'Dangerous' proposals could harm banks

Bank of Israel Governor Stanley rejects calls to put bank fees under supervision.

stanley fischer 4 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
stanley fischer 4 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Having the central bank supervise bank fees would weaken the local banking system, which would be "dangerous" during a time of world financial crisis, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said Tuesday. "We should not resort to easy solutions," he told the Knesset Economics Committee. "Sweeping supervision can only be the last resort and not the first. "We could be at the start of a new and very serious stage of a severe financial crisis that banks worldwide are having to deal with. It would be dangerous to weaken the Israeli banking system, whose cautious management has resulted in very little exposure arising from the crisis. At the end, customers would pay the price." Fischer said he supported bank-fee reform, emphasizing that it needed to be given a chance to succeed to fuel competition in the banking sector. "We need to give the reform some time to work and can't expect end results within two weeks," he said. "But there are signs that the reform is starting to work, as some banks have already lowered some of the fees. "The creation of competition in the banking sector is important for bank customers because it is the only power that will bring about more varied and efficient services, while supervision of prices will damage competition and impact the quality of services." Committee chairman Gilad Erdan, called upon the Bank of Israel to put bank fees under supervision. "Since the reform came into effect, we have received many complaints from the public over rising fees," he said. "There is no doubt that the reform has come a long way to reduce the number of fees and has increased transparency over which [fees] and how much a customer is paying for bank services. But transparency on its own will not make customers switch banks, when at the same time basic fees for cash withdrawals and cashing checks have become more expensive." Erdan said local bank fees were higher than in Western countries. "Therefore, I call upon the governor to use his authority and initiate a directive to put bank fees under supervision for the good of the public," he said. Since bank-fee reform came into effect on July 1, it has been met with fierce opposition from the public, consumer organizations and some Knesset members for what became labeled "the half-shekel revolution," after Bank of Israel figures revealed that only half a shekel will be the average monthly saving as a result of the reforms. The reform reduced the number of fees from 198 to 72, and certain fees, such as for credit frameworks, were abolished altogether, but most fees on checking account transactions were raised. Under the new bank tariffs, fees and commissions for checking accounts are cheaper for customers who use direct-banking services, ranging from NIS 1.35 per transaction to NIS 2.9, but more expensive for those who depend on teller-assisted services, especially the elderly and the poor. Teller-assisted services are charged from NIS 5.5 to NIS 7 per transaction. Supervisor of Banks Rony Hizkiyahu told the committee the bank was working on a plan to allow banks to offer customers fixed-price fee packages covering certain transactions in checking accounts. "When comparing the prices of fees before and after the reform, there might be differences, but when examining the management fees of their checking account over the course of a year, customers will see that they are paying less," he said. "If that's not the case, we have not done our work." Antitrust Commissioner Ronit Kan said the solution to the problem would not come from massive intervention of fees but from structural changes, such as removal of entry obstacles into the concentrated banking sector and easing the switch from one bank to another. Ehud Peleg, director of the Consumer Council, said a survey conducted by the council showed that customers will not even consider going through the pains of switching to another bank for saving an average amount of NIS 144 a year. "There is a lack of competition, and therefore bank fees need to come under supervision," he said.