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.

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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.

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b-school, History, MBA, Personal, Politics, Spain, Thoughts

A weekend in Cologne (Köln) and some bits of European construction

I’ve been this weekend in Cologne, an amazingly thriving city on the Rhine born about 50BC as a Roman outpost. A city that grew in the industrial revolution thanks to the enterprisingness of its inhabitants that strategically used their proximity to the coal of the Ruhr region.

Catholics, in 1248 they began the construction of their cathedral. It would stop in 1560 for as long as four centuries, with a crane that would be Cologne’s symbol and witnessed lots of generations live and die. Until 1848 you could have seen something like this…

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This was the tallest building of the wold as well, until the Washington Monument‘s capstone was set in 1884.

Let’s make another step in time to 1945 after the second World War. Cologne was obliterated with bombings. Less than 10% of its buildings survived. One of them was the Cathedral. Although hit by several bombs, maybe miraculously, the Dom still stood in the middle of a lake of rubble.

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Little remains of those years. Where Adolf Hitler rallied his troops, now there’s a lake where students gather instead to have fun and drink beer. Now Cologne is a cosmopolite city, a mix of cultures and lifestyles, somewhat disordered for a German city, but very much alive and breathing. It is the broadcast centre in Germany, the fourth biggest city and see to many international art festivals. Their inhabitants celebrate the good weather sitting in the terraces at night and have one of the largest Karnevals, or Mardi Gras, in Germany. Last Saturday’s view was quite different:

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Yes, I went there to study, to prepare the forthcoming exam on Strategic Direction and Corporate Finance and Governance with my German peers on the MBA. We had a great time and also worked a lot.

Now for European construction. We saw the next election’s publicity in many streets. I saw it again in Barcelona, when I came back yesterday. I read the newspapers and saw, to my amazement, how Spanish politicians are using the European elections to talk about local issues, even to try to condone some misbehavings some of their numbers have committed.

Our politicians, and I do thing that’s an European wide issue, are inadvertently but irresponsibly turning us away from democracy with their constant cynicism, hypocrisy and abuse. And our democracies, our peace, our union and our prosperity are the most valued shared good that we have. They are the only guarantee that neither Cologne nor Barcelona’s inhabitants, both cities whose civilian population have been bombed by air, each from a different political side, as if it mattered now or then to any crying child whose life had been severed, are not going to endure that cruelty anymore.

We are the ones benefiting and inadvertently collaborating to the European Union by travelling, by getting to know each other, by learning to respect our difference, by meeting to study an MBA from a British business school in a German roaring town.

I’m going to miss Cologne… it is a city I could live in!

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Aviation, b-school, Barcelona, Business, Economics, MBA, Microeconomy, Spain

Reflections from a high-speed train (inbetween Madrid and Barcelona)

I often travel the route Barcelona Madrid (and backwards) for the day. By plane it’s rather tiresome and expensive: with an open fare you end up paying around 400€ for a 630 km flight (+ 630 km back).

Barcelona – Madrid is the world’s busiest route with 971 operations per week. The second one is Sao Paulo – Rio (894 per week) then Jeju/Seoul Gimpo (858 per week) and fourth is Melbourne/Sydney (851 per week).

In fact you have to go very low in the ranking to find another crowded European route. That would be Rome – Milan with less than 600 operations per week, which, by the way, is more than the most crowded North American continental route: Las Vegas – Los Angeles (553 per week)

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Source: www.oag.com, data from September 2007

But things change. And this milk cow for the airlines faces its first serious menace ever: the high speed Spanish train service, also called AVE.

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These brand new trains travel the distance of 630km (410 miles) in two hours and 35 minutes. Not too bad when it’s compared with the plane that takes roughly two and a half hours (not just flying but also spent in the check in and departure processes), and possibly more.

But, from an economic point of view, there are many hidden costs that must be taken into account. After all, what is it that you do in a plane? Well, you sit in a narrow seat, trying not to disjoint your legs, and pray that the person that will be sitting beside you is not extra overweight. In the train you have plenty of space. Being uncomfortable has a cost.

How much? Well, it depends on what you’re willing to pay to be more comfortable, of course, and how much your time costs.

How much are you willing to pay for that extra nap? Well, in a 45-minute-long flight, you’re going to have maximum thirty minutes of uninterrupted sleep. You won’t be able to sleep while you queue, while you’re being inspected at the burdensome security checks, while you wait your turn. But on a continuous 2 hours 35 minutes journey you’ll be able to.

As for opportunity costs, you won’t be able to do anything in the plane, apart from opening your laptop for half an hour. It’s completely wasted time. In the train you can use your computer as much as you want, use your phone, combine them and access the internet. Work, eat, talk, whatever you wish.

But externalities must also be taken into account. Environmental footprints can be four times higher for planes than for trains. That means that the train will always be more sustainable and, if we ever are to reflect the true external costs, energy efficiency will give the train an important lead over the plane.

