Taking Stock / A Good Year?

The most participants, including investors from Singapore.

The lowest interest rate.

The narrowest spread ever, compared with international interest rates.

The highest amount ever raised in a treasury bond offering.

Yes, the Finance Ministry is celebrating after the state raised 750 million euros on European financial markets Wednesday at low interest of 3.78 percent. The giant amount raised from foreign investors at interest that low is an impressive note on which to wrap up the Jewish Year 5765, and serves as further testimony to the turnaround of the Israeli economy in the last year.

The treasury wasn't the only one banging gongs. In fact, all Tel Aviv's financial institutions were competing to sound the chirpiest about the ending Jewish year.

First thing in the morning, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange released an announcement about the astonishing developments in 5765: stock indexes rose 30 percent, stock offerings totaled NIS 11 billion - an increase of 37 percent from the year before - and bond offerings soared to an all-time high of NIS 22 billion.

At midday the Central Bureau of Statistics convened a press conference to announce that it was raising its forecast of Israel's economic expansion in 2005, to 5.1 percent. The business sector is a main growth driver, expanding 6.4 percent this year, the bureau said.

By now you are probably waiting for some scathing explanation of why all that is utter nonsense, and why the boom on the stock market is a bluff.

But, no, that isn't the issue here. The economic expansion of the last year is genuine, and it encompasses many, if not all, sectors, not only high-tech and exports, but also consumer spending, and tourism, which has been gradually recovering to heights last seen as the millennium began.

The boom on the stock market isn't an illusion, either. Share prices aren't cheap at this point, but the engines driving them aren't imaginary: higher corporate profits and low interest rates, made possible by practically nonexistent inflation and the global glut of money.

Easy-to-forget problems

So why do we have this lurking unease?

Because the impressive economic upswing of 5765 is the result of economic policy instituted one and two years ago, and of externalities.

Economic policy in the last three years has been heavily influenced by the developments in late 2002, which threatened Israel's very financial stability.

The predicament led to a series of dramatic reforms, lower expenditure and to the understanding that more than any other nation, Israel has to obey the international rules of the game.

Now the economy is growing anew and creating jobs, now the stock market is booming and the mood in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem circles is jubilant.

That is a classic recipe for relaxing financial discipline, for flubbing reforms, but forgetting that our productivity remains pathetic, for turning our attention to politics, for lavishing fat budgets and creamy jobs on cronies dying to pig out on pork.

Israel's economy is being propelled by a backwind from the global financial upswing, which results in tourism, rising exports and, of course, the umbrella of the giant U.S. loan guarantees, which has helped us raise enormous sums of money in overseas markets at bottom-crawling interest rates.

It is all too easy to forget that our economy is plagued by poor productivity, high unemployment, a bloated public sector and a slew of uncompetitive sectors.

Spotlight on the dark corners

After Benjamin Netanyahu abandoned the economic scene for the sake of his political agenda, one might have expected that Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer would undertake to keep the public and government on their toes, and bring them an international perspective.

One might have expected Fischer to remind them that the Israeli economy is ending a decade of tottering in the rear of most of the countries it seeks to emulate, and that much structural reform remains to be done.

But if anything Fischer has been releasing upbeat, reassuring messages. One almost suspects that he is basking in the cyclical upturn instead of lashing the politicians into line and shining the central bank spotlight into the dark corners of the economy, where rot festers.

The year 5765 was an excellent one, truly, and 5766 could be a good one, too. But without economic leadership, without long-term plans, without clear goals, without strategy and without vision, it is only a matter of time before we realize the world has moved onward and upward, leaving us behind.