Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Capitalism and joint ownership

One of the fundamental freedoms under capitalism is the freedom of association to form business organizations. Joint private ownership is different from joint public ownership in the sense that the first is voluntary and the second is compulsory. Various types of organizations have been developed throughout history, ranging from the Assyrian partnership, the Roman societates and the medieval guilds to the compagnia e banchi of the Italian renaissance. However, the modern from of incorporation as a joint stock company, that we identify with capitalism, had its origins in the XVI century with the creation of the so-called charter companies.

Chartered companies were established by private promoters that were granted some concession or monopoly by the state. For example, in London the Muscovy Company was first established in 1555 with a monopoly over the trade of goods to Russia. Indeed, since the first boom in the establishment of joint stock companies around 1719 more than 140 years passed before this form of company settled with the new British Company Law of 1862, which introduced the main features of a modern joint stock company.

This is an organization engaged in business, recognized as a distinct legal entity from its members, with certain rights and responsibilities and acting as a mechanism to share risks and rewards. Most importantly, it replaced the personal liability of its shareholders by various forms of limited liability which would allow a larger number of shareholders to be organized and therefore able to undertake much bigger projects.

The law permitted companies to be established indefinitely (without any time limit) and not, as before, only for a limited number of years. So, big corporations could now be established by private investors under the new form of a Joint Stock Company.

This facilitated the public offering and negotiability of ordinary shares, essential for pooling funds and sharing the risk and rewards of investment. The issue of tradable shares had existed ever since the early Roman times when the Societates issued their shares or particulae. Even the chartered companies, such as the East India Company, were established by pooling together the capital of about 250 merchants. Yet, as they were typically placed among a limited group of people, mostly family or business acquaintances, they were not widely held by the public and were not actively traded in the early years of the Stock Exchange.

This was due to the basic distrust of issuers about disclosing their profits and sharing them with unknown people and risking the loss of control of the business to other people. Investors were also suspicious about any hidden reasons as to why a business owner should want to share their business. This was stimulated further by the recent memory of the occasional speculative bubble and other flotation scams such as the infamous South Sea and Mississippi companies in 1719-1720.

Only after the first slave-trade mania between 1827 and 1836 were shares widely held and tradable in the Stock Exchange. Still, most of these shares were preference shares, a class of shares that dominated the issue of equity instruments until the early years of the 20th Century. Preference shares were clearly preferred by company managers as a way of keeping control of their companies.

The process to recognize by statute the existence of incorporated companies was also a long journey. Initially incorporation was seen as a very cumbersome process, which was only worthwhile if it involved the granting of some Government monopoly, as was the case with most chartered companies. For most businessmen the partnership form had the major advantage of avoiding interference of the state. Also, public opinion associated incorporation with promotions of speculative companies such as the South Sea and the Mississippi Companies.

Similarly, the process of raising capital by instalments also gave rise to scams and many investors were easy prey for unscrupulous issuers. The most common scam was to make big issues requiring little paid-in capital to attract less sophisticated investors and then run away with their money.

For many of the same reasons, the separation of ownership and control was also a long process. The overriding idea or obstacle was summarized in Carnagie’s motto that “what is anybody’s business is nobody’s business” and it is much more so when there is a large dispersion of institutional ownership.

Not surprisingly, the separation of ownership and control only reached a significant level between 1900 and 1920, with a clear separation of responsibilities into three distinct levels: the company, the shareholders and its directors. To these, one should now add a new layer made up of professional fund managers. This was partly due to the rise of investment trusts, holding companies and the result of better accounting (despite the standards of modern accounting having been developed only from the 1940s onwards).

The separation between shareholders and the company was instrumental to reach the widespread use of equity and the impressive growth in share dealing. Other factors highlighted in modern theories of the firm such as reduced transaction costs and information technology also played an important part. But, bearing in mind that the growth of big firms also implies the growth in non-market transactions, one must question if its trade destruction effects are smaller than the trade creation effects resulting from more investment and more activities being carried out by profit-driven organizations.

Marxists and other anti-capitalist thinkers in the late 19th century pointed out that capitalism had a self-destroying mechanism, since the untamed rise of big firms would cause so much trade destruction that competitive markets would account only for a residual share of total transactions, unless the growth and size of such firms was capped. This led to the introduction of antitrust laws in most countries, inspired in the US Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. These laws were aimed at curbing anti-competive practices by prohibiting cartels, dumping and other collusion practices as well as laws to regulate corporate consolidations ending up in the creation of monopolies or oligopolies that would limit competition.

As usual, left and right wing interventionists (e.g. socialists and corporatists) wanted as much regulation as possible while right and left wing laissez-faire supporters (e.g. classical liberals and anarchists) wanted no regulation at all. So, the role of antitrust laws has been permanently questioned and changed. Yet, after more than a century we still do not have enough empirical evidence to define a "good degree of regulation". Nevertheless, a middle-of-the-road solution is to have tough anti-competition laws and flexible anti-concentration regulations.

In relation to the various forms of joint private property one needs to remember that many of the alternatives to joint stock companies like partnerships, mutuals, friendly societies, credit unions and so on, although still in operation, have been increasingly opting for corporate structures, in particular in the mortgage-banking sector.

Finally, it must be noted that joint private ownership could not develop without limited liability. Indeed, the size of large business operations needed a large number of shareholders which could be reached only if the partnership was not entirely dependent on the life of its main owner-shareholder or heirs and if the transfer of shares was possible. Moreover, this liberated the poor from their dependency on the state to invest their meagre savings. And, as a consequence, most large firms today are owned by institutional investors whose end-owners may be big or small investors. For instance, pension funds in the OECD countries accounted in 20111 for about 10% of the US$D 32 trillion invested by institutional investors in listed equities.

In conclusion, joint private ownership is an essential right under capitalism since it is one of the main drivers of its success as a wealth production machine. Nevertheless, it must be exercised mostly through regulated corporations financed by small and big capitalists alike so that capital accumulation can benefit from the pooling of resources without unnecessary damage to competitive markets.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Capitalism and the rule of law

The rule of law is said to exist where all people and institutions (including law makers) are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced. That is, individuals, organizations and governments shall submit to, obey and be regulated by law, and not by arbitrary action of the authorities. Capitalism requires a substantive definition of the rule of law and the following institutions are needed: private property rights, the law of contract, an independent judiciary, and a constitution.

