The Bottom Line / The Dankner Economy

In the mid-1990s, when the Brodet Committee recommended that the banks be forced to give up control in functioning enterprises, no one could have imagined that a new and no less complex problem of a different kind would arise.

In the mid-1990s, when the Brodet Committee recommended that the banks be forced to give up control in functioning enterprises, in order to reduce the concentration of the banking sector, no one could have imagined that a few years down the road, a new and no less complex problem of a different kind of concentration would arise. Now that Nochi Dankner, a member of that extensive business family, has decided to acquire control of IDB Holdings, a problem which the Brodet Committee never thought to address has arisen: the concentration of power in certain key families.

Nochi Dankner is in the process of splitting off from the rest of the Dankner family businesses in Israel, but he is still a partner in its most significant holding: Bank Hapoalim. In order to acquire IDB, he will be required to sell off his share of Bank Hapoalim. That is likely to bring about an interesting situation: the main branch of the Dankner family will control Bank Hapoalim and the rest of the family's holdings in the communications field (Partner Metav), in real estate and energy, while the branch headed by Nochi Dankner and his father Yitzhak Dankner will, through IDB, control a slew of companies, including Cellcom, Elron Electronics, Clal Industries, Clal Insurance, Tevel and Azorim. Does this situation serve the public good in preventing a concentration of economic power and conflict of interest, in enhancing competition, and in spreading economic power among as many players as possible?

The Brodet Committee recommended that big banks be forced to reduce their holdings in functioning companies to a maximum of 20 percent in each enterprise. Another recommendation was to force Bank Hapoalim to sell all of its holdings in either of the country's two leading industrial conglomerates, Clal and Koor. The result was the sell-off of companies to the bank's business partners IDB (Clal), Claridge (Koor), Generali (Migdal), or to second-rung players who went up a notch as a result, such as Yitzhak Tshuva (Delek), Benny Steinmetz (Ampal), the Shrem Group (Poalim Investments), Lev Levayev (Africa Israel).

Many people at the time welcomed the trend and the opportunities it provided to business investors. In a few instances, the banks oversaw the deals, so they ended up both enjoying a tidy capital profit from the sale and a hefty profit from financing the buyout.

Today, seven years after the banks have completed their sale of controling shares in active enterprises, it is clear that the banks only profited from the move and that a series of businessmen managed to do very well for themselves.

But what has yet to be shown is that the moves managed to disperse the concentration of wealth and economic power. The supervisor of the banks, Dr. Yitzhak Tal, has repeatedly said that the Brodet Committee prevented the banks from controling industrial enterprises, but did not address the no less problematic possibility that leading enterprises with wide-flung operations could start acquiring banks. That is what happened when a group such as Arison-Dankner acquired Bank Hapoalim.

If Nochi Dankner reaches an agreement with the Recanati family on the acquisition of IDB, the deal is sure to be carefully scrutinized by the antitrust commissioner. It is not clear that the deal will be approved, or under what formula, but it is clear that it brings closer the day when a new Brodet-like committee will have to be established to deal with the high concentration of economic power in Israel.