Taking stock / Nochi's ark
He has a plan to rescue the drowning financial world.
Nochi Dankner predicted the global financial crisis. In August 2007 we reported on the businessman's grim forecast, that the worst still lay ahead.
His prescience is impressive: The meltdown is the worst we've ever known. It's a financial flood that leaves no corner or mountaintop untouched, no safe harbor or sector dry, and no stock market unscarred.
The bonds of most of Israel's tycoons are trading at levels reflecting true fear that the likes of Lev Leviev, Yitzhak Tshuva and Eliezer Fishman won't repay debt in full. But the bonds of Dankner's group, IDB, are trading at around 10%. Normally a yield of 10% to maturity for a corporate debenture would be considered very high. But these days it shows relative confidence in Dankner and IDB.
One anomaly tarnishing the gleam of Dankner's prophetic gift is that in mid-2007 he joined Yitzhak Tshuva and bought land in Las Vegas for $1.2 billion, moments before the financial crisis exploded. The land is right on the famous Vegas Strip - an epicenter of the planet-wide earthquake. Shares of casinos and property developers in the gambling Mecca - Wynn Resorts, MGM Mirage - have lost 70% to 90% of their value. Some, like Sheldon Adelson's Las Vegas Sands, are in trouble.
At the time, the deal Tshuva and Dankner struck in Vegas looked risky. A year ago to the day, we wrote here that they might well have to eat the cute hard hats they wore when ceremoniously blowing up the Pioneer Hotel to make room for their multi-billion-dollar edifice. Yet somehow, this week, like in the biblical days, one man stands dry on an ark he built as the world drowns in the financial storm's waters.
Property & Building, the IDB Group company whose shares have fallen 70% - because it's the one through which Dankner bought his share of the Vegas site - released its third-quarter report last week, including a fresh appraisal of that site. Everybody thought land would be worth a fraction of the buying price. Certainly everything else in Vegas is, as casino revenues plummet these days. But no: Property & Building says the value of that piece of land has increased by no less than 20%.
How does a man build an ark like that? Simple. You call an appraiser, preferably a renowned one, explain the situation, write a check and a few weeks later get a fat book in a fancy binding, with a note attached: No worries, the value of your land has increased.
Our first reaction while reading the Property & Building report was a desire to heap fire and brimstone on Dankner, the appraiser, the company's auditors and directors, and everybody else involved in this financial prank. The value of a Vegas site bought seconds before the flood inundated the land rose while all else foundered?
But after a deep breath, we realized that we, as usual, were missing the big picture: Instead of burying Dankner in effigy, the business world, the bankers and appraisers and auditors should be praising him, joining him in presenting the neo-New Deal that will save the world.
By now we know that the plans of Hank Paulson, U.S. treasury secretary, to buy toxic assets from the banks, and of Gordon Brown, to nationalize the banks in the UK, aren't working too well. They did restore some confidence to the banking sector and assuaged fear of systemic collapse, but the liquidity crunch remains intense and job losses are mounting at warp speed, among other disasters. The year 2009 looks like being one of the worst the global economy has known in decades.
And here comes Nochi with his plan, so much simpler, so speedy, so effective.
Unlike Paulson and Brown's ideas, his doesn't imperil the taxpayer, or involve printing money or heated debate in Congress or with central bankers. All you have to do is enlist the appraisers.
If necessary, open a few thousand appraisal companies in each country, creating thousands of jobs for the analysts that the banks have been firing in droves.
Define those companies as "national emergency infrastructure" and solicit commercial evaluations of land and assets, apartments and projects around the world, whether still ideas in briefcases or finished works with gold lettering on the door. The appraisers will set the value of the properties, as Dankner's did, at 10% to 30% above the pre-crash price and Bob's your uncle.
This ostensibly technical move involves a few phone calls and spread sheets - but in today's economy, documentation is everything.
This is what will happen:
? The price of all land, homes and properties will formally increase by tens of percent.
? Trillions of dollars' worth of bonds backed by assets (which had disappeared in the flood) will regain lost heights.
? Mortgage-backed bonds will immediately stop being called "toxic assets" and will become red hot again.
? Banks and financial institutions holding these bonds will cancel hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of write-offs.
? The banks and institutions will post handsome profits and sharply higher shareholders equity. Their capital adequacy ratios and financial strength will be fully restored.
? The liquidators of Lehman Bros had been saying it would take years and most bondholders would be left high and dry. Yet suddenly Lehman's assets will be back and the bank will exit liquidation and resume business.
? The banks, hedge funds, pension funds and investment firms will immediately start lending huge amounts to all comers, households and companies alike, like in the glory days.
? Investors will regain the vast amounts they lost on stock markets the world wide. The wealth effect will kick in again. People can start borrowing to spend on bubble gum again.
? Private consumption will take off as companies stop firing, extend the olive branch to laid-off employees and start investing. The flood of 2008 will abate and remain a distant memory of a world that forgot, for a moment, the power of made-to-order evaluations.