It has been a good war for Australia’s bankers. Despite receiving myriad benefits, largely on the taxpayers’ dime, the heads of Australia’s financial firms have barely seen a ripple in their bloated pay packets. A survey conducted by the Hay Group revealed that CEO pay dipped a mere 10.9% last year, while fixed pay dropped only one third of one percent.
The pay cuts caused barely a scratch on the earnings of financiers, with bankers’ pay having increased almost exponentially since 2003. Between 2002 and 2008, the average financial CEO saw their total remuneration increase by 156% — even with the drop in 2009, the average CEO still earned almost two and a half times what they did seven years earlier.
Compare that with the performance of biggest banks. Since January 2003, NAB shares have dropped by 18.3% while ANZ increased by 26.5%. Westpac was up by 65% while CBA led the pack (under the comparatively lowly paid David Murray, who received a relatively low $1.75 million in his final year at the helm) with its shares up by 104% since 2003 (the banks did also pay fairly substantial dividends during that time). Remember, the banks and by implication, their share prices were substantial beneficiaries of various government policy, from deposit guarantees to wholesale funding guarantees to the first-home-owner’s grant (which allowed banks to continue their lending binge to the over-priced residential property sector).
What’s more — banking executives didn’t risk their own capital or build the companies, instead, taking over well-established businesses operating in a protected (and highly regulated) environment, with the benefit of tens of thousands of employees. It is essentially the role of a financial CEO to allocate shareholders’ capital in the most effective manner. It is a job many financial institutions have done very poorly (if Opes Prime, ABC Learning, Allco, MFS or Timbercorp are any guide).
With the exception of founder-managers such as Rupert Murdoch or Frank Lowy, the Big Four banks (along with Macquarie and until recently, the late Babcock & Brown) remain the most generous remunerators of executives. This is despite shareholder returns being marginal and the banks needing to tap taxpayer assistance last year (and also benefiting from the ban against “short selling” in 2008/09). Not to forget the hundreds of millions of dollars in legally questionable fees that are “earned” by those financial institutions from unwitting consumers.
While directors of our largest banks continue to splash cash around the executive suite, the generosity certainly didn’t extend to lower paid workers, who unlike their senior managers, haven’t been so lucky. While executives have enjoyed double digit gains since 2002, lower paid bank workers (who tend to earn less than $50,000 annually) have enjoyed less lavish four percent annual wage increases under various enterprise bargaining agreements. Meanwhile, last year, Commonwealth Bank agreed to generously give workers earning less than $100,000 per year a pay rise of 1.5 percent.
Adam Schwab is the author of Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed — in bookshops in March.