Business, Economics, Economy, India, Macroeconomy, Thoughts

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

Image

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.

Standard
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?

Standard
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…

Standard
Economy, Personal, Politics, Thoughts

From Germany to Spain by train (the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and a “laisser-passer”)

Yes, I was one of those people stranded around Europe thanks to a cloud of ashes that no one could see but make brighter reds at sunset. My journey was a 42-hour journey through Europe’s interconnected railway connections, but also an eye-opener on the frailty of globalisation and a living proof that the railway systems of the European countries are not effectively interconnected.

Belgium is a good example. Ongoing works on a track to Liege. No way to get there on time, but with a 15-minute delay. A train loaded with people that are connecting to the Thalis, a high-speed train taking people directly to Paris and Brussels. Two trains leaving at almost the same time we arrive. They hold one for a few minutes and, to the travellers’ consternation, let the other one go. A whole journey ruined because of a three-minute coordination error. Lots of wasted space on the leaving train, lots of upset passengers that need relocation on the station. Belgian management at its worst. Fortunately a compassionate soul understands the disaster they have caused and change my first class tickets to Spain for some piece of paper: a “laisser-passer” (let him pass, a safe-conduct). With it I can sneak into any train, no seat assured, but if there is a seat, I can take it. That was the key to my escape.

A journey away, in Brussels, the Belgian capital, lots of people queuing at the counters. People sitting and standing everywhere. No trains to leave. We manage to sneak into one. Half of the places were free!

Then in Paris. Train workers on strike for the 14th day. No way to get info in Paris Nord. In Paris Lyon we are stopped by some first-attention workers selected, I guess, by their ability to mutter some words in English. Totally unhelpful, there are no spaces in trains for the next three days. Everyone should go home. The poor bastard even doubts that my reservations are authentic and asks me for proof. Amazing.

Next stop at Paris Austerlitz. Instead of flocks of British citizens trying to get their chance as in the last station, this time it’s crowds of Spaniards there trying to get home. No places till Saturday. I manage to talk to a nice guy from the company which tells me something that I’ve already heard a couple of times before: “hold on to that laisser-passer, that’s the best thing anyone can have out there” and then shares some secret with me “there’s going to be some special train service taking people southwards to Toulouse tonight at 21:56 at Paris-Bercy station”.

That was another key moment. The secret train. One of those trains that France has put up in order to help travellers through France.

Paris Bercy. That station does not even appear on the maps. (Just check it, amazing! It’s not Bercy metro station which is in the centre of Bercy, a huge borough) I had to go back to my source and ask for some references. Not even the taxi driver knew where Paris Bercy was. Fortunately and thanks to my confident I knew it was just after crossing the Bercy bridge over the Seine. Once there, there were some sign.

The station is used to transport cars by train. It’s an auto-train station. They have added some passenger wagons to a huge line of car-transporting wagons.

Ten people controlling the entrance, god forbid that some crowd would jump onto the train to get home. I’m sure they would only select the travellers really deserving it, the desperate ones, the children. After all that’s what was in the news: France doing all they can to help expatriates get back home.

Fortunately, my “laisser-passer” worked. They seemed to be impressed by it. I know it’s going to end up hung up somewhere at home. We could board the train… and then we left for Tolouse. I was to share my journey with a lot of refugees, sing songs and share experiences, or so I thought.

Well, you can see the reality. Fortunately there were two people to talk to. The rest of the train was empty. I guess they had a tough time deciding which of those refugees deserved going back home. So they decided not to let anyone go. These are the trains, the special trains, meant to be helping people get back home. And that’s how they go: empty.

There were still a lot of things to come. The 14th day of railway workers strike in France cancelled the following trains I hoped to take and I had to make it in a bus to the Spanish border. There I read again about the special resources countries were providing to help those stranded get back home. Astonishing.

