Base salaries for executives in the front lines of retail and commercial banking-in branch management, credit, and lending -have stagnated in the past two years, according to a survey by an executive recruiting firm. But raises for compliance specialists, controllers, and human resources executives have been spectacular.

Consultants said the merger boom, together with corporate downsizing and cost cutting, has created a sea of qualified retail and commercial bankers who face fewer job opportunities.

This trend is especially noticeable among branch-based bank employees, recruiters said. Banks are replacing experienced banking veterans with less costly employees who work outside the branch system, they said.

"A lot of retail lending, for example, is done by telemarketers now," said Len Adams, executive vice president of KPA Group, the New York-based recruiting firm that did the survey. "Less work is being done at the branch level, and therefore there are fewer opportunities," he said.

The average base salary for a vice president in consumer lending grew only 2% in the two years, to $89,000, according to the survey. The top base salary among the consumer lenders surveyed was $95,000 last year and in 1994.

Likewise, average base pay for branch administrators stayed at a constant $85,000. The best-paid executive in this category earned $95,000 in 1994, 1995, and 1996.

And the average for vice presidents in domestic private banking rose 4%, to $110,000 in 1996, according to the survey. The best-paid such executive surveyed got a raise of only 2.2%, to $138,000.

But the average base pay for compliance managers jumped 62%, to $130,000. The top salary among compliance managers surveyed was $140,000, up 47%.

Compliance managers, controllers, and human resources managers are in big demand as banks grapple with increased scrutiny from the public and regulators. This is especially true in the wake of highly publicized scandals involving securities trading operations at some banks, recruiters said.

They said that as banks introduce new business lines, like retail brokerage, they are turning to more seasoned compliance experts, who inevitably cost more.

"Everyone is very focused on compliance, and the banks are all chasing the same people to come work for them," said Mr. Adams.

Bank controllers received the second-biggest increase in average base pay-a 54% jump to $162,000. The highest salary among controllers in the survey was $180,000, up 38.5%

Consultants noted, however, that executives who work in fee-income businesses are seeing richer bonuses and incentive compensation packages. This makes up for some of the slow growth in base pay.

For example, branch administrators can earn yearly bonuses of between 15% and 25% of salary, according to consultants. Corporate lenders, whose base pay rose only 3% from 1994 to 1996, can command between 35% and 40% more in incentive compensation.

"Banks have been moving very boldly in using variable compensation awards as much as they can in areas where they are meaningful," said R. David Simmons, a compensation specialist at Towers Perrin.

Base-pay increases for executives who don't bring in fee income may partly reflect efforts to keep them from falling too far behind banks' money-makers in the compensation race, Mr. Simmons said.

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