells Fargo thought reputation risk and adverse publicity could impair cross-selling. It did not appreciate that cross-selling could give rise to reputation risk, notwithstanding a scathing LA Times expose in December 2013.

The company’s blindness to the risk resulted from the distribution of risk oversight among board committees.

Wells Fargo lost track of the financial importance (and therefore risk) of cross-selling, misunderstood reputation risk, and mismanaged risk management at the board level.

At Wells Fargo, Reputation Risk is under the purview of the Corporate Responsibility Committee; Enterprise Risk is under a separate Risk Committee to whom the Chief Risk Officer is also attached; Ethics/Business Conduct Risk is under the Audit Committee, and Compensation Risk is under the purview of Human Resources Committee.

This means that the reputational crisis that emerged from Wells Fargo’s cross-selling strategy with inherent compensation risk, ethical risks and operational risks sprouted and blossomed under the watchful eyes of at least four separate board committees.

The tipping point came in early September 2016 in a public disclosure that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Los Angeles City Attorney and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) fined the bank $185 million.

The regulators alleged that as the result of perverse incentives, unethical behaviors and ineffective operational oversight, more than 2 million bank accounts or credit cards were opened or applied for without customers’ knowledge or permission between May 2011 and July 2015.

The classical manifestations of a reputational crisis then materialized, as customers broke off relations, employees sued, customers sued, investors sued, the stock price fell at least 7 percent, executives lost their heads and the regulators piled on.

One wonders how many Wells Fargo board members are concerned about finding themselves testifying before one of the legislative body’s many oversight committees.

One way to communicate authentic rehabilitation is to share with its competitors its strategy for mitigating this “industry-wide” risk.

While damage to the personal reputations of John Stumpf and others may be permanent, companies have a way of recovering. Wells Fargo has acknowledged the error and within a week of the September reveal, terminated the cross-selling program.

The last and most critical steps are still to come. First, the company must streamline its risk oversight process to account for the interplay between operational risks, liquidity risks, and reputational risks.

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To capture the benefits of improved governance, Wells Fargo then needs to communicate its changes to the many stakeholders that now view the bank with a jaundiced eye. One way to communicate authentic rehabilitation is to share with its competitors its strategy for mitigating this “industry-wide” risk.

Another way is to communicate to those who look for vulnerabilities in governance (read, activists) that third parties are attesting — dare I say warrantying — the new improved governance processes at Wells Fargo.

Unfortunately, odds are that Wells Fargo will follow a time-honored tradition of putting the cart before the horse by first engaging in an expensive communications campaign while hiring an expensive law firm to discover what went wrong.

Time will tell.

More from Risk & Insurance

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Risk Management

The Profession

Pinnacle Entertainment’s VP of enterprise risk management says he’s inspired by Disney’s approach to risk management.
By: | November 1, 2017 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

Bus boy at a fine dining restaurant.

R&I: How did you come to work in this industry?

I sent a résumé to Harrah’s Entertainment on a whim. It took over 30 hours of interviewing to get that job, but it was well worth it.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?

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The Chinese citizen (never positively identified) who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. That kind of courage is undeniable, and that image is unforgettable. I hope we can all be that passionate about something at least once in our lives.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

Cyber risk, but more narrowly, cyber-extortion. I think state sponsored bad actors are getting more and more sophisticated, and the risk is that they find a way to control entire systems.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

Training and breaking horses. When I was in high school, I worked on a lot of farms. I did everything from building fences to putting up hay. It was during this time that I found I had a knack for horses. They would tolerate me getting real close, so it was natural I started working more and more with them.

Eventually, I was putting a saddle on a few and before I knew it I was in that saddle riding a horse that had never been ridden before.

I admit I had some nervous moments, but I was never thrown off. It taught me that developing genuine trust early is very important and is needed by all involved. Nothing of any real value happens without it.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

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Setting very aggressive goals and then meeting and exceeding those goals with a team. Sharing team victories is the ultimate reward.

R&I: What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

Disney World. The sheer size of the place is awe inspiring. And everything works like a finely tuned clock.

There is a reason that hospitality companies send their people there to be trained on guest service. Disney World does it better than anyone else.

As a hospitality executive, I always learn something new whenever I am there.

James Cunningham, vice president, enterprise risk management, Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc.

The risks that Disney World faces are very similar to mine — on a much larger scale. They are complex and across the board. From liability for the millions of people they host as their guests each year, to the physical location of the park, to their vendor partnerships; their approach to risk management has been and continues to be innovative and a model that I learn from and I think there are lessons there for everybody.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

We are doing a much better job of getting involved in a meaningful way in our daily operations and demonstrating genuine value to our organizations.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

Educating and promoting the career with young people.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

Being able to tell the Pinnacle story. It’s a great one and it wasn’t being told. I believe that the insurance markets now understand who we are and what we stand for.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

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John Matthews, who is now retired, formerly with Aon and Caesar’s Palace. John is an exceptional leader who demonstrated the value of putting a top-shelf team together and then letting them do their best work. I model my management style after him.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

I read mostly biographies and autobiographies. I like to read how successful people became successful by overcoming their own obstacles. Jay Leno, Jack Welch, Bill Harrah, etc. I also enjoyed the book and movie “Money Ball.”

R&I: What is your favorite drink?

Ice water when it’s hot, coffee when it’s cold, and an adult beverage when it’s called for.

R&I: What does your family think you do?

In my family, I’m the “Safety Geek.”

R&I:  What’s your favorite restaurant?

Vegas is a world-class restaurant town. No matter what you are hungry for, you can find it here. I have a few favorites that are my “go-to’s,” depending on the mood and who I am with.

If you’re in town, you should try to have at least one meal off the strip. For that, I would suggest you get reservations (you’ll need them) at Herbs and Rye. It’s a great little restaurant that is always lively. The food is tremendous, and the service is always on point. They make hand-crafted cocktails that are amazing.

My favorite Mexican restaurant is Lindo Michoacan. There are three in town, and I prefer the one in Henderson as it has the best view of the valley. For seafood, you can never go wrong with Joe’s in Caesar’s Palace.




Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]