Business, Economics, Economy, India, Macroeconomy, Thoughts

More inequality or more convergence (tricks of your particular worldview)

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The average Joe in Spain is now living worse off than in boom times. Anyone can tell you that. While some, many, citizens, scape the crisis altogether. Apart from the platitude as obvioulsy societies live better in Boom times than in Recession times, anyone can warn you of growing inequalities, and he will be right.

The same feeling you may have if you look at the landscape in Mumbai, India. As skycrapers grow in number and height and slums grow and invade previously green spaces, you may have the feeling of growing inequality, and you may be right.

Same feeling you may have in China, when you compare Shangai with some backward province. They would have the biggest slum on Earth if people had the chance to build it. But since they don’t, you cannot see it. But as cities expand, inequality is growing. Signs of danger in forthcoming times.

But if you think of great times, regardless of your point of view, you can think of the Mughal Empire, the Roman Empire, or even of Chairman Mao’s China, and think that the good times are behind.

But don’t make a mistake. In those glorious times, 99% of the population were at the limit of starving. Marie Antoinette may have lived as a Queen, but she ended beheaded for a reason, a reason that she could not understand when she suggested to give cookies to the mob if they were hungry. Any bad harvest could kill a sizeable chunk of the population, and if there was hunger and disease at the same time, half of the population dying was a possible scenario.

Since the industrial revolution in the Nederlands, UK, and some European locations, the things have changed. As it has been spreading all over the world, inequality is less than ever. And if some folks live worse off, is specially because they compare themselves to their richer cousins.

No one starves in Spain. Many people have made bad investment decisions and they will pay a price for it. Some will not be able to afford the holidays in Mexico this year so they will decide to stay at home. Some people I know have had to cut on Saturday restaurants. And some have real trouble to get to the end of the month, yes, but not hungry.

Many people in India and China are still starving. Many more are hungry. Obviously, too many, I may add. But less than ever. Mao’s China was probably the poorest in centuries, but Deng Xiaoping opened the capitalist way that is slowly (yes, if you think of all of China, not of the booming part only) reversing the trend. The same happens in India (and sooner it would happened if the current government was as brave as some that preceded them, instead of wasting India’s time).

Of course, if you look locally, there are some losers and some winners, but humanity wins. And if you look at the greatest foes of this 2012, you will here about debt affecting many people, but you will here a lot about public debt. Don’t blame that one on the capitalist system, blame it on bad governments.

The world overall is more equal in opportunities. More than ever. Capitalism, with its flaws, has started a globalisation trend that is only benefiting humans.

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Economics, Economy

Poisonous debt (…to the point of no return?)

Nixon is known to many people for only a few things we did. But only economists remember that he was the one to definitively unpeg the dollar to the gold. That happened only 40 years ago, in 1971. I wasn’t born yet, but it’s not a long time in the long history of money.

Much before then, since Bretton Woods, the dollar became the facto the centre of all currencies. That was 67 years ago, again not so long in the history of money. Let’s say that the present order of things is not ancient or anything like that. There were many other currencies before, not just one, and they have been changing through the ages.

But this post is not about which one will be the next currency. It’s about the possibility that everyone avoids thinking about. What if the current monetary order is living its last days?

We didn’t know how much sovereign debt a country could stand. Now we know: some figure close to 100%. And many countries are in that range. The US being one of them. Governments have two quick options: either borrowing more money, or printing it. Austerity measures, if they are not to be counterproductive as they can destructively contract the economy, take a lot of time. (And I’m not sure that politicians or creditors are the right ones to design, choose and enact those measures.)

And debt is good! It’s one of the lubricants of progress. Let’s not demonise it ever. But there’s some quantity of debt which is too much. Now we know how much is that. And the rich countries seem to be beyond that line, namely the US, the one that everyone takes for granted that its default is unthinkable.

Maybe that’s why they don’t think about it. But not thinking about something is not a guarantee that it will not happen. Maybe it even makes it more likely as nobody is actually working to prevent it till it explodes on your face.

So, will the US default? Well, they don’t need to. As many other governments they can just keep printing more and more money. The default becomes unnecessary as inflation will do its bidding and do a covert default. Your investments can’t withstand the storm when they are based on a currency which is losing its value. They apparently can, yes, but only apparently.

And that’s because the system was based on a promise: that the authorities were not going to print too much money. But again, an easy way to get dollars (or euros) is to print them. But then what happens to a fiat currency like the dollar? (One that has been unlinked from the gold value for 40 years now.)

