Israeli Exporters Demand Intervention After Dollar Falls Near 15-month Low

Shekel expected to strengthen further in April as Tamar gas field starts up.

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The dollar fell near a 15-month low against the shekel Thursday, bringing its losses over the last two months to almost 7% and prompting calls by Israeli exporters for intervention.

The Bank of Israel set the dollar at NIS 3.687, 0.2% lower than the day before and just shy of its recent low last Friday of NIS 3.682. Against the euro, the shekel eased to NIS 5.003.

Currency traders said the greenback was likely to weaken further against the shekel, especially as the flow of natural gas from Israel's Tamar field begins this spring.

"The potential for further drops in the dollar has yet to be exhausted," said Yossi Fraiman, CEO of the Prico Group investment house. "The shekel is expected to show continued strength and appreciate to NIS 3.6 to the dollar, which is likely to make the Bank of Israel intervene in the foreign currency market."

In principle, the central bank opposes entering the forex market to support the shekel, but during the global financial crisis when the dollar sank below NIS 3.5 it embarked on an intervention policy. In the three years to July 2011, the central bank bought around $50 billion of foreign currency.

One consequence was a dollar horde. Also on Thursday, the Bank of Israel reported that its foreign reserves had risen to $78.875 billion at the end of January from $75.906 billion a month earlier. The main reason was the $1.9 billion repatriated by the treasury after it sold dollar bonds in the United States.

The bank never officially declared an end to the intervention policy, and Stanley Fischer, the governor of the Bank of Israel, has signaled he may resume dollar-buying before he leaves office in June.

"We've said we will intervene when we think the currency is away from its fundamental value. That remains our policy," Fischer told Reuters Television last month in Davos. "We haven't intervened at all in a year and a half. We hope we don't have to intervene, but if we have to, we will."

The dollar has been dropping against the shekel since it peaked at NIS 4.08 in July. But the fall has accelerated in the last several days as exporters have sold the dollars they earned abroad for shekels to meet monthly wage payments. The U.S. currency has also weakened against the euro, which reached a 14-month high against the greenback amid signs the euro zone economy was recovering.

The shekel is likely to strengthen significantly come April when the Tamar gas field comes on line because demand for foreign currency to pay for energy imports will fall, Fraiman said. "We expect to see a significant decline in demand for foreign currency that will lead to a significant appreciation of the shekel," he said.

Manufacturers Association head Amir Hayek has called on Fischer to hold emergency talks on intervening in the foreign currency market to stabilize the exchange rate.

"We don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past and lose billions of dollars of exports due to a sharp depreciation of the dollar," Hayek said. "The dollar's weakness is hurting exports and the ability of Israeli industry to compete. The governor must intervene to strengthen the dollar against the shekel."

He also called on the new government not to wait for the passing of the 2013 budget to take steps to aid exporters. He said the state should increase the credit insurance it makes available, expand the budget of the fund for encouraging exports, and increase research-and-development aid to industry.

Hayek also recommended freezing increases in municipal tax, the employer's tax and utility rates.

Reuters contributed to the report

Stacks of hundred dollar bills. Credit: Reuters

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