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M&T, First Niagara may turn Buffalo into the next Charlotte

A prominent Wall Street investment strategist says Buffalo could become the next Charlotte, N.C., citing the rapid growth and success of M&T Bank Corp. and First Niagara Financial Group.

Robert Albertson, principal and chief investment strategist at Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP in New York, said the acquisitive expansion by the two Buffalo-based banks is similar to the rise of Bank of America Corp. and the former Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bank of America -- formerly NationsBank Corp. -- is today the nation's biggest bank, while Wachovia -- formerly First Union Corp. -- was the fourth-largest U.S. bank. It was acquired by Wells Fargo & Co. in late 2008 after heavy loan losses forced it to seek a buyer.

But both banks had started off as small local institutions in North Carolina that bought their way to prominence. And now, he said, that cycle is starting again as a result of the financial crisis and recession.

"When one looks back in history, it is amazing that two of the largest banks in America came out of Charlotte, N.C. It wouldn't surprise people if it was San Francisco, Chicago or New York, but it was Charlotte," Albertson said Wednesday, reached by phone while on vacation in South America.

"I find it interesting that a new batch of superregional banks are being built, and at the moment, the city that is in the lead to do that is Buffalo, because both M&T and First Niagara, in different ways, have been building by acquisition, while other banks around the country are quite cautious.

"I think in a sense it's the new Charlotte. So I take my hat off to both banks. They're really thinking out of the box. And the good news is the ones that start at the beginning and do it first usually win."

Albertson's views were cited in a report Wednesday evening on CNBC.


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