Commentary: Bank of Israel has gone too far

It seems Fischer has fallen in love with his sheriff image. So now he is off to save us from the incompetents who run Bank Hapoal.

arison 88 (photo credit: )
arison 88
(photo credit: )
It is down to this: Either something extremely outrageous we don't yet know about happened in Bank Hapoalim, or Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer has gone way too far. These are the only possible explanations to the open war the central bank has declared on Israel's second-largest bank, or more accurately on Shari Arison, who holds the controlling interest in Hapoalim. The first possibility, that something horrible happened in the bank, which may be the reason for CEO Zvi Ziv's surprising resignation, is highly unlikely. Another important regulator, Israel Securities Authority Chairman Zohar Goshen, met Banks Supervisor Rony Hizkiyahu last week to try and learn something about the hot issue. But then he refused to take a clear stand on the matter, demanding that the central bank halt the flood of rumors and publish its report without delay. When it was finally published, not before weeks of leaking "juicy" details to friendly reporters, it was mainly about technical procedures, the kind you expect to be made through joint proceedings of Hapoalim's management, the central bank and the ISA - the exact opposite of the central bank's brutal, forced intervention. But instead of closing this issue quietly, without undermining the bank's stability, at a time when stability of our financial institutions is so important, the Bank of Israel decided to use it as casus belli against Arison. The blunt demand to remove Dan Dankner as Hapoalim's chairman, accompanied by a clear threat to use the central bank's statutory privilege to intervene in appointments for high posts in privately held banks, is more than a humiliation for Arison; it is a hostile takeover, a "coup d'bank." What is the reason for that? Fischer and Hizkiyahu keep saying their concern is to keep the bank safe: "No bank will fall on my watch," Fischer has said more than once. They also keep reminding us that they saved the bank from Dankner's disastrous investment in toxic assets and in a risky Russian adventure. So what is the reason for this unprecedented, brutal attack? And why is it only Hapoalim? Is Israel Discount Bank in better shape? Wasn't First International Bank of Israel also involved up to its neck with toxic assets? Perhaps the answer can be found in two "shows" that have run here in the last few years: "Everybody loves Stanley" and "Everybody hates Shari." On the one hand, we have Arison, who inherited control of the bank from her father. She has never been regarded as a legitimate businesswoman. On top of all that, let's admit it: We hate rich guys. Surprisingly the Bank of Israel's attack over the these last couple of weeks may contribute to a new regard that the business community will hold Arison in. Ironically, her refusal to give in to Fischer may be her defining moment as a legitimate and powerful member of the business community. On the other hand, we have Fischer, who jumped gladly to fill the void the Finance Ministry left when the economic tsunami finally hit Israel's shores, building his reputation as the only sheriff in town. He has been buying dollars like crazy to stop the appreciation of the shekel, gaining kudos from the exporters. Then he started buying government bonds, to the contentment of the big institutional investors, with no one protesting against so much printing of money, which was strictly banned in 1985 as a lesson from the big crash of the '80s. It seems Fischer has fallen in love with his sheriff image. So now he is off to save us from the incompetents who run Bank Hapoalim: Arison, Dankner and Deputy CEO Zion Keinan. While doing so, he tramples basic property rights, undermining the bank's stability, leaving the ship with no captain in a sea full of icebergs. This is a dangerous precedent. Again, if the central bank knows some awful secret we don't, go ahead and tell us about it. But if all the fuss is about appointing a CEO without waiting six months... well, this is very disturbing. We need strong control over banks. We need firm regulation. We need someone who will look after the little guy's interest when he deals with these ugly giants. What we don't need are ego games and publicity stunts. What we don't need are double standards and hypocrisy. And most certainly we don't need to create panic over the largest bank in terms of household accounts. So we advise everyone involved to listen to people like attorney Ram Caspi: Calm down, step back and solve this matter in a more civilized way.