The rule of law concept was already known in some ancient and medieval societies, and it was well expressed in Cicero’s dictum that “we are all servants of the laws in order that we may be free”. Yet, only the capitalist economic system depends on a substantive rule of law to ensure that all trading parts have freedom of entry into a level playing market where contracts freely agreed between the parts can be enforced.

The importance of contract enforcement is easy to understand by imagining that someone at an auction had bided successfully for an item but before collecting it met somebody offering him an identical article for a lower price and decided to default on the previously agreed offer. Or, inversely, the seller asked for more money because meanwhile had found a buyer willing to pay more. So, whenever negotiation and settlement do not occur simultaneously, the parts have to rely on the law to enforce their agreement.

Obviously, legal enforcement presupposes freedom of contract and the existence of due process. For instance, if after a proper due process a legitimate Court had determined that the bidder in the example above was forced to raise his hand then it should declare the contract to purchase as null.

The freedom of contract is essential in a market economy regardless of the legal system prevailing in a specific jurisdiction – whether based on common or civil law. Although a civil law jurisdiction of the type prevailing in Continental Europe places more restrictions on the contractual terms that may be agreed between the parts to an exchange it does not follow that a common law legal system is indispensable for capitalism. Likewise in relation to the principles of classical liberalism. Although these have their own merits they are not essential features of capitalism.

However, the rule of law is critical to ensure a level playing field where arbitrary power is banned and the equality of all before the law is guaranteed. Thus excessive regulation or discrimination are not compatible with capitalism. For instance, compulsory purchases, price controls and distortionary taxes or subsidies are all in flagrant violation of the fair treatment principle required under the rule of law. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, described next, it might be difficult to distinguish between fair and unfair treatment.

Take for instance the payment of wages. Under a freedom of contract rule firms should be free to negotiate wages in cash, kind or a mix of both. But if a department store were to pay his employees partly in food and clothing it would be preventing their freedom to buy the quantities they wanted wherever they liked. Even if the firm were to use the payment in kind to increase the workers compensation (rather than reduce it as is sometimes the case) it would still be an unfair exchange as long as workers had no option to be paid in a universal medium of exchange (money).

Often, governments engage in policies of rationing, price controls or subsidization that distort the prices even in markets that are typically competitive. For example, the price of bread, coffee, low skilled labor, medications, etc. may be controlled and yet in such markets there are thousands of buyers and sellers. The alleged reason is the protection of the poor and weak. Although these may be legitimate social objectives such protection should be given directly to those in need without affecting the functioning of free markets.

There are however special circumstances, activities and places where exemptions can be acceptable within a capitalistic system based on the rule of law. For example, during wars or other calamities that disrupt supplies it may be necessary to introduce temporarily rationing or administrative prices.

Note that such restrictions are different from price controls and similar policies applied regularly to state and regulated monopolies because the purpose of such policies is to prevent abuses of position by those granted such monopolies.

Similarly, there are cases where it is fair for sellers to discriminate among customers, as in the sale of alcohol to youngsters or to inebriated adults, but it would illegitimate to restrict access to a bar or restaurant on the basis of race or religion.

It is also important to note that although governments are entitled to special powers under the principles of the rule of law they should not be entitled to special privileges. Consider for example the collection of payments refused or disputed by debtors. While private citizens can only seize the debtor’s assets following a due process and ruling by a judge, some tax authorities (e.g. in Portugal) exercise the right to offset or dispose of the tax payers property without any due process through the judicial process.

To guarantee the rule of law essential for a capitalist systems it is also necessary the existence of an independent judiciary and a constitutional bill of rights that protect the smallest economic agent (the individual) from arbitrary actions of democratic and dictatorial rulers alike.

Again, the purpose of a constitution is to define the citizens’ rights and to limit the power of government to coerce and encroach upon individual rights, property and freedom; regardless of whether they are based on the philosophy that one is free to do whatever is not explicitly forbidden or it is only allowed what is explicitly permitted, notwithstanding the obvious advantages of the first philosophy.

In conclusion, societies that do not adhere to the fundamental principles of the rule of law cannot guarantee the basis for fair competition and usually end up with perverted forms of capitalism.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Free Markets and Competition

Generally speaking, a free market is a contestable market with free entry. That is, a market where buyers and sellers are free to agree their exchanges without any undue interference on demand and supply.

To understand the importance of free entry let us imagine a remote small island community with a single store. Its population is not enough to sustain two stores and as expected the existing store is a natural monopoly. If one of the inhabitants decides to challenge the incumbent monopolist and opens a new store both will run their stores at a loss until one of them eventually is ruined and gives up.

While the two stores remain competing the islanders benefit from greater supply at a lower price, but once the monopoly is re-established they face reduced supply and higher prices so that the surviving store can recover the losses incurred while competing with the other store. Meanwhile, during the competitive period the two store owners engaged in both fair and unfair tactics to gain or keep market share through better customer service, credit terms, product quality, etc. Some of these sales tactics are considered beneficial while others disrupt the traditional rules of civility and trust in the community. Therefore, the islanders’ ruler received many requests to stop them or to let them fight to the end. Which are his options?

He can uphold the laisser-faire principle of no interference to ensure an absolute right to free entry. Alternatively, he may introduce a licensing system to grant the monopoly on a temporary or permanent basis. Both options could be improved to retain the benefits of competition and minimize its costs. For instance, he could ban unfair sales tactics or he could auction periodically the store license. These two options should be carefully assessed to determine which would be the most efficient in a Pareto sense. That is, which would allow competition to generate greater benefits.

This example is not a simple curiosity in remote societies. Indeed, we find many similar situations in developed countries. For instance, licensing is very common in public transport, pharmacies, funerary services, roads and other infrastructures, healthcare, telecommunications, etc. And, such licensing while often done under the guise of consumer protection is in fact used to regulate or limit competition.

