Wells Fargo says it wants to make things right with the American public. After years of cheating its customers, the bank has a golden opportunity to make good on its promises.
Since the federal government shutdown began two weeks ago, credit unions that serve large populations of furloughed and unpaid workers have offered their members short-term interest-free loans, a variety of fee waivers and increased lines of credit.
But Wells Fargo is not stuffing its Twitter feed or news release list with any such offers. Instead, it’s offering up a few sentences on its website that say that the bank will “work with” affected federal employees and that some borrowers “may” qualify for forbearance.
This is in one way an improvement: When I first spoke to the bank on Thursday about its plans, the site said it would merely “consider” helping them with overdraft and insufficient fund fees, which aren’t mentioned any longer.
Wells Fargo is not alone among big banks in its lack of specificity in its relief offers to federal workers. But it should be doing so much more, given its stated desire to make amends for bad behavior. This is a bank, after all, that has spent years fighting off or settling charges that it:
Opened credit-card and other accounts that customers had not actually requested
Changed the terms of customers’ mortgages without their authorization
Charged auto loan customers for insurance they did not need
Signed customers up for life insurance without their knowledge
This is an incomplete list — a lowlight reel — but the overall picture is of an institution that no one should trust. Wells Fargo knows this. It has devoted a whole section of its website to “Building a Better Bank,” complete with a long (very long) timeline outlining the steps it has taken so far.
What is noticeably missing, however, are concrete offers of tangible financial value to customers. It stubbornly refuses to offer industry-beating savings account rates or credit card rewards, as I’ve written in the past. Instead, we get airy reassurances about things that we can’t easily measure, like “branch experience.”
So why wasn’t it obvious to the bank that it should be first and most generous in this extremely public showdown, which has caught about 800,000 blameless federal workers in the middle? Credit unions managed to figure it out quite quickly.
At Navy Federal Credit Union, affected members who have already set up direct deposit are eligible for zero-percent loans up to $6,000. They’ll repay them immediately and automatically when paychecks resume. “We are member-owned, and servicing members is kind of in the fabric of what we do,” said Tynika Wilson, senior vice president of debit card and fund services.
State Department Federal Credit Union will waive interest for two months on balances on a new credit card for affected people and offer several fee waivers. This could get expensive: The institution has calculated that more than half of its members could feel the effects of the shutdown, especially if they don’t get the paychecks that would start arriving on Jan. 11.
Big banks have more resources and don’t have as high a percentage of customers who are facing the prospect of no federal paycheck. So why can’t they make similar loans? “That is probably a great question for you to ask them,” said Bill Thorla, chief operating officer of the State Department credit union.
Bank of America wouldn’t comment when I asked about zero-interest loans. JPMorgan Chase does not offer personal loans. Citibank isn’t offering any in this instance. If any national banks are doing so, please raise a hand.
For-profit financial services firms are not heartless. American Express, Chase and Discover said that if eligible federal employees contact them first and explain their circumstances, there may be ways to put off debt payment for a month and not pay interest or fees while avoiding negative credit report repercussions. Citi says it is offering fee waivers, but the home page of its personal banking site makes no mention of its efforts. Bank of America has a general assistance program where people temporarily in trouble can ask the bank to cancel certain charges and make other modifications. (It has no website, but you can call 844-219-0690 for help.)
Banks are rarely cuddly, but there is no close reading of the government shutdown assistance page on Wells Fargo’s site that doesn’t feel conditional, lawyered and a wee bit stingy given its recent history. The bank dangles “forbearance” — a word that generally suggests mere toleration, but is specifically dirty if you’ve learned about it the hard way: when your student loan interest kept piling up while you took a timeout from payments.
It hardly feels like the bank has made a special effort for people in this unique and unfortunate situation.
On Thursday, I was able to pry a bit more information out of the bank’s spokesman, Tom Goyda. He confirmed that there were no zero-interest loans available, so the bank can’t match the credit unions there. He was concerned, given how different each individual customer’s circumstances may be, that other promises of relief might feel misleading. But he did allow that there may be some situations where the bank could do what American Express, Chase and Discover say they are willing to do: help federal employees who might not be able to make their payments.
By Friday, the bank’s website had changed. The statement that the bank “will consider reversing overdraft/non-sufficient funds fees for individual and business banking customers whose income is disrupted as a result of the shutdown” was gone. Instead, the site said the bank “will work with” that same group, without the word “consider.” The site no longer mentioned specific fees at all, but Mr. Goyda said that the change did not mean that the bank would not still try to help with those charges. Consumers need to know to ask about those fees specifically, though, since they are no longer named.
Meanwhile, is the bank missing an opportunity to win over a skeptical public here? “We’ve done a lot of work over the past few years to re-establish trust and build a better bank, and the fact that we have programs available to address just these kinds of customer situations — fortunately not generally on such a large scale — is a reflection of our larger commitment to helping customers whenever they experience financial challenges,” Mr. Goyda said in an email on Thursday.
That all sounds nice. But someday soon, I hope to write about a consumer-facing Wells Fargo initiative that arrives sooner and is better than anyone else’s. It’s a shame that in its yearslong saga of scandal and attempted rehabilitation, it hasn’t yet seen fit to simply be generous.