The Silence of the Institutionals

Businessman Eliezer Fishman walked out of the Israel Securities Authority's investigations office last week, having been grilled about the disclosure practices at two publicly traded companies he controls - Darban Hashkaot (TASE: DRBN) and Alliance Tire Company (TASE: ALIN). The disclosure in question was about their speculation on the Turkish lira.

Fishman still doesn't know if the painful affair will yet cost him more, in the form of charges. But what's for sure is that investors in the two companies are still paying the price.

Shares in Alliance lost 18% in the first few days after news broke of the company's heavy losses on the lira. Alliance lost $11 million, which is equivalent to more than half its shareholders' equity.

By mid-June, Alliance stock had lost 20% compared with its peak of mid-May, before rumors of Fishman's massive losses had started circulating. Today the company is 25% below its peak value.

Alliance stock this year

Danban lost NIS 11 million from its fling with the lira. First it tumbled 13% against its peak of the week before and today it's 14% below that level.

When trading high, both Alliance and Darban had tapped investors for more cash, through selling bonds. Investors had no idea that anything untoward had been happening at the two companies, though both had entered their positions in the Turkish lira three months before, and even though - at the time of the bond sales - the lira had already begun to plummet.

Losses made good, and losses not made good

Estimates made shortly after the news broke of the two companies' losses, figured that investors in Darban and Alliance had lost about NIS 700 million from the affair. That is the loss in terms of share price alone. Investors in their bonds also saw their investment losing 5% of its value. Again, that's just within a few days of the news exploding.

In other words, well before the Israel Securities Authority began its criminal investigation, Eliezer Fishman should have been quaking at the prospect of the public's wrath.

The public, which had invested in the shares and bonds of Alliance and Darban, should have felt damaged in that these two companies had carried out gigantic currency speculations, which is not their core business, without telling the public.

No fears, mate

But Eliezer Fishman is not living in fear of the public's wrath. When the affair came to light, he announced that he would personally compensate Alliance and Darban, and make good their losses.

Granted, he will only be giving the two companies money a year after the affair blew up, meaning, by June 2007, and his commitment relates only to direct losses from currency investment. It doesn't relate to the loss suffered by investors, in the form of the shrunken value of the companies.

But the public is evidently satisfied. Fact: not one representative of the public, not one representative of one single institutional investor, could be bothered to bring the public's complaint against Fishman before the court, even though there were institutional investors that had bought bonds in the two companies one day before the affair came to light. They certainly should have felt injured by the suppression of information.

"Let it go," shrugged a source at one of Israel's insurance companies, asked why she wasn't suing Fishman over the losses caused to her insurance clients by her investments in Alliance and Darban. "Our business is to generate returns for investors, not lawsuits? Our investment there is much too small to make it worth our while to pursue lawsuits."

We reminded said insurer that CalPERS, the gigantic pension fund of the California state workers, which is vastly bigger, would never have let an affair like this slide. CalPERS believes it has a duty to teach the marketplace about transparency and fairness, and understands that it pays to invest in such education through legal action, to avert future losses. We reminded said insurer that it was her duty to her investors to protect their rights.

Said insurer was unimpressed. Perhaps she would have been more impressed if the Justice Ministry had advanced with its proposal, to make institutional investors liable to lawsuits by their investors when they feel the institutionals have neglected to fulfill their duties.