It’s easy to hold to the promise of not printing more dollars when investors are there to lend you the money but, what after they are long gone? Are the politicians going to keep their promise of not printing more money? Do they actually have an option?

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Economics, Economy, Macroeconomy, Microeconomy, Politics, Thoughts

And we are no longer asking “why” to the crisis

It’s amazing how we tend to forget. Not so long ago some people were still being blamed, bankers mostly, the beheaded god Alan Greenspan, some professional confidence man (aka con) Bernie Madoff, and a few more, but except for the latter that has even seen the disgrace in its own family, the former have gone back to their oversized bonuses and Mr. Greenspan is enjoying a deserved retirement, maybe with less conferences than what he had hoped for.

We’ll end up believing that the crisis is more a natural catastrophe, like those earthquakes in Japan, than a punishment. Isn’t it always easier not to blame yourself? God, with infinite power and without any need for an explanation, has just decided to punish you. And that’s all. Why think? Why blame? Why even change?

A system that privatises gains and socialises losses can’t be good. And that’s what we are seeing all over the world. All citizens end up sharing the burden. The “too big to fail” has been finally accepted by the whole humanity, the final enshrinement of the “moral hazard”.

Maybe we have finally reached our destination. We are capitalists when it’s time to reap benefits, but socialists with losses. Be aware, that only applies to big corporations. Finally, the richer 5% has some way to outgrow us all, to keep concentrating more and more power in their hands and make sure that when they fail they won’t have to answer for it.

I read today in the news that this year General Electric, in spite of a huge profit figure (true, it could have been better but it’s still huge) is only paying 7.4% of their profit in taxes. Congratulations to their accounting department, finding every possible trick, every crack in the fiscal legislation, every opportunity not to pay… But, at the end of the day, do you feel like they are making the same effort as citizens are? How much do you personally pay?

And another example, this time from Spain, from the likely next president in another year, a sentence in a conference in Germany: “If Spain is having a bad time it’s not the Spaniard’s fault”. Whose fault is it then? The hidden external enemy? God’s?

Beware, things that do not work can’t last for long…

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Business, Economics, Economy, Macroeconomy, Personal, Thoughts

Basic macroeconomics again: government savings, private deficits and the Ricardian debt equivalence theorem

If you brush up your basic macroeconomics you will remember this: in an open economy, if national saving is insufficient to finance national spending, an influx of foreign capital will be needed to balance the accounts. That’s the story of the US -or Spain-. Where we invest (spend) more than we save (earn).

In times of high leveraging, where the private sector has grown too indebted, a deleveraging process is mandatory. Whether it takes ten or five years, it doesn’t really matter. It has to happen. It will happen.

But what if it’s the private sector that has gone too indebted? How can the public sector help?

Well, it’s not only that, as I said, the national balance must equal the foreign financial balance. The fact is that the national balance is necessarily made of two balances that add to each other: the public sector balance and the private sector balance.

That means that the fiscal balance plus the private sector balance must be compensated by the external balance. In other words: money goes out of one sector only to enter another, whether outside or inside the country. But it’s a zero-sum game.

Worrying.

If the government is saving, the only way that the private sector can save is by means of exporting, suddenly, a lot more.

Otherwise, more saving by the government, means more private sector deficit thus more leveraging.

Hmmm, sounds ingenious, but makes sense too.

Can we expect all the countries to suddenly double their exports? No way that’s going to happen as exports are also a zero-sum game. What someone exports, someone else is importing. So, what’s the alternative?

Let me say it again in plain words: if the governments reduce their debts is because part of the taxes that are being paid by the private sectors will be committed to paying creditors, that is, they will go out of the cycle. More taxes, less returns in services or infrastructures. Yes, that is, hurting the private sector.

What can a government do to reduce the debt burden? Obviously, inflate prices, which in times close to deflation is no simple task to do. But again reducing the savings of their citizens, whether people or companies.

But it has to be sudden, unexpected. As creditors wouldn’t accept low interest yields if they were expecting inflation. Credibility is important and we don’t want to lose our reputation as a country.

Let’s say that you can only lose your reputation once, just like your virginity. Next time you won’t be able to make this move or to get credit at such low rates.

So, what’s the alternative to increasingly indebting the private sector? Because if you do for a long time, the increasing frailty will become evident, more than evident, obvious.

