It isn’t Italy that holds the key, it’s not even the ECB, “my friends”

By Fernando Fernandez, professor at IE Business School

Forget about short cuts and soft measures: Europe’s problem is that it has lost the market’s confidence, and in order to get it back it will have to take some hard measures.It’s a well worn phrase which is why I have permitted myself a certain amount of poetic license, because it seems to go perfectly with the confusion that is rife among markets and analysts following recent events. The feeling of insecurity is such that we are desperately seeking a lifeline to cling to. Someone is always up for the job of throwing said lifeline and public opinion seems to have honed in on two specific groups: governments comprised of technocrats and the European Central Bank (ECB). The former are expected to bring the required level of sanity and the ECB is supposed to start buying up debt with no thought for expenses. But once again it’s the wrong diagnosis.

The European Commission, according to its vice president Olli Rehn, has decided that the key lies in restoring confidence in fiscal sustainability and the financial system, and in speeding up reforms that stimulate growth potential. Hence we have to change our tune or we have to take notice of the Commission, but either way we should not be looking for short cuts.

The European problem is a simple one. Investors have lost confidence in the Euro, not just in Italy. Let’s not confuse the symptoms of this particular illness. They have done it for a series of institutional reasons – the well-known design faults of the Monetary Union – and mistakes made in the way the crisis has been managed. In my opinion they include two particularly big mistakes. The first was to declare that European sovereign debt is restructurable – albeit only Greek debt, but who on earth believes that at this stage – without having the necessary financial resources or legal instruments to effect an immediate exchange, and the second was to punish banks for their sovereign debt holdings without having the necessary resources to fill the hole created. Both decisions have had consequences that were impossible to recover from in the short-term: they have made sovereign debt a credit asset, a financial instrument that competes with emerging debt, and have eroded the credibility of the European banking system, which has been forced to divest its sovereign debt. 

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IE Focus || Is this the solution to all debt problems?

By Ignacio de la Torre, professor at IE Business School

Investment banking has once again shown us the way to address the world’s enormous and recurring debt problem. It is, of course, by cheating.Although it may not have been noticed, investment banking has shown us the way solve the world’s enormous and recurring debt problem. What did the last entry in Lehman Brothers profit and loss statement show? Enormous profit. Let’s see why. The results of the third quarter of 2011 for Lehman Brothers produced “profits” as a consequence of the fall in value of the debt market of the banks themselves. In other words, if the risk of bankruptcy of, for instance, Morgan Stanley, increases, the price of its bonds falls, which means its “profits” will rise. Intuitive? That’s why the last entry in Lehman’s books was actually an enormous profit. The five main investment banks have posted “profits” totaling 15,000 million dollars obtained this way in the third quarter, which means that the position of the bank’s “own” funds is skewed by an equivalent amount, as is its solvency, measured in relative terms (value at risk) or absolute terms (leverage). In short, over 80% of the profits posted by investment banks in the third quarter of 2011 is a result of this fantasy.

Thus the profits of 6,200 million dollars posted by Bank of America contain a bonus dividend of 3,600 and a “profit” due to a fall of 1,700 million dollars in the amount of debt. Citigroup’s profits have risen by 74% to 3,800 million dollars thanks to the recognition of a “profit” derived from the drop of 1,900 million in its debt level. Morgan Stanley posted a profit of 2,150 million dollars, of which 3,400 were the result of a fall in the value of its debt, and JP Morgan posted a profit of 1,900 million dollars using the same system, beating the market with a profit of 1.02 dollars instead of the expected 91 cents (its shares fell by 4.8% – the market is not quite as simple as it looks). Unfortunately, this practice is also being employed in Europe, where UBS has posted a profit of 1,800 million Francs as a result of the fall in value of its debts. Its total profit was 1,000 million Francs, which means that if it hadn’t used the trick it would have posted losses, not profits, as a result of its trading scandal (2,300 million dollar loss).

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IE launches Trading Room for Finance assignments

This week IE has inaugurated its Trading Room to better address market related assignments such as Portfolio Management, Investment Game, Fixed Income, Derivatives, Equity/Asset Valuation, Financial Programming, Equity Research, FX Markets. Equipped with Bloomberg, FactSet, WONDA, EVA Dimensions, Thompson, Matlab, Reuteurs, TTR & Zoologic and other technologies, this facility has one of the top collection of analytical tools…

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IE Focus || The IMF wants to be a Hedge Fund

IE Focus | By Fernando Fernandez, professor at IE Business School

The IMF’s absurd proposal to buy debt from threatened European countries like Spain or Italy would have made it into a hedge fund, and it would have been developing countries that paid the price.Ever since the Mexico peso crisis resulted in the so called tequila effect in the early nineties, the International Monetary Fund has been trying to find the formula to prevent financial contagion. To be more specific, it has been searching for the way to stop financial market dynamics from unfairly impacting countries that have no serious solvency problems, but which will end up having them if they fall out of favor with investors, who then pull out en masse causing spiraling debt differentials coupled with a credit crunch. But what it has not done so far is to suggest that it should serve as a highly speculative investment fund that would intervene directly in the debt market, stockpiling the currencies of countries under threat. This is exactly what Portugal’s Antonio Borges, the inexperienced head of the European Department, proposed. The suggestion was only on the table for the space of a few hours, because it was such a ridiculous idea, so out of synch with the nature and functions of the IMF, that he had to withdraw it before the end of the day.

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IE Finance Day

Luis Isasi, President of Morgan Stanley in Spain and Vice President of Morgan Stanley Europe took part in the IE Finance day held at IE Business School on September 22, where he examined the role of education in the finance sector. Participants in the event included Ignacio de la Torre, Director of IE Business School…

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Astrology and economic forecasts

The current crisis has once again shown how wrong economic forecasts often are. So why is it such a deeply flawed profession? John Galbraith once said that “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.” Although many of us are avid readers of economic forecasts issued by the OECD, the IMF, and the EU (the government’s forecasts tend to suffer from a general lack of creditability), it is questionable if our confidence in them is well founded. In my opinion, which is based on my experience, it is not.

Firstly, a large number of economic models try to predict the future by extrapolating the past. The current crisis, like so many others, has highlighted the folly of this method. Such models also predicted in the 1950s that the USSR would become the world’s most powerful economy (its economic growth rate was three times that of the west at the time), and the same was said about Japan (remember the best seller Japan as Number 1, by Harvard Professor Ezra Vogel?), the Asian dragons in the 90s, and now it’s China’s turn. The logic of projecting past growth rates onto the future is an intellectual and economic fallacy, as stated by Paul Krugman in his excellent paper “The Myths of Asia’s Miracle”. 

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