While it is still too early to assess the wider repercussions of the government- mandated wage increase this year, it is already irking Lebanese banks, coming at a time when banks are also compelled to increase spending to comply with mounting regulations both locally and internationally.
As one of the largest private sector employers, with roughly 21,000 employees as of the end of 2011, the salary increases, applied to all bank employees across all brackets, are “significant money,” says Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Byblos Bank. As of February 1, the government has raised the minimum wage by 35 percent to LL 675,000 ($450) while increasing salaries by an average of LL 299,000 ($200) for income brackets above LL 675,000.
“As competition for talent in the region was increasing in previous years, we had to raise salaries and so we had already experienced a significant cost increase in the whole sector, ” says Walid Raphael, chairman of Banque Libano-Française. “Now, along with a reduction in growth of the economy, we are imposed with an increase in the cost of human capital. This has a major impact on the sector.”
In the first three months of this year, staff expenses at Alpha banks — the 12 banks with deposits in excess of $2 billion that account for 85 percent of the banking sector’s deposits — were up by 12 percent year-on-year to total $293 million, according to research firm Bankdata Financial Services. By comparison profits totaled $370 million during the period.
While the banking sector has strong fundamentals — it is still witnessing growth in assets and deposits albeit at a slower rate — its declining growth in profitability is making it more difficult to swallow the additional costs, a pain felt more vigorously by the smaller banks than the larger ones. “For the big banks which have large enough profits, they can manage, for the smaller ones, it is more difficult,” says Fadi Osseiran, general manager of BlomInvest Bank.
The regulation burden
The increase in salaries has been accompanied with an increase in costs for complying with additional international and domestic regulations — more software and staff needed. Those new regulations include Basel III and the United State’s Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act, while domestically Lebanon’s central bank has introduced new regulation aimed at curbing money laundering.
While the actual cost of compliance has yet to be calculated, the smaller banks are in a less favorable position to absorb the shock — as reflected by the drop in profits of the total banking sector relative to the Alpha banks. The sector’s growth in profits dropped by three percent in 2011 but the Alpha banks’ profits were up one percent, highlighting the struggle of the smaller banks. “Given that competition is increasing and that the larger banks are better prepared to face competition, I think the smaller ones will be impacted the most,” says Ghobril.
To pull through in more difficult times, consolidation may have to be considered. “We have been hoping that consolidation would eventually happen and it did not,” says Raphael, who added that he expects this to change. “We need the right people with the right skills, we need to train them so it is becoming a big burden for smaller banks.”
Jean Riachi, chairman of FFA Private Bank, believes that as competition gets tougher, smaller banks will have to merge with larger ones and he expects this to take place “in the future.”
As Byblos’ Ghobril says: “When you have a growing pie, there is enough for everyone but when the pie stops growing, then definitely the better prepared players are ready to adjust to this environment.”