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April 20—After COVID took hold in 2020, many of those who could high-tailed it out of the crowded cities where they worked and headed for home offices in the ‘burbs, as office buildings gathered dust. Today, although rents have bounced back from all-time lows and then some,  working remotely is still very much with us—as is the virus to an extent. Can cities regain their former luster? Chief Investment Officer Tony Roth looks at the current situation and explores what’s next for our urban centers with Dean of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Dr. Sherry Glied. 

Please listen to important disclosures at the end of the podcast.

The State of Our Cities: Recasting the Shadow Left by COVID

Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer, Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc.

Dr. Sherry Glied, Dean, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University

SHERRY GLIED: The thing that cities have going for them is that they create agglomerations of people who meet each other in unexpected, serendipitous ways and in person. If young people still want to meet each other in person in restaurants and bars, then young people will continue to come to cities. They will continue to be that kind of engine for growth.

TONY ROTH: That was Dr. Sherry Glied shedding a large degree of optimism on the future of cities in a new normal post-COVID.

Welcome to Capital Considerations, the market and economic podcast that’s fully invested in your success. I’m your host, Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer of Wilmington Trust.

Even as the country seems to finally move beyond COVID, we hope, and put the pandemic behind us, it seems like cities across the country, particularly in the Northeast, are very much in the crosshairs of what the pandemic has produced. Rents have bounced back from all-time lows and the concerns that pushed people out of cities in 2020 continue to exist. And then we have the advent, if you will, of remote work/work from home/hybrid work, whatever you may want to call it. And then, of course, you have the change in tax law, which makes it relatively punitive to live in some of these Northeast states and cities with high taxes.

So, when you put it all together, you do see a degree of I’m going to call struggle in some of these cities, perhaps lesser in a city like New York, which is quite international. But it’s a fascinating topic. So, today to help us cover this topic we have a really wonderful guest, Dr. Sherry Glied. Dr. Glied is the Dean of New York University’s Robert Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. And prior to this role, Dr. Glied was the Chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Columbia. She also served as the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration and as a Senior Economist for healthcare and labor market policy in the 1990s in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. She’s also been elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Social Insurance, and she is Director of the Empire State Development Corporation in New York, her home state. So, Dr. Glied, it’s going to be a really fun conversation. Thank you so much for joining it today.

SHERRY GLIED: Delighted to join you.

TONY ROTH: I’m a longtime New Yorker. I lived in New York City for many, many years. I adore the city. I feel like I’m privileged to be able to say I’m a New Yorker and I want the best for New York. And I know this podcast, this conversation’s broader than New York. But I sort of reeled off a litany of problems that these cities confront right now and one could probably go back in time and think about how bad things were in the ‘70s when you really had what I would describe as urban blight.

And I was out on the West Coast just recently, two-three weeks ago in Los Angeles and it’s just remarkable the homeless phenomenon that exists in some of the West Coast cities. When you put it all together, are we headed back towards a period, do you think, of real deterioration in our cities from all these factors? Start off by giving us your sort of high-level assessment.

SHERRY GLIED: So, I hope we are not moving back to those days. And I guess what I would say the thing that cities have going for them is that they create agglomerations of people who meet each other in unexpected, sort of serendipitous ways and in person. right? That’s what cities really allow us to do. If young people still want to meet each other in person in restaurants and bars, then young people will continue to come to cities after they graduate college and they will continue to be that kind of engine for growth.

So, this is not the same situation as I think we saw in the 1970s. It’s hard to analogize exactly what remote work and I think that whole constellation of changes will mean. I don’t think it is the 1970s.

TONY ROTH: But nonetheless, probably going to the core of the issue is, I think, that a lot of folks have realized that they don’t need to go work in a big office building to be successful. They might stay in the city if they’re young, but once they’re past their 20s or early 30s, they can go work in the suburbs, they can go mountaintop in Colorado, and maybe have the career that they had before with a different quality of life. And that is, I think, one of the things that represents—it feels almost existential for cities. What do you think?

SHERRY GLIED: So, I think there’s a couple of sides to this. On the one hand, it does suggest that the value of land in central cities that’s being used for office buildings is going to drop, right? If I were a developer and I was, or a landowner, and I owned some of those big office blocks, I’d be worried about it.

