As Israel’s economy enters 2018, what next?
Professor Leo Leiderman is the chief economist at Israel’s largest bank, Hapoalim, and has held senior positions at Deutsche Bank, The Bank of Israel and elsewhere. So when he says that the Israeli economy is starting off 2018 in its best position since 2006, that is a statement worth listening to.
Leiderman was speaking at a conference earlier this week in Israel. And the core stats speak for themselves. The OECD has already predicted that growth will remain steady and bullish for the next two years at over 3%. This is due to the impact of new gas reserves and low unemployment. The ‘start up” sector remains strong. Exits in 2017 were worth more than double the 2016 at US$7.4 billion, and these numbers do not include Intel’s purchase of Mobileye for US$15.3 billion nor Mitsubishi picking up NeuroDerm for US$1.1 billion. And key commercial sectors like tourism are bubbling away with record numbers.
So is there a catch? It is interesting that 2017 was a year when many big Israeli financial moguls were sent packing. The most glaring story is the demise of Teva, previously the country’s largest private company. The greed and misjudgment of the board brought the conglomerate humiliation. In turn, this has led to a new CEO implementing a draconian rescue plan. It is evident that a new generation of business leaders is emerging, such as Nati Saidoff: quieter, less demonstrative, whose ambitions do not require (for now) bank loans that cannot be repaid.
That is positive.
What about the housing market. While inflation is barely recognizable, the price of accommodation is still rising by around 5% per annum. The population continues to grow. Not enough land is released by the government, which continues to benefit from huge taxation on real estate transactions. New couples just cannot afford to buy. Liederman is vocally concerned.
However, the most crucial factor for me is where all the new wealth is going. Israel has one of the highest levels in the OECD of discrepancy in between the best and worst off. Now, weigh that fact against the corruption issues encroaching on the current government, the Prime Minister and senior civil servants. Only this week, it was claimed that the PM’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, insisted on receiving expensive gifts from tycoons such as Arnon Milchin.
There is something inherently imbalanced in the way the rulers are looking after (or not) those under them. There is a feeling of the few rich people getting richer, while the rest………
Is that far fetched? Just consider the vested interests. Here are just three examples. The workers at the ports and airports that enforce restrictive practices, as their wages remain high (for the most). Fruit and vegetables from abroad are heavily taxed, even at times of year when the items are not available in the Holy Land, thanks to the farmers’ lobby. And car importers, Unilever and many companies are allowed to maintain monopolies so that others cannot compete, ensuring their prices remain unchallenged.
Where is the government on all of these issues? I am not sure. I am subjected to a vast amount of information about potential corruption, but I see so little reported about new genuine reforms on behalf of the man in the street. That is what really worries me (and Liederman) about the economy in the Holy Land in 2018.