Bottom shekel / Hizkiyahu woz there
Top Bank of Israel officials have been taking fire from all sides because of their silence on a critical matter: the changing of the chairman at Bank Leumi, the last bank still controlled by the state.
Don't they care who chairs the bank? Don't they have a favorite among the leading remaining candidates - David Klein, Uri Yogev or Moshe Tery? After all, whoever gets the job will clearly influence the bank's stability, an issue that does fall under the central bank's purview. So why their silence?
Governor Stanley Fischer and Supervisor of Banks Rony Hizkiyahu are afraid to intervene, sneer their critics. They're leaving the dirty work to other regulators - who have political agendas and personal accounts to settle.
Indeed, it seemed strange that the two men, who were so active in ousting Bank Hapoalim chairman Danny Dankner, are now so quiescent. But if one looks into the matter, an entirely different truth comes to light.
They care deeply. Hizkiyahu spends much of his day on this very issue. But he and Fischer decided to change tactics. They're working behind the scenes. No press, no announcements, no spin. The Dankner affair left bruises, and it would be stupid to make the same mistake twice, they say in internal conversations.
They're referring to the highly publicized battle with Hapoalim's controlling shareholder, Shari Arison, who stood by her chairman and left them licking wounds. They did win. Dankner is history. But they were excoriated from every direction, and they aren't about to wage another battle on the front pages. They have no particular advantage in the press arena; if anything, they're at a disadvantage.
That is why we haven't heard a peep. But conversations with all the players involved, and regulators too, show that everything goes through Hizkiyahu, who keeps Fischer in the loop.
So, quietly, from the rear, Hizkiyahu is intevening, in every decision, every letter, every twitch by the Leumi board of directors.
Take Galia Maor, Leumi's highly esteemed CEO. Neither Hizkiyahu nor Fischer wanted her as chairwoman. It wasn't personal: They thought it was wrong from the perspective of corporate governance. She can't supervise the body she built and managed for 15 years, they felt. Nor do they love the people around her. They wanted change.
It was no coincidence the attorney general ruled against her candidacy for the chair, saying the law required her to wait for two years after leaving the management. It was no coincidence that Zohar Goshen, head of the Securities Authority, said the same thing. Hizkiyahu had been there, behind the scenes.
Nor does he like Shlomo Eliahu or his candidate for chairman, David Klein. The central bankers don't like the way Eliahu conducted himself at Union Bank or with Leumi either. They don't understand why he complains in the press that they won't let him own a bank when he never formally applied for permission to do so. They think he wants, as it were, to win the lottery without buying a ticket, to control the bank through Klein without undergoing the tedious, onerous regulatory procedure.
To avert the possible advent of Klein to the chairmanship, Hizkiyahu quietly pulled strings and had Leumi postpone its general shareholders' assembly to the end of April by which time things could change. If the shareholders' assembly had been held as scheduled on March 11, the state would have had to name four directors as its candidates for the chairmanship and the fifth possibility would have been Klein. He'd have been a shoo-in to the board and later, probably, to the chair. Hizkiyahu didn't want that.
Nor does he like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's candidates, political allies Tery and Yogev. Hizkiyahu thinks nominating them smacks of impropriety.
Theoretically, Leumi could wind up with a chairman that Hizkiyahu hasn't blessed, but not in practice. Formally, the board elects the chairman from its ranks but the "shares committee" has a veto. Moreover, the shares committee has to consult with the supervisor of banks, and it isn't just a formality. If the supervisor rejects a candidate for good reason, his opinion decides the matter.
And if the shares committee ignores him, Hizkiyahu can go for broke, summon a press conference and spell it out: The choice isn't right.
I'd like to see anybody push through their man after a barrage like that.
Ultimately, Hizkiyahu will win, because he is empowered to rule whether the candidate is "fit and proper." All he has to say is "no." A mere indication he would do that should suffice for a candidate to bow out of the race. Hizkiyahu will be the one who chooses the next Leumi chairman. The only question is whether his modus operandi of silence is the best one.
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