Olmert: Highest bidder may not win Leumi stake

Even though its ownership is still uncertain, Bank Leumi is carrying out its program of expansion.

The Bank Leumi stake that the government is selling in a tender may not go to the highest bidder, Finance Minister Ehud Olmert indicated on Tuesday. "Once the competition standards are set we will review the financial details of the bids. I don't think the price will be the only determining factor," Olmert said at a press conference in Tel Aviv. Earlier in the day, Accountant-General Yaron Zelekha published details of the tender, saying that bids must be submitted by November 7. Even though its ownership is still uncertain, Leumi is carrying out its program of expansion. The bank said on Tuesday that it was in negotiations to buy 95 percent of Romania's Eurom Bank, although it didn't specify a price. It was responding to a newspaper report that it would buy the bank for $60m. The government, which holds 24.78% of Leumi, plans to sell 9.99% of the company's shares and an option to buy another 10.01%, while it also intends to divide up about 4% among the employees, leaving the government with less than 1%. Before the offers are submitted, the method of the privatization needs the approval of the Knesset's Finance Committee. Although the publication of the tender information is later than the government originally intended, it signals that Olmert is continuing the privatization program of predecessor Binyamin Netanyahu. "The completion of the privatization of Bank Leumi is one of the most important tasks on the (government's) economic agenda and its success will maintain investor faith in Israel's economy," said Olmert. Should the tender be unsuccessful, the government has a backup plan to give the shares away to the public, although Olmert doesn't think this will be necessary. "We have no reason to believe that the tender will be unsuccessful. Going back to the initial option of offering shares to the public is unlikely," he said. Olmert did not exclude selling part of the Bank Leumi stake to the market if the winning bidder for the 9.99% doesn't get approval from the Bank of Israel to acquire the 10.01%. Buying both tranches would give the purchaser 20%, which the Central Bank says is a controlling stake. In March the state sold a 6.5% holding to German company Deutsche Bank for NIS 1.16 billion, or NIS 12.64 a share, and in July it sold a 3.5% stake to US financial giant Citigroup for NIS 611m., or NIS 12.35 a share. Both banks immediately sold the shares. Those who have expressed an interest in buying the government's holding include Nochi Dankner's IDB Holdings and a group of British investors. Shlomo Eliahu, Leumi's biggest private shareholder with a 10% stake, has said he would be interested in forming a consortium to participate in any government tender. Yitzhak Klein, the chief executive of MI Holdings, the government company that handles the state's banking interests, said that once the winning bidder has been chosen and it has paid for the initial stake, the Bank of Israel will grant the buyer a permit to hold the shares, although this is not an approval for control of the bank. The buyer then has four months to make a request to realize the option for the extra 10%. The bidders won't be allowed to carry out due diligence before making the offers, although they will be allowed to meet with the bank's management to obtain information. If the winning bidder wants to realize the 10.01% option, MI Holdings will recommend that Leumi provide it with limited additional information, said Klein. The tender is the last stage of the privatization of Bank Leumi, whose shares the government started selling on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in 1993. The privatization is also the last to take place in the sector after 22 years of government involvement following the banking crisis of 1983, when the state was forced to step in to save the banks from collapse. In January this year, the government sold a 26% stake in Israel Discount Bank to a consortium headed by US businessman Matthew Bronfman for NIS 1.3 billion. The group has an option of buying another 25% within three years of the sale at the same valuation.