But the flipside of remote work is that you can work from anywhere, means you could also travel more, you can also engage in other ways. And I think one of the things that we are seeing is that remote workers want to have connections with their counterparts from time to time.

So, we could imagine cities moving away from their current configuration to one where more people are actually coming to the city, but for shorter periods of time. So, yes, you live out in Colorado, but you spend a week a month in New York City because that’s when you meet up with your counterparts and you visit restaurants and go to nightclubs or Broadway or whatever it is, right?

We could imagine other configurations of life that involve shorter trips or more tourism, different combinations of activity. And I think that’s how we need to be thinking about it. Not that we’re going to go back to the past. We’re not. It’s not the past with this piece pulled out of it; it’s a different future.

TONY ROTH: So, it sounds like we should think about a—when we get to a new steady state or equilibrium for cities, you’re saying it’s going to be different. And it sounds actually compelling from a real estate standpoint, because more of us might have a footprint, a real estate footprint, that spans, more than our primary residence, if you will. Does that—is that sort of what you’re saying?

SHERRY GLIED: Yeah, right. I mean, so imagine, one would imagine that there are lots of people who spend most of their time somewhere else and want to have an apartment in New York for when they go there, right? It’s interesting. The phenomenon of cities as we think of them today is a pretty recent phenomenon, really only something that began in the early 1990s say, even the mid-1980s, very much a consequence of two-earner families who didn’t want to be commuting all the time.

But, if you think about what a city was say in the 1950s, people lived in Connecticut in, you know, or in the garden suburbs of New York and the men came into the city for the day. Cities have existed in many different sort of permutations and I think that what we’re looking for is a new one.

TONY ROTH: So, hybrid work means hybrid lifestyle. But what does that mean for the revenue base of the cities? Because when you do look back at the ‘70s and think about what got the cities into such a horrible predicament, it had a lot to do with a very prolonged recession and the revenue base associated with the cities. And some of the cities are actually in much better shape than they were 10 or 20 years ago from an infrastructure standpoint. They’ve made a lot of progress, but they need to continue to have a decent amount of revenue given the density and the utilization of those resources.

And my notion from what you’re saying, having been a tax lawyer in New York for many years actually back in the ‘90s, is that I want to set up my life so that I’m not paying taxes to New York City or to New York State, maybe just for the days that I’m there. But even then, I’m going to be incented to spend a few days in New York working and to try to maximize my time out of New York that’s going to have a real hit. How do you factor that in?

SHERRY GLIED: So, I think as we think of cities operating in different ways, we are going to have to think about financing cities in operating in different ways and even thinking about sort of the hub-and-spoke regional models that we’ve thought about that have always existed where the spokes go out much further. So, one of my colleagues says, in effect, the commuting distance to major cities will move from sort of the maximum of about an hour-and-a-half to a maximum of about three hours and we’re going to have to think about a revenue base that takes that into account.

So, people who live three hours away from New York City are still in some ways dependent on the energy of the city. That’s where their office that they come to once a week or once a month is. How will we—we’re going to have to think about new ways of raising revenue that manage that.

TONY ROTH: Well, for example, here’s just one idea I think is that I lived for many years after I migrated out of the city when I had children to the fine town of Katonah, New York. And one of the things that I prided myself on was how smart I was to live in Katonah and work in the city, because I didn’t pay city tax even though I got to actually benefit from the economic ecosystem of the city from a career standpoint. And that seems like an obvious one that they may need to take a look at.

SHERRY GLIED: The politics behind all of this is challenging, right, because the state is going to have to think about how it—and not only one state, Connecticut and New Jersey as well, how do they think about what they’re doing from a revenue raising perspective that on the one hand makes their voters happy and on the other hand makes sure that this engine doesn’t die on them, which would make them worse off in the long run. That’s going to be very challenging politics.

TONY ROTH: So, when you think about the trajectory, it sounds like the ability of cities to attract young folks is going to be increasingly important, because you’re going to have people that get later career that are going to spend more time out of the city, whether they still have a foothold on the city or whether they don’t. So, how proactive do cities need to be, city governments, in making sure that they create the kind of environment that will attract young people and how do they do that? Because New York is different. New York is New York. You can see my allegiance here. But the rest of the cities really need to be a lot more purposeful, I think. How do cities do this?

