The Latest BDS Hoax: TIAA-CREF

To give you an idea of how powerful and effective the divestment project has become, they now have the ability to get companies to act on their demands four months before those demands are even made!

The latest 2009 divestment hoax (I’m starting to lose count) has to do with TIAA-CREF, the academic retirement fund, which allegedly responded to a September 10th letter sent by 50 members calling for the investment giant to remove Israel-Africa (or I-A, a holding group of 13 companies listed on the Israeli stock exchange) from its portfolio due to I-A’s involvement with construction projects in Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood, yadda, yadda, yadda.

TIAA-CREF responded by noting that the organization no longer invests in I-A “following their [I-A shares] removal from an emerging markets index that the [TIAA-CREF] account tracks, as part of a regular rebalancing.” For those not versed in investment-speak, Israel-Africa was part of a collection of stocks owned by an investment organization that maintains holdings in companies from “emerging markets” (such as the Middle East, Africa and former Soviet Union). TIAA-CREF owns shares in that emerging market fund, a fund which chose to sell its I-A shares back in June.

Now did this decision get made for political reasons, as divestment advocates are advertising? Well first, keep in mind that TIAA-CREF maintains over $300 million in investments with Israeli firms, and the Israel-Africa holdings in question amounted to just $250,000. In other words, this was a highly cautions investment, and with good reason. For Israel-Africa is primarily in the real estate business with property holdings in Israel, the US (including the old New York Times building) and Europe (mostly Eastern Europe).

Now in case you haven’t heard, the real estate market has not been doing all that well over the last couple of years, and companies that are either in that market (particularly ones that borrowed heavily based on the alleged value of their property holdings) are not in particularly good shape. And Israel-Africa has been looking a lot like the nearly bankrupted nation of Iceland since the bottom fell out of the economy last year. With billions in debt, and few ideas as to how that debt can be paid (diversification into companies like Gottex, the Israeli swimwear maker – doesn’t look likely to bail them out), I-A shares have taken a beating in the last few months, which is why wise investors have been either selling or taking a cautious approach to the company.

So while Israel-Africa may have created an incentive for investors to flee due to their wishful thinking that real estate would continue to rise in value indefinitely (an idiocy shared by many of us over the last decade), have they become an investment pariah for political reasons, as BDS advocates are claiming?

It’s interesting that Israel Africa has only gotten onto my BDS radar over the summer. Before then, talk was primarily about Caterpillar, with some yammering in the spring about Motorola. And now, it seems clear why the divest-niks have taken a recent interest in the company. With the company in crisis, what was the likelihood that retirement funds and other investors would “divest” from Israel-Africa for reasons having nothing to do with politics? And, as with the case of Motorola, the BDS crew has shown a recent interest in finding or anticipating buy/sell decisions relating to Israel, and claiming those decisions were made for purely political reasons.

As I’ve asked before, can two play at that game? Does the sale of trillions of assets in companies doing business with Israel’s Arab neighbors mean investors have woken up to the human rights abuses plaguing the Middle East? Does the hundreds of millions TIAA-CREF still maintains in Israel an unequivocal statement of support for the Jewish state? Or is it only the BDS crew that gets to run out in front of a torch wielding mob of investors and claim to be leading them?

As I’ve stated before, there is one and only one way to be sure that investment or divestment decisions are being made on political vs. financial grounds, and that is for the investor or company making the decision to actually say so in no uncertain terms. And in the case of TIAA-CREF/Israel Africa (as with Motorola and even Hampshire College) we only have divestment activists making self-serving claims regarding decisions made by others, claims that are either not supported or outright rejected by the organizations in whose names the BDSers are claiming to speak.

Given recent reversals with the churches, I can understand the need for the “I hate Israel” crowd to find some kind of win to crow over. But that raises the questions as to why these “victories” always seem to unravel or be exposes as outright hoaxes when subject to the slightest scrutiny?

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2 Responses to The Latest BDS Hoax: TIAA-CREF

  1. Anonymous September 19, 2009 at 6:42 am #

    Jon, the campaign against Leviev began almost two years ago, in Nov. 2007, before his financial woes appeared. Take a look: http://www.forward.com/articles/12030/

    Also: it's Africa-Israel, not vice-versa. 🙂

  2. Site Owner September 19, 2009 at 3:49 pm #

    Thanks for the link to the Forward (and the correction on I-A/or A-I I should say). It looks as though the Forward made the same mistake as Ha'aretz did in their original reporting on this story, assuming that action by the New York-based Adalah organization resulted in TIAA-CREF's decision to sell it's Africa Israel shares.

    Given that Adalah itself admits that TIAA-CREF's decision took place months before their protest (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/09/14/israel), the best source to determine the truth – as always – are the investors themselves (not a self-anointed interpreter of other people's financial decisions). And, as has been pointed out on this site and elsewhere, TIAA CREF (and Blackrock) have made it completely clear that their decision to sell shares in an Israeli company (similar to their decisions over the years to buy shares in Israeli companies) is based on financial considerations, not their own politics, and not the politics of single-issue pressure groups.

    Regarding the Forward's note that Israeli companies have been targeted by boycotters for years, and then ascribing subsequent investment/divestment decisions to the actions of protesters, this is what is known as a “post hoc ergo propter hoc” fallacy, that is a fallacy that assumes because action #1 preceded action #2 that #1 was the cause of #2.

    Since people have been hectoring groups to divest in Israel for years, it's easy for those not familiar with the facts to make a post hoc error like the one that appeared in the Forward (which is why we must rely – as noted above – on the people who actually made the decisions to explain to us their motives, rather than allowing others to project their motives onto investors.

    After all, if BDS advocates are allowed to claim credit for anything that happens subsequent to their actions, why can't anyone? Why can't I, for example, use the fact that investments in Israel have dramatically INCREASED since the divestment project began be proof that the investment community supports Israel politically or at least vehemently rejects BDS?

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