Gov't seeks foreign buyer for its 10% Leumi stake

The gov't hopes UK-based Rothschild will succeed in finding a single investor to buy a controlling stake and that such a buyer wouldn't be local.

bank leumi 88 (photo credit: )
bank leumi 88
(photo credit: )
Looking to restart the Bank Leumi privatization process, the Finance Ministry announced on Sunday that it has retained N.M. Rothschild & Sons Ltd. to sell the remaining 10 percent stake government stake in Israel's largest lender by assets. The government hopes London-based Rothschild will succeed in finding a single investor to acquire a controlling stake and that such a buyer wouldn't be local. "The Finance Ministry and Bank of Israel have decided to make every effort to bring about the creation of a controlling shareholder for the bank," the ministry said, adding that the sale first would give "preference" to an "international" bank. It was not clear, however, that this was the best possible move, or that the plan would be successful. "This is not the right time to sell and it is a waste of time and money to look for a buyer now," said Shlomo Maoz, chief economist at Excellence Nessuah, who told The Jerusalem Post he disagreed with the government's attempt to sell such a large stake to one investor. "If you look at all of the big banks around the world, they don't have strategic investors like the Israeli government wants to set up now with Bank Leumi," he said. "More of the shares should be floated - we shouldn't be any different than the other big banks in the world." The sale would eliminate the government's stake in Leumi, in which it once owned 100%. The Cerberus-Gabriel partnership of two New York hedge funds bought 10% of Leumi in 2006, then failed to get Bank of Israel approval to act on an option it had to buy another 10%, which will now be sold through Rothschild. "The government should wait for a better time to sell - the banks are in big trouble now and they have no money for dividends. Until four months ago, it was a good time to sell, but now because of the subprime crisis, they shouldn't start doing it now," Maoz added. Meanwhile, Supervisor of Banks Rony Hizkiyahu told the Post at the Israel Business Conference in Tel Aviv that although every effort would be made to attract and give preference to an international bank, he was not hopeful about finding a foreign bank interested in buying Leumi. "I am not very optimistic about finding a foreign bank who would be interested to buy 10% of Bank Leumi. Foreign banks normally want to buy at least 50% of a bank and we also have the problem of the bank's workers' committee, which is causing trouble," Hizkiyahu said. "More likely," he added, "we will see a consortium or a group of foreign and local investors coming to the tender. I still see Cerberus in the picture." Similarly, Zvi Ziv, CEO of Bank Hapoalim expressed doubt about a foreign bank entering the local industry. "No foreign bank will buy an Israeli bank in the near future under current market conditions, which are already very competitive. It is not worthwhile for them," he said. "It will be hard to attract any foreign bank to an environment that allows the regulator to interfere with the banks' fees." Leumi Chairman Eitan Raff, while pleased with the attempt to find a dominant shareholder, was also skeptical a buyer would take just a 10% stake. Some of the world's wealthiest Jews, including Brazilian banking billionaire Joseph Safra, Yitzhak Tshuva, the controlling shareholder of the Delek Group Ltd., and shipping mogul Sammy Ofer, seemed to position themselves to take a controlling stake in Leumi following the denial of Cerbreus-Gabriel's extension bid. 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. Shlomo Eliahu, an Israeli insurance magnate, controls another 10% of Leumi, with the rest traded publicly. Bloomberg contributed to this report.