Israel's trustbuster took a humiliating slap in the chops yesterday with the publication of a survey rating it 22nd in the world. Under its previous leader, it had made second place.

Global Competition Review

, a bimonthly journal on international competition policy and regulation for the antitrust world, periodically appraises the world's trustbusters.

Its latest study, Rating the Enforcers, is not complimentary to Israel's Antitrust Authority. It was rated 22nd, with a grade of 2.5 out of 5.

In 2000,when the authority was headed by David Tadmor, it was rated second in the world.

The survey is carried out through questionnaires, which were disseminated in Janary 2000 among 3,000 lawyers specializing in antitrust law. The lawyers, who respond anonymously, were asked to rate the Antitrust Authority of their country according to specific categories. In some cases the lawyers were contacted over the phone, or questioned in face to face meetings.

This year's study compared the regimes, performances, staff levels and budgets of 26 agencies in 25 countries the United States has two trustbusting authorities, the

Federal Trade Commission

and

Department of Justice

.

The categories include merger handling, cartel handling, economic expertise, independence, consistency, guidance, staffing issues and leadership, the GCR notes.

The top billing went to the United States authorities, which both received a 5 grade. For second place, England, France and Germany tied with a grade of 4.5. The EU as a whole won a grade of 4, together with Italy and Australia.

Israel, as said, won a grade of 2.5 together with Greece. Lagging behind were Argentina, Mexico with 2, South Africa with 1.5 and Brazil with 1.

Disastrous inefficiency

Israel's Antitrust Authority was found weak in two key areas: efficiency, and consistency. On efficiency, the time it takes to make a ruling has doubled in the last year, the survey found. The survey quoted some lawyers stating, for instance, "Efficiency today is a disaster" and "delays are killing the deals".

Under consistency, which examines the attorneys' ability to predict the Antitrust Authority's decisions, the lawyers feel that the Antitrust Authority "changes its stand frequently on any question that arises". The GCR attributes the inconsistency to the inexperience of the trustbusting team.

The Antitrust Authority received Antitrust Authority "moderately weak" grade in two areas: its handling of cartels, and setting guidelines.

The study sound that the authority's probes into criminal cartels drags out for years, while the process of issuing consensual injunctions is inefficient.

The Israel Antitrust Authority's tribunal recently handed down several rulings on criminal activity, which should have given the Antitrust Authority leverage in resolving cases of cartels.

Moderately independent

On a more positive note, the Israeli authority was found moderately strong in the area of manpower quality, and independence. However, this compliment was qualified by the statement that the lawyers completing the questionnaires were of differing opinions on these matters.

The main source of contention was the cable TV companies' merger, the GCR reported. There is testimony that the merger permission was not free of "massive political pressure". One lawyer wrote that "parliament cannot be blamed when the matter was badly handled buy the authority".

Other lawyers praised the authority's independence, hence its high rating in this category.

Best quality: Economic expertise

The Antitrust Authority won the highest rating, 5, in only one category: Economic expertise. That is a compliment for its chief economist, Menachem Perlman, also the authority's deputy general director. Several questionnaires praised his significant contribution. The survey also praised Perlman's working paper on rules to define a market, as being more sophisticated that the local market is accustomed to seeing.

In two categories, the GCR was unable to set a rating: handling mergers, and leadership. That was because no clear conclusions could be gleaned from the questionnaires.

The respondents complained that handling of mergers is slow, and that the authority looks at too many deals of no significance to the economy.

The leadership category related entirely to incumbent Antitrust Authority director Dror Strum, who took his seat during 2001. The respondents said that like his predecessor, he is accessible to the media. But some of his statements to the press were gratuitous, the GCR found. Preliminary opinions are not always media fodder, it pointed out.

Commenting on the survey, Strum told TheMarker that in many areas, it was detached from reality, for instance on the handling of cartels. Israel is one of the only nations which enforces anti-cartel criminal law, he said. Perhaps the hard-handed enforcement is the real grounds behind Israel's low mark in that area, he suggested,

However, he added, the survey relying on feedback from lawyers specializing in the field is important, Strum added and helps examine problems at the Antitrust Authority.

"The survey is painful, as it attests to the public's dissatisfaction with the authority that serves it," Strum said. "We will study it, locate the problems and repair the flaws."

The Antitrust Authority will shortly issue guidelines regarding mergers and publicize more decisions, he said. It will also start holding conferences for antitrust lawyers in order to improve its transparency, which should increase understanding and the ability to foresee the authority's decisions.