In fact, free markets are only a foundation of capitalism as long as they contribute to enhance fair competition, that is to create competitive markets where prices are established in accordance with supply and demand.

The simplest form of a competitive market is a market without entry barriers and where there are many suppliers and buyers so that all parties are price-takers. But, this is not always required. For instance, Stanley Jevons (1871) one of the founders of the marginal utility theory of value, considered that a market could be made of only two counterparties.

Although one may idealize market structures that create a system of perfect competition, capitalism does not need such a stringent form of competition. Some imperfections or regulations are tolerable or even desirable to achieve what Churchill (1909) called the need for competition upward but not downward (e.g. competition that could drive labor into slavery or tax rates to zero).

Such departures from an idealized world of perfect competition may be more or less extensive depending on the nature of the market, e.g. largest in labor markets than in capital or in goods and services markets. Even among the latest one must distinguish between markets with prohibitive carrying costs (e.g. fish markets) and speculative markets where carrying costs are negligible. The second factor to bear in mind is whether the so-called market failures and divergences between private and social optimization are significant and susceptible of correction without secondary damages.

In modern capitalism the most relevant issue is whether monopolistic and oligopolistic markets still can be considered competitive. For instance, does the fact that the Coca-cola and Pepsico share of the soft drinks market has risen from about 50% in the 1960s to the current level of around 70% means that such market is no longer considered as competitive? Of course not, because there is no entry barriers in such market and in fact there are many small producers competing with these two giant firms. However, if their dominance had been achieved or preserved through licensing or any other form of government favoritism then we should not consider such market as competitive.

Currently, there is a market – the market for corporate control - whose freedom is essential to preserve because of the growing separation between ownership and control. In most big firms the degree of capital dispersion is sufficiently large to facilitate collusion between managers and a small group of shareholders who introduce many obstacles (e.g. poison pills) to prevent others from challenging their power within the firm and to seclude them from hostile takeovers. Moreover, invoking the risk of short-termism and the speculative nature of such markets these groups of insiders often succeed in persuading politicians to enact legislation to obstruct the development of markets for corporate control which are indispensable to protect minority shareholders.

In general, the risk of collusion between sellers is the same whether the oligopolies exist in regulated or non-regulated industries. As Adam Smith reminded us long ago “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”. It also common to find businessmen who were enthusiastic free-market supports when they were challenging the incumbents but transform overnight into the most determined protectionists once they join the incumbents.

In fact, this is the reason why capitalists are not always among the main supporters of capitalism and free markets. Only consumers remain always beneficiaries with the greatest interest in free markets. This is the reason why some argue that, if it was not for Marx, capitalism would be better named as consumerism.

However, consumers are frequently too numerous to organize conspiracies or to simply oppose those of the sellers. That is the reason why, in the end, the existence of free competitive markets depends on the rule of law and governments prohibiting or limiting non-competitive practices.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Profit Motive and Capitalism

The pursuit of self-interest is the second pillar of capitalism and it is expressed by the profits attained. Without profits companies would not know whether an item or service is worth producing and could not measure their success. As remarked by Adam Smith (1776), “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.

Profits, or net income available to common shareholders to use the accountant’s terminology, are the difference between revenues and expenditures. The outlays include the compensation to suppliers, the taxes paid to governments and interest charged by creditors. This residual amount belongs to shareholders and may be distributed as dividends or kept in the firm as retained earnings.

Contrary to what some finance theories imply, profits may not be considered as a cost to be minimized but rather as a gain to be maximized. Yet, many still see profits as immoral or as something to be curbed rather than maximized because they encourage selfishness and greed.

The immorality of profits is preached by Marxists and some religious leaders. The later invoke arguments similar to those used in the Middle Ages to condemn charging interest on loans. The first appeal to Marx’s mistaken labor theory of value postulating that all goods, considered economically, are only the product of labor and cost nothing except labor. Both doctrines have been refuted by theory and history.

Nonetheless, the need for profit maximizing capitalists or firms is repeatedly debated and needs to be clarified. The debate involves three main topics – whether humans are really optimizers or satisfiers, if it is indispensable for optimal competitive markets and the likelihood of degenerating into a socially unacceptable concentration of wealth.

In relation to the first, recent research on human behavior shows that humans are often driven by motives that cannot be considered as self-interest. However, the proponents of self-interest maximization claim that such deviations are minor and that maximization is still a good proxy for human behavior. The risk of wealth concentration is real, but it is naturally bounded through diseconomies of scale and may be socially constrained through inheritance and income taxes. So, we focus on its indispensability for an optimal allocation of resources through competitive markets.

The idea that the profit motive is dispensable or at least is not foremost in modern capitalism stems from the widespread view that in a world where ownership is very removed from control companies have many stakeholders and that shareholders are merely one of them.

However, in competitive markets, the interests of other stakeholders are better served by shareholders pursuing profit maximization motives. One does not need to endorse Ayn Rand’s (1964) reclassification of selfishness and greed as virtues rather than evils. We can rely on Aristotle’s concept of mean or on Keynes (1936) statement that “it is better that a man should tyrannize over his bank balance than over his fellow-citizens” in the pursuit of his money-making passion subject to rules and limitations aimed at creating a levelled playing field.

Indeed, the profit motive is indispensable in both competitive and oligopolistic markets but the prevalence of one type of market over the other is not indifferent.

Let us illustrate first why the shareholders profit motive is indispensable, despite the current trend in finance theory to focus on firm value rather than shareholder value. Under such theory the manager’s role is to maximize the present value of future cash-flows discounted by the weighted average cost of capital. Assuming the possibility of risk-free arbitrage between debt and stock securities issued by a company or that stocks always sell at book value then the structure of capital would be irrelevant to determine the value of a firm. Thus the managers objective should be the maximization of operating profits (EBIT) rather than the shareholders profit (net income). Moreover, managers could ignore the owners’ desired debt/equity ratio because they can achieve whatever level they wished by leveraging their equity portfolio.

