Big Banks 'Tarnished' Industry's Reputation: M&T's Wilmers

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"Wall Street juggernaut." "Self-interested, not high minded."

"Increasingly opaque financial instruments."

No, that's not an Occupy Wall Street protestor or a New York Times op-ed columnist talking. It's a banker, M&T Bank (MTB) chairman and chief executive Robert G. Wilmers, voicing a resentment toward the too-big-to-fail conglomerates that's increasingly evident among executives at small and midsize institutions.

In his annual letter to shareholders Wilmers stepped up his attacks on the largest banks. He reiterated his belief that their dealings sparked the financial crisis and argued they have damaged the banking industry's credibility by continuing to pay exorbitant salaries to executives and employing armies of lobbyists to fight financial regulation.

He also wrote that repeated infractions by the nation's six-largest bank holding companies, which he never identified by name, have only reinforced public cynicism about the industry.

The six banks — it's not hard to figure out that he's referring to JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — have been hit by more than 200 separate fines, sanctions or legal awards over the past decade, totaling close to $48 billion, Wilmers wrote in his 20-page missive attached to the Buffalo bank's annual report.

"Because the Wall Street juggernaut has tarnished the reputation of banking as a whole, it is difficult if not impossible for bankers — who once were viewed as thoughtful stewards of the economy — to plausibly play a leadership role today," Wilmers wrote. "Inevitably, their ideas and proposals to help right our financial system will be viewed as self-interested, not high-minded."

Wilmers, who has headed M&T for three decades, has long used his annual letter to shareholders as a forum to comment on broader economic issues.

The causes of the financial crisis have been a consistent theme in recent years, and while he cites several culprits — including Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the ratings agencies — he's reserved his sharpest criticism for megabanks that he says "distorted" the overall economy by "betting on and borrowing against increasingly opaque financial instruments, built on algorithms not underwriting."

In his latest letter, released last month, Wilmers blasted the largest banks for continuing to award its CEOs seven-figure pay packages ("fueled not by lending but by trading") at a time when many Americans are unemployed and underemployed. He also criticized them for opposing the Volcker rule in the Dodd-Frank Act that that would limit their ability to invest in hedge funds and their capacity to trade for their own accounts "while enjoying the backing of deposit insurance."

The six firms, he wrote, employ more than 230 lobbyists and last year spent $31.5 million on lobbying activities.

Though supportive of the Volcker rule, Wilmers has otherwise been sharply critical of financial reform, which he argues is disproportionately affecting regional and community banks that "did not engage in excessive risk-taking" and still make most of their money from taking deposits and making loans.

Wilmers says that M&T's own compliance costs have roughly doubled over the last eight years, to $95.1 million in 2011, and will rise even more when the Dodd-Frank Act is in full effect.

Meanwhile, new price controls on debit-card transactions and restrictions on banks' ability to cover customers' overdrafts — both of which were implemented in direct response to the financial crisis — will reduce M&T's revenues by roughly $140 million a year.

The added compliance burden is hampering banks' ability to lend and, more broadly, threatening the global economy, Wilmers says. The development of new "policies, procedures and protocols," he wrote, "has created a level of complexity that will decrease the efficiency of the U.S. financial system for years to come — and hamper the flow of trade and commerce for the foreseeable future."

With $77 billion in assets and 800 branches in eight states and the District of Columbia, M&T ranks among the nation's 35 largest banking companies. Since it is over the $50 billion threshold, it is considered systemically important and thus subject to stricter capital and stress-test requirements than smaller banks.

To prevent a further onslaught of regulation, Wilmers says bankers must regain the trust of lawmakers and regulators by proposing ideas that will "serve the general interest, not their own agendas.

"These discussions should be premised not on confrontation nor framed by fear, but, rather based on the understanding that a safe and secure financial system is a prerequisite for a healthy economy — arguably our most important, shared national goal."

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Comments (1)
Robert Wilmers shows the chutzpah to say what a lot of bankers are thinking at small and midsized institutions--namely that the biggest banks have poisoned the well for everyone. Unfortunately, instead of keeping things simple, our political leaders are now trying to micro-manage our financial system via Dodd-Frank, Volcker, etc. and are wreaking all manner of collateral damage. A more simple and elegant response might be to bring back Glass-Steagall and prevent big banks from gambling with government-guaranteed deposits. Neil Weinberg, Editor in Chief, American Banker.
Posted by Neil Weinberg | Tuesday, April 10 2012 at 5:22PM ET
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