SHERRY GLIED: So, I think you do see cities building kind of collective infrastructure in their downtowns to make it, to make them lively places where people can meet up, trying to create more opportunities for, you know, just restaurants and bars and cultural events and things that are happening. And you see this as a source of economic development opportunities all over. We see it happening all over New York State, but also all over the country that, you know, people want to be in places where things are happening. So, cities are investing and figuring out how they can promote things that are happening.

Let me add one more group of people that I think is really important to cities. And I think a little bit of the plight of what we’re seeing right now is related to that and that is immigrants. Historically, cities have been the place that immigrants go when they first come into a country, and we have seen a really rapid and very sharp decline in immigration into the United States over the past decade really and that has also had a big impact on cities.

So, again, it’s all about the newcomers, young people, immigrants, people coming from elsewhere. We focus a lot on the people who are already there. We need to focus on the people who are coming.

TONY ROTH: The immigration point I find to be a fascinating one because it’s not just illegal immigrants that have dropped in numbers, but it’s also legal immigrants. And we’re very politically neutral here on Capital Considerations. But we are, from an economic standpoint, as is every developed country, desperate for more people, more consumption, and more output.

SHERRY GLIED: I would also say that COVID restrictions have made immigration very, very slow; have made legal immigration very, very slow. I just read an estimate yesterday that we’re down something like two million legal immigrants, in part because we just haven’t processed anybody for a long time while the offices were closed. Now, we’re very concerned about public health, potentially entirely appropriately. But we have seen a big decline in immigration and that’s a direct problem for cities.

TONY ROTH: How do you see that going forward then, Dr. Glied? We have a very democratic and somewhat progressive administration. I would think that we’d be, they’d be chomping at the bit to sort of bring back the kind of immigration, certainly the legal immigration.

And I know that there’s the scenario right now down in the Mexican border where people are staging themselves to come back in the country as soon as we change. And I read about it, but I am not, I’m not up to date, so maybe you can help educate the audience into what’s going on there.

SHERRY GLIED: So, I am not a great expert on immigration, and I will say that the politics are remarkably toxic, right? So, whatever’s happening at the Mexican border is not being driven by what are we thinking about the long-run interests of the United States in employment market should be, not—neither by the proponents nor the opponents.

But I think we don’t often think about this as being something that’s related to the future health of cities and that’s where I would sort of pull it back, right? Cities are places that people move to. There may be a future of cities that also involves older people. One could imagine empty nesters moving back into the city and thinking about how do you do that? How do you build energy from people who are in their 60s and 70s and they’re like, okay, I’m done living in the middle of nowhere. I raised my kids. I don’t want to be this far away from everything and everybody. I’m not going skiing so much anymore. I want to be back in the city where I can meet people for coffee and do stuff.

So, I think, again, immigrants are one part of this. Anybody else who is potentially an inflow, that’s what you really want to be thinking about.

TONY ROTH: Well, I’m happy you’ve been maybe in the background speaking to my wife, Belle, because no offense to Pennsylvania, the day that my daughter goes to college and graduates high school, we’re selling the place and moving back to the city. So that was in our Ketubah, so that was part of the marriage contract.

SHERRY GLIED: But you know, but I think thinking about the cities in that way, thinking about, well, what do you need to do, what’s the infrastructure you need to put in place so people in their 60s and 70s and 80s find cities an attractive place to be and build up your tax base. These are people who have money. It’s great, right? Bring them in.

TONY ROTH: So, let’s talk about, for a moment, geographic variants in the country. So, I mentioned some of the problems with the West Coast cities which are pretty pervasive again. And the Northeast has been an area of sourcing people to the rest of the country, frankly, for many, many years. But I feel like some of that’s reversed with cities like Philadelphia, Boston really becoming I don’t know if gentrified is the right word, but really attractive, a new ascendancy. So, which cities are at the greatest risk of decay and which cities are doing it well?

SHERRY GLIED: This seems like an you can only lose kind of question, right? I don’t want to say any place is at the greatest risk of decay, but here’s a technique that somebody in health economics did a long time ago and I think it’s right. If tourists want to come to your city, you’re in good shape.

TONY ROTH: That’s a great—that’s a really fascinating insight.

SHERRY GLIED: Right? Because, if tourists want to come to your city, right, if tourists want to come to your city, people want to come to your city. They want to be there, and young people will come, and immigrants will come, and older people will come. And if you’re a place that nobody would ever want to visit, for a city it’s hard to see why you’d want to live there. It’s a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there, I actually think if it’s not a great place to visit, like why would you live there and not in a more spacious place farther out, right?

