Bonanza at the Banks

Bank Hapoalim chairman Shlomo Nehama felt uncomfortable. Nehama, who three weeks ago sold his holdings in Arison Investments to Shari Arison for $150 million, yesterday reported the establishment of a family charitable foundation into which some of his gigantic earnings would be routed. Yesterday his gigantic earnings were augmented by NIS 23 million, his remuneration for chairing Bank Hapoalim in 2005 and for successfully administering the sale of its New York bank, Signature.

Money is flowing into Nehama's pocket at a dizzying pace, and it is already clear that Hapoalim will be reporting vast profits for 2006 as well. It is also clear that the bank will be paying eye-popping bonuses to Nehama and the other top people.

Israel's bankers would surely prefer that the Israeli public confine itself to analyzing the election results, not push its nose into private affairs such as their pay. They dearly hope that the wages bonanza will pass unnoticed.

They are proud of the banks' results, but it's a little difficult to remain focused on the bank's own earnings when their managers are taking home astronomical pay and bonuses unknown in any other banks anywhere in the world.

Sound strange? Aren't bankers elsewhere rewarded, and handsomely at that? They are, but look at the proportions/

The three top people at Bank Hapoalim - chairman Shlomo Nehama, chief executive Zvi Ziv and director Danny Dankner received pay, bonuses and so forth totaling NIS 72 million in 2005.

It doesn't stop at Bank Hapoalim. Over at Bank Discount, the new chairman Shlomo Zohar and CEO Giora Offer received new employment agreements that promise them options worth NIS 70 million. Mizrahi-Tefahot manager Eli Yones took home a package of salary and options worth NIS 10 million. All legal, but that doesn't mean it won't pass without comment.

First of all, not all the banks did that well. When its results are divorced from its subsidiaries, Bank Discount itself lost NIS 228 million in 2005. Why should its managers be rewarded with bonuses that derive entirely from subsidiaries, while the bank itself bleeds? Accountant-general Yaron Zelekha realized as much and decided to block the new owners from giving the retiring Bank Discount chairman, Arie Mientkavich, an extra NIS 10 million bye-bye bonus.

Secondly, enormous gaps have opened at Bank Discount and the other banks between pay for management and for the rank and file. True, bank workers are amply paid, but when the CEO or chairman is earning a million shekels a month (cost), the inevitable result is pressure on pay and labor disputes, which are to the detriment of the customers.

Third, it has been shown that publicizing the management pay does not restrain it; if anything quite the opposite. Bankers led the management in other sectors to demand extraordinary pay, all at the expense of the public of investors.

Yet another problem is that the bonanza is based in part on non-recurring events, such as asset sales. The banks' figures do not represent their true operations. In a year or two, what will remain is the expectation, but not the wherewithal: pay will contract and jobs will be lost. But meanwhile they're all laughing all the way to the bank.