banking industry

The Fed Imposes New Penalties on Wells Fargo

The Federal Reserve announced Friday it is imposing more penalties on Wells Fargo, freezing the bank's growth until it can prove it has improved its internal controls. In addition, the bank agreed to replace four board members.

It's the latest blow against the San Francisco bank that has had its reputation tarnished by revelations it opened phony customer accounts and sold auto insurance to customers who did not need it.

The new penalties were announced on Fed Chair Janet Yellen's last day at the central bank.

"We cannot tolerate pervasive and persistent misconduct at any bank," Yellen said in a statement. "The enforcement action we are taking today will ensure that Wells Fargo will not expand until it is able to do so safely and with the protections needed to manage all of its risks and protect its customers."

The Fed said it is restricting the bank's assets to the level where they stood at the end of last year until it can demonstrate that it has improved its internal controls.

The announcement came after the close of trading on Wall Street Friday. The bank's stock fell more than 6 percent in after-hours trading.

Wells Fargo has 16 members on its board of directors. It agreed to replace three directors by April and another one by year-end. The letter did not say if particular board members were being singled out. Fed officials referred questions about who will be replaced to the bank.

In a statement, Wells Fargo said it is "confident" it will satisfy the Fed's requirements.

"We take this order seriously and are focused on addressing all of the Federal Reserve's concerns," the bank's CEO, Timothy Sloan, said. "It is important to note that the consent order is not related to any new matters, but to prior issues where we have already made significant progress."

Sloan said that "while there is still more work to do, we have made significant improvements over the past year to our governance and risk management that address concerns highlighted in this consent order."

The Fed's new order marked the latest chapter in a series of scandals which have rocked the bank in recent years.

Wells Fargo has admitted that employees opened more than 3 million fake accounts in order to meet sales quotas. It ended up paying $185 million to regulators and settled a class-action suit for $142 million.

It also has admitted it signed up hundreds of thousands of auto loan customers for auto insurance they did not need. Some of those customers had their cars repossessed because they could not afford both the auto loan and insurance payments.

And Wells Fargo also offered refunds to customers last year after acknowledging that its mortgage bankers unfairly charged them fees to lock in interest rates on mortgages.

The Fed's action came on a 3-0 vote. Randal Quarles, who is the Fed's vice chairman for supervision, has recused himself from participating in matters involving Wells Fargo.

Reverse Mortgages are a Sticky Business

Financial advisers often suggest you delay taking Social Security until full or normal retirement age (FRA) if not later – to age 70.

And the reasons are many: You'll get 100 of your primary insurance amount (PIA) if you wait to claim at FRA and, depending on your birth year, anywhere from 124 percent to 132 percent of your PIA if you wait until age 70; your surviving spouse will receive the highest possible benefit if you delay taking Social Security until FRA; and your monthly benefit will be higher after cost-of-living adjustments than if you had claimed before FRA.

But the delay often means finding income to make up the difference between what you would have received from Social Security – on average, it's about $1,369 a month now – and what you need for living expenses.

In recent years, advisers have suggested Americans do one, all or some combination of the following to bridge the gap: work, draw money from taxable, tax-deferred or Roth accounts and use a reverse mortgage.

The strategy to use a reverse mortgage to delay taking Social Security, however, has come under fire of late. In August, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a report that explored the tradeoffs of borrowing a reverse mortgage loan to delay claiming Social Security.

The CFPB found that, in general, "the reverse mortgage loan costs exceed the additional increase in Social Security that homeowners would receive in their lifetime by delaying Social Security benefits."

For instance, the CFPB noted that those who use a reverse mortgage to delay taking Social Security "assume debt for the principal loan amount, as well as for interest, mortgage insurance premiums (MIP), and monthly servicing fees, which are added to the principal every month."

The CFPB also wrote that origination and closing costs are often added to the loan balance since most consumers choose to finance these costs using the reverse mortgage proceeds. Over time, the balance of the loan increases as a result of compounding interest and MIP, and fees.

Furthermore, the CFPB wrote, using this strategy generally diminishes the home equity available to borrowers later in life.

Experts say the CFPB got some things right in its report, such as the risks associated with reverse mortgages. But experts took issue with the report's methodology and assumptions, which might cause homeowners to unnecessarily dismiss reverse mortgages as a retirement-income tool worth considering.

So, how might you go about thinking about the use and value of a reverse mortgage as part of your retirement-income plan?

• First, analyze. For many Americans, the equity in their home is their largest asset, says Marguerita Cheng, chief executive officer of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. And that equity can be turned into income with a reverse mortgage. But homeowners shouldn't use a reverse mortgage to delay taking Social Security, or for any other reason, in the absence of an analysis that addresses trade-offs, risks and rewards.

"Future debt is a risk, but the risk has to be weighed with the reward of what is being created," says John Salter, an associate professor at Texas Tech University. "There are no free lunches. But we should always have a comprehensive toolbox of strategies, and we must find the right tool for each person."

Cheng agrees that a reverse mortgage or a home equity conversion mortgage (HECM) might not be right for every person in every situation. But, she says, a reverse mortgage could help many widows and divorcees who often have lower Social Security benefits, lower 401(k) and IRA balances and increased health care costs achieve a better outcome in retirement.

• Manage longevity risk. Tom Davison, a partner emeritus with Summit Financial Strategies, says using a reverse mortgage to delay taking Social Security is primarily a risk reduction strategy rather than an income-maximization strategy.

"As risk reduction, it does indeed maximize income, especially in the later years," he says. "And the 'later years' is the key. It pushes the most possible inflation-adjusted, tax-advantaged dollars into those years."

• Manage sequence-of-return risk. Retirement researchers increasingly say homeowners ought to consider a HECM with a line of credit to manage the risk of having to withdraw money from retirement during down markets. The researchers call withdrawing money from falling retirement account balances sequence-of-return risk.

• When not to use reverse mortgage. "Everyone wants to age in place," Cheng says. "But reverse mortgages don't make sense if it's not the right home to age in place. They also may not make sense if the house is too expensive to maintain."