Taking Stock / Riffraff and Their Opinions

The battle over the reform of the capital market and banks is nearing the finish line. The bankers, armed with dozens of overt and covert lobbyists, lawyers and PR experts, are exerting pressure unprecedented in scale on the members of the Knesset Finance Committee.

The bankers are trying to frighten and confuse the MKs, mainly by repeating the mantra of all anti-reform campaigns over the last decade: the reform is dangerous. It's a lab test formulated by bureaucrats who have no idea how the world really works.

As an entity that has closely followed capital market and economic reforms for the last 18 years, this column will spend the next few days providing Knesset members with a short guide on how to contend with the bankers' threats, scare tactics and spin.

Today's column will be devoted to the bankers' claim that the reform is wrong-minded because savers in provident funds were "not consulted."

When the bankers first raised this claim half a year ago, it aroused mainly giggles, and the assumption was they'd abandon it. Yet Bank Leumi chairman Eitan Raff said that very thing to the Knesset Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Raff is kindly invited to remind us when he ever sought the "permission" or "opinion" of the hundreds of thousands of policy-holders at Migdal Insurance, before selling the controlling interest in Israel's biggest insurance company to the Italian concern Generali. The sale followed reforms under which the Finance Ministry forced banks to reduce their holdings in Israel's biggest corporations.

Can Mr. Raff, who knows the American capital market inside and out, point to instances where "checks" or "democratic votes" were held among the millions of clients of America's big Wall Street banks when the attorney general of New York forced them to fundamentally restructure their business, in order to eradicate conflicts of interest that contravened the greater good of the customers?

Did Mr. Raff hear demands for a survey of the millions of Citibank customers ahead of a possible deal - now under discussion - for it to sell all its provident and mutual fund holdings to the independent asset management company Legg Mason?

Raff's claim is specious on two grounds. First, there is no precedent or need to "consult" with the customers of financial establishments where control is changing hands. Deals of this very type take place every day at financial institutions the world wide; billions change hands, but nobody asks clients how they feel about it. If they don't like it, they can take their custom elsewhere.

Second, there are no such "votes" about financial reforms. Nobody asked the hundreds of thousands of depositors in pension funds before the government's reform that, among other things, slashed their entitlements by tens of percent.

The proposed Bachar reform would release the capital market and clients from the stranglehold of the banks. Each customer could choose who would manage their money. It is no coincidence that the more sophisticated of the banks' customers are jumping ship in droves, withdrawing their money from the banks' provident funds and training funds.

The idea of holding a democratic vote among bank customers every time the government, or a bank, wants to introduce a reform or major change is intriguing. But perhaps it should be given a trial run with something a little less cardinal, to see how the banks and their customers adjust to it.

Perhaps we should start with a survey among Hapoalim's and Leumi's customers about the wages of the CEOs. Do you think, madam, that they should earn: A) five times, B) 10 times, C) 20 times, or D) 200 times the average wage?

The bankers would naturally proffer an excellent explanation as to why it's a terrible idea to survey their customers. It's a matter for the banks' shareholders, not their customers, they'd argue. Also, hundreds of thousands of customers don't have enough savvy in economics and business to decide whether a salary of NIS 3 million or NIS 5 million a year is right and proper, too low, or totally excessive.

All true. They also know that the bank customers don't have the resources to understand the crying need for the reform of the banks and capital market, based on a total separation of the banks from their provident and mutual funds. The bankers know it well, but they hope to pull the wool over the committee members' eyes anyway.