Letter from New York: A Smorgasbord of (Stock) Options

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Letter from New York: A Smorgasbord of (Stock) Options

Peter Ephross

Courtesy of SodaStream USA.

It comes as no shock that the United States and China have the most companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange, but the third-place country may be a surprise. It is Israel, with more than 50 firms listed. This fact is more than just a fun piece of trivia; it highlights the bevy of opportunities available to those interested in investing in Israel and Israeli firms.

“Israel is seen as a country that innovates, creates new technology and has something to offer,” says Nili Shalev, Israel’s economic minister to North America.

Adds Michael David, a director at Deutsche Bank in New York who has long been active in the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Industry: “Israel is a center for global investing. The tables have turned in some respects. In the past, it was a question of people selling Israeli companies. Today, they sell themselves quite well.”

A search of Israeli companies on the NASDAQ yields a variety of firms, in fields ranging from semiconductors to biomedicine to smart-card technology. No wonder The Economist magazine has called Israel a “high-tech superpower.” The pharmaceutical firm Teva—one of Israel’s most successful multinational companies—sits on the New York Stock Exchange. And the Internet security firm CheckPoint is listed on the NASDAQ.

Israeli consumer products have also caught international investment attention. One success story is rooted in an old-fashioned concept: seltzer. SodaStream machines, which allow users to make seltzer at home, are available at chain stores throughout North America. The company’s initial public offering was named NASDAQ’s IPO of the Year in 2010, and sales remain strong. Consumer environmentalism—reusable bottles come with SodaStream units—is a big reason for the company’s success. “It’s the right time and the right marketing,” Shalev says.

But it is not only Israeli seltzer-making that is catching on. One of the products OurCrowd.com, a crowd-funding Web site for Israeli equities, is funding is Abe’s Market, a Web site selling natural, eco-friendly and organic products, from baby products to earrings to soup mixes. “You’re not only helping yourselves and the environment, you’re helping Israel,” says Jonathan Medved, CEO of OurCrowd.com and a successful Israeli American venture capitalist.

Of course, technology and biomedical companies remain Israel’s strong suit. Such giants as Microsoft, Intel, Google, Cisco, General Electric and Johnson & Johnson have thriving research-and-development divisions in the Jewish state. In late 2012, Google launched Campus Tel Aviv, a 16,000-square-foot center for Israeli entrepreneurs and start-ups. “Some of these companies have their only facilities outside America in Israel,” says Michael Doppelt, a partner at Lightyear Capital, a private equity firm in New York. “It’s like a little Silicon Valley over there.” Asian companies such as LG and Samsung also operate R&D centers in Israel.

What accounts for Israel’s success? Some credit Israel’s military culture, which produces people willing to look beyond the status quo.

For example, one of Israel’s risky ideas was the electric car, innovated by Better Place. For Israeli entrepreneurs, risk is the norm.

Israelis are “risk-takers, and live in a culture which celebrates entrepreneurialism,” says Eylon Penchas, managing partner of VPartners, part of the Viola Group, one of Israel’s leading private equity investment groups. “People are not afraid to try and fail. This dates prior to Israel’s founding, with [Theodor] Herzl’s motto being ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’”

The Israeli military’s elite units also breed individuals who are highly skilled in technology. The Army provides an opportunity for the future high-tech class to network.

Israeli government policy is an element in developing the state’s entrepreneurial culture. In the 1990s, the government fueled the start-up movement with the Yozma program, a $100-million venture capital fund.

Demographics also played a part. The high percentage of engineers and scientists among the roughly one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who moved to Israel in the 1990s supplied a cadre of skilled workers.

In addition, Israel’s limited natural resources have forced innovations in clean technology—from wind and solar energy and water management—which can be exported. Israel ranked second, behind Denmark, in the Global CleanTech Innovation Index 2012, which measured 15 indicators related to the creation and commercialization of clean-tech start-ups. “Many new things that were developed in Israel because of necessity are now being implemented around the world,” Shalev says. “The worse climate change is, the more they look to Israel.”

More evidence of green innovations came in late 2012, when Israel’s Arava Power Company, founded by former Young Judaean and activist-entrepreneur Yosef I. Abramowitz, launched a company to develop solar fields outside Israel. Energiya Global Capital has conditional financing of $800 million from banks, companies, and the United States government.

Whatever the reasons, potential investors have a smorgasbord of choices. In addition to stocks on the NASDAQ and the NYSE, there are also United States-based mutual funds that specialize in Israel and stocks on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, although the latter are more difficult for foreigners to invest in. As a result of a 2010 Morgan Stanley Capital International decision—which reclassified the country from “emerging market” status to “developed market”—their Israel Index is now included in two of the most widely tracked global equity benchmark indices, the MSCI World Index and the MSCI EAFE (Europe, Australasia and Far East) Index. Venture capital is another opportunity, albeit for wealthier investors.

