September 14, 2016

Nice Guys Finish Last? You Can Bank on It

Remember when you were growing up in elementary school, and the teachers made pretty much everything a competition versus your peers in order to keep your attention and teach you valuable life skills? Perhaps it was determining who got to walk at the head of the line on the way to lunch by who did the best on a quiz, rather than deciding based on height (which I, at 6’3” would have preferred). These incentives were used to motivate us to work harder in order to have a chance to reap the rewards, as well as to convey a sense of “fairness” about the process which would otherwise be seen as a process involving either favoritism or randomness (or both) on the part of the teacher. As economists, we recognize how valuable such incentives can be as a motivational tool. The (unintended?) consequence of all of this competition among school children is that the common refrain, “he cheated!” rings out across the schoolyard on a frequent basis. And why shouldn’t some children test the boundaries, immediately discovering whether the costs of cheating outweigh the benefits, as they are caught and sent to the back? Thus, the incentive to cheat is greatly restrained by the swift doling out of a penalty moving you to the back of the line. The added benefit is that those students who don’t cheat aren’t relegated to the middle or even the back, due to the immediate punishments of the wrongdoers.

Things work out well in the school competition scenario described above, but with a slightly different set-up of incentives things can quickly go awry. This appears to have been the case for Wells Fargo, as the bank was recently fined $185 million due to the discovery that many of its employees had “cheated” by opening fake accounts in order to receive bonuses associated with meeting sales goals. It has been widely acknowledged that there have been winners and losers as a result of this practice. There are the account holders who never consented to having new accounts opened in their names, but were still charged fees associated with those accounts. Wells Fargo has agreed as part of the settlement to refund those approximately $2.6 million. There is the Wells Fargo Unit Leader who oversaw the “cheaters,” who left with $125 million just after news of the scandal broke. This is akin to a teacher getting credit for her students’ impressive test scores, only to find out later that the students had cheated. And of course, there are the 5300 employees who were eventually fired for “cheating” by opening the fraudulent accounts.

But there is one affected group which has largely been ignored in this situation; the Wells Fargo employees that simply chose not to cheat. Unlike the schoolchildren in the example above, the offending employees who cheated were not caught and reprimanded immediately, but rather over a five-year period that culminated in the recent ruling. Throughout those five years, there were thousands of Wells Fargo employees who played by the rules, and didn’t open fraudulent accounts. Because the penalties weren’t immediate, these honest employees were relegated to the middle/end of the metaphorical line. Where are the articles calling for these “nice guys” to be compensated for lost bonuses that they may have rightly earned had everyone played by the rules?

To be fair, even the honest employees would have benefited some from Wells Fargo’s success before the cards came tumbling down. If they owned stock in the company, they would have seen the rising value as the company appeared to be performing better than it actually was. If they are still holding that stock, however, those gains would have quickly dissipated this week. It could also be argued that some honest employees were only able to be retained by Wells Fargo over this period due to the company’s relative success. However, the flip-side of that coin is that some honest employees may have been fired for not meeting elevated sales goals that would have been lower had the cheating not occurred.

The problem here is that the lag in punishment for cheaters leads to what amounts to an immediate punishment for non-cheaters, which is never fully rectified. Wells Fargo has even announced that they are removing the sales goals in an effort to restructure incentives, but they aren’t going as far as to retroactively compensate the “honest” employees according to the new pay structure. They are now “Taking appropriate actions—including disciplinary‚ to address those who have served our customers in ways that were counter to our ‘Vision & Values,’” but make no mention of addressing those who served customers honestly and by the rules.

From an economic perspective, it is important to consider that people are rationally motivated by incentives, but that they may not realize or consider the negative impact that their actions have on others. However, this does not mean that the negatively impacted group should be ignored or forgotten. It’s important not only to punish those who cheat, but also to be sure that those who play by the rules get their turn at the front of the line.

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