Boomerang, Travels in the New Third World, Michael Lewis, 2011
In 2008 Lewis interviewed Kyle Bass of Hayman Capital, a Texas hedge fund, who predicted that a number of first world countries, starting with Greece, but including Japan, France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland were destined to default on their debts. Bass didn’t know when this might happen but started placing bets with JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, figuring these firms had proven too big to fail and would therefore still be around to pay the bets. These bets were pretty cheap, for example $1 million insurance that Greece will default cost him $1100 per year. If Greece negotiated down its debt 70% Bass’s $1100 bet would return $700,000. Not bad. Thus the first chapter of Lewis’ new book would lead one to expect a sequel to his The Big Short. It isn’t.
Instead we are treated to a fast, superficial tour of Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany, complete with annoying pronouncements about stereotypical national culture traits of these countries. Of our own Wall Streeter’s Lewis says;
Extremely smart traders inside Wall Street investment banks devise deeply unfair, diabolically complicated bets, and then send their sales forces out to scout out and scour the world for some idiot who will take the other side of these bets. During the boom years a wildly disproportional number of those idiots were in Germany…When Goldman Sachs helped the New York hedge fund manager John Paulson design a bond to bet against – a bond that Paulson hoped would fail – the buyer on the other side was a German bank IKB, along with another famous fool at the Wall Street poker table called WestLB…
In other words, Germans have a national flaw that causes them to believe that Wall Street “banksters” are not scam artists of the first order and to believe that an AAA credit rating actually means something. Shame on them. These German banking idiots are paid a mere €100,000 per year and some were thrown in jail after their losses occurred. Prosecuting bankers, what a concept. German banks, along side British, Danish, and other banks were all big investors and losers in Iceland and Ireland.
Lewis’ best story concerns two monks, Father Ephraim and Father Arsinios, who found themselves in charge of a deteriorating, badly managed monastery on the peninsula of Mount Athos. They discover a five hundred year old land grant from the Byzantine Empire to a lake that is now under the control of the Greek government. The monks go to Athens and trade “their” lake for €1-2 billion worth of government commercial real estate. The monk’s intend to to use the money from these commercial properties to restore their monastery. How they managed this is still under investigation but there is talk of confessions the monks took from government ministers. In any event, word leaked of the land trades, and public outrage forced the collapse of the decades long rule of the conservative party, bringing to power American born socialist George Papandreou in October 2009.
The Greek government in order to qualify to join the European Union and the Euro-zone had to meet stringent requirements for debt and inflation. They were allowed to join the EU in 2002 and were then able to borrow money at EU rates of 5% where previously the government was paying upward of 15%. Still, when the socialists came to power in 2009 the debt for that year was projected to be a manageable 3.7%. The new socialist finance minister discovered the government was making large numbers of off the books payments bringing the actual 2009 debt to around 14%. The total indebtedness of the Greek government was discovered to be around €1.2 Trillion or about €250,000 for each citizen. This is still better than the $330,000 debt for each Icelander.
Greece also has a problem with revenues – it can’t collect taxes. A majority of Greeks are self employed including all Greek doctors and all report a maximum income of €12,000, below the poverty line but avoiding all income tax. Real estate is valued at a small fraction of its true market value for taxes and Greeks avoid paying sale taxes most of the time. Tax collectors would rather accept bribes than go after a tax dodger. A tax collector that is too diligent may be fired.
Greece’s debt comes from such practices as paying an average of €65,000 for public workers, more than is paid in Germany. The railroad brings in €100 million in revenue and costs €400 million per year to run. For all this money the trains never run on time. One analyst concluded Greece would be better off shutting down the railroad and paying taxi fees. Most government workers retire at age 50 and receive full pensions.
When the EU imposed austerity measures which limited public workers to €4,000 per month, the Greek government responded by creating the 14 month year. The population is so opposed to austerity measures that they engage in violent protests.
Turning to Ireland, Lewis describes their three banks as doing little more than investing in commercial and home real estate development in Ireland. The new Anglo Irish bank invested exclusively in large commercial real estate development and their growth and success forced to two older banks to compete. An analyst at Meryl Lynch, Ingram wrote a scathing report on the three bank’s lending practices and was fired for his efforts. Meryl Lynch then published a report stating that all three Irish banks were profitable and well capitalized. Based on this report, the Irish government moved to shore up the banks when they got into trouble. Instead of guaranteeing deposits and letting investors and bond holders go under, the Irish government guaranteed everyone, in effect nationalizing the banks. This left the Irish public on the hook for the entire debt incurred by the three mad banks. In the end, the banks funded development of more offices than Ireland had businesses, and more houses than Ireland had people. It was total madness. Prices were completely disconnected from rents so that an €800,000 house would rent for €800 month. After the collapse, Irish bankers have had to go into hiding as have the Icelandic bankers. They are both afraid and ashamed to be seem in public.
Lewis’ best analysis again concerns Germany. Germans are very disciplined, hate debt and inflation, and demand that their government act accordingly. Germans are also sitting on a massive gold store second only to the US. As the dominant power in the Euro-zone, Germany expects all other Euro-zone members to act responsibly like they do. When these nations include Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and France, this expectation is unlikely to be met. So will the Euro-zone survive? Who knows.
At the end of this short book, he goes home to California, the state closest to complete financial collapse. One California professor thinks they are not quite as bad as Greece but close. Lewis quotes some statistics. California spent $6 billion in 2010 on 30,000 prison guards, that’s $200,000 per guard twice the German banker’s pay. A prison guard who started work at age 45 can retire 5 years later at age 50 with full pension. California’s highest paid employee made $838,706 working for the prison system. Yet the prison system is so overcrowded and badly run that courts have ordered reductions in inmates and improvements in prison conditions.
In that same year, California spent $4.7 billion on its higher education system’s 33 campuses serving 670,000 students and once the envy of the world. Tuitions that in 1980 were $776 per year were $13,218 in 2011. California’s debt to its employees alone is approaching $200 billion. Californians share the Greeks hatred of paying taxes. They have created a system of government that is totally dysfunctional and where its citizens can override lawmakers with petitions at any time. City after city are declaring bankruptcy. But Lewis doesn’t have much to say about American national character.
The IMF is now moving to take control of both Greece and Italy. What is probably needed here is a sequel, not to The Big Short, but to Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. What is likely going on here is a move by the financial giants to seize ownership of the various nation’s most important and productive assets. The joke that Papandreou tried to sell the Greek Islands may actually be what is about to happen. Neo-colonialism may be coming to the Euro-zone.