Taking Stock / Ten Years of Stocks

Wow! 1,240 percent. 1,319 percent. 1,996 percent. 2,179 percent. 2,233 percent.

Appetizing figures, to be sure. This is the stuff of the stock market. These are the returns that spark the imagination, the figures that lure in the people praying for a jackpot.

Last week, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange Research Department announced the figures achieved by the greatest value creators in Tel Aviv over the last decade. The list was headed by Delek Automotive, FMS Enterprises Migun, Frutarom, Lipman Electronic Engineering, and Retalix. Theirs are the yields listed above.

After them came Teva Pharmaceuticals, Harel Insurance Investments, Clal Insurance, Menorah Holdings and the Delek Group, which gave investors between 450 percent and 780 percent.

This is the second time the TASE has released lists of its star performers. The first time was precisely a year ago, prior to its Jubilee anniversary.

The stunning returns made the front pages, which did wonderful things for Israel's brokers and money managers.

Flip side of the coin

Yet we, miserable gloom-mongers that we are, saw the three-quarters empty glass. Alongside those superb 10 companies, we wrote that almost all the weighty companies listed on the TASE had presented absolutely miserable yields in the past decade. At best they did as well as a savings account, and at worst they generated negative yields.

Tel Avivians who make their living from marketing stocks were dismayed by that long-term view. They hastened to explain that the decade in question, from January 1994 to November 2003, included the terrible crash of 1994, in which stocks lost half their value. The analysis should have started from January 1995, they wailed.

Maybe, but they could also be wrong. Experience teaches that Israel's investors tend to scramble for stocks right after a surge. Mutuals investing in stocks brought in most of their money in 1992 and 1993 before the crash, and not the years following it in 1995 or 1996. So an analysis starting in 1994 is more relevant to most investors.

But let's assume that the ones who need that 10-year perspective are serious investors, not amateurs who come in at the peak and run in the trough. The latest TASE review is just right for them.

This time the decade was examined from January 1995 to November 2004, right after the slump of the mid-1990s, and ending at an all-time high.

And goodness, the results do look much better! There are 15 stocks that yielded more than 15 percent a year in real terms and only one, Koor Industries, that posted a negative return.

Yet the figures are still disappointing. Even if you take a decade starting in a slump and ending at a peak, you find that a third of the big companies generated less returns than risk-free interest.

Whom to thank

Four of the 10 best stocks on the TASE were insurance companies: Harel, Clal, The Israel Phoenix Assurance Company, and Menorah. Migdal Insurance isn't on the list because it listed on the exchange only eight years ago.

Why is insurance such a great performer? Is it fantastic management? A breakthrough in exports? Secret high-tech developments previously unknown in the insurance world?

Apparently not. Insurance triumphed because it was unrefined and regulation was weak, allowing the companies to suck their customers dry, without the customers even noticing.

Insurance companies generated 17 percent to 23 percent real returns a year to investors, while savers via insurance policies had to settle for 3 percent to 5 percent a year.

Why are the policyholders' returns so low? Because the insurance companies sank the money into the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. They bought shares at the peak and sold them in the trough. Because they charged heavy management fees when times were good, and didn't return them when times turned bad.

Really, though, you can't blame the stock exchange for everything. After all, it's just a reflection of the Israeli economy, which is at the bottom of the list of growing economies.

In a nation where the capital market is dominated by a handful of players, where investors are captive, where growth is slow, where the government runs tremendous deficits, where the national debt is mushrooming, where the public sector is bloated, and where defense issues steamroll over genuine economic debate, there is no reason to expect any better of the stock market.