The Bottom Line / Bank Hapoalim Doesn't Want the Doctor

D. is a senior doctor, a professor who runs a busy unit at one of the biggest hospitals in central Israel.

D. is a senior doctor, a professor who runs a busy unit at one of the biggest hospitals in central Israel. His wife is also a senior doctor at a leading medical institution. Both also have a prosperous private practice, and naturally, D. and his family live in a nice house in a prestigious neighborhood.

D. and his wife are highly desirable clients at the banks. They are wealthy and yet lack the background in economics to hassle the bank with demands for discounts on fees. Nor do they threaten to move their custom to another bank if theirs doesn't cut 0.2 percent off the interest they pay. That is exactly the sort of customer the banks love.

At least, that is exactly the sort of customer the banks should love. Reality, it turns out, is different.

We received a letter from D. this week, complaining about the way his bank, Hapoalim, treats him. "My account at the bank is the account of a small company practically never in overdraft," he wrote. "The word `practically' qualifies that on three occasions in the last two years, there was a small overdraft of less than NIS 10,000, for less than two or three days.

"All three times were due to foreign travel and inattention. All the rest of the time, the account was in credit. To avoid the bank not honoring charges on these rare occasions, the bank demanded a credit allocation fee of NIS 600, and another percent of the credit required. That is a fee comprising 40 percent of the total annual fee. What should I do?"

We tried to help him. We suggested he check what other banks might offer. We said that after that he should return to Bank Hapoalim and threaten to jump ship if it didn't lower its fees.

"You are an excellent customer," we wrote to D. "There is no chance the bank won't agree to give you a discount."

"I tried it," D. wrote back. "The bank didn't get too excited about it."

The year 2005 was an excellent one for people who believe in competition between financial institutions. Reforms were instituted and all their dreams came true. It was the year depositors on provident and mutual funds were released from the captivity of the banks, as the funds were sold to others.

It was the year the seeds of objective advice on financial and pension issues were sown, as advisers at the banks lose the taint of conflicted interests. It was the year the banks' power over the capital market was curbed, and new, fresh players entered the capital market, in the form of Markstone and the York Capital management fund.

The year 2005 was a great one from many perspectives, except one. It was the year household and small business bank customers were overlooked.

There is no competition over small customers, or small businesses. They are the sector most burdened by the banks. They are small, they are weak, their financial needs are complex and varied and therefore it is hard to compare one bank with another. They don't interest the media and therefore receive no protection through public exposure. They are just there, subject to the whims of the banks, with nobody competing for their favor, and with no negotiating power.

They might have had some negotiating power with the small ("emerging") banks, but these seem to be emerging mainly in the press, not in practice. They do not pose real competition to the duopoly of the big banks, Hapoalim and Leumi.

Financial reform did begin to chug forward in 2005, but the carriage with the small passengers remained behind, unlinked to the train. That is a dreadful shame, because much time will pass until another reform is carried out, and it will probably touch on severing the credit cards from the banks.