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Warren Asks Fed to Break Up Wells Fargo After Regulatory Hit

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(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren urged the Federal Reserve to force Wells Fargo & Co. to separate its traditional banking and Wall Street businesses, after the lender was handed fresh regulatory action and a $250 million fine this month.

In a letter to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, Warren called on the Fed to revoke Wells Fargo’s status as a financial holding company in order to effect a separation. The Fed should order the company to develop a plan to ensure its customers are protected through the transition, the Massachusetts Democrat said.

“Every single day that Wells Fargo continues to maintain these depository accounts is a day that millions of customers remain at risk of additional negligence and willful fraud,” Warren wrote. “The only way these consumers and their bank accounts can be kept safe is through another institution—one whose business model is not dependent on swindling customers for every last penny they can get. The Fed has the power to put consumers first, and it must use it.”

The New York Times earlier reported the contents of the letter. A representative for the Fed confirmed it received the letter and said it planned to respond.

Wells Fargo was fined this month over its lack of progress addressing long-standing problems, the first such sanction under Chief Executive Officer Charlie Scharf. The penalty adds to the more than $5 billion in fines and legal settlements the bank paid over the last five years tied to a series of scandals that began with fake accounts in its branch network.

The latest order, from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, cited deficiencies in Wells Fargo’s home-lending loss mitigation practices -- the steps firms take to avoid foreclosure -- that have prevented the bank from being able to “fully and timely remediate harmed customers.”

“Meeting our own expectations for risk management and controls — as well as our regulators’ — remains Wells Fargo’s top priority,” the bank said Tuesday in a statement. “We are a different bank today than we were five years ago because we’ve made significant progress.”

Fresh Questions

Warren cited the Bank Holding Company Act, which requires that banks are well capitalized and well managed. If a financial holding company falls short of these, the Fed is required to give a notice for the institution to correct its deficiencies.

Should the bank fail to remedy those within 180 days, the Fed can ask the company to divest control of any subsidiary depository institution -- or the bank can choose to cease to engage in activity that isn’t permissible for a bank holding company.

The latest sanctioning raises fresh questions about whether the bank meets the Act’s requirements that it be well managed, and whether the board and Scharf are capable of effectively running the lender, Warren said.

Progress Signs

Despite the regulatory hit, Wells Fargo has made progress under Scharf. A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau order tied to the firm’s sales practices levied in 2016 expired this month while in January, the bank was freed from a 2015 regulatory order over violations of anti-money-laundering rules. The Fed also confidentially accepted a plan for overhauling risk management and governance at the bank, Bloomberg reported earlier this year.

More broadly, Warren has also been pushing for executives of companies that don’t follow the rules to face personal consequences, she said in an interview with Bloomberg News.

“I am pushing hard for more personal liability,” Warren said. “These executives want to drag in the big bucks for running these companies, then they should be responsible when they preside over big companies that are breaking the law and cheating American consumers.”

(Updates with comments from Warren from 10th paragraph.)

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