Clear and Present Danger, to Our Money

Wakey wakey, Yadin, this isn't the time to murmur sweet nothings into our ear.

Something strange happened to Yadin Antebi last week. The commissioner of capital markets, insurance and savings at the Finance Ministry - who we might expect to be on top of things and more alert than ever these days - declared at a conference of insurance agents in Eilat last Monday that it's possible to get the impression from the drum-beating press that the Israeli public's savings are in danger. "That is not the case," Antebi declared.

Maybe that isn't so strange after all. During the last month we have seen leading bankers around the world shrug, throw out the rules and inject billions of dollars into the system, for fear of a financial meltdown. Maybe Antebi, too, feels that the most urgent thing now is to reassure the frightened public, to prevent the herd from stampeding.

Antebi claims that Israel isn't suffering from more financial crises than in the past: It's just that more information about them is coming to light. "We live in a world in which crises can't be hidden," he emphasized. "The markets are advanced, the amount of information is terrific." In this day and age, trying to hide problems will cost more dearly than being open about them, he counseled.

True: Israel's capital markets and savings vehicles are more transparent than ever before. But Antebi is misleading the public by saying that its savings aren't in danger. In Israel of 2008 (and in future years, after you retire), you are heavily dependent on open capital markets. First of all, more than 40% of the public's short-term and long-term savings are invested in stocks and corporate bonds, meaning the local public is more vulnerable than ever before to financial crises.

That dependence will grow because the reforms of the last decade reduced the proportion of savings placed in government bonds. You can expect the share of government bonds in savings portfolios to diminish further over the years, too. In parallel, more people are being thrown to the wolves of the free market: no tenure, no subsidized pensions, no job security. The upshot is that a person's dependence on his own private pension savings is growing from year to year. Behave irresponsibly - assuming that somehow everything will work out - and you may be living on crusts of bread in your old age.

This is an era in which capital market regulators bear ever greater responsibility. They shouldn't be stroking the worried public's head and crooning sweet nothings into their ears about wonderful reforms. They should be banging drums and warning about the clear and immediate dangers to pension savings, and act against the hordes of money managers, mediators and others trying to grab as much of that savings as they can.

1. Antebi should be warning the public about the time bomb of management fees. He should drive into people's heads that differences of 2% to 3% in annual returns translates, over decades, into terrifying figures, by the rules of compound interest. He should explain to savers that bloated management fees are the enemy of pension savings, that over time precious few investment managers actually beat the market and in the long run, most of the difference between one portfolio and another is due to management fees. He should explain that high management fess for mediocre performance is a legal way to transfer money from your account to somebody else's.

2. Instead of calming the public, Antebi should be tracking Wall Street, where analysts are starting to tell the truth: The financial industry grew hugely bloated in the last decade. Martin Barnes of the Canadian company BCA Research estimates that U.S. financial sector profits grew from 10% of total business sector profits in the 1980s to 40%. The share of investment banks and financial institutions out of the total market capitalization of listed companies tripled from 6% to 19%, even though the added value of the financial sector grew by just 5%.

Antebi should be telling to the public keep their eyes glued on Wall Street, where the big boys are starting to realize that much of the financial boom originated from a frenzy of borrowing that hit everybody. Antebi should meet with his colleague, Israel Securities Authority chairman Zohar Goshen, and advise him to stop talking benignly about law, and start raiding institutional investors and underwriting companies, to expose the methods by which they help company owners to rob the public. It's been 15 years since the last wave of arrests and corruption has mounted sky-high.

3. Instead of patting the public on the head, Antebi should be warning that many pension instruments sold today are hopelessly irrelevant - mainly "general provident funds," which treat 30-year-old clients who have decades to save the same as 70 year-olds, who'll need their money tomorrow. Most didn't warn their elderly savers that exposing 40% of the portfolio to stocks and corporate bonds dramatically exacerbated the risk.

4. Antebi should be tirelessly pushing the reform that would allow people to move their pension savings from one company to another. People should be allowed to escape expensive plans they had unthinkingly adopted in the past, involving heavy management and other fees. Antebi should be going to war with the companies that try to keep their customers captive in bad, expensive investment schemes.

5. Instead of purring at the public, Antebi should be looking for ways to sever the symbiotic relations between the listed companies and investment managers in charge of the public's money. Company owners and their hired help do everything they can to milk their companies of money, through pumped-up salaries and stock options. The managers of institutional investors, who are supposed to protect their clients, generally prefer to join the party - organizing similar arrangements for themselves, instead of fighting on their clients' behalf.

Happily, incomprehensible financial instruments, greed and addiction to borrowing have not swept Israel to the same degree as they have inundated and decimated Wall Street. And that means that Antebi and his colleague regulators shouldn't be spending their time reassuring the public and shoring up faith in the banks and the financial system, as their colleagues on Wall Street are desperately scrabbling to do. This crisis is an opportunity for Antebi and his friends to accelerate the reforms, the investigations, and the changes in the capital market, so that the average Israeli - who pays high taxes and unhappily watches cynical politicians and their good friends rob him blind - knows that when he sets hard-earned money aside for his old age, it will be there when he retires, and not sitting in the bank account of some member of the Living-High-on-the-Hog (Thanks-for-Saving-That-Money-for-Me) club.