However profit maximization cannot be pursued regardless of who has claims on operating profits, that is, debt holders, tax authorities, shareholders and managers (retained earnings). In what concerns debt holders and taxation the company has a duty to minimize their share by procuring the cheapest source of financing and reducing its tax bill. Retained earnings could be a maximization objective. However, if we accept the proposition that the capital structure does not affect the value of the firm, then even managers trying to maximize the size of their company should be indifferent about whether its growth was financed with internal or external funding and may not feel compelled to maximize retained earnings. Therefore, only shareholders have a genuine and unequivocal interest in profit maximization, regardless of the degree of separation between ownership and control.

That is, shareholders are indispensable for profit maximization irrespective of whether they prefer capital gains or distributions (dividends and stock repurchases).

This is an important conclusion because, theoretically, a corporation could be established by any of the so-called stakeholders - employees, managers, clients, governments, creditors, entrepreneurs and shareholders – interested only in maximizing their own return (e.g. salaries or executive compensation) and minimizing that of the other stakeholders. Even if we consider the so-called serial entrepreneurs, who are successful at finding and developing new business opportunities and are driven more by the entrepreneurship thrill than capital gains or control, they still need the profit motive of passive shareholders to compel management to pursue profit maximization and secure the success of their ventures.

Finally, let us discuss if the profit motive is efficient and indispensable in all human activities and organizations, and in particular for big businesses operating in oligopolistic markets. In the case of public goods and services it is normal that the objective is not the maximization of the financial return for those who provided the funding (taxpayers), but rather the minimization of the cost for the consumers of such services. Likewise, in the case of philanthropic and other non-profit organizations, the objective is not to maximize the donors satisfaction but to maximize the beneficiaries benefit. Although in these organizations we may find many instances where the interests of the ultimate beneficiaries have been hijacked by the interests of the insiders (e.g. politicians, directors, officers or employees) they still cannot be driven by the profit motive.

Fortunately, most human needs are better fulfilled by for-profit organizations. Yet, except under special circumstances, the pursuit of profit maximization does not guarantees Pareto efficiency in the case of markets dominated by oligopolistic firms capable of securing monopolistic rents. So, while profit maximization is an essential foundation of capitalism it needs to be complemented by competitive markets.

In a world where most people is to a greater or lesser extent a passive capitalist increasingly removed from the control of his investments and there is a growing oligopolization in many industries we need to understand how capitalism depends on the preservation of free and competitive markets.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Capitalism and Private Property

The acceptance and protection of private property is fundamental for capitalism. By private property we mean not only the individual or joint ownership of produced and natural assets but also the respective property rights in relation to its use and disposal.

The distinction between property rights and property ownership as well as its use for personal or commercial purposes is essential to discuss any acceptable limitations to such rights.

Obviously, personal private property is indispensable even in the most utopian of the communal organizations. For instance, in a hippie commune one could share the food in the fridge but not the toothbrush, and sooner or later, if someone likes only a specific kind of yogurt, he or she would like to be sure that such brand would be left untouched for his private use. However, when discussing capitalism we are not talking about such minutiae in relation to personal objects but rather on what Marxists call productive capital or means of productions.

The means of production may be divided in at least four categories: 1) land and other natural resources, 2) materials, tools and equipment, 3) labor, and 4) know how. Likewise the various forms of ownership must be split into individual, joint, and communal (state) or international. The first two types we call private and the rest we call collective property.

All types of property and ownership coexist in every economic system, but the various economic systems differ on the relative importance and role taken by private property. For instance, in primitive hunting and gathering societies land was the main mean of production and was mostly used for pastures and game and owned collectively. Other natural means of production inseparable from land like water, wind, minerals, air waves or landscape were not perceived as scarce and valuable. Likewise, intellectual property was not important then.

So, collective ownership of natural resources was as important in primitive societies as intellectual property is in modern capitalism. Yet, any limits on the property rights of specific types of property are critical not because of the nature of such property but because of their impact in the of accumulation capital and its efficient use. In this regard joint ownership as opposed to collective ownership became an important lever for competition and capital accumulation despite the obvious drawbacks introduced by large corporations.

Since the late XIX century, a rise in the size of corporations and its share of total assets were inevitably associated with the prevalence of joint-ownership over individual or family ownership. Yet, joint-ownership through joint stock companies and similar organizations does not invalidates the need for private ownership. If anything, increases its scope by facilitating capital accumulation through diversification and risk mitigation. But, it introduces a new reality – the separation of ownership and control and the associated problematic of the relationship between principals and theirs agents.

This separation, inevitably questioned the old stereotype of the capitalist as embodying simultaneously the financier, the entrepreneur and the manager. And, in the early XX century, some economists began replacing the traditional view of capitalism by a system of managerial capitalism. In their classic “The Modern Corporation and Private Property” Berle and Means (1932) described this process and its consequences in terms of corporate law and governance. They claimed that the owners no longer were served by a profit seeking controlling group. The realization that many industries had become oligopolistic and big businesses were run by a new class of professional managers rather than shareholders led some to question whether we still needed capitalists, private property and competitive markets.

For instance, Keynes (1936) in his “General Theory”, although refuting a system of State Socialism, conceived that to achieve an optimum rate of investment “a somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment will prove the only means of securing an approximation to full employment”. Likewise Schumpeter’s (1942) theory on the demise of capitalism claimed that the success of capitalism would lead to a form of corporatism and a fostering of values hostile to capitalism, especially among intellectuals, that would replace entrepreneurship with “laborism”.

Since then the separation between ownership and control has deepened by the rise of another layer of intermediaries between the ultimate owners and their investments. That is, capitalists progressively lost control not only over how to run their assets but also over the allocation of capital, and are now often reduced to choosing professional fund managers.

Still, regardless of how removed ownership is from control, the preservation of this last domain of private property power and rights is indispensable to preserve the profit motive and the role of markets in a capitalist economic system. Otherwise, wealth owners would lose the freedom to dispose of their property, including the right to bequest it as they like, and lose any incentive to venture and to accumulate the capital indispensable for economic growth.

