Despite what most everyone thinks, Shari Arison did not inherit control of Bank Hapoalim.
After her father Ted died, the Supervisor of Banks examined her request to control the bank - and she was approved. In retrospect, based on Arison's handling of the fight over the dismissal of Dan Dankner as chairman of Hapoalim, and in light of her statements over the past few days - there are reasons to think the Supervisor made a mistake, but one that is still possible to correct.
The finality granted to private controlling shareholders by the Bank of Israel is dangerous, and Bank Hapoalim is not alone. Union Bank has the opposite problem: Its owners have fallen out between themselves and for years they have not been able to reach agreement on how to rescue the institution from its deep freeze.
Other banks' controlling interests have their problems too, such as when the central bank asks the owners to reach deep into their pockets and come up with more funds - and the owners say no.
What need is there for a controlling interest if when the bank needs more shareholder equity, the controlling owners don't pony up? The answer, it turns out, is that there is a need only if the alternative is even worse.
This alternative is control by management, the result of the dispersal of bank shares in the market without any controlling owner. Without any controlling owner and without any real supervision by institutional investors, who hold most of the shares, management does at it pleases.
Usually they take care of themselves with huge salaries and bonuses, without any real connection to the bank's performance. Such management control is viewed as one of the main causes of the present world financial crisis, which allowed managers to irresponsibly expose their banks to incredible risks, with the management avoiding paying the price personally.
So the question of what is better, a rule of management, which brings irresponsible management and a financial crisis; or Shari Arison, who controls Israel's largest bank through a direct link with heaven - is a hard choice to make.
Nevertheless, it is not clear that these are the only options. Our experience in Israel with management control has been rather good. At least two banks were run for many years by their management: Bank Hapoalim by Amiram Sivan and Bank Leumi by Galia Maor, after the state, which controlled both banks, refrained from exercising control.
In both cases, there was a long, stable period of control by bank managers, and it was responsible and successful.
So what is the conclusion? There is no perfect model of control for the banks, every model has its problems. But in the end it all depends on the people involved. Good, responsible people who respond to the public interest make the difference in the end. The banks that succeed are those who manage to strike a balance between profit and responsibility, and to do this it is necessary to strengthen those making sure the banks act responsibly: the regulators.
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