The management at Hapoalim, Israel's biggest bank, are preoccupied these days with something very important: he says she says, or, who's to blame for the bank's awful experience with investments in MBS (mortgage-backed securities) and SIV (structured investment vehicles). The bank has had to write off a billion shekels worth of investments in these derivatives, and the fat lady hasn't sung her dirge yet. But mainly, the question is which chairman to blame: the former one Shlomo Nehama, or the incumbent, Danny Dankner. There are also questions about the responsibilities of CEO Zvi Ziv, his deputy Shy Talmon, former risk manager Doron Klausner, and others.
The questions are weighty ones and the bank's management devoted many hours last week to briefing the press, in order to present things accurately. Meaning, to state, "I may be the top banana and I'm responsible but it isn't my fault, it's his, I wasn't even there when it happened."
It is the nature of he said/she said wars that they expose the term "management of the nation's biggest bank" in all its nakedness. They expose that behind the big concept are little people, who care mainly about their own reputation.
The customers and shareholders of the nation's biggest bank probably aren't too pleased about the war of versions and what it says about accountability inside Hapoalim's management. But the signs of management malaise at Hapoalim are building up, and are creating a growing feeling of unease.
No, we aren't talking about top people like Talmon or Jacob Rozen leaving, nor that the Risk Management division, one of the most important and professional at the bank, has changed its chief three times in a year. Nor even that the head of another crucial unit, Isracard, has been a walking casualty since he was told that he'll be fired soon, when the bank finds somebody to replace him. Those are all worrisome signs, but the real signal that something is wrong happened in September, when the external director Amir Barnea was asked to resign from the board of directors.
Barnea is one of Israel's more prominent professors of financing, who specialized in risk management, and in analyzing risks in bank reports. In other words, he's Israel's No. 1 expert on risk at banks and as such should have been cherished by any bank board.
But he chose to quit Bank Hapoalim a year after joining it, because he was asked to by a representative of the controlling shareholder, Shari Arison and then by Dankner: "In conversation between Barnea and the chairman, Danny Dankner, Mr Dankner noted the bad feeling left after the replacement of the former chairman, Shlomo Nehama, and said he felt it best that Prof. Barnea resign from the bank," Hapoalim stated in September.
The board is supposed to supervise the management. There's probably no better candidate in Israel to supervise bank managements than Barnea, yet he's out because he dared supervise, to ask questions, to critique Shari Arison's hasty decision to oust Nehama. Naturally that created "bad feeling" so he couldn't continue to function as director, in the opinion of Arison and Dankner, the new chairman she appointed.
One may wonder what point there is in appointing directors who get fired the moment they start directing. That's a question that the supervisor of banks, the Israel Securities Authority and Barnea himself have yet to answer. It begs a question about Bank Hapoalim: a bank isn't supposed to cast aside watchdogs who prove too efficient.
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