There are signs that we have embarked on the journey that will trim the few heavies dominating the financial sector, albeit the journey may be a long one.
Hearing the first reports of cooperation between the banks and the private investment houses on provident funds, or banks reaching distribution agreements with rivals on mutual funds, is all good news. In fact, the banks are keen to show that they have made the first moves, and that they can offer competitive rates - anything to keep the authorities off their backs. Even if we cynically believe the banks are only taking action because they read the veiled threats from the regulators, or even if it's some sophisticated diversionary tactic, we can at least see that the revolution has begun.
Encouraged no doubt by the 20-year celebration of the banking share crisis or the 10-year commemoration of the stock market crash, and with the scent of change in the air and in the treasury, the regulators put their foot on the gas. Chairman of the Securities Authority Moshe Terry is leading one of the most complex investigations of the authority ever. Aided only by a disappointing Financial Advice Law, the authority is examining the extraordinary success of Bank Leumi's mutual funds, and this has sent shivers through the bank advisory sector.
Bank of Israel Governor David Klein constantly refers to the banks' dominance of the market, and how this affects the system's stability. On one occasion, he admitted that this was the one problem that worried him - the bank's control of a vast market share and conflict of interest. Antitrust Commissioner Dror Strum turned the screw on banking underwriters when he banned them from joint managing stock issues. Even Finance Minister Benjamin Netanayhu has said he wants to see the banks and provident funds separated. Eyal Ben-Chelouche, Yoav Lehman, Avraham Hirchson, members of the Knesset and government, have all taken their pot shots at the big banks.
But it's not just the establishment that is warning the banks of the new era. The markets are doing it, too. The public has begun to notice the wide gap between yields on bank funds and private funds, and is moving its monies in unprecedented amounts. When Netanyahu was asked about Bank Hapoalim raising its fee for each entry on account statements and whether the bank supervisor should intervene, he replied that he was uncomfortable with one individual - however brilliant he may be - setting the price of the market. When we sell Discount Bank, he continued, this will create a third major player, which will break the duopoly and bring down prices.
The happy combination of a discerning market and apt intervention of the regulator will set the new infrastructure of the capital market, and this will let us enjoy growth in the years to come.
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