Recruiting Partners, Israel's Leumi Aims to Beef Up Its U.S. Operations

Israeli banks have had a rough time in America and Europe, but Leumi is determined to make a go of it across the ocean

CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach discusses Bank Leumi's earnings, February 29, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

By taking on two American partners for its U.S. unit, Bank Leumi has signaled that it plans to expand its American operations and knows that it can’t do it without the aid of outsiders who can help it navigate the American banking scene.

Leumi, Israel’s second-largest bank, said Monday that it was selling a 15% stake in Bank Leumi USA for $141 million to Endicott Management and MSD Capital, the private investment arm of Dell Technologies founder Michael Dell.

Endicott, a U.S. investment firm co-founded by Wayne Goldstein in 1996 to invest in financial institutions, especially midsize banks, manages $500 million in assets. Goldstein is expected to be named to the Leumi USA board.

“We decided to partner with Endicott and MSD Capital, which can bring significant advantages to BLUSA,” said Leumi CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach, referring to Leumi’s U.S. business. She said this included “expansion of its customer base, greater access to the U.S. capital markets, and the ability to leverage Endicott’s significant experience in the U.S. financial markets.”

In fact, among Israeli banks, Leumi does the most business overseas as measured by contribution to profits. In the first nine months of last year, the latest period for which figures are available, overseas operations accounted for 8% of the group’s profits, or $183 million, and most of that came from Leumi USA.

The U.S. unit, which operates mainly in New York, Florida, Illinois and California and employs about 470 people, has enjoyed solid growth recent years, with its loan portfolio growing at double-digit rates to $5 billion at the end of 2017. It’s expected to turn a profit of about $50 million for the year, representing a return on equity of between 8% and 9%.

Still, even the biggest Israeli banks, like Leumi and its bigger rival Bank Hapoalim, have had a hard time competing in the United States and Europe against local rivals. Households and small businesses prefer to work with local banks. Worse, Israeli banks have had trouble with regulators over allegations they helped clients launder money or evade U.S. taxes.

Three years ago, Leumi itself reached a $400 million settlement with U.S. and New York State authorities over tax-evasion allegations. Bank Hapoalim and Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank are still under investigation while Israel Discount Bank reached a settlement over money laundering in 2005.

Between the investigations and the disappointing business performance, Israeli banks have been paring back their overseas business. When Russak-Aminoach took over as CEO in 2012, Leumi became the first Israeli bank to start divesting its overseas firms, offloading 15 businesses in less than six years.

But she didn’t divest everything. Leumi’s U.S. business is still intact, as are operations in Britain and a small outfit in China. After the settlement was reached with the United States in 2014, Russak-Aminoach didn’t give up on Leumi USA but cut costs and increased operations in the areas where the bank is strongest. Leumi USA’s loan portfolio is about 40% in real estate and 25% in financing sheltered housing. High-tech is another big sector, as is lending to medium-sized businesses.

However, she realized that alone there were limits to how much Leumi USA could grow and that taking on local partners could solve the problem. The two new partners can help Leumi USA expand its client base, upgrade to more sophisticated banking operations and help the parent bank’s Leumitech high-tech finance arm expand in the United States.

“It’s a welcome step by Leumi management, which examines issues realistically and understands that without serious partners it would be difficult to make significant progress in the U.S.,” said Micha Goldberg, a banking analyst at Excellence Investment House. “This move has the potential to create value that wasn’t possible before and comes with very few risks.”