Israeli billionaires line up for a slice of the Bank Leumi pie

Since Pensioners' Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan, who is overseeing Leumi's privatization, made the ruling on May 21, the Hebrew press has been laden with speculation over who might get their hands on Leumi.

By MATTHEW KRIEGER
June 4, 2007 07:13
2 minute read.

 
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In the wake of New York-based hedge fund Cerberus-Gabriel being denied an extension in its bid to purchase a controlling share of Bank Leumi, some of Israel's wealthiest citizens apparently are positioning themselves to take a stake the country's number two bank. Since Pensioners' Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan, who is overseeing Leumi's privatization, made the ruling on May 21, the Hebrew press has been laden with speculation over who might get their hands on Leumi. Ha'aretz, on Sunday, said Brazilian banking billionaire Joseph Safra has expressed interest in buying a controlling share of the bank and has met with Finance Ministry officials to discuss how they will sell the available shares of the bank. The paper, which cited no sources for the claim, also has reported that Shlomo Eliyahu, an insurer and banker who already owns 10 percent of Bank Leumi, and Sammy Ofer, the shipping mogul, are considering bids. A spokesman for the Sammy Ofer Group, however, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that the subject had not yet been raised by the management. Eliyahu's representatives could not be reached for comment. Meanwhile, Yediot Ahronot reported on Sunday that Yitzhak Tshuva, the controlling shareholder of the Delek Group Ltd., would try to buy the bank. Tshuva's office had no comment on the possible acquisition. Not to be outdone, Ma'ariv reported last week that Cerberus-Gabriel is considering bidding again if the bank is put up for sale a second time after Eitan said the group would be allowed to participate in the bidding process. Cerberus-Gabriel, a partnership of two New York buyout funds, currently owns 10% of Leumi after winning a competition in November 2005 with a bid of NIS 2.74 billion. The group also received an option to buy another 10% of Leumi, the last of the government-owned banks in Israel to be sold, but they were not able to obtain a banking license before the May 24 deadline. On May 21, Eitan denied Cerberus-Gabriel's extension request, leading to the likelihood that the bank will be put up for sale again. Additionally, due to the fact that Cerberus-Gabriel did not receive the banking license, it must sell 5% of its Leumi shares, according to terms written into the 2005 agreement. Analysts who follow the bank have their own thoughts as to who might take over the lender. Amichai Bombach, head of the equity department at Psagot Ofek investment house, believes Tshuva will have problems in buying the bank as he first would have to sell Delek's stake in the insurance company Israel Phoenix Assurance Ltd. before buying control of Leumi. "Safra," added Bombach, "would make a good candidate as he has held banks before, however, it is not so important who the controlling shareholder of the bank is, because the most important thing is just that the bank becomes privatized as once this happens it will become a better functioning institution and one that is more efficient." Another analyst at a leading firm on Sunday called the whole situation "bizarre" since privatizations usually run smoothly. He told the Post that Nochi Dankner, chairman and CEO of the holding company IDB, would very much would like to purchase the bank, but the analyst thinks such a deal would make people nervous as IDB's holdings already include many of the country's largest companies. "Buying the bank is very good for business and ego - that is why it so attractive to so many businessmen," he said.

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