Not long ago, as I was leaving a business lunch, my luncheon companion handed me a thin manila envelope. He didn’t tell me what was in it or why he had given it to me, but as soon as I opened it up, I immediately understood.
It contained a copy of the 2010 annual report to shareholders by a bank executive I’d never met: Robert G. Wilmers. For nearly 30 years, Wilmers has run the M&T Bank, based in Buffalo. When he took it over, M&T had $2 billion in assets; today, its assets exceed $68 billion, and it’s one of the most highly regarded regional bank holding companies. It has also been one of the best performing stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index; indeed, M&T was one of only two banks in the S.& P. 500 that didn’t cut its dividend during the financial crisis.
Wilmers’s report, however, was less about the company’s numbers than about the dismal state of his beloved profession. Wilmers, it turns out, is that rarest of birds: a banker willing to tell harsh truths about banking. That, for instance, much of the money the big banks earn comes from trading profits “rather than the prudent extension of credit that furthers commerce.” That derivatives had helped bring about the crisis and needed to be regulated. That bank executives were wildly overpaid. That the biggest banks — the Too Big to Fail Banks — were operating, as he put it, an “unsafe business model.”