Yes, resources were there, somehow. But totally uncoordinated and wasted. Here lies the proof of the case against European efficiency and how politicians and media speak of things they don’t know about. In the meantime, the non-transported travellers mean loses both for them and the companies they work for, for the airlines and for the whole Europe. Another notch down the economic crisis that is dragging us down.

At the end of the day, the Eyjafjallajökull leaves us with lessons on how the globalisation is frail, too frail. Myself, I should be in India now. Instead I’m at home in Barcelona, and happy to be here by the way. Is the air transportation sector so frail to completely collapse under some ashes? Is the railway transportation system so inept that it just wastes more and more resources while failing to respond in an emergency situation? Why are the politicians lying to us so blatantly about the extra efforts they’ve made to help people get back home? How can railway workers just keep on strike in this situation and Mr. Sarkozy simply do nothing about it?

We are less prepared than we think we are. And we must get ready and push towards open skies and build the next generation of air navigation systems the sooner the better. Also it is necessary to overhaul the whole inefficient European rail transport system.

Experiences. We all learn from them. I also try to. And from one reconforting image, the most positive thing the volcano did (as if telling about our shortcomings wasn’t good enough…) the impressive sunset over the Seine in Paris, the one thing that has improved and turned even more reddish with the Eyjafjallajökull’s ashes.

Standard
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:

Standard
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…

Standard
Business, Economy, Macroeconomy, Microeconomy, Spain

For the pain in Spain, the banks are to blame (amongst others, let’s say)

Being these days in Barcelona I’m amazed how several publications, I’m thinking of Forbes and their “Spanish banks in top form” article, can be so blind and misleading. If Spanish banks are in top form, buckle up Dorothy, as the ride is going to be very rough all over the world, you ain’t seen nothing!

And the ride is going to be long and rough for Spain. How else could a developed country withstand more than 20% unemployment in a deflationary context, with a plunging internal demand. Sounds contradictory with Forbes’ article? Just keep reading.

  • The real state bubble was worse than people predicted. And the worst was in Spain where we constructed, and have yet to sell, at least as many new houses than in the US alone with around six times more inhabitants, and around one third of the European Union with ten times more inhabitants… does that make sense?
  • That had to be financed, obviously. Huge inflows of capital made sure of that. And the banks were the ones financing the developers to an amount roughly the size of half the GDP. Banks had been selling their interests in real state at the peak, getting rid of that business in the best moment. The capital markets bought them all.
  • Once the developers failed, as they necessary had to, their assets and debts reverted to the banks. Now the banks are again on the business of real state in Spain, in fact leading it. The part of that business that was in the capital markets has obviously slumped (more than 80%), but of course that’s just one part of the financing they had. Those losses are mostly latent.
  • In short that means that Spain may have bad debts roughly the size of 25% of its GDP. And that part is in the hands of the banks. But as they have been forced to absorb those, they are the first interested not to write off any of those debts, but to convert them to overpriced assets. In fact they bought the whole failed developments for the price of the mortgage. But that price was not right anymore. Which incentive do these banks have to lower the asset prices thus assuming losses and revealing the truth? None at all.
  • Search for the balance sheets! The truth is still there, albeit hidden somehow. And they know, obviously. Why else would small Spanish banks be frantically merging with each other? There is a reason for that.

v-cliff

Spanish banks are simply hiding their losses. The real state market has not found its equilibrium yet. While they can, the main owners of the real state will try to contain the offer, placing things selectively in the market trying not to overwhelm the current tiny demand and betting for a better future where they will be able to reign on the real state business again.

In the meantime, Spanish banks are trying to con their customers with preferred shares. Issuing them and selling at nominal prices while re-buying those at the capital markets at real prices (half the price?). So, how is that for responsibility? What will their customers think of them in the future when they discover they actually have made an illiquid investment that they will not fully recover?

And yes, they have been more prudent in some aspects than their European counterparts. But that’s not enough. What would happen if they started marking loans to market? or assets to market? That would definitely be an eye opener, and a disaster.

Standard