Taking Stock / Once the fish are wrapped
1. "Dor Chemicals was managed like a grocery store," thundered Moshe Terry, the chairman of the Israel Securities Authority, last week, lashing out at the former crown jewel in the Dankner family business empire. The audience went wild.
Yes, Terry is riding tall again in the economic press. He's appointing investigators, demanding proper disclosure, threatening, chastising, impaneling more and more committees, and generally making it crystal clear: I'm here to protect the little investor. I will leave my mark in the capital market.
Fine, very impressive. Nobody disputes that Terry breathed new, proactive life into the Israel Securities Authority, a spirit not seen since the days of Arie Mientkavich.
But one thing niggles. Every day the press reports new exposes of negligence, conglomerates run like groceries, public excoriation. But what remains the day after, when the papers have been used to wrap fish?
In his report on Dor, CPA Ezra Gabay says again and again that top management withdrew pay and perks by unkosher means, and transferred money to companies belonging to interested parties with equal disregard for proper practice. Clearly, there are grounds for a criminal investigation.
Yet for some reason, Terry settles for a public lashing and a call on investors to file a class action.
Strange, that. He must know that companies indemnify top management and directors against lawsuits of the type. Lawsuits like that serve no true deterrent purpose.
If Terry wants to deter, he cannot settle for juicy headlines. Inquiries are the stuff. Though if all Terry wants is good press, he can be highly satisfied so far.
2. Finally, the government is occupying its complex in Tel Aviv. Almost 50,000 square meters of office space are starting to be filled. The Government Printing Office is moving, and there is room for Environment, Employment, Housing, Israel Land Administration, Income Tax and Interior staff as well. The offices are gleaming and spanking new, which should improve the work culture in government, we are told. Wow.
Yet something irks.
Why does the government have to build 50,000 square meters of gleaming, spanking new offices on prime real estate in central Tel Aviv? Did we learn nothing from the government's scandalous former residence in central Tel Aviv? Why does the taxpayer have to fork over $23 per square meter for government offices?
Why not move the government to one of the unemployment-stricken outlying areas, one with a train station, perhaps? Not only would we all be saved the inflated cost of rent, but also we'd be improving conditions somewhere else than Tel Aviv.
But the public sector is not having any of that. Its officials want to rub shoulders with the biggest and best tycoons, with Nochi Dankner and Yigal Arnon, not with hicks on the train. And we'd pay the bill either way.
3. Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, surprised the markets Friday by predicting that the dollar's slide might depress American imports and gradually narrow America's yawning trade deficit.
Interestingly, he suggested that Europeans were continuing to export to America, even at a loss, in order to preserve their market share.
Lovely, but one thing nags. Does Greenspan, one of the most eminent economists in the world, really believe that currency fluctuations will solve one of America's more egregious economic problems: a giant trade deficit and an improvident public unwilling to save?
To sharpen that question: Is the Fed chairman trying to defend his and Bush's policy? Bush inflated the budget deficit, and Greenspan inflated the economy with cheap credit. As Greenspan's protracted term in office nears its final hours, is he shedding his economic credentials for those of a politician?
But really, we must apologize to Greenspan and his followers. We realize that he has long become untouchable, an economic figurehead whose moves may not be questioned, let alone criticized. As an economic demigod, all one may do is quote him, with the appropriate awe.