Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Chief Executive Officer Warren Buffett, who has said banker greed helped deepen the U.S. financial crisis, attracts the workers he wants with compensation that competes with Wall Street awards.
Berkshire gave $17.4 million in 2011 compensation to Thomas P. Nerney, CEO of its United States Liability Insurance Group; $12.4 million to Geico Corp. CEO Tony Nicely and the National Indemnity Co. unit gave $9.26 million to Ajit Jain, according to filings to state regulators. Berkshire, which is set to send its annual-meeting notice to shareholders today, said in last year’s proxy that Buffett’s salary remains $100,000 at his request.
Buffett, whose office in Omaha, Nebraska, is more than 1,000 miles from New York’s financial center, endeared himself to bank critics last year by decrying income inequality and calling for higher taxes on the wealthy. Still, his pay practices won praise from JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon, who said last month he would bet the top 20 or 30 people at Berkshire make more than the biggest earners at his bank.
“Whether it’s Warren Buffett or Jamie Dimon, they all pay a lot,” said Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Corporate Governance. “Pay is out of control everywhere.”
Berkshire Class A shares declined 4.7 percent in New York last year as JPMorgan, the biggest U.S. bank by assets, slid 22 percent. Both companies underperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, which ended 2011 little changed.
Think Like Owners
Buffett, whose Berkshire stock is valued at more than $40 billion, has said he gives bonuses to encourage managers to think less like employees and more like owners. He told shareholders last year he once offered to pay David Sokol a bonus of $50 million if performance targets were met. Sokol left Berkshire in April.
“We’ve paid out very large bonuses at Berkshire in the past, but we’ve always paid them out for performance,” Buffett, 81, said in a January 2010 interview. “I love getting talented people doing great things for us, and I’ll pay them accordingly.”
Berkshire’s statements to state regulators show that more than 20 managers at insurance units earned at least $1 million last year. Gregory Abel, CEO of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., made $9.9 million for 2011, according to the unit’s annual report. Berkshire’s filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission show that no executive officer at the parent company has reached $1 million in at least a decade through 2010.
Dimon, who got $20.8 million in 2010 compensation, has defended banker pay from criticism by lawmakers and journalists. “You don’t even make money!” Dimon said to reporters at JPMorgan’s Feb. 28 investor presentation. JPMorgan paid the 25,999 employees at its investment bank an average of $341,552 last year, or about 34 percent of the unit’s revenue.
“Warren Buffett does an exceptional job,” Dimon, 56, said at the meeting. “I’ll make you a bet he pays his top 20 or 30 people more than we do. We need top talent. You cannot run these businesses with second-rate talent.”
Dimon had no specific knowledge of Berkshire’s compensation packages, said JPMorgan spokesman Joe Evangelisti, who declined to give details on his bank’s top earners. Buffett didn’t respond to a request for comment e-mailed to an assistant.
Nerney’s compensation declined 11 percent from 2010, while Nicely’s rose 7.7 percent and Jain’s advanced 6.1 percent at National Indemnity. Underwriting profit at Geico, which Nicely has led for 18 years, fell 48 percent to $576 million last year, while revenue rose 7.6 percent to $15.4 billion. The 2011 underwriting loss at Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group, which Jain runs, was $714 million.
Buffett uses the premium revenue collected by insurance units to help fund the stock picks and takeovers that have made Berkshire into a $200 billion provider of energy, consumer goods and luxury flights. Jain, 60, has “added a great many billions of dollars” to Berkshire’s value since starting his operation in 1985, Buffett said in this year’s annual letter.
Nerney’s unit, with a staff of 591, is part of Berkshire Hathaway Primary Group, a collection of carriers that cover risks from medical malpractice to boating accidents. Nerney, whose unit is based in Wayne, Pennsylvania, writes so-called excess and surplus policies, which typically cover risks that aren’t addressed in the traditional insurance market.
“It sounds very easy to do, but I assure you it’s not,” Joseph Calandro, managing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in New York, said in an interview. “A good excess and surplus lines underwriter is as rare as a good investor and generally just as profitable.” Calandro previously worked at an excess and surplus subsidiary of Berkshire’s General Re.
Buffett’s Own Compensation
Buffett has taken a $100,000 salary for more than a quarter century, while accepting additional compensation from Berkshire in the form of security services valued at about $350,000 in 2010. His chief financial officer, Marc Hamburg, was the top earning executive officer at the parent company in 2010 with compensation of $924,750. JPMorgan CFO Douglas Braunstein was awarded $16.1 million in 2010, while the investment banking chief, Jes Staley, had $13.6 million, an SEC filing shows.
Buffett has praised Dimon’s leadership and said he is a shareholder of New York-based JPMorgan. Berkshire holds more than $12 billion of stock in JPMorgan’s rival Wells Fargo & Co., and Buffett’s company made a $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs Group Inc. at the depths of the 2008 crisis. Goldman Sachs reported about $14 million in 2010 compensation for both CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Gary Cohn, the chief operating officer, down from more than $40 million for each for 2008.
Buffett, a supporter of President Barack Obama, has called for a “policeman” to oversee banking conduct and challenged Republicans in Congress to address the widening gap between the “ultra rich” and other Americans.
“There are lot of people who would like nothing better than to take Warren down a peg or two on this particular issue,” Jay Lorsch, a corporate-governance professor at Harvard Business School in Boston, said in an interview. “Here’s the poster child, the guy who is arguing for parity in pay and reducing executive pay.”
Obama blamed lenders in his January State of the Union address for the 2008 credit freeze, saying their wrong-way bets “left innocent, hard-working Americans holding the bag.” Lobby groups representing financial firms including JPMorgan and Bank of America Corp. fought against the creation of Obama’s new watchdog, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection bureau, as an independent agency, saying it would create needless bureaucracy.
Dimon, who was once dubbed Obama’s “favorite banker” by the New York Times, publicly questioned Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke in June on financial regulatory costs. Net income at JPMorgan rose 9.2 percent to $19 billion last year.
“Jamie’s irritated understandably by some of this stuff,” said James Armstrong, president of Berkshire investor Henry H. Armstrong Associates. “But I don’t think Berkshire is saying one thing and doing another” with compensation, he said.
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