Wells Fargo on the Road to Damascus

I had to be cynical about Wells Fargo’s marquee sponsorship of the 2012 Assets Learning Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, which began yesterday and continues this morning.

Everyone here has made it their cause to help poor Americans build savings and equity. Wells Fargo, along the rest of the industry, has been sufficiently vilified for largely destroying household equity in the financial crisis that it was incongruous to see Jon Campbell, the Wells Fargo executive vice president in charge of social responsibility, take the podium at breakfast this morning.

Campbell, however, convinced me that his industry was working on “earning the trust” of the poor, and the people who are trying to help them.

“I want you to know that we’re really trying to listen. I know that doesn’t always seem to be the case,” he said, adding, “Clearly we’re not perfect. We’ve learned that the hard way over the last few years.”

He talked about the workshops that Wells Fargo and other banks have held to help customers stay current on their mortgages, which many facing foreclosure have felt to be ironic and even offensive. “People are embarrassed, they’re afraid, they’re upset, they’re angry, they don’t want to see us,” Campbell said.

He also said, though, that the bank had been able to resolve problems within weeks for half of the customers who attended the workshops.

It’s true that the bank has a real capitalistic interest in keeping its debtors in their homes, since banks lose money on foreclosures. Wells Fargo has already forgiven $5.5 billion in its customers’ principal, Campbell said.

Whatever motivations they may have, it’s good news for all of us that banks are supporting this conference and the 1,300 economists, consumer advocates, and activists who organizers expect will attend today. (Bank of America, Citi, Capital One, and TD Bank are also sponsors.)

I’ll be posting more updates later on.

Max Ehrenfreund

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund