What Makes M&T A Great Community Bank?

A few months ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about M&T Bank appearing “to be just another big regional lender — but that doesn’t account for its CEO.”  Their piece coincided with our editorial team’s preliminary analysis of this strong financial institution.  We wondered: what’s behind M&T’s consistent success, why and how does M&T work like a community bank — and how is M&T playing a unique role reshaping public schools in Buffalo, New York?  These questions form the basis for Bank Director Magazine’s current cover story.  Authored by our Editor-in-Chief Jack Milligan, what follows is an account of how this upstate New York bank grew by making “quality loans to worthy borrowers” while following the lead of its dynamic Chief Executive..
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Any bank that exceeds $50 billion in assets carries the regulatory designation of being a Systemically Important Financial Institution, or SIFI. As such, they are subject to stricter supervision by the Federal Reserve than smaller banks receive, including higher capital requirements and mandatory stress testing. A community bank is an amorphous concept that means different things to different people, but certain characteristics are implied in the common understanding: It usually has a strong business focus and makes most of its money from lending, it has deep roots in the community because that is where its customers are located, and it is small. “Small” within this context is also imprecise. Certainly any institution that meets that definition under $1 billion would be considered a community bank, although many institutions over that threshold level would make the same claim.

But what about a Buffalo, New York-based $123 billion asset bank that operates in eight states and the District of Columbia?

M&T Bank Corp., the top ranked bank in Bank Director’s 2017 Bank Performance Scorecard for the $50 billion and above asset category, lives in both worlds.  M&T is the country’s 18th largest commercial bank and must adhere to all the requirements of a SIFI. But it also has deep roots in the communities it serves—as deep as most smaller banks. M&T not only meets the consumer and business banking needs of those communities, but also spends time and money trying to make them better places to live.

In this, M&T reflects the interests and values of its 83-year-old chairman and chief executive officer, Robert G. Wilmers, who has run the bank since 1983 when it had just $2 billion in assets. Wilmers believes deeply in the importance of strong local communities, if his 2016 letter to M&T’s shareholders is any guide. In the letter, Wilmers expressed concern about the health and well being of middle-class families and small-business owners who form the foundation of M&T’s customer base. The culprits that Wilmers identified are a monetary policy that has kept interest rates low, and excessive regulation. Low rates have benefited the wealthy more than middle-class families, who tend to be savers rather than investors. And M&T’s customer research has found that while small companies could benefit from borrowing at today’s low rates, many business owners are reluctant to expand in what they feel is an overregulated environment.

“Policies designed to benefit the majority have perversely only benefited a few,” he wrote. “The impacts of these decisions … are real,” Wilmers added. “In particular, the middle class and small businesses are losing ground. So, too, are their communities.”

M&T has a relatively straightforward business model compared to other institutions its size. M&T focuses its lending on consumers and small- and middle-sized businesses, and also provides wealth management and fiduciary services through its Wilmington Trust subsidiary to individuals and corporations. It doesn’t have a capital markets operation or wide array of specialty lending businesses, so it has some of the business model characteristics of a community bank, if not the size.

As is common with many Scorecard winners, M&T’s performance was marked by its balance. It did not place first in any of the five metrics that make up the Scorecard—return on average assets, return on average equity, the ratio of tangible common equity to tangible capital, nonperforming assets as a percentage of loans and other real estate owned, and net charge offs as a percentage of average loans. Its best scores were fifth place finishes for return on assets and net charge offs out of 22 banks in the $50 billion and above category. Scorecard winners tend to be those banks that do well on all of the metrics rather than dominating one or two.

The bank reported net income for 2016 of $1.32 billion, a 22 percent increase over 2015. Although fee income growth was essentially flat in a year-over-year comparison, loan growth was strong in 2016, with commercial and industrial credits growing 11 percent and commercial real estate loans 15 percent for the year. Residential real estate loans actually declined 14 percent last year as the bank let many of the jumbo mortgages that came with its 2015 acquisition of Hudson City Bancorp run off. M&T also shed nearly $2.6 billion in interest-bearing deposits it acquired with Hudson City, a thrift that relied on certificates of deposit for most of its funding. This 34 percent decline in high-cost liabilities, combined with its strong loan growth, resulted in a 22 percent rise in the bank’s net interest income for the year. M&T’s efficiency ratio dropped from 58.0 percent in 2015 to 56.1 last year, and this improvement also helped boost its profitability.

