It calls itself America's strongest bank-but compared with some of its competitors, UMB Financial Corp. seems a weak sister.

With $7.6 billion of assets, Kansas City, Mo.-based UMB reported a 12% decline in 1998 income, to $54 million. Excluding a one-time charge for liquidating its pension program, earnings were down 4%.

Fourth-quarter profits were up 3%, to $17 million. But many regional banks of similar size reported double-digit income growth in the period.

Profitability ratios are telling. UMB earned 0.96% on assets and 10.41% on equity in the yearend quarter. By comparison, hometown rival Commerce Bancshares, with $11.4 billion of assets, earned 1.46% on assets and 16% on equity. It reported a 10% increase in net income, to $40 million.

At any other bank, UMB's performance would make it ripe for takeover. But UMB is closely held.

Its chairman and CEO, R. Crosby Kemper, whose grandfather founded the bank, owns 19% of UMB's stock. His son, president Alexander C. Kemper, owns 3%.

All told, the Kemper family, UMB employees, and board members own about half of the company's shares. And the largest institutional investor is its lead bank, United Missouri Bank.

Three years ago dissident investor Gary Dickinson tried to force a sale of UMB; the company responded by buying his stock. It is said that UMB will never be for sale so long as the elder Mr. Kemper, 71, is alive.

Most people believe his son is not about to fool with that approach. Alexander Kemper, 33, is an imposing figure-6 foot 4, his head completely shaved-and observers say he challenges those who disagree with his company's strategy.

(Many shares of rival Commerce Bancshares are held by another wing of the Kemper family; Commerce's CEO, David Kemper, is Crosby Kemper's cousin. Commerce is one of the best-performing banks in Missouri.)

Stock analysts recommend against buying UMB shares.

"They definitely march to the beat of a different drummer, but I don't think Crosby Kemper is afraid to admit that," said analyst Joseph Stieven of Stifel, Nicolaus Inc., St. Louis.

"It's not the easiest company to figure out," Mr. Stieven said. "All they talk about is long term-and the long term is very long term."

UMB's philosophy, as its motto suggests, is to be the best-prepared bank in an economic downturn.

It is not a risk-taking company. While most banks were reporting big jumps in commercial lending in the fourth quarter, UMB's commercial loans were down 6%. UMB boasts of its sizable capital base. Its equity-to-assets ratio is 8.67%, more than twice the regulatory minimum required.

"This is a very, very conservative company," said Joseph Roberto, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

Mr. Roberto does not recommend buying UMB's stock, because "the returns are mediocre and the growth is disappointing." On the other hand, he said, "if the economy tanks, they could look good."

Another analyst, who did not want to be identified, said the elder Mr. Kemper placates investors by prophesying doom for the banking industry.

"He's constantly predicting the next Great Depression," the analyst said.

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