Audit Notes: Overdraft Profiteering, Why the Complacency, ExecuLie Detector

The Associated Press reports that a federal judge has slammed too-big-to-fail bank Wells Fargo for “gouging and profiteering” via overdrafts. It’s going to cost Wells $200 million.

In a decision handed down late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup accused Wells Fargo of “profiteering” by changing its policies to process checks, debit card transactions and bill payments from the highest dollar amount to the lowest, rather than in the order the transactions took place. That helped drain customer bank accounts faster and drive up overdraft fees…

The judge found the customers, who were part of a class action, were not properly informed of the bank’s policies on processing payments and were unaware the bank would allow debit purchases to go through when their accounts were overdrawn.

My question: Why isn’t that illegal, and if it’s not, will there be a case? And will the executives who implemented these abusive policies ever even face a fine? Don’t bet on it.

— David Leonhardt writes today in The New York Times on how this deep recession is concentrating its impacts on a smaller subset of people. But he’s better at why nothing much is being done about it:

Over all, though, the downturn has still exacted a much harsher toll on the less educated. The unemployment rate for college graduates is still just 4.5 percent, and the gap between their pay and everyone else’s is larger than it has ever been. For most college graduates, the Great Recession has not lived up to its name.

College graduates. Like the press and the government and our social circles.

And this is very smart:

The least affected area is a band running from the Dakotas and Minnesota down to Texas and Louisiana. Continuing the concentration theme, this band includes some of the manufacturers and other businesses that have emerged from the recession the quickest.

This pattern probably helps explain why the Senate has taken such a leisurely approach to helping the economy in recent months. Many of the states in the best shape also have small populations and, as a result, outsize political power. In Nebraska, where the unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, there is one United States senator for every 900,000 people. In Florida, where the unemployment rate is 11.4 percent, there is one senator for every nine million people.

— The WSJ’s Deal Journal posts on an interesting paper out of Stanford that says it found a way to tell with high accuracy (50 percent to 65 percent of the time) when an executive is lying.

Executives who later had to revise their books displayed some very consistent clues.

For one, they seldom referred to themselves or their firms in the first person; “I” and “we” were replaced by terms like “the team” and “the company.” Deceitful executives passed up humdrum adjectives like “solid” and “respectable” in favor of gushing words like “fantastic,” and (not surprisingly) they seldom mentioned shareholder value.

They also tended buttress their points with references to general knowledge with phrases like “you know” and to make short statements with little hesitatation, presumably because they had carefully scripted the untruths in advance and had no interest in lingering on them.

The Journal’s sole public service Pulitzer came when a team of editors and reporters looked at a study on backdating and figured out a way to apply it to public company statements. Maybe a little computer-assisted reporting project could help sniff out some of the Wall Street crooks?

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.