Taking stock / Seven million to the rescue of seven
A debate has been raging in the business press about who will rescue the tycoons - those people who issued mountains of bonds, borrowing hundreds of billions of shekels from our pension funds and insurance policies - from the startling and inconvenient situation in which they find themselves.
The problem is a simple one. A group of about 50 big businessmen, mainly in real estate, exploited the global credit bubble. They borrowed more than NIS 100 billion in the last five years, issuing bonds. The general public bought the bonds through pension schemes, and insurance companies bought them for their clients.
And then came the financial crisis, followed by an economic meltdown. The value of the properties these big businessmen bought was hammered. The value of the shares and bonds they'd issued fell anywhere from 50% to 90%. And because credit is scarce and expensive these days, they're having trouble rolling over their loans - taking out fresh ones to repay the original, cheap ones.
The rules of capitalism and the free market dictate that when borrowers gamble and fail, they have to get off the stage. They have to make room for new, more liquid players, people who are more cautious and efficient. That is economic Darwinism, whose rules were spelled out by one of the great economists of the last century: the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter.
In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Schumpeter explained that busts are part of the normal economic world. Capitalists operating in conditions of uncertainty occasionally create surplus supply. The market has to rid itself of this surplus capacity and poor investments. So sometimes it undergoes a process of liquidation. Efforts by government to prevent this process are useless, said Schumpeter: All they do is impair resource allocation and delay economic recovery.
This Darwinist process of creative destruction threatens the players ruling the economy today. They are therefore doing everything in their power to persuade the regulators, politicians and press to change the rules of the free-market game. They want everyone to believe that ensuring cheap credit is a national priority, not their personal problem.
Capitalists advocate capitalism only when it serves their purpose. The moment it serves another capitalist's purpose, forget it. Then they clamor for government intervention.
Thus we have been treated to a parade of various and sundry propositions, all based on harnessing the public's money to preserve the existing structures of power and control. One suggests using taxpayer money to subsidize fresh borrowing by the biggest bond issuers, by providing state guarantees for the bonds. Another seeks to tap pension money to subsidize debt by deferring bond repayments.
The basic instinct of every economist is to ask why a government should use public money to save these big borrowers, whose business is mostly buying and selling properties and companies. Surely the state should focus its resources, now more than ever, on helping the jobless as well as the small businesses that generate the vast majority of jobs in the business sector.
Another question is why people who have already lost 15% to 30% of their pension savings should help the bond issuers instead of regaining their lost money through debt arrangements that would improve their situation.
After giving the matter more thought, however, we finally saw the light. It's simple math. Israel's population is seven million, while that of the biggest borrowers is around 70 and the lion's share of the problem belongs to the seven people who borrowed the most during the good times.
If each of those seven million people - taxpayers, savers, retirees; men, women and children - donated just a tiny bit to the big seven borrowers, they could make a huge difference. It's all in the numbers. On the other hand how much effect could the seven, rich as they are, have on that vast population of seven million?
The moment we had that breakthrough, we immediately came up with a number of creative solutions, quick and easy to execute.
The guiding principle of all is the many for the few, seven million for the seven.
* Tycoon tax: Impose a tax, a mere 1.125% on the gross income of all the salaried workers in the land who earn anywhere between the minimum wage and the average wage. The tax would go into a fund that would give grants to each borrower who raised NIS 5 billion or more from the public's pensions. The tax bracket we chose, between NIS 3,500 and NIS 8,000, is no coincidence. It was thought through. That's what the majority earns. These are people who barely scrape by, and 1% of their pay won't make a difference to their standard of living. Moreover, most of them won't even notice it because they're too focused on trying to earn a living.
* Big borrower fee: That will be a special fee amounting to 0.5% of your invested assets, charged on May 1, added to the management fee you pay on your mutual fund, pension scheme, insurance policy or whatever. That too would go to a public committee to be headed by attorney Ram Caspi. Since Caspi is the lawyer and confidante of at least half of the biggest borrowers, he'll know how to distribute the goodies.
* Transportation loan. The subsidy given by the Ministry of Finance to the Dan and Egged bus cooperatives would immediately be reduced by 5%, and that money would be diverted into a special Fight the Global Economic Crisis fund. The fund would have to ensure proper transport arrangements for all the biggest borrowers - mainly executive jets, either Gulfstream or Challenger, or both. A borrower who is having trouble financing the purchase or lease of an executive jet would receive support from the fund within 45 days of applying. The fund will continue to operate until the Dow Jones returns to 14,000 points.
* Financial health tax: The government would pass an emergency measure removing expensive drugs from the subsidized basket of health services until further notice. The savings from drug subsidies would be put into a Financial Health Fund, which would guarantee bonds issued by real estate companies whose balance sheets show liabilities in excess of a billion shekels. If the public yammers, an alternative could be introduced: Highway 1 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv could become a toll road. That would immediately relieve congestion, which would be good for the businessmen making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to ask for goodies from the government.
* Regulate the press. The events of recent months show the need for the press to focus on the needs of the big borrowers. An independent committee could be set up, manned by four of the five biggest borrowers, four bankers and three lawyers from the five leading law firms. The committee would monitor coverage of the financial crisis and the kind of proposals raised for debate. A newspaper found insufficiently attentive to the special situation would be closed down, or sold, after its editors are given 30 days to mend their ways. In the event of differences of opinion, Ram Caspi will have veto power.
* Suspending the Antitrust Authority. A committee could be set up headed by the CEO of one of the big companies, to examine the necessity for the Antitrust Authority. The committee would check whether mobile phone rates should be raised by 10% to 15%, ditto for the fees charged by banks, insurance companies, and all those other central services, as long as these are companies controlled by the big borrowers. The committee will be chaired by Ram Caspi.
* Team-building events for regulators, politicians, reporters and the tycoons: The crisis in recent months demonstrates the keen need for social solidarity. Only reporters and politicians who consistently attend the bashes and banquets laid on by the big borrowers can understand their needs and remain on top of the rapid changes in the economy.
We therefore suggest that each month team-building events be held to enable regulators to rub shoulders with the big borrowers at resorts in Israel and abroad. Any regulator, politician or journalist deemed to be an "economic sociopath," - the kind who maintain a distance from the people they are supposed to be monitoring - would be immediately handed over to a committee of experts, headed by Ram Caspi.