Hadassah itself is part of Israel’s investment story. Hadasit Bio-Holdings, Ltd., a publicly traded portfolio of biotech companies based on intellectual property developed and owned by Hadassah–Hebrew University Medical Center, is traded in the United States. The American Depository Receipts are sponsored by the Bank of New York Mellon. Shares of the ADR trade on the over-the-counter market under the symbol HADSY. Hadasit’s ordinary shares trade on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange under the symbol HDST; each ADR share represents 20 ordinary shares.

For its part, Israel Bonds, the stalwart attraction for investing in Israel, now allows buyers to purchase their bonds online. “It’s not your grandfather’s Israel Bonds anymore,” says Israel Tapoohi, president and CEO of Israel Bonds. “A couple of clicks and you can buy online.”

Technological changes and the guaranteed rate of return on Israel Bonds have helped generate approximately $1.2 billion in annual sales worldwide over the past decade, with $14 million in sales coming online after Internet purchasing was launched in September 2011. With interest rates low, and memories of the 2008 stock collapse fresh, many investors are turning to Israel Bonds.

“In my parents’ generation, they thought of Israel Bonds as a form of charity. [Today], we’ve got clients interested in Israel Bonds who aren’t Jewish,” Michael David says.

While many countries suffered greatly during the economic downturn starting in 2008, Israel remained relatively unscathed, a result of conservative fiscal practices instituted by governor of the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer, no subprime mortgages (most Israelis who buy a home pay at least 50 percent up front) and less leveraging of risk by Israeli banks. Israel only suffered two quarters of recession and returned to economic growth in 2010 and 2011.

To be sure, there are caveats. As with any investment, a specific company or even group of companies can go sour, so research and trusted advice are necessary. A recent drop in venture capital funding within Israel and diminished government support have led to layoffs in the Jewish state’s tech sector. At the same time, there is a brain drain of tech-minded Israelis moving to Silicon Valley. In addition, widespread protests in the summer of 2011 highlighted simmering economic discrepancies. But as of the end of 2012, Israel’s economic outlook was rated as stable by three major credit rating agencies (Moody’s, Standard &Poor, Fitch) and the economy, as measured by gross domestic product, continues to grow, albeit at slower rates than before the start of the recent global recession.

“When the United States and Europe get the flu, we’re going to catch cold, too,” says Medved.

Despite geopolitical and existential concerns, Israel has long managed to remain a center of economic innovation, even during times of conflict, such as late 2012, when Hamas targeted Tel Aviv with rockets. In 2006, legendary American investor Warren Buffett even purchased Iscar, a precision metalworking firm, when its main factory was being fired on during the Second Lebanon War. Israel’s conflict with Iran over the Islamic nation’s nuclear program could certainly mushroom into a wider regional conflict, but Iran is considered a global concern.

“Iran should be of concern not only to people investing in Israel, but to the entire world,” Penchas says. “Throughout the years, Israel has known various periods of conflict and has always prevailed.”

Still, Medved is optimistic about the Israeli economy. He predicts increased success for Israeli products in the global marketplace as more people learn about investment opportunities. “Once word gets out,” he says, “there will be a wave of further investment and further growth that will put Israel even more on the map.”

Peter Ephross is the editor of Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players (McFarland).

Sidebar to Letter from New York:

When the paraplegic character Artie on the television show Glee got up out of his wheelchair and walked, he did so with the help of an Israeli product. Artie’s transformation was fictional, but the technology he used is real.

Artie’s “miracle”—ironically part of a Christmas episode—came courtesy of the ReWalk robotic exoskeleton developed by the Yokneam-based Argo Medical Technologies. ReWalk is the brainchild of Israeli engineer Amit Goffer, who was left a quadriplegic after an accident. The device includes leg braces with motorized joints and a backpack battery system, enabling paraplegics to walk without help for up to 12 hours a day.
ReWalk’s product is no anomaly. New Israeli technology is being employed in all corners of the globe, in fields ranging from technology to agriculture to medicine. One product making waves is Waze, a traffic and navigation application for cell phones. Waze “learns” from users’ driving times to provide routing and real-time traffic updates. Users can report accidents, traffic jams, and speed traps, and can update roads, landmarks, and even house numbers.

Israel has a long-standing record of helping improve agriculture and water supply around the world, and a recent deal will bring this type of innovation to the United States. In January, IDE Technologies signed a $150 million contract to supply equipment for a water desalination plant in southern California that will use the company’s reverse osmosis technology, which requires less energy and is friendlier to the environment than thermal-based desalination systems. Going green “is where the world is going, and that’s where Israel’s strength is,” says Nili Shalev, Israel’s economic minister to North America.

The groundwork is also being laid to use Israeli technology for future medical improvements. InSightec, a focused ultrasound company headquartered near Haifa, is part of a current FDA-approved study to use the company’s MRI-guided ultrasounds to treat Parkinson’s disease by targeting a small area deep within the brain using focused sound waves guided by a magnetic resonance scanner. The noninvasive process, which uses Insightec’s ExAblate Neuro ultrasound device, uses no scalp incisions, electrodes or general anesthesia; the current standard of care requires surgical implementation of a pacemaker in the brain.


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