Stanley Fischer, Not Batting for You

Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer has an agenda. Fischers agenda impacts on one of his most important duties: to find a heir for the Supervisor of Banks, Lehman Brothers.

Fischer has been intensively searching for a heir to Lehman. One of the terms for candidacy is accepting his agenda, it is surmised.

There is quite a consensus that Fischer's agenda is what underlies Lehman's departure at year-end from the job of supervising the banks. Lehman and Fischer simply didn't see eye to eye on the agenda. One might even say that Lehman had an agenda too and it was the reverse of Fischer's, and that collision was inevitable.

The agenda touches on the importance of the consumer in the context of supervising the banks. Lehman firmly believed that the consumer was paramount in the context of supervising the banks. He was therefore involved up to the neck in formulating the "package deal" of bank fees, and was almost politically terminated by his attempt to regulate overdrafts.

Lehman spearheaded all these battles alone. The governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, was not there by his side. It was for reason: Fischer couldn't have been less interested in these battles.

Fischer doesn't say any such thing, of course. It wouldn't be politically correct to admit that consumer issues interest you like la neige d'antan, especially when the Knesset is crammed to the gills with populist parliamentarians who love to butt heads with the banks over such things. So Fischer does not object to consumer issues, on the contrary. He just thinks that issues of this ilk should not take up so much of the supervisor's time, at the expense of the more important task of assuring the stability of the banks.

One should respect Fischer for his integrity. He honestly believes that the sole role of the Supervisor of Banks is to oversee the stability of the banks, and all the rest falls into the category of wasted time for the supervisor. Even the International Monetary Fund, which Fischer invited to conduct a special review of Israel's banks, supported him: the report, solicited or otherwise, ruled that the Supervisor of Banks under Lehman spent too much resources on issues of bank-customer relations.

We may rest assured that the next supervisor won't repeat Yoav Lehman's mistake. What we can expect the next supervisor to do, with Fischer's blessing, is one of two things. Either the next supervisor will intensively scale back attention to consumer issues, downgrading handling to the level of a deputy supervisor, which had been the case until Lehman's stint at the seat. Or, the next supervisor will simply dump the whole matter, shifting it outside the purview of the Bank of Israel. For instance, the powers might be delegated to the Fair Trade Authority, a future body to be established under the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

One might as said respect Fischer's integrity and directness, and even welcome it. If Fischer has no interest in consumer issues, perhaps it is better that they pass to other, friendlier hands.

But it is hard to accept Fischer's priorities, which places the tail ahead of the head. He is turning the means (the banks' stability) into the end, the paramount task for which sake that stability is needed - protection of investors.

The Committee to Regulate Supervision over the Financial Markets in Israel, headed by Prof. Avi Ben-Bassat, addressed the confusion over the central bank's goals. The committee noted the conflicts of interest from which the Bank of Israel suffers in its management of monetary policy.

For instance, a decision to raise interest rates could hurt bank profits, which brings to mind how over years, the Bank of Israel keeps allowing big banks to swallow up little ones. "Agreement to allow small banks to merge with big banks attests to excessive emphasis on considerations of stability at the Supervision of Banks," the committee wrote.

Moreover, the committees said, turning stability into the uppermost criterion could legitimize letting the big banks become even more powerful, in the name of stability, which could be to consumers' detriment.

The Ben-Bassat committee recommended laying down in law that the paramount goal of all the supervisors in Israel should be to protect the consumer. Only afterwards should the goals of financial stability, competition, or advancing the markets be considered, and that as milestones en route to achieving the true goal, which is the consumer's benefit.

The committee also advised removing the supervision over banks from the Bank of Israel, thus legitimizing the change in priorities among Israel's supervisors.

Fischer's agenda certainly reinforces the recommendations of the Ben-Bassat committee.