Over the long term, M&T has been a good performer in terms of asset quality and their earnings profile … and they tend to do well among large bank peers,” says Rita Sahu, a credit research analyst who covers M&T for Moody’s Investors Service. Sahu points out that M&T’s expenses were higher in 2014 and 2015 because of some charges related to the Hudson City purchase, and also because the bank had to spend heavily to strengthen its Bank Secrecy Act compliance infrastructure before the Fed would approve the Hudson City acquisition. Putting those issues behind it also helped boost the bank’s profitability last year.

M&T has attracted a strong following among institutional investors who value its predictability. The bank hasn’t posted a quarterly loss going back to 1976, and also had the lowest percentage of credit losses among money center and superregional banks during the financial crisis. Investors especially appreciate how much the bank’s stock price has, well, appreciated. Frank Schiraldi, an equity analyst at Sandler O’Neill + Partners who covers M&T, says the stock’s total return since June 1997 is 747 percent. This performance easily beats both the S&P 500 and SNL Mid Cap U.S. Bank Index for total return. M&T’s own investor presentation points out that just 23 of the 100 largest U.S. banks that were operating in 1983 when Wilmers took over are still around today. Among those, M&T ranks number one in stock price appreciation, with a compound average growth rate of 15 percent. “That’s pretty special,” Schiraldi says.

An important contributor to M&T’s performance last year was the acquisition of Hudson City, which closed in November 2015. Headquartered in Paramus, New Jersey, Hudson City operated on a traditional thrift model with its reliance on high- cost time deposits to fund a home loan origination platform that was heavily focused on jumbo mortgages, a product that M&T did not offer. So why did M&T do the deal? “If you looked at our distribution network prior to Hudson City, it was like a bagel and New Jersey was the hole,” explains Vice Chairman Rich Gold. “We had it surrounded, but we had nothing in New Jersey. This strategically filled a hole and now when you look at our distribution we’re covered from New York all the way down to Richmond, Virginia.”

While Hudson City was important for its geography, there were certain things it didn’t offer. As a traditional thrift, it had only a small percentage of core deposits and little in the way of business or consumer loans. “Our challenge now is to make something more out of the franchise than what it was,” says Gold. That transformation is underway, and it’s a process that M&T is very practiced at. Hudson City was M&T’s 23rd acquisition of either branches or whole institutions since 1987, and many of those deals involved thrifts. Gold says that successfully introducing a bank culture to a thrift takes time, and is facilitated by taking experienced M&T managers and seeding them throughout the old thrift franchise. “They understand the drill,” he says. “They understand what needs to be done. They understand the cultural complexion of [M&T] and are able to not only represent that but teach it.”

Announced in August 2012, the Hudson City deal would take over three years to close because of deficiencies the Fed found in M&T’s risk management infrastructure, particularly its BSA and anti-money laundering compliance efforts. The acquisition of Hudson City was going to substantially increase M&T’s asset size, and the Fed required that the bank strengthen its risk management program accordingly. “We probably did outgrow our infrastructure,” says Gold. “That’s shame on us. We missed that cue and we shouldn’t have, and I think we all recognize that and readily admit that.” M&T would eventually invest hundreds of millions of dollars building out an enterprise risk management infrastructure, including BSA and anti-money laundering compliance, an effort that was led by Gold.

And yet for all that, Hudson City has still turned out to be a good acquisition for M&T, even if it took much longer for the benefits to surface than anyone there expected. “It was still accretive from an earnings standpoint and from a tangible book value standpoint, so financially it was still a very good deal,” says Schiraldi. The Hudson City deal could also turn out to be a big driver of M&T’s growth over the next couple of years as the bank continues to build out the New Jersey franchise.

The bank made a $30 million tax-deductible cash contribution to the M&T Charitable Foundation in the fourth quarter of last year, which reduced its net income by $18 million, or 12 cents of diluted earnings per common share. For all of 2016, the M&T Charitable Foundation contributed $28 million to more than 3,600 not-for-profit organizations across its footprint, and its employees contributed over 234,000 volunteer hours.

