Plutonomy in Israel

If you're not among the top percentile and if the green-eyed monster nestles in your heart, don't read TheMarker's Fat Cats reports, where we describe the pay and perks given to Israel's business executives.

If you are among the top percentile, you may have to read our column to properly gauge your status in the unforgiving, gossipy business world.

This week Israel Discount Bank (TASE:  DSCT) announced a decision to slash the pay packages of CEO Giora Offer and chairman Shlomo Zohar by 50%, because of the public outcry. Pundits applauded.

Indeed, Offer and Zohar decided to settle for much less, something oh like NIS 30-40 million for the two, depending on how you calculate the value of their stock options.

The NIS 42 million worth of stock options that Bezeq (TASE: BZEQ) chief executive Jacob Gelbard received was received with apathy. Bezeq was a government company but isn't any more, and its manager is getting 10 to 20 times as much. Nothing new under the sun.

Are the gigantic salaries of the business sector leaders a local phenomenon? A micro-economic one? A cultural one?

Rich man, median man

Now think about the following statistics. The net assets of the 1% richest in the population is 190 greater than the median assets of the population.

The yawning gap between the wealth of the few and the average wealth has increased at warp speed. Ten years ago, the net assets of the 1% richest were 168 times the average. Twenty-five years ago these net assets were 131 times greater.

Another way to look at the gap is to note that in 2004, the 1% of the richest owned 37% of the local stock market, and the richest 10% owned 79%. Or, the rest of the public owned just 20% of the shares.

The gaps are vast not only in wealth and property. In the decade that began in 1985 and ended in 2004, real wages of the 5% richest increased by 31% in real terms, while the average wage of the poorest increased by just 12%.

That's Israel, you snarl:  only in nasty capitalist Israel have the gaps between the rich and poor grown so frighteningly fast.

But the figures above were brought by Barron's, and while they are reminiscent of the trend in Israel, they relate to the U.S.

In fact, the trend is typical of most economies: the gap between rich and poor is growing. Don't believe that the grumbling about the vast wealth accruing in the hands of the few while more and more people live in poverty is a local phenomenon. The same is happening in the U.S., Canada, England and in emerging markets like Russia and China. The poor feel that the wave isn't lifting all the boats, only the yachts, as The Economist memorably put it.

In fact it's much worse in the emerging markets like Chian and India, where a few thousand are growing enormously wealthy as the economies boom.

Globalization, good for the rich

There is a reason Israelis talk so much about the tentacles connecting wealth and political power. One often gets the feeling that there is an unholy symbiosis between a few families and the state, which benefits only them, not the public.

Relax, historians will soothe: wealth and power have walked hand in hand since the first cowrie was exchanged for a yam. They call it a plutocracy, from the Greek plutos - wealth and cratin - rule. Plutocracy means, a regime of the rich.

It would be excessive to say that Israel is a plutocracy. Many of the wealthy do have influence over government, but there are plenty of pressure groups or individuals in the party centers who wield about the same influence.

But we can say that an Israeli plutonomy is developing, thanks to one Ajay Kapur, of Citibank until he decided last week to jump ship and join everybody else setting up hedge funds in Hong Kong. He coined the phrase to describe economies dominated by elite spenders.

It was a year and a half ago that he first came up with the phrase to describe something that everybody had realized, but not given a name: the tremendous enrichment of the tremendously rich.

Plutonomy is economic growth driven by the rich. Like many economists, Kapur noticed the huge enrichment of the richest 5% or 1% around the world, and how it affected economics in general, specific sectors, and certain share prices.

The popular press loved the phrase and the debate raged. The Economist actually took a quite radical line, arguing that sky-high executive pay can be warranted: the people are worth the money.

Kapur says the engine driving this vast generation of wealth isn't government policy: it's globalization. It's the rapid technological changes in recent years, which increased return on equity and return on talent.

Barron's, a paper that caters to investors who want tips on buying and selling, even compiled a list of sectors and shares that should benefit from plutonomy (the further enrichment of the rich). One stark example is Coach.

600% returns for a company selling bags for $600

If you have money and love brand names, you know Coach. It makes handbags that sell for $200 to $1,000.

A decade ago, a business model based on selling pricey handbags would have gotten you laughed out of town. Look at Hermes, you'd sneer, which sells at wildly high prices, in small quantities.

But the world has changed. Today there are hundreds of thousands of people who buy Coach bags. Lots of them.

Some think plutonomies will only affect economies like China and India, where a new multimillionaire is born every day. But it's a global phenomenon, and a growing one.

And plutonomy is developing here, too, and fast. Demand for expensive products and services has been growing in complete detachment from our pace of economic growth.

One result is that economists have to stop focusing on average income, wealth and so on, and ask their information sources for stats less affected by the topmost 1%, like for instance the median.

Not only businessmen but every citizen, voter, taxpayer and consumer should consider whether Israeli democracy is protected or threatened by so few accruing so much of the wealth. If it were only money, that would be one thing. But money buys power, and power buys the ability to manipulate the government in manners that will strengthen the plutonomy even more.

If it's any comfort, historically speaking, plutonomies have been quite the norm. It is the egalitarianism of the last century that's been the exception.