The Bottom Line / We've Been There, Let Us Leave

There are phrases that work their way deep into the lexicon of financial journalism and take root there for years. And stay there sometimes even after we have gotten sick and tired of hearing about them.

Usually we are talking about processes that are meant to increase competition in the economy, and this is why they are met with such fierce resistance by interested parties.

Such phrases are well-known and well-chewed: reforms in the electricity industry, internet connection fees, bank fees, splitting the provident funds from the banks, number portability, and overcharging.

But here are a few secrets from the editors: The privatization of the Oil Refineries that was completed this week paid the energy reporters' salaries for a full seven years. The El Al privatization process kept aviation reporters employed for over a decade. Banking journalists managed to pay their bills for over a decade by writing about the various privatization processes for Hapoalim, Leumi and Discount.

Hundreds if not thousands of articles were written about each and every one of these processes and events over the years. There were ups and downs, crises and strikes, an endless list of interested investors who examined, considered and even bought the tender documents.

And of course there were always arguments over the price. Too high, too low, sold for a pittance, the bureaucrats screwed up, the rich got it for nothing, and the state won or lost.

Entire forests were cut down to write about the splitting of the Haifa Refineries from those in Ashdod, and on the saga of the partnership between the state and the Ofer family. In this case the final result is important: The Government Companies Authority headed by Eyal Gabbai completed the successful process of dividing up the refineries and privatizing them, bringing in NIS 10 billion in the process. And the act is also expected to increase competition in the fuel market.

The impossible suddenly was possible.

The success of the privatization of the Oil Refineries should give a push to a number of other processes that have been supporting generations of officials and journalists. The reform of the Israel Electric Corporation is one of them, but far from the only one.

The next needed revolution is mobility - improving our ability as consumers to move between suppliers easily, simply and cheaply.

This is the real competitive threat to many parts of the economy. Without it, no industry can claim to be truly competitive.

Without number portability in the cellular business there can be no real competition. Only if one can move between Cellcom, Partner and Pelephone easily and quickly will customers enjoy the significant strength of the market. Otherwise the companies will just continue to raise prices.

Without the ability to freely switch banks - by making the change simple and easy - we will continue to see bank fees rising all the time, and a lot of politicians continuing to try to stop it.

Without the ability to transfer life insurance policies from one company to another we will continue to see low yields on pension savings in Israel.

The big advantage of mobility is that you don't really need to switch since the existence of alternatives leads the supplier to improve service and court the customer.

In the insurance and cellular industries they explain that portability policy is complicated, expensive and not logical. And there are plenty more excuses too that are meant to prevent shifting the balance of power from the company to the consumer.

You don't have to get too excited about such warnings. If the process of splitting up and privatizing the Oil Refineries was finished after years of such talk, then anything is possible.