Of course, many banks support community activities with their time and money. But few bank CEOs have stated their commitment quite so publicly as Wilmers has, and one undertaking in particular reflects both his values and interests—as do many things at the bank. With an undergraduate degree from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, Wilmers has put his stamp on the bank during the 34 years that he has run it. Its relatively simple business model of checking accounts, loans and investment management advice fits comfortably with Wilmers’ description of the role that banks are supposed to play. “Banks are there to take care of people’s surplus liquidity, and help them buy a car and build a house and manage a business,” he said in an interview. “Part of that is making sure that things go well in the community, and that’s sort of like being for Mother’s Day.”

Wilmers is not the easiest interview for a journalist. He is polite and courteous, but has a tendency to reply to most questions with a brief answer or a deflection. An hour spent with him is to experience a fox hunt from the perspective of the hound. But Wilmers’ commitment to community—and particularly education—is real. He gives full voice to both in his 2016 shareholders letter, with roughly half of its 34 pages devoted to those concerns. (He also spent a lot of time complaining about bank regulation.) But when asked whether the American Dream, as it is embodied in middle-class families and small-business owners, is beginning to fray, Wilmers had this to say: “[Thirty years ago], 70 percent of the work force didn’t have a high school degree. Thirty years from now, 70 percent of the work force will need more than a college degree, in a time when arguably our educational system is getting worse, not better. That’s a big, big problem.”

And it’s a problem that M&T has spent its own time and money on. In 1993, the bank took over School 68, a poorly performing public school in the northeast section of Buffalo, an inner city neighborhood where, today, 33 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is nearly 12 percent. School 68 was converted to a not-for-profit charter school in 2004 and renamed the Westminster Community Charter School, and today it teaches 550 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade. M&T has invested $16.6 million in the school to date, which includes a significant renovation to the building, and it manages all of the school’s operations. “Bob’s whole goal with Westminster was to see if he could change student academic outcomes and students’ lives and [their] families’ lives,” says Pamela Hokanson, president and senior director of schools for Buffalo Promise Neighborhood (BPN), an umbrella organization that oversees the school. As a charter school, Westminster receives about 60 percent of its funding from the State of New York. M&T and the Annie Casey Foundation provide the balance of the funding.

Walking through the facility with Hokanson and Principal Rob Ross on an afternoon in late May of this year, the halls were full of the joyful noise of children who seemed very happy to be there. Tuition is free and the school has a 95 percent attendance rate, the highest of any school in the City of Buffalo, according to Ross. “Of course, social ills creep in every now and then, but our goal is that the students’ experience in school should be safe, it should be positive, and we want them to walk away thinking of something they did today, whether it was the book they read or how they solved a problem with classmates as they were working through math or science,” Ross says.

In 2011, M&T was awarded a five-year, $6 million grant by the U.S. Department of Education to establish BPN, which M&T matched and Hokanson was then able to use as leverage to raise an additional $18 million from other organizations. The Buffalo Promise program now includes two additional schools, one of them an early learning center that was built in 2013 and acts as a feeder to Westminster. M&T contributed $3.5 million toward its construction. The bank also spent approximately $1.5 million renovating homes in the BPN footprint in 2014 and 2015.

M&T’s financial support is vital to BPN in other ways as well. Hokanson is actually an employee of the bank—her bank title is administrative vice president—but she is just one of eight bank employees who work for BPN. Sixteen other BPN employees are funded through an Annie Casey Grant and the M&T Charitable Foundation.

It is doubtful that M&T makes much, if any, money off of the nearly 12,000 residents who live in the BPN community. But it is a community that Wilmers and M&T have invested heavily in nonetheless. And there are children at Westminster whose lives are being changed as a result. Some years back, BPN created a scholarship program, also funded by M&T, that pays the tuition for its best students to attend the top private high schools in Buffalo. There are currently 30 students in the program. In May, the school hosted a dinner that was attended by all of the previous scholarship winners, plus the new class. Ross smiled when he talked about “seeing the dining hall filled with grandmas, and moms and dads and realizing that every one of those kids—yes, they got a scholarship—but they were working really hard not just to keep the scholarship but excel.”

Trying to make lives better. By anyone’s definition, that’s the work of a community bank.

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Our Bank Performance Scorecard is a ranking of the 300 largest U.S. banks, broken into three asset size categories. For a full explanation of the Scorecard and all of the rankings, click here.

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