TONY ROTH: It takes a lot of imagination. I recently went to Louisville with my daughter. We went for a long weekend, and I’d never been in Louisville. They call it Louville. So, I think I’m saying it right.

SHERRY GLIED: Louville, yeah.

TONY ROTH: And who would’ve thought that Louisville had such a rich history. And the way that they were able to marshal their history and some of the facets of their culture, whether it be bourbon or the horse racing or the bridges that you can work over to Indiana from Kentucky, so many different facets that they, I think, created an environment and an experience that I would’ve never thought was commensurate with the role Louisville had played in the country and in the world relative to so many other cities or European cities, etcetera. And it was a great time.

SHERRY GLIED: Right. And so, you might, you know, and so young people might say, hey, this is a fun place to go to college, this is a fun place to move after college and do something. We think about industries locating someplace and then people moving there because the industry is there. That may be less of a model in a world of remote work. Maybe the better model in a world of remote work is that people want to be there so that’s where the industry wants to locate, right?

So, Google and Amazon are moving headquarters to New York City. Their moving office space into New York City. Well, why are they doing that? Not because they like to pay the New York City rent, but because they know that the young programmers and the young creative types that they need to attract want to be in the city.

So, it’s a kind of two-way thing. It’s the people that really are going to drive this much more than anything else that we might do.

TONY ROTH: Let me ask you another, yeah, let me ask you another angle on this, which is given the number of people on the planet and given the problem that we have from a climate standpoint, aren’t cities good? In other words, look at what China does.

SHERRY GLIED: Cities are best. Cities are the best. Cities are the best. They are much lower in carbon footprint than people living in the suburbs, right? Apartment buildings are much more efficient than houses.

TONY ROTH: No cars.

SHERRY GLIED: Public transit’s a lot better than cars. You have a lot more scope for doing the kinds of things that you want to do about climate in cities. And, you know, for all of the last several years people are still moving into cities. It’s the United States where the population has basically kind of stopped growing that where we’re seeing, you know, much more stagnation.

TONY ROTH: And when you talk about the United States, how do we compare to the other areas of the developed world from a health of the cities standpoint? I love to go to Europe. I love to visit the Paris’ and Barcelonas of the world and they seem to be so healthy and rich, and they don’t—even in—I’ve been actually since COVID to some of those places and they seem to be just fine and I’m not sure that they’ve ever had the same reliance on that commercial footprint of real estate of those finance and accounting and legal and other professionals, etcetera. They seem to be less exposed maybe.

SHERRY GLIED: So, one of the things that I had just found out, I did not know this, about a lot of those places is that they actually have more tourism. They have a lot more people coming through. Paris has, like I was looking at the number of hotel rooms in Paris per capita. It’s three times what it is in New York City.

Paris is a place that operates very heavily on the idea that people want to go to Paris, not that you have to go to Paris, but you want to go to Paris. Barcelona surely operates because people want to go to Barcelona, not because there’s anything that compels them to be there.

Another thing about those European cities is that they get a lot more federal money. They’re typically not as dependent on their own revenue base and that seems important. So, they’re able to build up their infrastructure in a way that is a lot trickier I think for many American cities. They’re also often capitols as well as, political capitols, as well as economic forces. So, they have some things going for them in that way.

I think we are at a very tough moment to be making those comparisons though, because the Europeans were able to travel among their cities pretty easily during COVID and it’s been hard for foreigners to come to the United States. It remains complicated with COVID restrictions. So, once those are completely lifted, I think that will give us a better sense of comparison.

TONY ROTH: I started the conversation with a reference to the waning of the pandemic and maybe putting that in the rearview mirror, but at the same time with the new COVID variant, the new Omicron variant, so-called B1A, we are seeing in a lot of areas, in Europe in fact we’re seeing record numbers. We have over the last month in Germany. We’re seeing probably the beginning of a, quite a wave in China.

Like anything in life, the longer that you are facing headwind, the harder it is to recover. And it probably makes a big difference for cities if, in fact, it’s mainly behind us versus if we have another wave or two. Do you have any feeling about the impact of future COVID outbreaks?

