I am in Madrid for 8 days. Fon HQ are here, and so is my holding company. I also have great friends, a nice home, and my children who are visiting for Thanksgiving.
I love Spain regardless of the sorry condition the country is in. There is something special, historic, unique about this country. Life here is still good. The crisis has not increased crime or made life in any way uncomfortable for those who still have their jobs. But I just wish people here were more focused on getting out of the crisis and less focused on tribalisms and mutual accusations. Most commentary I read says that Spain is in the mess it is in because of something that somebody else did. Few Spaniards consider themselves the reason why Spain is in the mess it is in, but millions who over borrowed and now can’t pay are that very reason. Nobody who I read or speak to says, “well I overextended myself in real estate, I made a huge mistake, I lived beyond my means. I had a choice to buy or not to buy property, to get a mortgage or not get one. And I was ambitious, and greedy, and had a poor understanding of the economy. Now I have to pay and I don’t know how.”
Because in the end the Spanish crisis is the result of millions of individuals and thousands of companies going into debt in order to get homes, second homes, rental properties that now nobody wants. The rest of the economy is working well, but it has to finance the 25% of the economy that is stalled because construction came to a standstill. So credit died for everyone else. For us at Fon, if we weren’t able to raise funds in the USA or the UK we would not be able to grow. But other than an R&D credit we got from the Basque government few have appetite here to finance technology (the Basque region is by far the best managed part of Spain now). If a project does not have a few tons of concrete in it, it just does not get financed. And most times not even those do. All the credit available still goes into the black hole of construction and bad banks.
And on top of this there is now the dismembering of Spain. The parts of Spain that are threatening to become independent. Mainly Catalonia. But the Catalans have an economy that is extremely poorly managed. As badly managed as that of Madrid. The economies of Madrid and Barcelona suffer from exactly the same problems yet the Catalans think they will do better alone. While I respect their desire to try it out, I don’t think they would succeed in a generation. Catalans also have too much reliance on infrastructure as a main source of, first employment and now, unemployment. They also have enormous quantities of uneducated young people who need to be retrained for jobs other than construction. I can only imagine an independent Catalonia adding costs, hiring more people in government, building an army and other non sensical moves that make the financial hole Catalonia is in even deeper. But instead of joining forces to fight similar problems, Madrid and Catalonia are accusing each other of a number of absurdities. It’s as if a couple who had a child with cancer argued rather than focusing on the child. Pretty sad and discouraging.
In the meantime there is the USA in our lives. We moved there at the beginning of September and it’s been absolutely amazing. Teaching at Columbia, expanding my angel investing activities, making Fon grow globally. The atmosphere is vibrant, there is opportunity everywhere I look. It is paradoxical to listen to Americans talk about how poorly the economy is doing. If only they knew how it is in other parts of the world. How a country, a pretty developed economy as Spain, an economy the size of Texas, in which life expectancy is still higher than that of the USA, can put all its eggs in one basket, and go into a death spiral with unemployment shooting from 8% to 25%. The US economy is vibrant, extremely diversified, creative. Yes for decades now the USA has been living beyond its means and that explains a sort of fake growth that occurs when countries say their GDP is going up but so is their total debt. I have always argued that GDP growth should be discounted by credit expansion. In this sense the USA is going through a process similar to that of Spain except that so far it still has credit. The USA has to slowly borrow less, spend less, collect more, close that trillion dollar budget deficit, close the trade deficit. It has to do what Clinton did, balanced the budget, and Bush with his unnecessary wars and credit expansion, destroyed. That is Obama’s job for his second term. But if you ask me, I think he will pull it off especially with the help of this new trend in which the USA, thanks to shale gas and oil, will become energy independent and therefore much more competitive than China and the EU in terms of manufacturing. I see a return of robotics based manufacturing to the USA as a result of cheap energy. I am optimistic that the USA will make it beyond the fiscal cliff.
For Spain the jury is still out. What is missing here is entrepreneurship activity. Yesterday I read that Spain is offering nationality to all the Sephardic Jews it expelled in 1492 when Jews were 10% of the population of the country. This measure is more than symbolic. Something tells me that because if there is one thing us Jews are is entrepreneurial that this country would not have 25% unemployment and 50% youth unemployment if 10% of its population was still Jewish. But now it may be too late. Bombs and all, Israel, the “start up” nation, is a better magnet for Jews around the world than a Spain without credit to get companies started. Until most people in Spain realize that a welfare state is not an inherent human right but something that nations earn as a result of the wealth created by effective entrepreneurial activity, I am not optimistic that Spain will emerge out of the crisis.
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