Africa Israel Isn't Finance Company, Won't Repurchase Bonds, Says Leviev

Lev Leviev flew into Tel Aviv from London to meet with institutional investors in Africa Israel Investments, hoping to allay deep concerns in the market that the company may default on debt tobondholders. The concerns have sent the company's stock and bond prices plummeting all year. But although he radiated optimism over the company's outlook, investors hoping for definitive answers were disappointed.

"It's my responsibility to repay the debt, but for now I'm not buying bonds because financial stability and the completion of projects throughout the world are more important," Leviev told them. "Africa Israel is not a financier, and doesn't deal in buying bonds."

"Falling stock prices don't worry me," Leviev emphasized. "Just as they fall 15% one day, they could go up 15% tomorrow. If I want to make money, I can withdraw dividends. I've made mistakes," he admitted, "but I'm the driver and you're the passengers, and my job is to get you there safely even if there are problems along the way. There is will and there is ability, and I have both, so I believe Africa has both the will and the ability to meet its obligations over 2008-2010."

Africa Israel stocks have lost some 80% of their value since the start of the year, and the compay has lost NIS 15 billion of its value. The firm's corporate bonds are trading on yields of 30%-40%, raising investor concerns over the firm's ability to meet its obligations to bondholders. investors are expressing their concerns over the company's ability to complete many of its projects in the U.S. and Russia on schedule.

CEO Izzy Cohen and vice president of the board of directors Nadav Grinshpon attended the meetings.

Leviev rejected institutional investors' criticism of his move to London, seemingly abandoning Africa-Israel to deal with the difficult period on its own. "I have not abandoned Africa-Israel for a single moment. I have spend quite a bit of time in Israel recently, as well as in Russia, where a substantial number of the group's projects are located." Leviev said.

Leviev exudes enthusiasm over AFI Development plans in Russia. Although foreign investors are fleeing the country, he said, Africa has the finances and the capability to promote all its projects. Despite Russia's economic crisis, in response to which its government has poured about $40 billion into the banks, Leviev believes that the overall economic mood is positive. He views the fact that his competitors are slowing down the pace of their deals as beneficial for his company.

AFI Development received more money last week to finance its projects. Together with the $800 million in its coffers Leviev believes there are no big problems coming down the pike. Asked about possible plans to delist AFI Development from the London exchange, Leviev said, "I know I can't be a pig and buy back the shares at $2 per share, the price they are currently trading, nor at $14 per share, as they were issued, even though it would be the best deal possible for me."

But despite the optimism that most of the participants tried to radiate, some weren't feeling it. "It's true that Leviev communicates much optimism and assurance that he stands behind Africa Israel and will take care of it in these difficult times, but when asked to show figures demonstrating how Africa-Israel intends to go about defraying its bond debt he declined, saying they weren't part of that presentation," one senior capital market manager said.

"I got the impression that Africa Israel's ability to survive the current crisis depends mainly on the pace of development of projects in Russia, so someone seeking exposure to Africa-Israel stocks perhaps ought to buy AFI Development shares. Although Leviev radiates optimism over Russia, it must not be forgotten that Russia today is not the same country it was a few months ago, and even worse it won't improve in the next few years. The big question is whether the current credit crisis will choke Leviev and leave him floating on the water," the senior manager said. The fact that Leviev doesn't buy Africa Israel bonds, and instead allocates the money for project developments may make sense, but the question is whether the bond prices have reached levels that warrant buying into them, he said.