Add those costs up: discomfort costs, opportunity costs, externalities and you will have a very competitive mean of transport. Which only means that competition has been increased, with a comparable service at a better price. In the end, consumers will be benefited from the additional choices, lower prices and the increased service levels that competition will bring.

That was what I was thinking when I decided to open the textbook I was carrying with me. The Managing Financial Resources module awaited me. Fortunately it was half way to Barcelona, 300 km per hour (186.41 mph), still an hour to go.

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b-school, Business, Economy, Henley, MBA, Microeconomy, Politics, Spain

Private equity and the subprime crisis (bad news that could be good after all)

The subprime crisis has arrived. Yes, many anticipated so. That’s what happens when economy depends on expectations. They take some time to change and, when they change, they do it abruptly. Like those subprime mortgages that have transformed from “hot products” to “hot potatoes”.

Overall is not a matter of solvency but liquidity. I agree, tell that to those that will not be able to afford the mortgages, maybe up to 500.000 people in the US. But investors do not worry much about them. Investors just get scared and they stop pouring endless capital… until they start to do the same somewhere else.

Because companies still report record earnings and the price of gold has been rising non-stop. That means that the machine is still working.

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But let’s not be too complacent. A wider crisis can still arise. If gold is “hot”, ABS are cooler than ever. ABS are asset-backed securities, financial products made up of mortgages and things alike that are covered by a real asset, such as your home. These are a way for banks to get cheap financing and externalise risks, because the default risk is transmitted by the ABS, while it wouldn’t be with debt, for instance.

If banks get increasingly difficult to finance, they will transmit this additional cost to companies and consumers. And that’s an entry point to generate a widespread crisis. Central banks should add additional liquidity to the system by lowering rates, but that seems unlikely given their current policies.

But, what about private equity? Now it will be more difficult for them to get cheap capital to finance, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t mean they have no future. On the contrary, they are now more needed than ever, because they are the ones to provide that leaning, that additional shakedown that companies needed in times of more expensive credit.

Remember, there’s much more to private equity than leveraged buy-outs, they have an important role in the markets, and that means they have an important role to play in this new situation.

PD: I read this morning in “The Economist” that the US were thinking of “relief measures” for the crisis. Then I changed to a Spanish newspaper and read about the Popular Party (centre-right and opposition and presumed liberal) to propose the right not to pay mortgages during a year for the unemployed. Alarmed by both news I couldn’t help the thought: regulation must ensure that the system is not abused but, let the market regulate itself. Although some regulations will be painful, it’s the most effective way we’ve come to know.

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Aviation, Business, MBA, Spain

Airlines still dancing at the Spanish ball (Iberia and Spanair seeking mates)

Subtle movements show greater undercurrents in the Spanish Airline’s ball. You’ll see several previous posts about this in Scarcityrent.com (Airline movements in Europe: British Airways and Iberia on hold, Airlines corporate hunt: British Airways and TPG finally join forces to buy Iberia, Iberia and its brides… where’s the value?)

But let’s review the latest movements and their meanings. Major strategies in the Spanish airline sector are wobbly now.

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Iberia has decided to open its books to TPG. They were trying to win some time waiting for things to happen but it seems they have changed their mind. Why?

  • There’s not a competing strong offer for Iberia. In fact shareholders wanted to sell right away. Now they fear they could be left out in the cold with a company they no longerwant. Lufthansa is cooler every day.
  • Being privileged for being the Spanish flagship carrier in a heavily regulated sector, they wanted to wait until Spain’s next election, awaiting a possible change. But change seems more unlikely each day, so there’s no point in waiting. Maybe it’s even better not to wait because the forthcoming government might even be the same but stronger.
  • They had the previous objective of raising the share price to 4€, whilst the prospective buyers valued a maximum of €3,6. Have shareholders renounced to that objective?
  • In other European countries things are cooling down too. See Alitalia, left with no brides, or Lufthansa drifting away towards another option (see below)

Less risk means less reward too. Looks like shareholders are aiming at speeding things even at a lower price. That’s good news for both TPG and British Airways, and for a sector that needs consolidation and clarification. Many things depend on the management of those big airlines.

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And meanwhile, Spanair, the second Spanish airline, is for sale too. SAS, it’s current owner, has decided to disinvest in the company. Gonzalo Pascual, the president of the company, owner of the Spanish touristic group Marsans is about to buy it, but some things have happened too:

  • Lufthansa has expressed their interest to buy the company. Although of a smaller size than Iberia, this airline has the advantadge of being in the same alliance than Lufthansa: Star Alliance, while Iberia is in the wrong one: OneWorld, lead amongst others by British Airways, direct competitor of Lufthansa, with many flights shared with Iberia and, of course, shareholder of Iberia with a 10% stake. (and, maybe, unwilling to sell to their German competitor)
  • TAP, Portuguese Airline, has expressed its interest too.

Of course that means that this €450 million Airline is about to increase its price. There’s nothing like competition. Good news for SAS, of course.

