M&T's Wilmers Scolds Big Banks, Warns About Income Gap

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Sticking with recent tradition, Robert Wilmers, chairman and chief executive of M&T Bank (MTB), used his annual letter to shareholders to skewer the "too big to fail" banks that he believes are to blame for the financial crisis.

In a twist, his newest letter threw a dash of populism into the mix.

Wilmers, who has been the Buffalo, N.Y., company's CEO for most of the past 30 years, name-checked Bill Clinton, Al Gore and George McGovern — all Democrats — in the letter released on Wednesday. And he lambasted leaders of the largest banks for widening the gap between rich and poor in the U.S.

Wilmers, 78, retained some street cred with his fellow bankers, most of whom are presumably on the opposite side of the political fence from Clinton and Gore. His letter scolded accountants for foisting too much complexity on the industry and the government for piling on too many regulations.

Compensation for executives at the biggest banks "stokes the public antipathy" for the banking industry as a whole, he wrote. The amounts paid to CEOs of the largest banks "appear to be simply stratospheric — making possible a life-style which seems distant to Middle America."

M&T disclosed in its proxy materials this week that Wilmers will receive a $950,000 base salary in 2013, along with a $195,000 bonus based on last year's performance. His stock awards were assigned a value of $1.9 million for 2013.

"Our industry cannot ignore the fact that the growing divide between rich and poor … it poses a threat to our democracy and social order," he wrote in his letter.

"Traditional banking" employees make 1.2 times the compensation of the average U.S. worker, he wrote. Employees at the "Big Six" banks are paid three times more than average U.S. workers, and an unnamed member of the "Big Six" pays its employees five times more. Big Six CEOs are paid 234 times more.

(Wilmers did not define "traditional banking," nor did he specifically identify the "Big Six," though he later refers to the six as the largest U.S. bank holding companies.)

It's time for bankers to take pay cuts, he added, writing that the "time is right for boards and executives to end the party of their own volition."

Wilmers used comments that Clinton made during a presidential election campaign to describe the towns where M&T does business, and to compare those towns' values to the M&T corporate culture. "In his acceptance speech [Clinton] said Al Gore and he came from towns where people knew when they were born and cared when they died," he wrote. "Many of M&T's communities are such places and as such they are more representative of the values of Middle America than of Wall Street or Hollywood."

Wilmers proposed another prescription for the banking industry — accounting reform. An onslaught of rules and standards promulgated by the Financial Accounting Standards Board has made the business of banks extraordinarily complex. That, in turn, creates public distrust of the banking industry.

"We have an accounting system that is too complicated to understand, confuses more than it resolves, and operates in a manner that has been beneficial mostly to itself," he wrote.

Wilmers, as expected, also criticized the Dodd-Frank Act and Basel III, saying that excessive regulation is inhibiting banks' ability to lend. "We might consider this a kind of misguided regulatory chemotherapy — where the treatment meant to eliminate cancer cells damages healthy ones in the process," he wrote.

But, in keeping with his populist overtones, Wilmers admitted that some regulation is needed.

"I am not opposed to regulation and compliance where it adds to the public good," he wrote. "In some cases they are appropriate and could be constructive for the industry."

Finally, Wilmers fired a shot across the bow at his hometown rival, First Niagara Financial Group (FNFG), though he did not identify it by name. When HSBC Bank put 195 branches in New York and Connecticut up for sale last year, M&T took a hard look at buying them, but its offer "fell short of the eventual pricing," Wilmers wrote.

First Niagara won by agreeing to pay $1 billion. "Some of the very concerns that led to our skittish approach towards the transaction have proven beneficial in the aftermath," Wilmers wrote.

Because M&T is already the top bank in upstate New York, "we were concerned about the likelihood of mandatory divestitures and the feasibility of a quick redeployment of acquired deposits into loans," he wrote. Further, M&T worried it might lose customers because of market disruption.

M&T ended up benefiting from the change in ownership. Regulators required First Niagara to sell some HSBC branches; it ultimately sold those offices to three buyers, including KeyCorp (KEY). The marketplace confusion has been a boon for M&T, Wilmers wrote.

"We have acquired customers, made loans and received new deposits at a pace unseen in upstate New York for a very long time," Wilmers wrote.

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