Taking Stock / Sorry, We're Broke

Spin Communications, which among other things advises unions on media management, came up with an intriguing gimmick for the bank unions fighting the Bachar reform of the capital market and banks. It ran ads in the papers showing a sign on a door. The sign states: "Sorry, we're bankrupt".

The bankrupt entity is supposed to represent the privately-held brokerages that are slated to replace the banks in managing provident and mutual funds.

Whether Spin's gimmick will work is anybody's guess. Some suspect it makes people realize they can take their money out of the bank, and suspect it accelerated the flow of capital to brokerages. In any case, the possibility of a major brokerage going broke and fleeing with the customers' assets does exist, but it is very unlikely, and in any case the money they manage remains deposited at the bank.

Somebody owes an apology. And while about it, the first who should stand tall and apologize are the bankers themselves. Here are some suggestions for apologies they owe.

1. We're sorry we went bankrupt 22 years ago and that we sternly refuse to learn the lessons of that disaster. In 1983 Israel's banks collapsed, the stock exchange shut down and trade in bank stocks was suspended. The government was forced to spend billions of dollars supporting bank shares after the bankers manipulated share prices, wildly inflating them. If the government had not used taxpayer money to save the banks, most would have gone belly-up. All the bank managers were convicted of criminal offenses in that sordid affair.

2. Whoops. A decade after the shares manipulation scandal, we did it again! This time we used a new method: We pushed billions of shekels in credit on bank customers, to invest in our mutual funds. We shoveled most of that credit on them a few months before the stock market crashed. We also managed to avert the establishment of an inquiry into that crash. But the customers who invested in our mutual funds back in 1993 are still licking their wounds.

3. We apologize, the banks' domination of the provident fund sector caused a crash in the government bond market in 1996 and massive losses to investors. The Bank of Israel had to intervene, soaking up the bonds in the market to avert even more pain. The crash proved that the market of bank provident funds was much too dominated by a few; it didn't have enough players. But we did nothing to resolve the problem.

4. Um, sorry, but in the late 1990s there we were again! handing out tremendous amounts of credit, this time not to Joe Citizen but to corporate Israel, for leveraged buyouts and risky hi-tech adventures. We lavished the loans on them at practically nonexistent interest rates that totally ignored the tremendous risk in our loans portfolio. We extended credit based on the value of stock and the daring of the dream, not cash flow. In short, we flubbed our most fundamental job as bankers. To this day nobody can really explain why billions were lent to companies like Lumenis, Tower Semiconductors, Gilat Satellite Networks, Gibor Sport Holdings, and to the Peled-Givony group. And not one of the bank officers paid any price for that profligacy.

5. We do apologize - dubious credit of the type we mentioned above almost wiped out Continental Bank. In the space of a year Continental had to write off NIS 100 million of its equity, and Bank Hapoalim had to hasten to buy the bank to calm down depositors and regulators. To this date we have not published an internal report explaining why the bank left NIS 190 million to the Peled-Givony group companies.

6. We're sorry, by the end of 2002 our very financial stability was in danger because of the protracted economic downturn and the weight of the tremendous proportion of credit in Israel deriving from us. The Bank of Israel governor was reduced to warning that it was not unthinkable for one of the big banks to collapse and bank stocks sank to half their shareholders' equity on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. If the economy had not started to rally, one doesn't want to think how it might have ended. By now the tremendous danger the structure of the banking system inherently poses to financial stability has become crystal clear.

7. We apologize: when the supervisor of banks told us in the summer of 2001 to increase our provision for doubtful debt to curb the expansion of credit, and to prepare more padding in case of economic accident, we sneered. We fought him tooth and nail, in concern for our bonuses. Six months later it became evident we'd been living a dream, economic reality was something else altogether, and we scurried to raise our doubtful debt provisioning, pronto

8. Sorry, but for years we urged our customers to invest only in the provident and mutual funds managed by ourselves; in fact we conned the clients by calling our clerks "advisers" instead of "marketers." The result was that 80 percent to 90 percent of our customers placed their money in funds we run, rather than in better ones.

Only when the Israel Securities Authority began probing and raked Bank Leumi chief executive Galia Maor over the coals did we see the error of our ways, and began giving investment advice a more objective character. Behold! Suddenly billions of shekels started wending their way toward mutual funds and private brokerages.

9. Sorry, we do get paid millions of shekels a year and are considered geniuses at management, yet somehow we cannot seem to control wage levels and the volume of manpower at our banks. Even during the recession, when other companies were cutting back salaries and bloated workforces, at the banks salaries continued to climb. The result is that even though banks Hapoalim and Leumi rule the banking industry and the boom on the financial markets, our profits remain low relative to banks in the rest of the world.

10. We are sorry but we couldn't care less about any of the above. We will continue to employ any means at hand to scuttle the government's first real attempt to reduce the tremendous over-concentration of power in the banking industry and capital market. Forgive us, it's in our DNA. We still view ourselves as two banks that own a nation.