Politicians concerned over Israel’s food security are seeking to throw a wrench in Wednesday night’s deal to sell a majority stake in Tnuva, Israel’s largest company, to China’s state-owned Bright Foods Group.
The sale, which values Tnuva at NIS 8.6 billion, would see Bright Foods pay nearly $1b. in cash to British private equity firm Apax Partners for its 56-percent stake in Tnuva, which it bought in 2006.
In the agreement, Bright Foods stated its intention to keep an Israeli CEO and a majority Israeli board in place, though the chairman will be a Bright Foods representative.
Tnuva operations, from management to production and development, would stay in Israel. Economic circumstance permitting, the company said it would honor agreements signed with dairy producers.
The two other major Tnuva stakeholders – the Kibbutz Movement with a 23% stake and Mivtach-Shamir Food Industries with 21% – were not part of the deal. The contract still requires regulatory approval.
The sale, in the works for months, drew objections from politicians concerned about a foreign entity calling the shots at a company that controls 70% of the dairy market.
“What kind of normal country entrusts its food security and its entire dairy industry to China?” Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich wrote on Facebook after the agreement was announced.
Yacimovich called on Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein on Thursday to urgently examine the sale, looking to a 2011 amendment in the Israel Land Law that requires the Israel Lands Authority to approve large foreign purchases of land. Because Tnuva owns 33.5 hectares of land worth NIS 1.4b., Yacimovich argued the law is applicable.
Labor MK Nachman Shai added his support, asking Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) to give an answer on the issue as well. On Thursday evening, Ariel agreed to investigate.
The fact that Apax is a British company means Israel will not receive any tax revenue from the transaction.
“The deal is worth billions of shekels, of which we will not see a shekel of in taxes,” Yacimovich protested, calling on people to protest and demand a public stock offering, an unlikely choice given that pulling out of the deal would cost Apax NIS 140 million.
For several months, Knesset Economic Affairs Committee chairman Avishay Braverman has been pushing to establish a requirement for ministerial committee approval for sales of significant companies to foreign companies. But unlike his Labor colleague Yacimovich, Braverman thinks it is too late to intervene in the Tnuva sale.
“The original sin happened when it was sold to Apax,” he said in a phone interview.
Of greater concern to the former World Bank economist is the trend of foreign companies buying Israeli ones. One the one hand, he argued, such investment exits concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, even after the state invested greatly in building up their human capital through education and army experience. On the other, he warned, foreign companies will not be reliable allies should Israel face a crisis, such as another intifada or war.
“When there is a crisis, the company will say, ‘Lets take production or R&D and move it elsewhere,’” Braverman said.
He acknowledged, however, that government policy plays a role in the stream of Israeli exits.
“The Chinese give them one check and they go home. When you go to the stock market, it takes time,” he said. A report by the Israel Securities Authority released last year found that 95% of Israeli companies choose foreign exits over local IPOs (initial public offerings), in part because of the burden and bureaucracy associated with going public in Israel.
Tnuva holds particular significance to the public, not just as a landmark institution in the country’s history, but also as the symbol of high prices. In 2011, dismay over the high cost of cottage cheese laid the groundwork for massive street protests over the cost of living.
Tnuva CEO Arik Schor cast aside concerns that the sale would affect prices.
“Fifty-five percent of the milk products are under price supervision. The one who sets the price of the products is the state,” he said in an interview with Army Radio, adding that value-added tax on food staples in other countries ranges from 0%-7%, far below the 18% in Israel.
“What will happen here in practice is that we got a strategic partner for the long term with which we can develop more products and can expand and broaden to sell outside of Israel, both to China and other places,” Schor said.
The debate over Tnuva comes at an awkward time, as a major political and business delegation from China is in Israel signing cooperation agreements and looking for investments.