The woman who keeps Israel’s stock

Interview: Head the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, Ester Levanon, talks to 'The Jerusalem Post' about her successful career.

Ester Levanon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ester Levanon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ester Levanon was appointed to head the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE) in June 2006, the month before Israel became involved in a two-month war with the country that shares her name. Sadly, she is all-too-familiar with Israel’s many wars – born in 1946, two years before the state’s establishment, her father was killed in the War of Independence and her younger half-brother fell a quarter-century later in the Yom Kippur War.
Levanon’s own career has been inspiring for women in the business community. In 1973, aged just 27, she established and then managed the Israeli Security Service’s computer division, and in 1986 joined TASE. She also holds an MSc in mathematics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in 1998 attended the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program.
Since her appointment as CEO Levanon has overseen TASE’s transformation into a fully automated exchange, upgrading it into one of the world’s most advanced stock exchanges as well as one of the few that offers fully automated trading in securities, bonds, T-bills and derivatives alongside fully automated paperless clearing and settlement.
She answered the following questions for The Jerusalem Post:
Would you agree that Israel managed better than most other countries in overcoming the global financial crisis of 2008-09?
I agree with the fact and that’s what I try to sell wherever I go. But the first thing I’m selling is the Israeli economy. We can have a wonderful [stock] exchange and it can be the most developed exchange on the face of the earth, but we need the economy to back up for it and I think we did so well partly because of the hi-tech industry.
If you look at the last few years, I think a lot of that we have to attribute to [Bank of Israel Governor] Stanley Fischer knowing exactly what to do at the right time. He not only responds to the economy, he’s the one who tells us not to make any grave mistakes.
If you look back over what happened over those two years when the crisis started in the US and then all over the world, he was the responsible adult knowing exactly what to do and what not to do.
Which component of the Israeli economy is most inspiring?
The tech industry, of course. I’m crazy about the tech industry. It’s not only hi-tech, it’s biotech, cleantech, it’s electronics, it’s optics, everything. I think if you look at the hi-tech community in the broad sense of the word, we are leading worldwide in that area.
Is the trend toward privatization in this country a good thing or a bad thing, and should it continue?
I think it should be continued. I think most of what could have been privatized already has been privatized, but we still have the ports for instance; we were talking about it. If you look at the electricity company, it’s partly privatized – they have both – but they never issued stocks on the exchange. Or we are talking about private companies not owned by the government; if you look at Iscar for instance, they never wanted to go public, they had their own reasons. They probably knew better than anyone else, and I think Warren Buffett is the proof that they knew what they were doing and they didn’t want to share it with the public and they had their own reasons.
Who is your personal economic or philosophic hero?
You could have guessed by now – Stanley Fischer. But it’s more than that, I really don’t admire people. I never say “that’s the person I admire.” There is only one person I have admired in my life and that was [Nobel Prize-winning physician and chemist] Marie Curie.
How is the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange different from other stock exchanges?
If you look at the part that the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange plays in the Israeli economy and the size of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in comparison to the size of the country, it’s much bigger than you would have thought. I look constantly at the announcements of the other stock exchanges and I look at Egypt, a much larger country, and I was surprised to see that it has a much smaller exchange than Tel Aviv.
Even in Europe, and there is a list of European exchanges and what they achieved, if we put ourselves in the middle of the European exchanges – my assistant did it last year – we are, I think, No. 6 on the list of exchanges in terms of volume. It is quite amazing, and that was only for stocks. Now you must take into account that a stock exchange is a one-stop shop where we also trade in government bonds, which is quite unique, and we have a fully transparent market in government bonds.
Where do you see TASE headed in the coming years?
I call my vision for TASE “IsraTech.” What we are aiming for is to make Israel the center for hi-tech companies. It doesn’t mean that we are going to compete with NASDAQ but there is a unit of hitech companies that are too small and too young to be listed in NASDAQ. It might be too expensive for them or they might not be interested in the US market.
Taking the brand name of Israel as the center for hi-tech companies, in the early market in terms of hi-tech it is the second or third in the world. Not in relative terms, but in absolute terms – the number of companies, the number of venture capital companies – we are either the second or third in the world. Let’s say relative to the population, something like that.
So we have the brand name, we have the companies here, there is a problem in the last few years of how to raise money for those companies and we believe that the TA stock exchange could be the answer for those companies. As you know, it’s very difficult for a company now, a hi-tech company, a tech company in Israel, to list on NASDAQ. They are smaller, they are very expensive to list on the NASDAQ and even more expensive – the yearly maintenance of a company listed in the US is about 10 times what it costs in Israel. So we are trying to use this window of opportunity and to set here a cluster for hi-tech companies.
It’s not typical for a woman to head a national stock exchange. Has it been challenging?
First of all, let me tell you a secret. I have been a woman for the last 65 years so I don’t know if there is anything special about that, but my whole career has been very special in that respect. Before coming to the TASE I established the IT division for the Israeli Security Service so it was very unusual at the time as well. I met very few women as heads of stock exchanges and it’s a pity. But we had Clara Furse as the head of the London Stock Exchange [who resigned in 2009]. There is one in Ireland, a very interesting woman by the way. There is one in the Oslo stock exchange and one in Sri Lanka.