Let’s increase debt to reduce deficits? Bonds maybe? Some safe heaven for governments?

Maybe they are for governments but, in the end, they must be paid off sometime. The contested Ricardian debt equivalence theorem states that government expenditure on the private sector is equivalent whether it’s financed by taxes or bonds.

Okay, there’s a lot of restrictions to that Ricardian debt equivalence, or Ricardo-Barro equivalence proposition. We may not care about our descendants so we may not care to indebt them either. But one thing is clear: a debt is a debt and, along the road, it must be paid. The equivalence says that, somehow, the private sector will get ready to pay that and the ultimate effect will be the same.

The lesson? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Maybe getting government deficits under control right now is going to make the economy even worse. Believe me or not, it doesn’t matter. Just do something for me…

Stop seeing the government deficits and debts in isolation. They are part of a bigger system.

At the end of the day, there’s the need for more competitive if countries are to scape the leverage trap. And productivity adjustments come with a high price, be it devaluations where they are still possible (beware your reputation, U.S.) or by means of drastic reduction of labor factor costs… yes… wages (beware Spain).

Okay, that was tough. Sorry. Not the usual me. Lots of theoretical threads I needed to spit out. Oh, is it going to be the first post without a picture?

No way! Here it is. Commonsensical:

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Business, Economics, Economy, Macroeconomy, MBA, Microeconomy, Private Equity, Thoughts

Dubai has financing troubles but… is it making a profit?

More than two years ago I was writing about Conspicuous consumption: from Thornstein Veblen to Jumeirah Palm. The reference to Dubai was almost mandatory of course. I’ve been to Dubai and I like the place. We all know that recently it has run into some trouble financing its debt. They are expecting a bailout from the United Arab Emirates which are playing hard to get.

My personal view is that they will get this bailout. Actually, I have little doubt of it. They must be now in the midst of a power struggle about how to manage all that. We have to remember that many western nations rushed to finance banks only to discover that they had forgotten to write down a few conditions in the contract about the remunerations to top managers and suddenly the public opinion cared more about those millions’ destination than for the rest of thousands of millions.

Leaving that aside, Dubai is similar to a long-term investing fund. In the long run you get your returns, not before. To manage it you need to be very cold, and not let the circumstances blind you.

But everything in Dubai is so shiny that it blinds you. That’s good for the brand, of course. So we have this dilemma: building shiny things maybe is not that good for the long run but, what else do you have to sustain your brand that very very shiny things?

No matter what happens now, the shiny brand is not so appetising anymore. And investors will think twice before risking again. I don’t want to compare Dubai to a Ponzi scheme, it is not, but to achieve the desired returns it needs to be able to sustain the investments arrival for a long-term period. Is it going to?

Since I’m not the Delphos’ Oracle I leave the reflection here. A small hint: it’s all about fundamentals. In the long run, an investment will survive and flourish if its a sound business. If we are dependent on a brand that requires too high a burning money rate, probably it won’t.

Having investors is a thing, when you lose them you can resource to forced investors (also called taxpayers) or stakeholders that have other interests (power in exchange for money, for instance) but, having a big enough profit for the expected yield, that’s another thing…

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b-school, Business, Economics, Macroeconomy, Politics, Thoughts

Green shoots, maybe, but don’t expect flowers

I’m increasingly growing wary, or even tiresome, of anyone that talks about green shoots. Yes, put a lot of fertiliser over a bed of rocks and something will grow on that. Mostly weeds. After all, weeds are green, but they don’t make nice flowers.

After pouring so many fertiliser taken from the forced lenders throughout the world (yes, we and our descendants are the forced lenders, and the fertilisers are the billions of dollars irresponsibly poured everywhere) what else is there to expect than a few green shoots?

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But one thing is to have green shoots, and another one is to have a sound recovery. That needs to be sustained on healthy fundamentals, which we don’t have now.

Okay, maybe we are not falling that fast… so what? Even the most bullish markets have relevant corrections, why shouldn’t the bearish? That is some hope in midst of despair, true, but the despair still has a sound reason to be.

Hiding things in the balance sheet, having assets that don’t reflect real prices, is not the way to recovery either. First we need that atonement, that reconciliation with reality, that would be a real stress test, after a previous sanity check: let’s value things for what they’re really worth.