The fact that nowadays most people own a substantial share of their wealth through pension funds owned or regulated by governments and that prudence recommends that they should not be able to withdraw their funds as they please does not invalidates the previous assertion. That is, private property continues to be an essential foundation of capitalism.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The economics of disintegration and why the Scottish should vote no

The world and Scotland fear what may happen if next week the Scottish people votes for Independence. Economic theory has a solid knowledge about economic integration and there are a few empirical studies measuring its costs and benefits (including my own here). Independence is the reversal of integration, so we may apply most of the theory to disintegration.

Apart from the immediate impact caused by changing existing relations and institutions, which may be enormous if independence is not a peaceful process, the long term advantages of separation must be proved in terms on how it will impact on the four basic freedoms – free movement of labour, capital, goods and services. To these one may add the pros and cons of financial transfers through a centralized budget and the use of a common currency.

Let me speculate on each one of them. For this I shall assume, optimistically, that the process will be peaceful and Scotland will remain in the European Union, which itself will not disintegrate if the independence movement extends to countries like Spain, Belgium, etc.

In terms of labour market Scotland is now fully integrated with the UK and workers move freely between Scotland and the rest of the UK. So nothing can be won by independence, but losses are foreseeable in terms of job opportunities.

Likewise, in relation to the free movement of goods and services, as long as Scotland remains within the EU, these will remain relatively free. Again, nothing can be gained through separation but the risk of non-tariff barriers will rise.

When it comes to the free movement of capital the answer is not straightforward, because it depends on what the separatists would decide in terms of their future currency. They promise to retain the British Pound but this may prove untenable. Using a foreign currency only works until the rulers of that currency (in this case the Bank of England) pursue a monetary policy that is good for the local economy, but this is uncertain. What is sure is that there will be a significant change in Scotland’s current account because of the North Sea revenues.

Indeed, the case for independence rests on little else than retaining such revenues in Scotland. However, there is no certainty on how long those reserves will last. And, more importantly, they would only reduce the current government deficit from 14 to 8%, or probably much less if one accounts for loss of revenue in the financial sector and increased sovereignty costs, let alone the local politicians’ eagerness for more spending.

This bet on becoming an oil-producing country is a very dangerous mirage. Not only because of the likely effects of the so-called “Dutch disease”, but also due to the rise of populism and anarchy in the fight for such revenues (Venezuela comes to mind when one thinks about it).

Traditionally, the Scottish are viewed as tight-fisted and prudent people. Let’s trust that these characteristics will lead them to prefer the certain to the uncertain and to avoid embarking on an independence adventure with so many risks for them and the rest of Europe.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

A brief history of Economic Systems

Economic systems are characterized by a set of rules defining the relationship between interacting economic agents. The organization of economic activities is not separate from the political and social institutions adopted by the groups carrying out such activities. Thus, we may categorize many economic systems across the globe and throughout human history.

However, if we consider only broad differentiating factors, we may resume our history to five main economic systems – the gathering and hunting economy, the predatory and slave economy, the medieval serfdom system, centrally planned economies and capitalism or free market system.

With the exception of the centrally planned systems (fascism, national socialism and communism) who were driven by a precedent ideology, all the other systems evolved more or less spontaneously after long periods of gestation. In this brief history of these five major economic systems we highlight their main distinguished features in terms of division of labor, property rights, income distribution and capital accumulation.

Our oldest ancestors (the homo sapiens) appeared as a distinct species some 200-500 thousand years ago organized in small groups, mostly made up of family members. They were basically roving hunters and only settled down and began farming around 10-50 thousand years ago. At this stage their level of organization was much more developed and included a clear division of labor between male (hunter) and female (farmer), a division of property rights between common and family property and an acceleration of capital accumulation on durable goods like lodging and hunting/domestic tools, but also on non-essentials such as jewelry and other cultural and religious artifacts.

As hunters they undertook also predatory activities as a short cut to get what they needed, either by stealing from other tribes or by killing similar species (like the Neanderthals) who competed with them for the same territory and preys. As an alternative to predation, primitive forms of barter trade also appeared, but they were not the primary form of wealth exchange, which continued to be mostly done on a kinship basis. Another important development in terms of farming was the domestication of animals as pets and cattle.

All these developments led to a rapid increase in predatory activities which required larger societies (tribes), a further division of labor, beyond gender and age, between warriors/ hunters, shepherds/ farmers, slaves and clergy, as well as a political power structure beyond the traditional family/tribal hierarchy.

So, in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and India that appeared between the 3rd and 4th millennium BC, economic activity was mostly based on predation (conquest) and slavery and the military warriors naturally became the most powerful group within those societies. War permitted not only to obtain slaves to perform domestic, agricultural and construction activities but also to achieve a fast accumulation of durable goods. The organization skills required to command large armies and numerous slaves were essential to increase further the level of specialization in the division of labor needed to construct large durable infrastructures like irrigation, bridges, fortresses or temples.

Although most of these activities were under a centralized command, the development of trade and its tools was also inevitable and facilitated by the development of money exchanges that progressively replaced the traditional barter trade. In particular, the development of pictographic writing by the Sumerians, during the Uruk period at about 3400 BC, was essential to keep trading records and turn Uruk into the most urbanized city in the world and a major trade center in Mesopotamia with more than 50,000 inhabitants.

Ancient civilizations progressively turned into agriculture based societies and big estates, producing wine and oil (the most important commodities for commerce), replaced the small self-sufficient wheat-producing farms. Thus, private ownership of land became one of the crucial factors in the social stratification of those societies. For instance, in ancient Athens and Rome the population was divided into slaves, freedmen, free men, foreigners and women and only some of these groups were considered citizens.

Slaves did most of the work in agriculture, mining and manufacturing. The rulers, whether theocratic, oligarchic or democratic, continued engaged in military campaigns, initially mostly to plunder and destroy the property of the vanquished. However, they soon realized that slaughtering and enslaving their enemies was not always the most profitable course of action. So, they began to demand as an alternative the payment of ransoms and tributes (through various types of taxation) from independent producers and traders. This allowed a much faster accumulation of capital in palaces and jewelry as well as a rise in population.

