'No Panic Retreat From Pension Funds'

No, there's no panicked withdrawal from long-term savings, insists Israel's savings watchdog Yadin Antebi.

Withdrawals from provident funds are running at about NIS 150 million to NIS 200 million a day. Earlier in the year, before the credit crisis turned into a full-blown rout in world markets, people were still withdrawing about NIS 100 million daily, says Antebi - the treasury's commissioner of capital markets, savings and insurance.

Nearly all of the savings that have been pulled out of the funds were liquid, he says. That means, the money was taken from provident funds that had accrued over a period of 15 years or more. Money was also taken from advanced education funds (kranot hishtalmut).

Savings for retirement in pension funds, life insurance and premature provident funds aren't being touched, Antebi claims.

"At the time, we received a lot of flak for prohibiting people from withdrawing money from their provident funds until age 65. With hindsight, we see how right we were," he says.

It isn't that the treasury needs to protect the public from itself, he says. it needs to tailor the terms of the funds to their true purpose.

But make no mistake, Antebi won't rule out "protecting the public from itself," and placing a moratorium on withdrawals, if need be.

"All options are being considered. One of the things we have learned from the Americans in recent weeks is 'never say never.' The Americans have taken steps that seemed impossible a few weeks ago. So we are leaving all of our options open, and preparing an emergency plan for all types of possible situations," he says.

One option Antebi won't rule out is the provision of insurance on bank deposits, so as to protect the stability of the banking system - a move that the Bank of Israel opposes, particularly now.

There are also a few ideas that Antebi rejects outright. One is insuring the public's pension savings.

"There is not a worker on earth who hasn't lost a big chunk of pension savings due to the crisis," Antebi says. "But despite heavy losses, to the best of my knowledge, no country on the planet has offered insurance on pension savings. No such model exists anywhere, and tiny Israel certainly won't be the first to try it."

Ofer Eini, leader of the nation's most powerful umbrella union, the Histadrut, has been calling on the government to expand its issues of designated bonds, and to protect retirement savings in vehicles other than pension funds. At present these bonds are sold to pension funds and to them only. Antebi also rejects that idea outright.