Taking Stock / Identifying Collaborators

The battle over severing the provident and mutual funds from their parent banks is coming to a head - probably within weeks.

Anyone who has been keeping track of the sage is probably baffled by the spooky silence emanating from the banks. Not a peep is heard. No politicians, nor anyone from the Jerusalem circle, nor any members of Knesset, have stepped forward to bat for the beleaguered bankers.

But make no mistake - the Knesset, the treasury and every other battlefield where the decision will be fought out, are all brimful of sympathizers for the banks.

They're keeping a low profile because they're afraid to be exposed trying to scuttle a key structural reform. So they have adopted rather more sophisticated tactics than braying from a soapbox. The bankers' backers declare they are all for the reform, but in the same breath they suggest tweaks here and there that could amount to the death of a thousand cuts.

How can we identify these covert collaborators of the banks? Here is a short guide of the sort of thing they're likely to say. If you hear anything like this, you know you bagged one:

1. "The banks should stop managing the funds but not be forced to sell them. The problem isn't the ownership but the conflicts of interest. When the banks relinquish control, the other problems will be solved."

Uh huh. Every financial toddler knows that if you own a fund you also control its managers, and the only place Chinese walls really exist is in China. Just look at the banks' investment committees - they are stuffed with external directors who are supposed to represent the interests of the customers exclusively. But in practice no one ever asks management why the fund always deposits its surplus assets at the parent bank, and why the fund carries out its investments solely via the parent bank. They do not find out if they could get better terms elsewhere. Without relinquishing ownership as well, severing the management is meaningless.

2. "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Or - I've been linked to the banking sector for decades, I have relatives who make their living at the banks, and I can't go to war with them. Obviously I can't afford to be seen blocking the reform, but if the bath water has to flow anywhere else, it had better be to another vehicle the banks control.

3. "The issue of severing the funds is part of a bigger reform picture."

Or - the more issues, clauses, ideas and marginal nonsense we can pile on the table, the easier it will be to confuse the public and when the crunch comes, we can submit a reform that leaves the funds comfortably owned by the banks.

4. "Rushing through a reform may reduce the banks' domination of the capital market and prevent conflicts of interest, but it will upset the markets."

Or - I'm arm in arm with the banks, their lobbyists are some of my closest friends, and I want a job there when I leave public service. Life has taught me that the best way to kill a reform is to schedule it to be implemented over eons. This is a crazy country plagued by crises day in and day out and it won't take long for the whole issue to be forgotten, or delayed for years and years.

5. "What Israel needs is a total change of the way capital gains are taxed."

Or - it would be a lot easier to push through a law hurting hundreds of thousands of savers and salaried people than to confront that gang of 20 bankers and their pet tycoons. When I think of taking on Galia or Shlomo, my guts turn to jelly.

6. "The banks are a money pump."

Or - I still don't know if I have the clout to do this, if I can really take on the banks and the nation's most powerful businessmen, and win. I can't yet declare we shall immediately force the banks to sell the funds and bring in foreign investment banks. So I'd do best to continue talking about how the banks are pumping money from the people. That's good. It sounds like I hate the banks, and doesn't commit me to anything.