In Europe and the Mediterranean these civilizations were later vanquished by hordes of barbarians who destroyed most of the cities and centralized forms of government, thus splitting the continent into countless kingdoms. This had two important consequences, the rise of monotheist religions (first Christianity and later Islam) who became a unifying force in those societies and an inward return to the big estates as the base of society. These were invariably involved in frequent wars and alliances that led to the development of a vassalage system - the feudal system.

The driving force of the feudal system was still predation but now the territorial range was much smaller (with a few exceptions like the Charlemagne Empire) and reliance on slaves was slowly replaced by a system of serfdom.

In contrast to what happened with the ancient slaves, the serfs’ master did not have the power of life and death. The serf (whether bound to the soil or to the lord) was considered a living creature with soul and the master had to allow him to attend church and could not force him to work on holy days or to commit immoral acts. The serf usually had a separate hut with an attached plot of land and lived with his family.

Production was often organized in a manor system, where the land was split in three parts, one directly controlled by the lord for his own benefit, another used by the serfs in exchange for labor services and a share of their produce and a third considered free land leased against a money rent. Under this system there was very little incentive to produce surplus for trading, and the lords often reserved a large part of their domain for hunting.

Not surprisingly throughout the middle ages the division of labor, the level of trade and capital accumulation were significantly reduced when compared to the ancient civilizations. This system lasted for a long period, appropriately named the “dark ages”, which only began to change slowly with the fragmentation of the feuds and the resumption of the so-called trade revolution in the XII century and the rediscovery of the ancient civilizations during the Italian Renaissance in the XV century. These developments allowed the rise of a new class of rich traders and bankers who questioned an otherwise rigid class pyramid made up of the Pope, King, Nobles, Knights / Vassals, Freemen, Yeomen, Servants, and Peasants / Serfs / Villeins.

The transition from feudalism to capitalism was also a long process that was only completed in Europe by the end of the XVIII century. One may even say that it began as early as the Crusades in 1096 and was only completed by the British Limited Liability Act of 1855.

The key changes that combined to drive the process were the XIII century trade revolution, the Italian renaissance in the XV century, the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery in the XV-XVI and the scientific, illuminist and industrial/transport revolutions from the XV to the XVII century.

At the institutional level the key marks were the progressive repeal/ ignorance of the usury laws that hampered the use of credit and banking, the creation of joint stock companies who enabled capital accumulation and risk sharing, the development of securities markets and the introduction of limited liability laws that facilitated entrepreneurship.

The end result of this process was that the specialization and division of labor deepened to unprecedented levels, free labor progressively replaced slavery and serfdom and the accumulation of financial and non-financial assets accelerated leading to the fastest ever growth in productivity and trade experienced by humankind. Thus old agrarian societies were replaced by commercial and industrial societies and the traditional rigid social hierarchy was challenged by the new money earned on such activities.

In the Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith refuted Physiocratism and Mercantilism and demonstrated the clear advantages of free labor and free markets, which are the essence of capitalism. The word capitalism itself only made its first written appearance in Thackeray’s novel “The Newcomes” (1855) to refer to those whose capital was not the result of land ownership. The term was also used by Karl Marx in Das Kapital (1867) to denigrate the new economic system by claiming that “social wealth becomes to an ever-increasing degree the property of those who are in a position to appropriate continually and ever afresh the unpaid labour of others”.

The nobility and clergy did not accept easily the loss of power and status brought about by capitalism. Indeed, Marx was not the only one to fight the ideal of “the invisible hand” and decentralization subjacent to capitalism. Among both revolutionaries and reactionaries there were two opposite criticisms of a capitalistic decentralized system. Some proposed a return to a system of small communities (e.g. the model villages of Utopian Socialists or the Anarchist and Hamish communes) while the others proposed a centralized system relying more on economic planning than competition (e.g. communism, national socialism and corporatism).

The experiences with decentralized non-capitalist systems were localized and have been subsiding progressively without a major impact on humankind.

On the contrary, the experiences with central planning had a dramatic impact in our world since they were tried in the first three quarters of the XX century in many developed and less developed countries. The three types of experiments relied on dictatorships to control the economy and the labor market, in accordance with their different ideologies.

Following the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, communists established a so-called proletariat dictatorships, initially run by the oligarchy of the only legal party, which invariably transformed into a single god-like dictator (e. g. Stalin in Russia, Mao in China or Fidel Castro in Cuba). Communists abolished private property and reintroduced forced labor, namely slavery in the Russian Gulags, serfdom in Chinese rural areas and modern forms of slavery in Cuba. They also replaced the markets by some form of central planning.

Forced labor, private property confiscation and central planning proved disastrous, causing the worst man-made famines known to humankind, when 6-8 million people died during the 1932-1933 Soviet famine and 15-40 million starved to death during the 1958-1961 Chinese famine. Capital accumulation and productivity growth lagged so much under this system that in the 1980s communism collapsed by itself in the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party replaced communism by a form of state capitalism.

National-socialism was introduced in the 1930s by the Nazi Party in Germany. It was based on an ideology of racial supremacy, proclaiming that the Aryans were a superior race and the other races should be either destroyed (e.g. the Jews and Gypsies) or become servants of the Germans (e.g. the Eastern and Southern Europeans).

The Nazis did not abolish private property and markets for the Germans, but firms had to work under the direction of the party by contracting to receive forced labor and to supply the government. The Nazis reintroduced the most brutal form of slavery by forcing war prisoners and Jews to work until they died of exhaustion. The party also had a god-like leader - Hitler - who repeated the old forms of predatory economics through outright confiscation of the Jews and the Central Banks of the countries occupied and the introduction of ransoms, forced labor, punitive taxes and the coercive supply of his armies.

The German (and Japanese) imperialist wars to conquer new territories originated the Second World War, the most deadly conflict ever lived by mankind, which claimed the lives of more than 60 million people.

Corporatism, was a milder form of centralized economic system introduced in Italy, Portugal, Greece and Spain during the 1920s and 1930s. Its ideological origin goes back to the Rerum Novarum papal encyclical on the social question issued by Leo XIII in 1891. The basic idea was that labor and capital should cooperate under the guidance of government.

