Taking Stock / Waking Up in the Matrix

Don't worry about the tycoons imploding - their fate is sealed.

What will happen if the big business barons fall? Well, more than 40% of the corporate bonds listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange are junk bonds, according to information from the rating agency S&P Maalot, the Israel Securities Authority and analysts over at Harel.

In other words, the yields on these bonds show investors suspect they're not going to get repaid. In yet other words, they fear the companies will default, so the bond prices have been plunging and their yields climbing. Among the businessmen that the public fears won't meet liabilities are household names, men thought of as "economic leaders."

The public tends to ascribe the collapse of the tycoons' corporate bonds to slowing economic growth, and to the tycoons' penchant for taking big risks. Neither is true. The tycoons' securities collapsed because the ecosystem that allowed the securities' value to balloon during the good times, and weather the bad times, has changed.

Israel's tycoons had relied on three main things. One is cozy relations (or ownership of ) financial institutions managing pension funds, which gave them access to the public's savings, at low cost. The second is the feebleness of Israeli regulation, which enabled the companies to preserve their monopolies and keep profits high, even if the companies were badly managed. The third is economic concentration - tycoons looking out for one another, using the public's money to help each other out.

There has been fear of economic havoc "if the tycoons collapse." But in fact their collapse began last summer, when the public started to notice it had been living Keanu Reeves-style in a matrix of fantasy built by the tycoons, using their pet newspapers and marionette decision-makers. Regulators who had run scared of the tycoons for years also began to wake up and take action, or at least talk about it. And thus companies that had been gold mines for their owners suddenly began to look like risky ventures.

Institutional investors, the ones managing your money, and the bankers also started to wake up and look around. Suddenly they began to rethink their habit of rolling over the tycoons' debts, given the sudden realization that the tycoons might not be able to rig the game anymore.

A deadly combination arose of the public's awakening and the advent of competition (for instance in mobile communications ), plus the institutional investors and banks readying for the day that somebody investigates why exactly they lavished tens of billions of shekels in loans on a handful of big business barons.

In less than a year, people who had lived high on the hog thanks to the public's money, thanks to gullible consumers and thanks to the taxpayer, found themselves in the category of potential bankrupts. Now, predictably, comes the stage of scaremongering.

The tycoons and their lobbyists will be wailing to the Knesset, to the cabinet, through their pet newspapers and from every possible dais in town about the horrors that will ensue if the public's money isn't used to bail them out.

They have done it before, in early 2009, when financial crisis was shaking the world. They and the regulators concocted plans to use taxpayer money, or pension savings, to help the tycoons roll over their debts. If they fell, they explained, the economy would slither helplessly into recession and a wave of job losses would sweep over the land.

Like in 2009, their threats ring hollow again.

True, the bailiff isn't breaking down their doors, but their bonds and shares have shrunk horribly, losing as much as 90% of their value. The public has already taken the blow of lost value in their pension savings. Dear reader, as far as you are concerned, the tycoons have already fallen.

Yitzhak Tshuva