SHERRY GLIED: So, one of things about COVID is that it isn’t a particularly city phenomenon. We sort of thought it was at the beginning. But it turns out that being in a city is not a particularly important risk factor for COVID. Seeing people is a particularly important risk factor for COVID and you can see people anywhere.

It’s not really the people you walk by on the street who are giving it to you. It’s the people you sit down in a restaurant with and have dinner. So, those are your friends and that’s the way it’s mostly transmitted.

So, it’s actually in some ways about how we decide to address the rise in COVID cases more than COVID itself. And, of course, that will depend on what COVID does. But, you know, how easy are we going to make it for people to move around? That will be really important, more important, I think, in terms of the health of cities than just the virus.

Cities are very old institutions and they have recovered from so many horrible, horrible epidemics and disasters and things. And, again, as long as we let people move, I think cities will come back.

TONY ROTH: Yeah, as being a, not necessarily a city issue, because when COVID first hit there was really a, almost a hysteria to get out of the cities because there was a feeling that there was more risk in that city.

SHERRY GLIED: Well, here in New York, right?

TONY ROTH: Right? And that’s really reversed. I think that now there’s a total—a sense of ease with a COVID wave and it’s not going to drive at this point incremental people out of a city. People know how to deal with it. They know how to cope with it. They know how to go about their lives. And certainly, if we have to mask again for a period of time, that in and of itself I wouldn’t think is likely to have a big impact on the demographic.

SHERRY GLIED: Right. I mean, you know, South Dakota had a huge COVID wave, right? They had enormous, terrible, disastrous COVID. And we don’t think of South Dakota as being a particularly city-like place.

So, it, it’s how well will people accept certain restrictions on their behavior, like wearing masks. City people tend to be much more accepting of these kinds of things, I think. They’re just used to dealing with other people and having to think about what that means. Maybe that’s just my take on it.

But I think to live in a city is to live with people who are different from you and to recognize that you have to give them their space and, you know, and accommodate their concerns. Maybe it’s easier in some ways to live with those kinds of challenges in a city than elsewhere.

TONY ROTH: The other thing I would say is that I, my experience of a lot of these cities in the U.S. is that they come into the crisis, I think, probably being a bit more progressive and more dynamic, they have been able to develop solutions and new morays and new patterns around living that have been probably more effective quicker to put the cities in a better situation and that’s really been, I think, a proof point around the attraction to cities in and of itself.

SHERRY GLIED: Yeah. I mean it’s easier to be in a place where people are more used to change and maybe that, in this circumstance, and, you know, more accepting of it.

TONY ROTH: Well, this has been a great conversation. We’re going to probably have to end it here. Let me summarize a few key ideas I would start with the idea that the future of cities will be different and it’s not going to be homogenous, if you will. It’s not as if because people won’t be working in big office buildings cities are doomed. There may be some areas or enclaves within cities that are going to be less well off or they may have to convert their utilization from commercial office buildings to apartment buildings. But at the end of the day sort of a hybrid lifestyle brings hybridization of the cities in a different way than we’ve seen in the past. And so, I think I would start with that and how we think about cities and approach cities.

Second point which I find really fascinating is that the work-from-home hybrid approach and the new ethos that we have around work/life balance and lifestyle flexibility is pretty interesting for the real estate market where you have more people really interested in having a multiple house or living dwelling footprint relative to where we’ve been in the past. And that may account for why even in the cities while real estate may not be at the same level of ascension that it is in some of the suburbs or some of the second home beach or mountain areas it’s doing quite well. And I think that’s really interesting to see.

And then the last thing I would say about cities is just their ability to endure any optimism that comes with cities and that most of the cities in the U.S., I think, certainly on the East Coast and Southeast, are in pretty good shape. When you visit these places there is—there are people on the streets. The service industries, whether it be restaurants, hospitality, entertainment, are doing quite well now. There’s a tremendous amount of job creation. And I think that the future looks positive.

TONY ROTH: Thank you again so much, Dr. Glied…

SHERRY GLIED: You’re very welcome. All right.

TONY ROTH: …for joining us. It’s been a great conversation. And I want to remind everybody that for a full roundup of our ideas within the investment and planning area, please visit wilmingtontrust.com. You can subscribe to Capital Considerations on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast channel to get future episodes.


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Featured Guest

Dr. Sherry Glied
Dean, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University

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