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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - July 1, 2013

by John Reed

Stanley Fischer, Israel’s outgoing central bank governor, warned that a “dangerous” mood of populism was developing in the country and could deter foreign investment at a time when growth was slowing.

He also vigorously endorsed a two-state solution with Palestine, estimating that peace would help the economy to expand by “a couple” of percentage points.

Mr Fischer, 69, who took over at the Bank of Israel in 2005 and stepped down at the end of June to be replaced by returning governor and JPMorgan International chairman Jacob Frenkel, has been praised at home and abroad for having helped to keep the Israeli economy on a strong growth trajectory through the global financial crisis.

However, Mr Fischer’s time in office also coincided with mass protests against economic inequality beginning in 2011 that in January’s election swept a new wave of populist politicians into parliament.

The new Knesset members are trying to limit the power of Israel’s family-owned business groups, eliminate company tax loopholes, and strengthen public control over the exploitation and export of natural resources including gas.

“There’s a populist mood in the country, and it’s visible in the Knesset,” Mr Fischer told the FT in an interview before stepping down at the end of June.

“It worries me a great deal, because the distance between appropriate concern or anger over concentration of wealth [and] ‘anybody who’s rich is a bad man’ is very short. And if we go to that view we’re going to lose something very valuable, which is the entrepreneurship and the enterprise of Israeli companies.”

When asked whether hardening political attitudes toward business might affect investor confidence, Mr Fischer said: “That sort of attitude could have an impact on the willingness, the desire to invest in Israel.”

Mr Fischer is one of the world’s most respected economists whose students have included US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and European Central Bank governor Mario Draghi.

He is also considered an outsider to replace his former pupil in the US, and earlier this month refused to rule himself out of the running for the job, which comes at a key time for the global economy as the Fed tentatively opens the door to gradual slowing of its quantitative easing measures.

Mr Fischer said he had not decided what job he would take next, adding that his situation would not change immediately after he stepped down, as “I told various people I would start talking to them on July 1”. He plans to move back to the US, where he spent the bulk of his career, but he and his wife intend to “be involved in a public way” in life in Israel.

Israel escaped the financial crisis with relatively little restructuring, but some of the “tycoons” heading the most debt-laden companies – most notably IDB chief executive Nochi Dankner, who is fighting creditors seeking to wrest control of his conglomerate – are under unprecedented political and financial pressure. Yair Lapid, finance minister, is trying to reduce public spending even as he contends with calls by some MPs for companies and the rich to shoulder more of the burden.

The debate in Israel comes at a time when its high-tech companies like navigation developer Waze are attracting strong foreign investor interest, but GDP growth has slowed from about 5 per cent to 3 per cent.

“It worries me, the degree of populism,” Mr Fischer said. “And populism in other countries has been accompanied by a preference for government policies which are frequently unstable – budget deficits don’t matter, et cetera.”

He said that there may be some companies “whose debts are restructured and whose owners will lose control”, and as a result the economy would end up less concentrated in the hands of a few.

With John Kerry, US secretary of state, shuttling to the Middle East in an effort to restart peace talks, Mr Fischer said that peace would help Israel’s economy to expand.

“We’re not the only side that’s reluctant to get back to the table, but I have no doubt that if we were to reach an agreement, we’d do better,” he said. “Possibly not immediately ... but I have no doubt that if we started down that road and continued down that road, we would have a peace dividend.”

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