Private property and markets were accepted, but labor relations were regulated by agreement between unions and employers under the supervision of the state. Other markets were also regulated through price controls and licensing.

At the political level, the dictatorships adopted more or less extreme forms of fascism depending on the moderation and warmongering of their leaders, with Salazar in Portugal being the only one who was not involved in war.

The economic consequences of corporatism and the lack of market competition was the impoverishment of Southern Europe relative to the rest of Europe.

Without exception, all attempts to create an economic system by design based on anti-capitalist ideologies only brought oppression, misery and war and have been progressively abandoned in favor of various versions of capitalism.

Despite having so few supporters and so many opponents capitalism vanquished by itself and is now the dominant economic system. So, one is left wondering what is the beauty of capitalism and how long it will last. But, first we needed to understand how mankind got here.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Portugal e a escravatura dos médicos Cubanos

Em declarações recentes o Bastonário da Ordem dos Médicos insurgiu-se contra o pagamento que estava a ser feito aos médicos cubanos contratados por Portugal, reclamando o mesmo pagamento para os Portugueses.

Chocou-me que o Bastonário não tenha referido que o pagamento não é feito aos médicos mas sim ao governo Cubano que por sua vez apenas paga uma pequena fração aos médicos (no caso do Brasil menos de 10%) e retém como reféns a família dos mesmos. Isto é, não acusou o governo Português de estar a ser cúmplice numa forma de escravatura moderna praticada pela ditadura comunista de Cuba.

Para obter divisas o regime comunista Cubano decidiu recorrer ao tráfico de pessoas, na sua maioria médicos. Note-se que não se trata de uma exportação de serviços médicos ou de facilitar ou promover a emigração desses trabalhadores para outros países, o que seria perfeitamente legítimo. Nem sequer, de uma prática de angariação de mão-de-obra barata por agências pouco escrupulosas. Pois, em tais casos, os trabalhadores continuariam livres para rescindir o seu contrato e voltar ou não ao seu país de origem.

Neste caso, embora os médicos cubanos sejam livres de aceitar ou não a emigração, se o fizerem o governo retém como reféns os seus familiares, pode confiscar-lhes os passaportes e nalguns países (como a Venezuela) chega mesmo a mantê-los prisioneiros em regime de trabalhos forçados. Mais detalhes sobre estas práticas Cubanas podem ser lidos neste sítio.

O mais perturbante é que tais práticas subsistem há muitos anos, perante a complacência da OIT e dos sindicatos e a conivência dos partidos, dos governos e meios de comunicação social de esquerda. Para cúmulo da hipocrisia, os Cubanos ainda proclamam que tais práticas são uma forma de solidariedade internacional no seu apoio aos países menos desenvolvidos.

Pelo contrário, o verdadeiro liberalismo defende a livre circulação internacional de mão-de-obra mas só aceita como legítimos os contratos celebrados de livre vontade entre partes livres, i. e. com garantia dos seus direitos fundamentais individuais. Os estados não são donos dos seus cidadãos!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Professor Jacinto Nunes – uma lição do mestre sobre supervisão bancária

Esta semana faleceu o Professor Jacinto Nunes. A sua família, o país, e todos os que tivemos o privilégio de o conhecer ficaram mais pobres. A última vez que o cumprimentei foi na receção que se seguiu à última tomada de posse do Presidente da Republica. Fiquei com a impressão de que já não me reconheceu, talvez devido ao congestionamento de pessoas na sala, mas não deixou de me transmitir a sua habitual simpatia. É normal que depois de tantos anos os mestres confundam os seus alunos, mas para os alunos há mestres que marcam para o resto da vida. Foi o que aconteceu comigo em relação ao Professor Jacinto Nunes.

Jacinto Nunes foi meu professor em 1974 ou 1975, creio que na disciplina de Política Monetária, pois já não me lembro bem do ano nem do nome da disciplina. No entanto houve uma lição dele de que nunca me esqueci – sobre a eficácia da supervisão bancária, tema que nos últimos tempos se revelou muito importante em Portugal.

Recordo-me como ele nos explicou porque é que supervisores pouco preparados e mal pagos não podiam fazer bem o seu trabalho. Contou-nos que no passado os supervisores do Banco de Portugal eram tão mal pagos relativamente aos restantes bancários que quando chegavam a um banco ficavam logo intimidados com o edifício e com os caixas do banco. E, quando eram conduzidos ao andar da Administração, já mal conseguiam falar e muito menos questionar perante a altivez dos respetivos administradores e secretariado.

Anos mais tarde, quando trabalhei na banca de investimento, tive ocasião de presenciar situações semelhantes às descritas pelo Professor e outras de sentido exatamente oposto. Isto é, casos onde os supervisores eram tão bem pagos que fechavam os olhos a tudo o que pudesse por em perigo o seu estatuto remuneratório ou futuras oportunidades como administradores não executivos das entidades supervisionadas.

A solução para o problema de como remunerar pessoas com funções fiscalizadoras é antiga e universal. Por um lado, têm de ser bem remuneradas para que possam ter a independência necessária à sua função, mas por outro não podem ser demasiado remuneradas para que não fiquem prisioneiras do seu estatuto.

A grande dificuldade está em encontrar o meio-termo adequado. Na banca hoje é cada vez mais difícil de definir esse nível porque o leque remuneratório aumentou do tradicional 20/1 para 150/1. Nestas circunstâncias não há fórmulas mágicas que nos ajudem. Teremos de recorrer a pessoas sábias com a modéstia e o bom senso do Professor Jacinto Nunes, tão bem expressas no seu livro de “Memórias Soltas”, que vivamente recomendo.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Piketty, the 0.1% debate and the backdoor return of class warfare

Recently economists got very excited by a book on wealth inequality (Piketty, 2014), which reminded me of how economics is still mostly an ideological debate and how far it is from being the queen of social sciences.

We see again the old left wing anti-capitalism rhetoric and its denial by the traditional adulation of the rich by the usual ass-kissing right wing. Economics can claim to be the science of many things, but apparently it is unable to be a science of common sense.