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This man is the one that has the key. Gonzalo Pascual, beside SAS (Scandinavian Airlines Systems) executive Joergen Lindegaard, controls Air Comet, Pullmantur, Austral and Aerolíneas Argentinas, with heavy traffic across the Atlantic Ocean and a total fleet of 90 airplanes. Spanair is their natural ally, with an additional fleet of 65 airplanes and a lot of Spanish connections that can feed their intercontinental routes.

But, you there are always other possibilities, if the Spanair acquisition were to fail, why not buying Iberia instead? It would be hard and difficult, but Gonzalo Pascual is the one Spaniard that could. That would mean removing the foundations of the whole Spanish aviation sector though.

And this way this airlines’ love triangle gets more interesting. We’ll see what happens next 😉

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Aviation, Business, Economics, MBA, Microeconomy, Spain

Airlines corporate hunt: British Airways and TPG finally join forces to buy Iberia

Smart move from British Airways. The hunt has resumed and two hunters have made an alliance: Texas Pacific Group and British Airways will go together.

That’s a good idea because private equity can cooperate easily with the British airline’s knowledge support. And there are synergies: Iberia has what BA lacks: a good connection with America, specially Central and South America. And TPG has what BA lacks: money. Apax wouldn’t fit in the agreement, though.

British Airways has many shared codes with Iberia, plus a 10% stake in the company, and call options to a 27% more from Caja Madrid (10%), BBVA (7,3%), Logista (6,7%) and El Corte Inglés (3,1%). But British Airways’ shares have not been very optimistic lately, as you can see in the following graph:

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BA in London Stock Exchange (blue) compared to Dow Jones Index (red), not too bright 

(It’s not something about British Airways. EasyJet and RyanAir have been squeezing as much money from traveller’s pockets as they have been able to, but there’s a dead end right in front of them, and the Airline’s sector situation now is not that bright. Iberia and Alitalia are looking for buyers. Time for restructuring. But that’s not for today.)

Remember my last post on Iberia and why it had to keep being Spanish? Well, looks they’ve found the solution. TPG and BA would acquire a maximum share of 49% while the rest would be left for Spanish investors. They are also known:  Vista Capital (which includes Banco de Santander and his old ally Royal Bank of Scotland), Ibersuizas and Quercus (a venture capital fund also participating in another low-cost Barcelona-based airline: Vueling). That way they can protect their exclusive international flying agreements signed with the Spanish government. (those kind of agreements that you can’t acquire in the free market). Here is the post: Iberia and its brides… where is the value?

So it looks like British Airways is trading handling victory to TPG over Apax (and partners Hemisferio and Torreal) with his call options, plus knowledge and synergies with his network for a bigger chunk of shares without spending money. All of that without having to renounce to international agreements signed by the Spanish government on behalf of a Spanish Iberia.

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European real integration: British airports more Spanish and Spanish planes more British

Well done BA!

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b-school, Business, Economics, MBA, Microeconomy, Spain

Spain buying cheap olive oil from Italy… shouldn’t it be the other way around?

I’ve had a busy days. Mondays are the worst. Always. The only thing good about mondays is that, once you begin doing things and before you realise, it’s already tuesday.

Today I’ve been meddling with many things. One of them was a group essay for a Spanish company that wants to export olive oil. I decided to contribute with a lot of statistical data and tried to get some conclusions.

Using the TARIC (Integrated Tariff for European Communities) code for olive oil: 1509, that you can find here, and searching in Import/Export databases from Spanish Chambers of Commerce here, it’s easy to find that Spain exported, last year, 1.778 million € in olive oil to the following countries:

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Spain: exporting a lot of olive oil

Which is not surprising. Italy is the main market for olive oil exports. Being Spanish oil of better quality, and being Spanish brands less known than Italian ones, a big chunk of olive oil is exported to Italy, where it is repacked and exported again to third countries as an Italian export with an Italian brand. The US market is a good example: try to find Spanish oil. (Then, when you end up buying an Italian brand you end up carrying Spanish oil home.)

It’s a consequence of the rather recent opening of the Spanish economy to international markets. Spain as a brand is still not enough known. Fortunately, if you see series from previous years, Italy’s share of Spanish exports is less important as the country directly exports bigger quantities.

In any case, Spain leads the world’s exports of olive oil, with 1.778 million Euros. But, does it import olive oil too?

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And the answer is yes: the biggest exporter also imports olive oil.

A 15% of the quantity exported… yes! Spain also imports olive oil. And surely they have learned the Italian lesson. Spain imports olive oil from Tunisia, Morocco, Syria… and surely repacks it, rises its price and sends it somewhere else. At least there’s a big chance that your Spanish oil is really Spanish, but no certainty at all.

But there is Italy too. Spain imports oil from Italy. I’ve crossed the data, relating volumes and values, and Spain exports oil to Italy more expensive than imports it!. In fact Spain pays more for Moroccan, Greek, Turkey or Jordan olive oil than for Italian oil. Funny.

You can see the prices in the following figures. Spain exports much more expensive than it imports. Fortunately.

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Arbitrage: buy cheap, sell expensive. Olive oil too.

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