Taking Stock / Behind the Housing Headlines

1. The spin of the month is unarguably the brilliant mind that generated the headlines about construction companies "deciding" to raise apartment prices, and the rally of the construction industry. The reports even made the front pages.

The spin impacts, too. By the weekend, every Israeli thinking of buying an apartment (or selling one) will be debating whether the sector is recovering, how long it will take, and whether they should run and close a deal before the supply runs low and prices soar.

Memories are short and the structure of the real estate market is not the top concern of the people who announced the "price hike," or the potential buyers worrying about it.

We should recap, though: Israel's real estate market is intensely competitive and like many other sectors, it's groaning with over-supply.

Check the archives of any paper. Year in and year out you'll find a spike of warnings that prices are about to go through the roof because of soaring demand and fewer building starts. Rush to buy an apartment before the shortage, somebody will be warning.

In practice, people who avoided buying an apartment in the last decade saved themselves financial heartache. Most investment options did double or triple as well as property and people who took out mortgages incurred huge capital losses because of the high interest rates.

Naturally, the market could turn around, but the ones behind the rally wouldn't be builders "warning" about decisions to raise prices. This is not the cellular market or VAT: for ages prices of housing have been determined solely by buyers. Buyers, not sellers - and their decisions are affected by their disposable income, and the gradual acknowledgment that apartment prices can not only rise, they also can fall, and hard at that.

2. The brand new commissioner of the capital markets and insurance at the Finance Ministry, Yadin Antebi, is young (36) and unknown. Everybody cautions him that he's stepping into very big shoes, those of Eyal Ben Chelouche, the great reformer who helped reshape the entire capital market.

Going by the spin, young Antebi would seem to have nothing left to do but sit tight and not ruin what the giants before him forged.

Relax, Antebi. With all due respect to the shoe size of your predecessor, you have your work cut out for you, and if you have a sense of leadership and if you care about the consumer, you can do things that will make your predecessor's achievements pale. The reform of the capital market, and the pension and insurance sectors in Israel have barely begun. Much remains to be done, many battles to be fought.

The first headline Antebi generated is a heartening one: He did not balk at saying aloud what's been an open secret. Individual health insurance is enormously more expensive, by hundreds of percentage points, than collective health insurance, yet they supply no advantage and sometimes an inferior product.

Israel's public is starving for information, for understanding, for proper disclosure of pensions, insurance and investments. The public is also desperately in need of an investment and savings vehicle like the IRAs available in the United States. It needs to be able to shift its money about, and withdraw it.

The public desperately needs simpler investment and taxation rules, and a new body that will help it stand up against the insurance and pension giants.

Antebi is the man who can make all that happen. Now the question is whether he can and whether he wants to.

3. A highly distinguished group of leaders from high tech, communications, automobiles and retail, led by luminaries such as Amikam Cohen and Chemi Peres, convened last week at the home of Yanki Margalit, to urgently discuss the problem of poverty in Israel.

First of all, well done: we applaud the initiative and encourage them and others to continue initiating such debates.

Until such time as they come up with brilliant ideas, we have a practical suggestion. Every year each of those men meets, oh, between three to ten times with ministers, regulators and high officialdom (depending on how tight they are with the powers that be) in Jerusalem.

Naturally, at these meetings there are much more burning issues to discuss than poverty.

But maybe institute a wee reform of the agenda in these meetings: Decide that half of that quality time spent in Jerusalem will be devoted to poverty.

Instead of focusing on a fund for venture capital funds, fighting cellular tariffs, preserving standards designed to protect you from imports and competition, mergers you want to pursue and all the other ideas that help you a lot but the public rather less - initiate a debate on poverty, ways to overcome it and what you personally are prepared to do.