Reading the financial press is depressing, especially for businessmen. The bad news cries from every page and headline, and it often touches right on your business.
Yesterday, Israel's business community opened the paper, it could finally have a good laugh. The comic relief was provided by the story that Merrill Lynch estimated Israel to have 5,000 millionaires. People with more than a million in dollars, net of tax and debt.
Bank Hapoalim chairman Shlomo Nehama fell apart, knowing that his bank alone can count a few thousand customers with deposits, savings, provident funds and mutuals boasting more than a million dollars. And his bank's market share is less than a quarter of the financial establishment.
Bank Leumi's Galia Maor snorted, knowing that Merrill Lynch's estimate is severely skewed downwards. One of Leumi's managers commented yesterday that the number of people who have twice or triple that sum is also more than 5,000.
Migdal insurance's chief executive, Izzy Cohen, was amused. His company alone has hundreds of clients with insurance policies exceeding a million dollars. Most of that sum will be tax free, when the policy-holders reach pension age.
The smaller insurance managers scratched their heads wondering how Merrill came up with that figure. Avigdor Kaplan, Yair Hamburger, Yossi Hakhmi may control relatively small chunks of the market, but they have way more millionaires on their books than that.
Gil Shwed, Dov Baharav, Kobi Alexander the managers of Israel's three biggest hi-tech companies (Check Point Software Technologies (Nasdaq:CHKP), Amdocs (NYSE:DOX) and Comverse Technology (Nasdaq:CMVT)) also lifted eyebrows. Their companies alone boast several hundred millionaires from exercising options during the bubble days.
The one who laughest hardest was the manager of a consultancy who'd been asked by one of the banks to prepare a report on how many millionaires Israel has. He received access to the bank's secret figures, received data from other banks too and came up with an estimate of 33,000.
That, dear reader, was five years ago, before the great hi-tech boom, which created many hundreds of new millionaires in Israel.
Naturally, the real number of Israeli millionaires is much larger, since so many Israelis especially the really rich keep their money abroad. The capital market estimates that from $3 billion to $5 billion is held overseas. Most of the money belongs to a select few, but the capital market estimates that over a thousand people keep millions abroad.
The estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000. We are betting on 20,000.
It isn't always their fault.
Analysts today have become the punching bags of capital markets worldwide, mainly in the United States, after stocks they recommended collapsed. Some companies warmly recommended as hot buys, crashed and burned.
Merrill Lynch's analysts are at the center of a huge probe being carried out in New York, but that's coincidental. It's just because they were first to get caught red-handed with internal emails gleefully trashing stocks they were pushing to clients.
Investors know perfectly well why analysts forcefed them recommendations padded with inaccurate growth forecasts: they had a vested interest in pushing the companies in order to reap commissions on future issues, consulting, and trade.
Hence Merrill Lynch's report on millionaires in Israel is a stellar opportunity to remember that most of the glaringly inaccurate analyses weren't skewed by vested interests. The analysts really believed what they wrote. Many of them are no different from the little investor: when the bubble boils, the steam goes to their heads.
Merrill Lynch had no vested interest in badly miscalculating how many millionaires are laughing all the way to Israel's banks. The investment bank gained nothing from estimating a figure four, maybe seven times too low.
No: The yawning gap between its estimate and the real figure can only be due to slapdash work. A failure to do a thorough job. Indeed, when we asked Merrill Lynch for an explanation, it said - statistical estimate and sources in the public domain.
Did Merrill Lynch gain anything from its report? It did: PR. Its PR people in Israel knew the papers would lap it up. They were right.
America's investment banks have started to wean themselves off aggressive Buy recommendations. Even Merrill Lynch changed its slogan from "Be Bullish" to "Ask Merrill", in keeping with the cautious times.
It appears that the appetite for PR, a key element during the boom, is harder to overcome. But that day will come too.