Sub Rosa / First Fix the Rot, Then the House

It's interesting that the idea of fixing up the central-bank building never arose under Fischer's predecessor, David Klein, but only under Fischer.

These are days of cost-cutting and economizing, of efficiency measures and streamlining. The private sector is slashing jobs and salaries, and there they are at the Bank of Israel, weightily discussing a costly, sweeping renovation.

The idea of fixing up the house was birthed in the reign of the current governor, Stanley Fischer. At first the central bank was thinking of a "modest" redo, costing NIS 70 million. Later the amount climbed to NIS 130 million and there's also a more expensive alternative that will cost the taxpayer a quarter-billion shekels. That last idea involves moving all 730 of the Bank of Israel's employees to a different building for five years until the renovation is complete.

It's interesting that the idea of fixing up the central-bank building never arose under Fischer's predecessor, David Klein, but only under Fischer. Nobody ever came to Klein and urged that the conditions be upgraded. The entire need arose under Fischer, and the central bank's management observes that it would have decided on the grandiose move ages ago, but it was concerned about the public's reaction.

To which Fischer says: "I haven't reached a decision yet. I'm waiting for a paper to be prepared by the director-general of the Bank of Israel, Hezi Kalo. Then we'll decide."

Here we have a governor who preaches the importance of the government sticking like glue to its spending target - the budget must not grow by more than 1.7% year over year, Fischer insists. But the budget of the Bank of Israel expanded 7.3% in 2009 compared with the year before. It has rules of its own, evidently. Let the others scrimp and save.

That was the central bank's attitude about its "outstanding performance" bonuses too. To justify its high levels of base pay, the Bank of Israel argues that it's part of the banking sector.

But Bank Hapoalim has announced a sweeping cutbacks plan - its chief executive, Zvi Ziv, is forgoing 10% of his pay and called on the lower managers to agree to a 5% pay cut. Galia Maor, CEO of Bank Leumi, will also be presenting an efficiency plan this week. Generally, salaries at Leumi automatically rise by 5% a year; the union agreed to a mere 4% raise but Maor wants them to make more concessions.

It is arguably true that the Bank of Israel building needs some work - to its air conditioning, fire systems and elevators. But from there to a quarter-billion makeover is a long distance.

Leaving infrastructure aside, management also talks about the employees' welfare - replanning shared spaces, toilets, corridors, the library, restaurant, porches, internal courtyards, lobby and conference room. Wow, it's tough to work at the Bank of Israel as is. The heart bleeds. Maybe they should drop by a chicken-plucking plant to see how the other half lives.

"On the outside the central bank looks like a palace, but inside it's pathetic," Kalo said in response. "The bank hasn't been fixed up for 30 years. It has serious problems with its electrical systems, communications, damp in the walls and collapsing elevators. In any case the infrastructure needs work, so the scope of the job hasn't been finalized. We want the most efficient and lowest-cost job."

As for the increase in the central bank's budget this year - four times the increase in the national budget - Kalo said, "There are projects that have to be done this year, such as information systems." Needs like that seem to exist only in bodies that don't know what budget restrictions or competition are.

The Bank of Israel is a monopoly that sets its own budget. These bodies always seem to have projects that need to be done. The private sector doesn't seem to have projects like that. Nobody's increasing budgets this year over there, but the Bank of Israel, as we said, is a law unto itself.