And in the meantime the GDP of the Euro countries has contracted more than 10%. Germany is contracting more than Spain, with an unemployment growth rate 1000% bigger. We, who were the main sinners, are weathering the storm better? Something tells me that the methodology that we are using to calculate our GDP, given the fact that we have to remove seasonal effects being a touristic country, is delaying the changes to the real data. But something also tells me that the most inflexible labour markets are exhibiting those same troubles that don’t let them flexibly grow, only applied to contraction. There’s plenty for all of us.

Hmm, I’m so sorry to be negative but… let’s prepare and get ready, because those shoots are bound to whither and the worst is yet to come.

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b-school, Business, Economics, Economy, Macroeconomy, MBA, Thoughts

I sense some hope… sorry not yet! (Pandora’s jar is still not completely open)

Lately I’ve been hearing some musings about how the economic situation is improving. Yes, optimists are always necessary, though they can also be a bit annoying sometimes.

In any case it’s good to reflect for a while on where are we now. Have the fundamentals of the current crisis changed so much that we can say things are changing? Maybe is it that people are sensing that we have already touched the floor thus the situation is about to rebound? If it is the second one, let me tell you, we spent so many years skyrocketing ceiling after ceiling, why should the bear animal spirits be less powerful than the bulls?

Crisis, at least most crisis, aren’t the results of sudden disasters or fulminant downturns. Although everyone can recall tipping points, such as certain interventions or lack thereof, they are the consequences of deeply undergoing currents, things that have been happening for a long time.

And what has been happening for a long time? Things like the excess of liquidity, thus the excess of leverage. Piles and piles of debt. Unsound financial constructs acting like dark boxes trying to hide the risk inside, just like a giant Pandora’s jar (incorrectly translated from the ancient greek as a box instead of a jar).

Ephimetheus had been warned not to accept any gifts from Zeus, and Pandora had been warned not to ever open her box. But you know mankind, the former couldn’t resist marrying her, and the latter couldn’t resist her curiosity to know what was inside the box… Otherwise mankind would have lived tranquil and blissful (for another while).

Geithner

So, has this man been able to close the jar (or box) that brings all the evils to mankind? I know it’s ugly to personalise but, has quantitative easing helped? It probably has, somehow, albeit many doubt so. I think it has bought us some more time, but we still haven’t taken care of that atonement I’ve written about a few times.

Because putting still more money into the system doesn’t address the fundamental problem we are facing. It’s more like trying to remedy a symptom than a disease. It’s true the pendulum has swung to the other side, and injecting liquidity, the swing won’t be that strong anyway, but that still doesn’t solve our problem.

Yes, banks are paralised. But that’s not because they have forgotten how to be banks, but because nobody really knows how much their assets are worth now. We are permitting them to alter their book to market ratio thanks to the backing of the ultimate lenders (yes, you know who they are, those forced lenders), and they are not lending because they are holding to those promises that permits them not to face reality.

Any reconstruction must begin by assessing the losses, instead of counting on a white (forced) knight that will save them all. This thought paralyses them, makes them look to the future with unrealistic expectations.

In the meantime, the forced lenders have to back and even buy bad assets. But they can’t sell them, as they don’t know how or whether they are worth anything. Just like another Pandora’s jar that trades hands without anybody actually looking what’s inside. And it won’t be a bad thing to look inside this jar, as at least we’ll know what we are able to recover. Bad assets are bad because they are worth much less than what’s in the books, it’s time to know how much.

So what then? Is this all? Even when we reach this point we will still have to face the biggest problem: the excess of debt. Right now we are still indebting us more and more as the quantitative easing still needs to be financed, as each and every infrastructure we may be trying to build, or every single measure taken to protect the weakest.

An interesting article from the New York Times wrote last month that the debt in the hands of the consumers had begun to recede from 98% of the Gross Domestic Product to 97%. Those were the good news. The bad news were that the debt in the hands of banks had not. And, according to the article, that debt stood at $17.2 trillion, or 121 percent of the size of the GDP of the United States, compared to 6% of the GDP half a century earlier. Yes, that’s a problem.

Still two final reflection in this already too long post: if households are saving more, that will have a long lasting impact on the economy as well, an impact that will last for sure much longer that the present recession. No more exuberant lending to households.

The other reflection is like this, what if we added to the debt held by households the debt that the governments are generating? They are the forced lenders after all. And if you look at the whole picture this way, the debt is still growing and growing… and the end is still further away.

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