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The prospect of Labor leader Amir Peretz becoming prime minister may alarm those who fear more strikes and a return to a more centralized economy, but it doesn't concern New York State comptroller Alan Hevesi, who is manager of a pension fund that is one of the largest in the world and a major investor in Israel.
"I don't think it will affect my investment decisions," said Hevesi, who has met Peretz several times and regards him as "an incredibly smart man." Hevesi believes that despite Peretz's socialist ideology and stridency as head of the Histadrut labor federation, international investors have nothing to fear.
"I think he was very sympathetic to our involvement in Israel and I don't think that if he was prime minister, he would shift to an economy that was aggressive to outside investors," he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Hevesi's lack of concern contrasts the more pessimistic outlook given by Excellence Nessuah chief economist Shlomo Maoz, who warned earlier this week that, if Peretz were to carry out his economic policies, there could be a flight of capital from Israel and further weakness in the shekel.
"There is essentially concern that the Labor Party is getting stronger. The market is opposed to the return of Bolshevik [economic] practices," Maoz said in an interview, reacting to the shekel's sharp fall against the dollar after Peretz was elected leader of the Labor Party last week.
As the sole trustee of New York State's Common Retirement Fund, Hevesi manages assets worth $128 billion, which is greater than Israel's 2006 projected gross domestic product of $121b. New York's holdings in Israel are worth $965m., comprising less than 1% of the whole fund but sizable when compared with its investments in other countries.
"We have a larger involvement in Israel than in other countries of a similar or even bigger size," said Hevesi, who expects that involvement to increase.
"I am sure that in the near future we will hit $1b.," he said, but added that he couldn't give specific forecasts about how much the fund would invest over a fixed period of time.
"It doesn't quite work that way," he said. "We invest when opportunities present themselves."
Just over half the fund's Israel investments are in government bonds, while it also holds shares in top companies such as Teva Pharmaceuticals, Aladdin Knowledge Systems, which provides information-technology security products, and Nice Systems, a developer of digital-recording technology.
In addition, the fund has put $250m. into Markstone Capital Group, making it the anchor investor in Israel's largest private equity fund. Markstone invests in "old economy" companies and recently agreed to buy financial firm Solomon Capital Markets and bookshop chain Steimatsky Group.
Hevesi likes Markstone's model because the fund invests in established and profitable companies that can provide an immediate return.
And while Hevesi is Jewish and has been involved in communal affairs - he's a former president of B'nai Zion and has held senior positions in the Anti-Defamation League - making a profit is his major consideration when deciding where to invest rather than any sympathies he may have.
"We don't make investments out of charity or for social reasons. We have 982,000 members and I have to produce a return on investment," he said.
If Hevesi doesn't produce that return, New York Sate residents can vote him out of office in 2006, when he is planning to run for a second four-year term. He did concede, however, that his background made him more willing to listen to the case for investing in Israel.
"Because I'm Jewish and have been active in the Jewish community, I knew Israel, the players and the environment, so I was very comfortable looking at it in a way others may not have. But that doesn't mean that I definitely would have invested in the country," he said.