Bottom Shekel / Don't Invest in Real Estate Companies Just Yet

It's hard to accept the figures that tell the tale of collapses on the stock exchange. The Real Estate Index-15 index, of the fifteen real estate companies with the highest market caps, has fallen 82% from its peak, which was in 2007. It's hard to accept that the combined value of the 15 companies on the index is now less than NIS 14 billion.

Yes, NIS 14 billion. That's less than half the value of Africa Israel Investments alone in May 2007, which was the day it floated subsidiary AFI Developments on the London Stock Exchange. That day, Africa Israel was trading at a market cap of over NIS 28 billion.

However astonishing that loss of value, it's the fact: 15 distinguished real estate companies, including the likes of Chaim Katzman's Gazit Globe, Shari Arison's Housing & Construction, Nathan Hetz's Alony Hetz, Leo Noe's British Israel, Eliezer Fishman's Jerusalem Economic Corporation and Lev Leviev's Africa Israel, are together worth less than half the value of just one of them almost two years ago.

Does this mean that the TA-15 Real Estate Index is an investment opportunity?

After all, a rebound of its 15 constituent companies to a combined value of Africa Israel's worth in 2007 would be enough for investors to reap a 100% return on their money.

There is another way of looking at this question.

The combined shareholders equity of those 15 firms is currently about NIS 26 billion (not including minority rights), or about NIS 50 billion (including the minority rights).

One can estimate that in another two weeks, at the end of the annual financial report season, the value of this equity will be 20% lower (without the minority rights), or 10% lower (including the minority rights).

This means an erosion of an additional NIS 5 billion.

Africa Israel has already announced that it has to write off NIS 2.7 billion from the value of its properties in its fourth-quarter statement. That too will drastically affect the company's shareholders equity.

The big question is whether the anticipated write-off in asset values is already reflected in the share prices of the real estate companies.

Some of it certainly is, as we can already see that the companies' combined market value is just NIS 14 billion, even though their equity is NIS 26 billion.

Still, based on Africa Israel's example, the market apparently hasn't taken all the write-offs into account.

After all, even the bearish of analysts failed to foresee even half the sum Africa Israel wrote off. Thus, when an investment manager or analyst recommends investing in the real estate companies, it is worth remembering that not only have the write-offs of 2008 not ended - they will continue into the first quarter of 2009.