One of the conclusions voiced by world leaders last month, on the first anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers Investment Bank, was that something like this must not be allowed to happen again. The leaders spoke about increasing supervision of the financial system, broad international cooperation, lowering leverage and risks, and the return to a more basic and conservative financial system.
These ideas are still being discussed. At President Shimon Peres' second president's conference, cabinet ministers and central bank governors said they had a responsibility to the public that funded the exit from the crisis, to build a safer and more just system. Perhaps, they said, banks should be simpler and less profitable.
Words, however, are separate from deeds. The leaders may have rescued the financial system from total collapse, but in practice, in their day-to-day operations, the financial systems have returned to all their old habits. Just like before the crisis and during it, more than a few financial bodies are continuing their core business dealings: extracting as much as possible from their clients and paying as much as possible to their senior executives.
In honor of the official announcements of the end of the battle with the crisis, here are five ways the financial bodies are celebrating at the expense of their clients:
Of course the most successful and senior bank executives will receive millions in bonuses this year. Goldman Sachs, like other banks, knows it has a public relations problem - and is looking for ways to placate the public's resentment, such as by allocating larger sums for donations and advising employees not to show off their wealth. Lowering the numbers was never mentioned.
Why is the bank giving such bonuses? "Because it can," says one university professor.
The main issue, however, must not be forgotten: Goldman Sachs and the other banks survived only because the American administration saved them with public money (which was repaid last month), and because they are fully insured. No one will let a big bank like Goldman Sachs fall and take with it the entire global financial system.
Goldman Sachs can continue taking risks. If they pay off, the bank will get richer. If they fail, the government will help. Last week words abounded regarding a ceiling on executive salaries, but everyone knows that bankers and brokers will receive their bonuses on time.
Why is the bank doing this? Because they can, and because credit card transactions are a losing proposition for the bank. Citi has 92 million credit card holders, and anyone who doesn't like the interest rate can switch banks.
What about those who can't? They'll just have to pay up. The public paid when it saved Citi during the crisis, and it is paying again so this nationalized giant can turn a profit and pay its executives bonuses.
At Africa Israel, too, controlling shareholder Lev Leviev and all his top executives, advisers and lawyers are all being paid their salaries from money that belongs to the public, regardless of the debt arrangement's final terms.
And what can the man in the street do?
There is no magic solution. Wherever money flows like water, competition is minimal and the dynamics are incomprehensible to most of the public, the little man almost always foots the bill.
In the world of finance three rules are worth remembering.
One: There is no free lunch and no high yields without risks. If a story sounds too good, it is probably also too risky.
Two: Do whatever you can to reduce commissions and management fees, because over time they add up to astronomical sums.
Three: Finance industry representatives have a limited ability to deliver what they promise, explicitly or implicitly, and many are more interested in their own welfare than their client's wealth.
Be wary, check and double-check, consult and compare - and in most cases a direct investment such as exchange traded certificates are preferable to the performance of investment managers who charge high commissions.
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