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

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Management

The Profession

Mohegan Gaming’s director of risk management recognizes the value of the people around her in creating success.  
By: | February 20, 2018 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

I was a margin clerk in financial futures at Kidder Peabody & Company.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?

While I was at General Dynamics working in HR, the opportunity to transition to risk management was afforded to me. I was very fortunate that the risk manager at the time took a chance on me and taught me so very much. Coming from a manufacturing facility with multiple unions helped prepare me for any situation.

R&I: How has your experience in human resources helped your career in risk management? What do the positions have in common?

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I believe my HR background has helped my risk management career immensely. Both areas are interrelated. People are fundamental to accomplishing goals and people can help or hinder those results. Human resources is tasked with bringing in and nurturing the right people, and risk management is tasked with keeping them safe.

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

Education, keeping up with industry trends and having resources available to better prepare organizations. There is always something new or a new way to view a situation.

Mary Lou Morrissette, corporate director of risk management, Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment

R&I: What kind of resources can risk managers bring to the table?

Data and analytics have come so far, and the systems out there are able to drill down into good quality information that can be used more effectively.

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

Within the community, we all understand the role of risk management, but getting organizations to understand the importance of considering risk during the strategic decision-making process as opposed to treating it like an after-thought can be a challenge. Risk should be involved in day-to-day operations — not just when a problem arises.

R&I: What was the best location for the RIMS conference and why?

San Diego. The proximity to the city, community and culture was great.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in the risk management and insurance industry since you’ve been in it?

The emergence of cyber security.

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

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Catastrophic events, both natural and manmade, are becoming more of a norm of late. We need to look at analytics and the role they play in understanding these disasters and subsequent losses to help organizations prepare, manage and recover from these types of events.

R&I: What insurance carrier do you have the highest opinion of?

We have always valued relationships. We have a few long-standing partners that immediately come to mind. FM Global, Great American and Safety National have all been immensely important to our company and our growth.

R&I: How much business do you do direct versus going through a broker?

All through a broker.

R&I: Is the contingent commission controversy overblown?

If you have trust and faith in your broker and they have full disclosure, then yes, it is overblown. But I have seen the cost of hidden commissions and the effect on the bottom line.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

I had a mentor early on in my career in HR, Marie Haggerty. She instilled in me the mindset to speak up and be heard and not to shy away from an adverse opinion but to be strong in my convictions.

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

Being awarded FM Global’s Highly Protected Risk award in 2011. The award is granted when a location has no human element recommendations, no uncontrolled high-risk exposures and no other major loss exposures. Mohegan Sun has worked hand-in-hand with FM since 2000 on loss prevention recommendations and improvements. Our engineering team as well as our fire department have been instrumental in our ability to achieve this award. We have always tried to meet or exceed the advice we receive from FM’s engineers. This has made our property better protected as well as helped to keep our premium in line.

R&I: How many e-mails do you get in a day?

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Too many!

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

I only read nonfiction and personal development books. Katie Couric’s “The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives” is one of my favorites.

R&I: What is your favorite drink?

Coffee and water.

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

The Pearl Harbor memorial. I love history and to stand over the Arizona was humbling.

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

Parasailing.

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

That I can make a difference in either a safer workplace or on the bottom line, and that every day is different. I love the diversity of what I do and the constant change and ability to continue to grow and learn.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?

I definitely get the deer in the headlights look when I tell people what I do — I don’t think any of my family or friends truly understand it.




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