Through the Crisis, Average Bank Pay Grew at Pre-Downturn Clip

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The past few years have been very rewarding for bank employees.

OK, maybe not the government rescues, stagnant loan books, layoffs and litigation. But none of these disasters hurt pay at banks.

A review of call reports filed with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., compiled by, shows that average compensation in the last few years rose — and at the same rate as it did before the crisis. Employees of the largest banks realized the largest gains. The increases significantly outstripped inflation and can't be attributed solely to shifts in pay schemes or recovering profitability. Banking in general shielded pay from its cost-cutting ax.

Because the gains are not restricted solely to banks' highest earners, the issue may be less politically fraught than CEO compensation packages or trader bonuses. But the trajectory of pay is nonetheless remarkable given the broader industry turmoil that accompanied it.

"Companies set up internal compensation structures in part to protect themselves and employees from the vagaries of the labor market, so it's not unusual that compensation wouldn't track the market perfectly," said Peter Capelli, director of Wharton Business School's Center for Human Resources. "But it's sort of strange that after the worst crisis in modern times, you see wages rising."

The clear trend, in both nominal and absolute terms, is up: Over the last eight years, average compensation for a full-time bank employee has risen 35% to $83,050, twice the rate of inflation. In 2003, the banking industry's 1.3 million full-time employees took home $78.3 billion. In 2010, it's 2.1 million employees took home $168.1 billion.

In the first half of that period, raises were to be expected given climbing industry profitability and bank equity's market gains. But the financial crisis appears to have had little impact on pay. Total compensation per full-time employee rose at the same pace from 2007 to 2010 as it did from 2004 to 2007. In the later time period, profitability plunged and the KBW bank index fell by more than 50%.

The durability of industry trends is not simply a function of outsized trading bonuses or a shift toward higher-paid occupations within banks. Though greater incentive pay has swelled the total compensation expenses of the largest banks, compensation growth can be seen in the ranks of sizable banks without large trading operations.

American Bankers Association data on salaries for specific retail banking occupations confirm the trend. Out of a sampling of 18 jobs benchmarked in 2007, 15 posted salaries two years later that had grown faster than the rate of inflation, with the median 8% salary increase more than double the rate. The only positions that didn't show substantial increases were the ones that paid the lowest salaries already, such as head teller ($31,000) and loan servicing clerk ($32,000).

Rick Rummage, whose Rummage Group helps banks recruit for positions ranging from branch managers to traders, said that the compensation increases shouldn't be surprising and are warranted given the industry's improved profits.

"It's almost like making up for lost time," he said, pointing to a slight dip in pay reported in 2008 by a subset of the largest institutions. Many banks, he said, "have come out and reported record earnings already, and we're not even out of the woods already. Financial institutions tend to be very resilient."

Whether making up for lost time or getting ahead of themselves, larger institutions are at the head of the pack. In both the call report data and the ABA's salary survey, larger banks appear to be paying their employees at a premium.

Out of 10 comparable positions in the 2009 ABA data — such as mortgage loan underwriter, trust officer and loan review specialist — banks with more than $3 billion of assets outpaid the industry average in every case. The median difference was 19%.

The call report data show an even bigger per-employee compensation gap (though at least part of the discrepancy relates to large banks' greater presence in specialized sectors, such as large commercial loans and bond trading.) The figures show that compensation rises in lockstep with size — employees at the smallest banks (less than $100 million of assets) earned an average of $61,000, while those at the largest (more than $1 trillion) took home an average of $96,000.

"The bigger the institutions, the more they can afford to pay," said Rummage, who said he has noted a trend in his business toward bankers at small institutions moving to larger companies. But he was skeptical of the magnitude of the gap. "It's not really what I see," he said of the call report data.

But Capelli argued the data show that the industry has practiced little discipline in holding the line on pay. In good years, the companies tend to adopt a "share the wealth" approach, he said, basing pay on revenues generated or company profits. But during the crisis, he said, banks shifted their compensation targets toward peer group averages, which minimized cutbacks.

The problem isn't that one metric is right and the other wrong, Capelli said. It's that banks appear to have switched between them in a way that artificially maintained high salaries.

"If you let me choose the standard, and use different standards at different points in time, I guarantee I'll make a ton of money," he said. "It's not unique to banking, but it's particularly noticeable there because there's been such terrible performance."

Rummage disagreed, arguing that bankers are underpaid given overall industry profitability.

But whatever appropriate compensation should be, steadily rising compensation expenses appear to have become institutionalized in the industry at the same time that total staffing has expanded rapidly. Given that compensation is almost always banks' largest expense, the call report and ABA data together suggest that unrestrained pay growth has been a formidable obstacle to maintaining efficiency ratios, requiring banks to squeeze ever greater revenues from existing business.

There is nothing in the data that would suggest the industry has put the brakes on the growth of pay at banks. Based on his sense of the market, moreover, Rummage predicts a growth spurt.

"Banks are still cautious as to what they're paying, more so than they will be in another year or two," he said.

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