You can't say they didn't try.
During M&T Bank's third-quarter earnings conference call Friday, analysts directed no fewer than 17 questions at Chief Financial Officer René Jones about the Buffalo, N.Y., company's pending deal to buy the $38 billion-asset Hudson City Bancorp in Paramus, N.J.
The closing date has been postponed twice and is currently projected to be no later than Dec. 31. The Federal Reserve Board is holding up the deal while the $97 billion-asset M&T spends about $200 million to upgrade compliance with anti-money-laundering laws to win the Fed's stamp of approval.
Understandably, the investment community on Friday wanted some kind of update on what's going on. M&T's press release announcing earnings said essentially nothing on the subject, except for referring to the "substantial progress" it has made on strengthening its compliance systems. The press release did not even include the words "Hudson City."
So, analysts asked Jones for more details.
Jones gave one tidbit: the Fed would have to complete a final review of M&T's compliance project before signing off or rejecting the Hudson City deal.
Otherwise, Jones spent a lot of time talking, but betrayed little.
The questions for Jones were phrased in every conceivably different way imaginable to pry something — anything — out of Jones.
"Do you all still hope to be able to close the deal by yearend?" asked Bob Ramsey of FBR Capital Markets.
"What takes the [merger] application that is sitting at the Fed to the meeting that they will have at some day in the future to vote to approve or disapprove? What is the catalyst that puts it in front of them on the agenda to vote?" Gerard Cassidy, of RBC Capital Markets, asked.
"Can you walk us through where you are in that [anti-money-laundering compliance] hiring and consulting spend?" asked Ken Usdin, an analyst at Jefferies.
"In order to sort of talk with the Fed and say, 'Here we have made substantial compliance progress.' And for the Fed to say [they] can approve this Hudson City merger or not [even though they may require] more test work, is a third-party review something that they would need to see in order to do that … to move things along with the Hudson City merger?" KBW analyst Brian Klock wanted to know.
Jones was equally adept at avoiding saying anything too revealing about M&T's discussions with the Fed or his thoughts on whether the matter will be resolved soon.
Here is a sampling of Jones' responses, in no particular order:
"You just have to let that process take its course and give the regulators time to make their assessments and do what they feel is the appropriate thing to do."
"We are both very, very committed to the transaction. All the economics are still there."
"We are sort of on track with the commitments we have made."
"We really have made a lot of progress. We feel that we are on track."
"We believe our progress to date has been substantial."
"There is nothing sort of in that timeline … that has surprised us."
"As soon as we were to hear something in any direction, it would be our response to talk to you guys about it and to mention it."
The reason that M&T postponed the deadline a second time was because "by providing that sort of 12-month window in the discussions that we had between M&T and Hudson City was to ensure that we could provide enough time to show that we could make the substantial progress that we are talking about that we talked about today."
During the interrogation, Jones took a few moments to express his condolences on the Sept. 11 passing of Ronald Hermance, the chairman and chief executive of Hudson City. Hermance "was very, very close to us, he was a good friend with a lot of roots in western New York and a lot in common with us," he said.
Then Jones returned to the prevarication, at one point turning the tables on Ramsey of FBR.
"It sounds like maybe the [Dec. 31, 2014] deadline is more formality than anything else and that all parties seem committed and you guys continue to move forward and do everything. I mean, it doesn't sound like it is a hard stop. Is that fair?" Ramsey asked.
"Define hard stop," Jones said.
"As if, Dec. 31 comes and the deal has not been approved, as if it would unwind somehow," Ramsey responded.
"Well, it is been a long dance and we all still like each other," Jones said. "We will just have to see what happens."
M&T's quarterly earnings were almost an afterthought. For the record, they fell 9% to $252 million, from a year earlier, in large part because of higher expenses related to the compliance upgrade for the Hudson City deal.