Hapoalim tries to ease investors' fears [pg.17]

Rockets landing in Israel's south and north and ensuing clashes are not likely to have a lasting negative effect on the economy, business leaders told international investors and analysts Thursday and Friday. Tel Aviv Stock Exchange chairman Saul Bronfeld told participants at the Bank Hapoalim-sponsored "Aiming High" conference that the market "took the new situation relatively calmly." The exchange rate was "hardly changed," having experienced only a 3-4% drop in the value of the shekel, which he said "was overvalued anyway." Despite drops in TASE indices, trading volume was still very strong, Bronfeld said, noting that 1982 - when the IDF launched Operation Peace for Galilee - was also one of the TASE's best years. "The political situation and share prices are not highly correlated," he said. El Al chairman Izzy Borovich said he was optimistic that even if the situation lasts "a little longer," it would not affect the Israeli economy, which is currently "very strong." Referring to the debate over the burden the size of the defense budget places on Israel's economy, TASE's Bronfeld told the conference's participants that "many don't realize the tremendous side benefits" of defense spending in the field of hi-tech and start-ups. "The IDF and Israeli defense industries are a huge laboratory," he said, providing future employees and entrepreneurs with exposure to advanced equipment at a young age, alongside immense responsibility and opportunities to develop leadership skills. "I believe that the political situation will not likely change within the next generation, so we will have a lot of opportunities to practice our ingenuity and advanced technologies related to defense," Bronfeld said. Deutsche Bank Israel director Dan Harverd told the conference that the "emerging market" label was inaccurate when applied to Israel, which now has an "almost European" GDP-per-capita level, a small population, and a paucity of national resources, concentrated primarily in the Dead Sea. Typical emerging markets, on the other hand, are characterized by lower GDP per capita, large populations, and a wealth of natural resources. Menora Finance CEO Yehuda Ben-Assayag said that in terms of returns and volatility, Israel closely resembles developed markets, crediting the stability to "10 years of responsible economic and political leadership" that reduced public spending. Bank of Israel foreign currency department director Barry Topf credited the shekel's low volatility to the high proportion of real trade flows against less stable financial capital flows, relative to other currencies. Even shekel capital flows are more real than those coming into other countries, being directed to solid investments, he added. While Israel's image has suffered among many international investors as being too "defensive" for an emerging market, the image helped retain investment in the country when investors began reducing holdings in emerging markets earlier in the year, Harverd said. In any event, the label was "a bit superficial," given the variety of investment plays, reforms, and reports of high yields, he added. Harverd also told participants that a factor in the Israeli economy's resilience was the country's "excellent" human capital and entrepreneurial spirit, "which is almost a part of the culture here," providing a "remarkable contrast" with the UK, for instance. Nonetheless, acquisitions on the scale of Warren Buffett's recent purchase of Iscar - whose largest facility is in Tefen, which is well within Katyusha range - were not likely to become commonplace, he said, noting that Iscar was a "somewhat one-of-a-kind" company known for its quality and the quality of its management. "So I don't expect a stampede following Warren Buffet," Harverd said. "The most interesting thing about the Israel angle" in terms of the level of risk Iscar's location affected Buffett's assessment of the purchase, "was that it was irrelevant," he added. Bronfeld said that Israel is a "distinct country," located "somewhere in between developed and emerging markets." "It would not be very profitable to associate Israel completely with either developed or emerging markets," he said. Menora's Ben-Assayag told the investors that - just as his company now categorizes its investments abroad by sector and not geographically - they too should look at Israel's relative advantages and invest in the sectors "that we are good at here in Israel." The prime minister's advisor on international affairs, Ra'anan Gissin, told the investors that Israel is like a "very sophisticated, high-class SUV" in its capability to adapt to all terrains and conditions as necessity dictates. "So if you're interested in buying a good SUV, buy Israel."