In January, Wells Fargo announced a one-time benefit from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of $3.89 billion. With the 40 percent cut in the corporate-income tax, Wells could write down the cost of its deferred tax liabilities—money it owed down the road to the government. So with the stroke of a pen, Donald Trump made Wells Fargo $3.89 billion richer.
The benefits didn’t end there. In the first quarter of this year, Wells Fargo enjoyed a drastically reduced effective income-tax rate of 18.8 percent, down from 27.5 percent a year earlier. That produced a $636 million savings, on top of the $3.89 billion. Wells Fargo’s Q1 income would have declined year-over-year were it not for the tax law.
When you put Wells Fargo’s ongoing tax bounty against Friday’s $1 billion fine from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for scamming customers on mortgage and auto loans, the penalty looks more like a kickback, worth 22 percent of what Wells Fargo has been gifted in tax savings so far. Over time that $1 billion will constitute a smaller and smaller percentage of the tax perk, more like a tip to the Trump administration—a thank-you for its generous support.
The Trump administration gets something out of it too. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, under the misdirection of anti-regulatory zealot Mick Mulvaney, had been criticized for not recording a single enforcement action in the 135 days since Mulvaney took over. The Wells Fargo fine, an outgrowth of a defensive tweet from the president in response to media reports that the case would be tossed out altogether, is intended to be the exception that disproves the rule. “We have said all along that we will enforce the law,” Mulvaney got to say in a statement. “That is what we did here.”
Except that doesn’t seem to be what Mulvaney did, because “enforcing the law” would have meant sending a criminal referral to the Justice Department for sanction against individual Wells Fargo executives. Instead, the bureau, along with the bank regulators at the OCC, settled for another fine, paid by shareholders instead of executives, ensuring that nobody in charge at Wells Fargo will see the inside of a jail cell for crimes that include what amounts to grand theft auto. Critics of the Obama administration’s approach to corporate crime fumed at a series of weak fines that created no accountability in the banking sector. The Trump administration’s alternative of one marginally bigger fine does not represent an advance.