Israeli billionaire's company faces money woes

One of Israel's wealthiest businessmen may quickly be going from riches to rags, and experts warn he could drag Israel's economy down with him.

Nochi Dankner, a favorite of Israel's business community who is often credited with helping rescue Israel's economy at the height of a Palestinian uprising, is struggling to keep his mammoth holding company above water.

IDB Holding Corp., which controls a large piece of the Israeli economic pie — a large cellphone company, a major supermarket chain, an insurance company and a cement producer monopoly, among other concerns — announced over the weekend that it may not be able to pay tens of millions of dollars of debts in the coming year.

The plight of Dankner has raised concern that his bondholders could lose on their investments and Israelis could see their retirement funds, heavily exposed to IDB investments, in danger.

"We are now going through difficult times. It's not easy for any of us," Dankner began a letter to employees last weekend.

Israel's finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, sought to douse the flames, estimating a "less than one in a thousand" chance that Israeli citizens' pensions would be affected.

Economists forecast a much gloomier picture should Dankner's company founder. Because so much of Israel's economy is controlled by Dankner's holding company, Israel is in more danger than the U.S. economy was in during the credit crisis of the late 2000s, said Daniel Doron, director of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.

"It's a domino effect," said Doron. "Creditors would lose money. A lot of people would lose jobs. It would be a great tragedy."

The 58-year-old billionaire's downturn has come swiftly.

Born to an aristocratic Israeli family with a powerful investment firm, Dankner made a mark in 1999 when he sold his shares in the firm to his relatives for $100 million.

His timing was right. A year later, a Palestinian uprising erupted, paralyzing Israel's economy and causing the shares in his family's business to tank.

At the height of the uprising, Dankner and his partners borrowed millions of dollars from Israeli banks and bought IDB Holding Corp.

"No one understood who would buy during the crisis ... it was a deal that amazed everyone," said Stella Korin Lieber, a commentator at the Globes financial newspaper. "He signaled the end of the crisis."

Under Dankner's leadership, IDB became Israel's largest holding company, and Dankner became a celebrity. Last year, he garnered 11th place on Forbes Magazine's ranking of wealthy Israelis. He was known to travel in a private jet and to lunch with his longtime friend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

His public image was as a handsome, mild-mannered man with a spiritual side, traveling to Nepal to study Buddhism and forging a close relationship with a Kabbalistic healer in Israel known as the "X-ray Rabbi."

In 2006, as rockets rained down on northern Israel during its war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Dankner visited Israelis in bomb shelters and donated large sums for their welfare.

Then he became overconfident, Korin Lieber said.

In 2007, he and another Israeli billionaire invested in plans to build a Las Vegas casino when U.S. real estate prices were at their peak, and the project quickly tanked. From 2008-2010, a Dankner subsidiary bought shares in the Swiss multinational bank Credit Suisse, but last year lost millions of dollars in the deal. He also bought Maariv, an unprofitable Israeli daily newspaper, in what was seen as more of an ego trip than a smart business decision.

Then last summer, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the country's high cost of living.

Dankner's picture was plastered on protesters' posters — one of many business tycoons accused of monopolizing much of the Israeli market, keeping prices high.

Food prices came down, the government facilitated more cellphone companies to enter the market, and Dankner's supermarket chain and mobile phone company suffered losses.

"He didn't pay attention to the changes that were taking place in the business world," Korin Lieber said. "He had a lot of arrogance and conviction — 'we will be fine.'"

Dankner has vowed to meet an $8.8 million payment to one group of bondholders this week. The company owes about $425 million to bondholders and $75 million to Israeli banks, Israel's Haaretz daily reported. IDB Holding Corp. is asking for more time to find another investor for the company.

At a meeting of bondholders Monday, one bondholder told Israel's Channel 10 TV that Dankner should dip into in his own wealth to repay his debts.