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Taking Stock Nonsense You Read in the Newspaper

Israel's banks are safe because they didn't indulge in exotic assets like their overseas peers. You'll have read things like that.

In your innocence, you thought that when the bust replaced the boom, when euphoria would be ousted by anguish and when the cheap money and borrowing sprees would end - you'd read less nonsense and drum-banging in the press. You thought that much of the twaddle shot through the public debate would vanish.

Far from it. It seems that in this initial phase of the crisis, the rubbish just keeps mounting (just like in the bond market). Here's a pocket guide to some of the babble we're likely to be subjected to in the popular press.

1 The age of stocks is over / Companies will go private. A particularly popular newspaper recently wrote that bit of pap, and you're likely to see a lot more of that theory.

Businessweek featured much the same sentiment on its cover in 1979, after a few years of economic woe. A few months later, stocks staged a comeback. Relax, dear reader. The age of stocks is not over. The crisis in the capital markets is enormous but no better way has ever been found for companies to raise and allocate capital than through securities, shares and bonds. In short, when the press starts bemoaning "the end of stocks," it's probably time to get back into the market.

2 I'm following Buffett's lead. I can't lose.

A lot of people have been saying that after the New York Times reported that Warren Buffett is selling his bonds and buying stocks. But, you aren't Buffett. There are (at least) three differences between you and him. (1) Most of the investments Buffett made, through his company Berkshire Hathaway, were made at terms unavailable to you. Companies are willing to sell him shares at a discount because of his reputation.

(2) Buffett's been in the market for 60 years, most of which time he spent burrowing through financial statements, and talking with managers. He didn't spend his time watching TV, bringing up kids or engaging in hobbies; he honed his skills as a company-spotting machine. (3) Buffett can afford to lose heavily if a recession develops and lasts for years. Investment is a game to him. He likes to win and almost always does, but it's a game. Are stocks a game to you? Can you keep playing while your portfolio shrinks?

In short, heeding Buffett is a good idea. You have to have an extraordinary opinion of yourself to go against him. But remember the differences between yourself and the Oracle of Omaha.

3 Danger for Israel: The fall of the tycoons. Goodness, until this crisis, I didn't even know how "tycoon" was defined. Now I know: It's an entrepreneur who bought a lot of companies by risking other people's money. If he'd risked his own, he'd just be another businessman.

If you're losing sleep at the thought of "tycoons falling" and dragging down the whole economy, relax. The benefit the "tycoons" confer on the economy is much smaller than generally thought. It's small businesses and people-building companies that generate economic growth. People who buy existing companies and property contribute less. The fall of a tycoon would lead to redistribution of his assets among the people who financed him. It might even be of wider economic benefit. So: Calls for the state to buy corporate bonds from the tycoons' companies are arrant nonsense.

4 "Pension money shouldn't be invested in the capital market."

A widespread sentiment, and a foolish one. Next time some "expert" tells you that in all seriousness, say, "you're right. Where should it be invested, though?"

You will get one of two answers. (1) Deposit the money with the state, so it's safe. Wow, great idea, which leads to another question: What will the government do with the money? How will it give the future retiree guaranteed returns of say 5% or 6% a year, so he has what to retire on?

This is where the expert may start to stumble. Finally he'll suggest that the government invest the money in companies, projects - in plain English, in stocks and bonds.

Terrific idea: an economy controlled and managed by a few ministers and bureaucrats. Cuba's like that. So is North Korea.

Or, the expert might suggest that the money be deposited in banks. What, you inquire, will the banks do with it? They'll lend it to companies at a profit, the expert will explain. Banks can't screw up, can they? They always get it right. (Yeah, banks have starred in financial scandals for the last 200 years and just now they're being nationalized left, right and center.)

Some facts: The government began to exit the capital market scene 22 years ago, and provident funds have been investing all their assets in the markets for 15 years. In 1994 and 1995, provident fund depositors lost money as the bond and stock markets fell, but in good years the funds made money.

There's no such thing as risk-free gains. Pensioners learned as much from the bank shares crash of 1983, the 1993 crash created after banks urged loans on people to invest in stock, and again in 1995, when the government was forced to rescue the provident funds. Then there was the crash early this millennium.

Risk-hating savers and pensioners shouldn't put money into provident funds that invest in stocks or corporate bonds. They should choose provident funds that pick low-volatility assets such as short-term government bonds.

5 Israel's banks are safe because they didn't indulge in exotic assets like their overseas peers. You'll have read things like that.

Actually, Israel's banks are as safe as their overseas peers. They have tens of billions of dollars deposited with their overseas peers (at best) or own bonds issued by their overseas peers (at worst). If Israel's banks are safe it's for two entirely different reasons: (1) Most of the banks where they deposited their money have been nationalized; (2) Jerusalem won't let a local bank fail.