Single and Available, but Not Looking - for Now

Single, 36, with a terrific job, blue eyes and a baby face, seeks - no, not a relationship. He doesn't have time for that.

Insurance and capital markets commissioner Yadin Antebi works 14 hours a day, six days a week. The only relationship he's involved in, is the Sisyphean one between banks and their customers in Israel.

Many nasty things came to light about that relationship in the last year. For instance, it turns out that the relationship is fully one-sided: The banks wield absolute control over the public. With a word, they can make the public sell tens of billions worth of assets in mutual funds, for example.

It also seems the public feels captive in the relationship. The banks can worsen their terms of engagement with their customers, they can raise their fees and the public meekly accepts it all on its knees.

In the last year, the Bachar reform of the capital markets managed to shatter the banks' monopoly over managing the public's investments. It managed to break the iron grip the banks had over lending to corporate Israel, too. A flourishing market of institutional lending as an alternative to banks developed.

But the reform utterly failed to break the banks' third great monopoly: its rule over household customers. There is no competition between the banks over the little man.

However young and fresh-faced Antebi may be - he aims high. He wants to shatter that monopoly too. He is trying, on his lonesome, to achieve what the Bachar reform failed to do: to create competition between the banks over households. He wants to create incentives for the customers of the big banks to check out the small banks too.

How? Because only the small banks provide advice on pensions at the moment. The small banks have the privilege of selling advice to attract customers from the big banks, offering additional services at competitive prices. In short, Antebi hopes to succeed where the great Bachar reform failed: competition between the banks over you.

For that to happen, the small banks have to work hard. Specifically, they have to strain to genuinely compete.

They have to offer much sweeter deals than the big banks do for the public to bother itself to abandon the big banks, which provide a comfy, padded cage for their captives. The captives are therefore in no hurry to leave that dungeon despite the high price they pay for the privilege of being in it.

This is probably the last possible chance to institute interbank competition over the customer, after the Bachar flop.But Antebi can't do it alone.

The chairman of the Israel Securities Authority, Moshe Tery, already declared this week that he supports the initiative, but that is not enough. Without the support of Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson and, more importantly, the backing of Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer, the mission "discriminate between the banks to create competition" is doomed.

Imagine that the year 2007 has arrived. Suddenly concerned about your future, you mosey into your bank branch, hoping for advice on pension savings.

You expect the bank clerk to deliver a learned discourse on the pros and cons of life insurance programs, provident funds and pension funds, the three instruments among which you have to choose when saving for old age. You are in for a disappointment.

First of all, the adviser will explain that he can't discuss life insurance, because the banks aren't allowed to market anything before 2010. Even after that, they can't collect commissions for selling life insurance policies, so it will not pay for the bank to urge you to go in that direction.

Second, said clerk will explain that he can't advise you on provident funds either.

True, provident funds can be an excellent way to save for your dotage, but it doesn't insure you against premature death as life insurance policies do, or against disability that prevents you from working. For a provident fund to be a perfect vehicle for your future, you need supplementary coverage. But the banks can't sell you insurance, nor does it pay for them to do so. So they won't be urging you toward provident funds either.

"Now," chirps Clerk, "let me recommend that you buy into a pension fund."

And all this resounds to the greater glory of our Knesset, that parliament of our elected representatives, that bowed before the greatness of the bankers' lobby, and created the tortured result that banks are supposed to advise their customers on pension affairs, as long as they only provide advice on one of the three possible avenues.