We Won't Be Paying Any Less

The bottom line is the bank-fee reforms will not significantly save us money, if at all.

We will continue to pay the banks, as they always have had the means to make up for any losses in one segment of their revenues by raising prices in another. If fees go down slightly, then interest rates will rise instead - so we will not be paying any less, and the banks will not see their bottom line hit at all.

That does not mean the reforms will not have some achievements. Supervisor of Banks Rony Hizkiyahu has created some semblance of order in the wide open area of bank charges: He reduced their number, gave them the same names in all the banks and created a relatively useful mechanism for comparing prices.

But if Hizkiyahu wants to leave a real legacy, he will have to continue to simplify the procedures for switching between banks.

The banks learned an important lesson from their actions on fees. They learned that they cannot always pass on the costs of their mistakes in credit markets to the public. Actually, it is possible, but then they are called to sessions of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, and they are forced to fight it out with MKs and consumer organizations - all of whom view them as a noncompetitive sector.

One good thing to come out of the affair is the banks' advice to customers to use the Internet and telephone banking services. The new list of fees includes some that cost four times as much for using a teller as for the direct channels.

In the past there were fears that the Internet would close down most branches, but in truth the various options have learned to coexist as they support different groups of people at different times.

The banks want to keep customers away from their branches, except for complicated matters, but even if they succeed, it will not reduce their need for branches, and it is hard to see the banks getting rid of many of their expensive employees.

What is expected to happen is that employees will become better trained and more professional, and will then provide more complex - and profitable - services such as financial and pension advice - as opposed to deposting checks or checking balances.