This story has been told a number of times, but the decision by Antitrust Commissioner David Gilo two weeks ago to retreat from the agreement that would perpetuate Yitzhak Tshuva and Noble Energy's monopoly in the Israeli natural-gas industry provides the Tshuva story in a different context. And that story can teach us a lot.
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Tshuva is an entrepreneur and a businessman always looking for opportunities. He has had his ups and downs, and we’ve seen how he has exploited these chances.
Some of them were opportunities that the government laid at his doorstep, first when he was a young contractor who made his early fortune doing work building the Bar Lev Line near the Suez Canal more than 40 years ago. Later the state reformed the fuel industry and brought in new players to increase competition.
Tshuva built the Gal-Shoham fuel company in the early 1990s. The big firms Delek, Sonol and Paz were the problem at the time. Tshuva and the other entrepreneurs were the solution.
His great leap forward came when he took over the Delek fuel company in the late ‘90s with the help of Bank Hapoalim. This takeover was also directly related to the government’s requiring the bank to sell its stakes in nonfinancial companies.
Delek’s controlling shareholders at the time were the IDB group and Bank Hapoalim, and Tshuva knew how to exploit the situation in which the bank had to sell its holdings so he could take control of Delek. The takeover was a turning point for Tshuva — it let him become Israel’s gas tycoon.
At many stations along the way Tshuva benefited from the government’s policies. The opening of financial markets to nonbank financing let him develop an appetite for leverage.
It let him make investments in Israel and around the world when he picked up Israel’s biggest investment houses as part of the Bachar committee’s recommendations, which required banks to sell their mutual and provident funds. The Phoenix insurance company, which Tshuva controls, bought the Excellence investment house.
The government opened markets, removed barriers and reduced banks’ power. In doing so, it allowed a new generation of businesspeople to exploit opportunities.
Not everyone knew how to do it. Dovrat Shrem collapsed, Yossi Maiman lost most of his money, Nochi Dankner went bankrupt, Lev Leviev got into trouble and is still having problems recovering from the crisis at Africa Israel. And Jonathan Kolber disappeared.
But Tshuva survived, and in a big way. So big that he’s no longer the solution for the evils of a lack of competition — he’s the problem. And it’s not his fault.
Tshuva and Noble Energy have turned into a terrifying natural-gas monopoly, but not because of an aggressive takeover. They simply were the only ones finding gas.
Many searched and didn’t find. Tshuva and Noble Energy found no less than seven fields, of which two (Tamar and Leviathan) are really big. They’re strategic by any parameter — economic, diplomatic, military, societal and commercial.
That’s the reason that since the big Tamar discovery in 2009, the government hasn’t rested for a moment. It has acted time and again to regulate the natural-gas markets.
First it was the first Sheshinski committee, which recommended increasing the state’s share of gas revenues — to the chagrin of Tshuva and Noble Energy.
After that, when the Zemach committee recommended limiting the amount of gas that could be exported, Tshuva and Noble Energy put up a fight again. Now the country has been trying for three years to find a solution to the fact that Israel has a natural-gas monopoly.
To a certain extent, the government painted itself into this corner when it chose to increase its share of gas revenues. The government basically turned itself into a partner with Tshuva and Noble Energy in gas revenues, and into the main beneficiary for the gas being sold at the highest possible price.
But the government’s considerations must be broader and based on factors such as the ability to turn the gas discoveries into an engine for economic growth, and to let consumers feel the benefit of gas discoveries in their wallets.
The regulator’s travails
Over the past three years, Gilo has tried to counter the monopolistic power of Tshuva-Noble. He required them to sell off the Leviathan field and forced them to sell the two small offshore fields Tanin and Karish.
Gilo preferred the second idea and won the consent of the two partners. But as in many other deals, when the other side agrees to your offer in a hurry, you ask yourself whether the solution is really a good one. And it isn’t.
The sale of the two smaller offshore fields can’t create the competition that the gas industry needs. The differences between the small and large fields are like a 4-year-old boy who wants to wrestle with three 20-year-olds.
So Gilo shuffled the deck last month and said this idea was a nonstarter. He said he was considering other solutions, more radical ones, including requiring Tshuva and Noble Energy to part with one of their large fields, Tamar or Leviathan. It won’t happen too quickly, and it’s not at all certain that it will lead to competition.
Gilo and the government now have a job that’s meant to provide an answer for three problems based on the following priorities. 1) To ensure competition in the natural-gas market, and in doing so to have this input lower the cost of living for the public and industry. 2) To ensure that the gas industry develops and serves as a growth engine for the economy. 3) To create certainty by making sure that the rules in the market are clear.
We shouldn’t be frightened by the gas partnership’s legal threats; we don’t need to be impressed by the interested parties’ cries about government interference that “drives investors from Israel.” And we don’t need to give people pushing for the nationalization of the natural-gas fields too much weight in this discussion.
The Israeli economy has been in constant processes of regulation since the 1980s. The idea is to open markets up to competition and make the economy grow — while making sure that no terrifying monopolies are created.
Of course, we don’t want monopolies contaminated by conflicts of interest and institutions that are too big to fail — which hold sway over the economy. Regulating the natural-gas industry is just part of this process in which Tshuva filled an important role at a number of stages in his life. Once he was on one side, now he’s on the other.
By the way, you can hear a lot of complaints about regulating in Israel — it’s too demanding, it drives entrepreneurs away, it paralyzes the economy, it’s inflexible, it’s anti-business.
You can add to this list another one: Regulating in Israel is vague. Many of our regulators mumble. They speak softly and leave an opening for a hasty retreat. Often they’re not specific or determined enough. They wink, they raise an eyebrow, they have reservations, they study the issue.
If there’s something Israel’s regulators need it’s to be clearer and sharper. It’s not always easy. It’s certainly not pleasant to spoil the party, but that’s critical to create more certainty for the business sector.
It’s also part of a regulators’ job. Such things are needed now more than ever in the natural-gas industry — to find a quick solution that will let us move on.