Wirehouse Wells Fargo has had its fair share of regulatory scrutiny over the past two years across many of its businesses, including wealth management. But one particularly lucrative award doled out to some of the firm’s wealth managers has mostly escaped notice, according to news reports. And this award directly led some of Wells Fargo's financial advisors to not act in the best interest of clients, former employees tell Yahoo Finance.
The so-called “Growth Award” was available from 2012 through the end of 2015 to only some of Wells Fargo’s 14,000 advisors —namely, the roughly 3,000 advisors in Wealth Brokerage Services, who worked out of bank branches or hubs housing several different Wells Fargo businesses, according to the web publication.
To be eligible, the advisors had to have been with the firm for at least two years and generated at least $350,000 in annual revenue, Yahoo Finance writes. In all, about 2,000 advisors were eligible, a former Wells Fargo executive and another advisor tell the website. The program rewarded advisors who increased their revenue by at least 15% with a 15% bonus that multiplied each year the advisor achieved that growth rate. So an advisor who achieved the target in the first year received a 15% award, one who did so for a second year in a row received 30%, and someone who achieved it four years in a row received a 60% bonus, Yahoo Finance writes.
There were no penalties for not hitting the growth rate — but the incentives to achieve the target “were enormous,” according to the website.
The program was apparently successful. Around two-thirds of the 2,000 eligible advisors earned an award, and while Wells Fargo set aside $250 million for the Growth Award, it paid out $750 million during the four years that it ran, Yahoo Finance writes.
“This is where the sales pressure in the bank branches meets the wealth and investment management business,” the former executive tells the website.
Branch staff were incentivized to send business to financial advisors while the advisors had incentives to steer clients to investment products that generated revenue upfront, Yahoo Finance writes.
“You are absolutely incentivizing advisors to sell the products with the highest upfront fees,” the former executive tells the website.
Multiple sources tell Yahoo Finance the program was part of the reason Wells Fargo sold so many annuities, which come with upfront fees. And while all fees were disclosed to the clients, they weren’t aware of the incentives, according to the website.
The Wall Street Journal first reported about the growth award last summer, but not how it worked, according to Yahoo Finance.
Other firms in the industry have also offered similar rewards, usually in the form of paid trips to exotic locations, the website writes.
By themselves, such incentives are not unusual, although the SEC is looking into ways to curb their use because they essentially motivate brokers to act for “self enrichment,” the website writes.
Other wealth management practices have cut down on them recently, industry insiders tell Yahoo Finance. And three financial advisors at other firms tell the website that Wells Fargo’s award was particularly generous.
“If a free golf outing is bad business, then the Growth Award is bad business on steroids,” the former Wells Fargo executive tells Yahoo Finance.
A spokeswoman for Wells Fargo tells the website that the company’s primary goal is to act in its clients’ best interest and that it has supervisory controls to detect if one of its reps “acts in a manner not in line with our values.”