A brave new world for investors

In other times, the whiplash in global markets over the past two weeks would be enough to keep all the amateur investors off the high-stakes roller coaster for awhile, pulling their money out of the financial markets and socking it away under their mattresses. But it isn't - at least not here where, aside from the alarm from business journalists, it's business as usual. At one of Bank Hapoalim's main, downtown Jerusalem branches, a plain-looking man in his mid-50s is asking a clerk dozens of questions: How does the interest rate in this fund compare to that one? What would I end up with in this many years? What if I choose a fund tied to the dollar? Or the consumer price index? Would I be better off moving my money to a different pension fund? How about a mutual fund? Stocks? Bonds? The gentleman is not alone. A young man just out of university is asking the clerk in the next booth about ways to invest a portion of the salary from his first job. Several more people seated in the lobby are waiting their turn to ask similar questions. None is a tycoon. But all are investors. Extensive news coverage and the explosion of interest in investment options is evidence of a major change in the way most Israelis relate to their money. After the rationing of the 1950s, the upheaval of major wars in the 1960s and 1970s, the hyperinflation crisis of the 1980s and the hi-tech delirium of the 1990s, a popular culture of investing is beginning to take root here. "Before, in times of uncertainty, people sought out 'solid' investments, and ones they could understand. If they had some money and wanted to protect it from inflation, they would look to buy property, or to buy dollars," says Eliezer Gluckman, a personal banking specialist who has worked at the bank for 32 years. "Now, there are no such 'solid' investments. Rather, there is a tremendous variety of options available, from the stock market in Tel Aviv to markets in London and China. Every day, people - not just the wealthy, but all kinds of 'regular' people - come in here to ask about them." "Israel has changed a lot in the last three years," Neil Cohen, of Israel Seed Partners, agrees. "The markets have become much more liquid; there's a lot more capital around; there are a lot more products being offered to people, and the products that are being offered to them are much more sophisticated than the ones that were being offered to them before." Thanks to recent reforms in the banking sector, Cohen notes, "Whereas the banks once dominated in the provision of both investment products and investment advice, today that market is now in the hands of more independent and increasingly more aggressive players who are offering increasingly sophisticated, sometimes complex products." You'll find no greater sign of just how much investments have penetrated the public consciousness than the ones on the sides of buses around the country. There, in the spot that once was dominated by political slogans and schools offering lessons for psychometric exams, now hang banners offering tempting returns on financial instruments once familiar only to the caviar crowd. "Three years ago, people weren't getting calls at home from mutual fund companies or insurance companies pitching products," Cohen says. "The market was much more sedate. It was an easy club dominated by the larger banks. It's much more consumer-oriented now." Technology also plays a part, as Israelis have an easier time investing now than they ever did before: Even small sums can be invested in a fairly wide array of instruments in a matter of seconds, at a relatively low cost, through the banks' Web sites. Not that this means that every blue-collar investor has a firm grasp of what his money is doing in this fund or that one. The prevalence of options, Cohen says, just means that "both the opportunities and the risks for investors have increased. It's a brave new world for investors these days." Is it a promising world, though, even if the latest stock market scare is destined to continue? As Esther Levanon, CEO of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, notes, "A stock exchange has problems when too few people are invested in it... In fact," she says, "there's only one other situation that is problematic for an exchange, and that's when too many people are invested in. When everyone is into stocks, it can get scary."