Taking Stock / Maor's Marketing Machine

As of now, we count two superb photo ops. The first involves Israel Discount Bank's privatization. Netanyahu gets to have his picture taken with Matthew Bronfman and a NIS 1.5 billion check. That will really photograph well. The second opportunity will be when approval is forthcoming for his plan to share Bank Leumi stock with the citizenry. The treasury's accountant general, Yaron Zelekha, began pitching the plan yesterday - "each citizen will get a net present of NIS 2,000." Definitely, it's as simple and clear-cut as it comes.

But with all due respect to the privatization of Bezeq and the Leumi largesse, the main reform of 2005 still awaits Bibi's handling. The plan to extract the provident and mutual funds from the banks has to pass the hurdle of the Knesset's Finance Committee.

A summary of the mutuals industry in 2004 shows something astonishing. One of the best-performing groups last year was that of Leumi. Leumi Pia has no less than four mutual funds that won the rating agency Maalot's highest ranking of 3 diamonds.

That is very nice. But a report on the market shares of the various mutual funds shows that when it came to public investment, Leumi did poorly. Leumi Pia's mutual funds raised only NIS 420 million in 2004, a very low sum relative to the assets the Pia group has under management and compared with the NIS 14 billion that mutual funds raised during the year.

What happened to Galia Maor's marketing machine? How could it be that in a boom year for the stock market, in a year when the Pia funds did so well, customers voted against it with their feet?

The question becomes all the more biting when you consider how well Leumi's arch-rival Bank Hapoalim did. Its mutual funds performed feebly in 2004: not a single one received the coveted 3-diamond rating.

Yet wonder of wonders! While Hapoalim's Pekan fund did poorly for its investors, it raised NIS 3.4 billion in 2004, a third of the money raised by the entire industry.

In other words, Leumi's marketing machine failed to market strong performance, but Hapoalim's proved itself capable of marketing a weak one.

What happened?

How could that be?

A piece of the puzzle is missing. About a year and a half ago, the Israel Securities Authority started investigating Leumi's marketing methods. It did so loudly and publicly. Maor, Leumi's CEO, was summoned for questioning before ISA chairman Moshe Terry, and his investigators raided Leumi branches not once but several times.

Here is a possibility. Leumi's securities and mutuals marketing people are scrupulous souls committed to the letter of the law. They know they have to provide fair, unbiased advice and cannot manipulate customers into investing in Leumi's own funds more or less exclusively.

And maybe the ISA investigation induced them to be even more cautious than usual, so cautious that for the first time in history, they let the clients decide what to do, rather than cleverly maneuver them into investing in Bank Leumi's funds.

The result for Leumi has been painful. The stock market has been rising powerfully, mutual funds have been doing well, but the public is ignoring its products. That hurts. It is embarrassing, too.

Well, that is exactly how all those smaller mutual fund management companies outside the banks have been feeling, brokers whose stellar performance has not been helping them market their products.

Yet during 2004, the assets under management by the non-banking mutual funds leaped into a higher league. How did that happen? Probably because the debate surrounding the Bachar reform made the public realize that the brokerages' funds have done better than the banks' funds, and because of the ISA investigation, which deterred the banks from aggressively pushing their merchandise to their captive clientele.