If economists relied more on common sense, they would immediately realize that the rise in inequality is hardly news. There has been plenty of studies showing that. Meanwhile, the focus on the share of the top 0.1%, apart from creating an “identifiable” common enemy, tried to create a stereotype equivalent to the XIX century top hat capitalist depicted by Marxists.

Remember that the later began by focusing on the 1%, but probably this group was too large to provide the necessary stereotype. Note also that the debate relies largely on the Gini coefficient and ignored the different weightings that society may put on inter-group income transfers using the metric suggested long ago by Atkinson.

Yet the greatest failure is on understanding why inequality is rising, and the reason may be quite plainly related to the failure to correct a well-known feature of capitalism.

Capitalism is the most efficient economic system ever devised by humankind that replaced a largely hereditary class system (nobility, clergy and serfs) based on predatory (conquest) economics by a system mostly based on social mobility through free enterprise and trade.

Yet, its central feature, the free accumulation of private property has two limitations. On one hand some ventures require large amounts of capital which are beyond individual means and require institutions (such as governments and institutional investors), and on the other hand the law of compound interest would allow such long-living institutions to ultimately own the entire capital stock and self-destroy capitalism itself. As we have shown in this post, the solution to this feature is easily achievable through reasonable levels of progressive taxes and the taxation of inheritances.

We add here that the survival of capitalism should not rely on artificially curbing the return on capital (Piketty’s r/g) or opportunistically expropriate the rich from time to time as some on the left advocate. There may be some reasonable curbing of executive compensation in listed companies where shareholders are basically powerless, but that is a different governance matter.

Let us exemplify with one of the richest man in the world. Would it make sense to have limited Warren Buffett’s wealth? If we had done so, he would not have created so many jobs and profits through his smart investments and society would be poorer without his $300 billion company. However, he is a very wise man and has decided on his wisdom to donate most of his fortune to charity.

Some will dispute whether that is the best use of his wealth. Some would prefer that he had given his money for research, environment, sports, culture or whatever, while others may say that the government should decide, not him.

How the inheritance money should be spent is an interesting question to debate but not relevant to decide whether to like or dislike capitalism or to bring back through the backdoor a destructive class warfare as advocated by Marx.

In conclusion, common sense suggests that governments should exercise moderation on taxing inheritances and give the taxpayers enough say on where governments will spend their wealth. We do not need to go back to the old divide.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Condecorações Inoportunas

O Presidente da República condecora hoje António Mexia presidente da EDP. De momento não me ocorre nenhum serviço público relevante prestado pelo condecorado, mas seguramente que a Presidência invocará alguns. No entanto, o momento parece-me infeliz.

Numa altura em que a Troika procura fazer cumprir a sua promessa tímida de reduzir as rendas excessivas no sector das energias, condecorar o principal lider da oposição a essa redução é no mínimo incompreensível.

Mas não só. Acontece também que no imaginário popular esse gestor é dos mais bem pagos no país e aparece aos olhos do povo como o símbolo da ganância e indiferença perante os sacrifícios impostos à generalidade dos Portugueses.

Têm duvidas? Vejamos os fatos comparando os biénios pré e pós Troika.

Entre 2010 e 2012 a evolução dos preços da energia em Portugal comparada à dos outros preços ao consumidor e à do preço do petróleo foi a que podemos observar no seguinte gráfico.
Como podemos constatar, em Junho de 2013 os preços do Petróleo tinham caído 10% mas os preços da energia pagos pelo consumidor Português tinham aumentado 10%, enquanto os preços dos restantes bens permaneceram quase na mesma nos primeiros dois anos pós Troika.

Entretanto, o que aconteceu às remunerações desse quando comparadas com, por exemplo, um professor universitário. O último recebeu ilíquidos no biénio pré Troika 119.1 mil Euros e no pós Troika 99.6 mil Euros, tendo sofrido um corte salarial de 16.4%. Nos mesmos biénios António Mexia recebeu, respetivamente, 2358 e 2257 milhares de Euros pelo que teve um corte de apenas 5.1%.

Será que tamanha diferença se explica pelo desempenho das empresas dirigidas por esse gestor? Os números mostram que não. Nos mesmos biénios os resultados por ação da EDP subiram apenas de 58 para 59 cêntimos.

Que a Presidência da República tenha ignorado estes factos é no mínimo incompreensível

Porém, as consequências são graves a três níveis:
a) Transmite uma imagem de subordinação do poder político ao poder económico, dando à Troika um pretexto para esquecer mais uma vez o objetivo de redução das rendas excessivas no setor energético;
b) Agrava o sentimento de injustiça que o povo sente na distribuição dos sacrifícios impostos pelo programa de ajustamento; e, sobretudo
c) Desprestigia a Presidência da República enquanto último garante dos Portugueses, aparecendo cada vez mais alheada do povo e da realidade.
Pessoalmente, tendo integrado da Comissão de Apoio à reeleição do Presidente da República, entristece-me vê-lo aproximar-se do final do seu mandato numa posição que me faz lembrar a de Américo Tomás no regime anterior ao 25 de Abril.

As condecorações, tal como outros gestos simbólicos, valem pela oportunidade com que são atribuídos. Por isso, não podemos deixar de considerar esta condecoração como tão inoportuna que até parece uma afronta aos Portugueses.

P.S. Numa versão anterior deste post tinhamos incluido o nome de Ferreira de Oliveira, Presidente da Galp, que na notícia que ouvimos na rádio confundimos com o de Faria de Oliveira. As nossas desculpas ao visado por este equivoco.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Indexação das pensões ao PIB: Tropelia ou ignorância?

Apenas uma pequena nota sobre a intenção do Governo de indexar as pensões ao crescimento económico e à demografia. A notícia despoletou uma onda de reações sobre a forma como foi feito o anúncio e as intenções subjacentes ao mesmo. No entanto, ninguém se pronunciou sobre a substância da questão.

Se a intenção for a elaboração de um calendário para repor os cortes feitos nas pensões em função do crescimento económico isso é perfeitamente razoável.

Porém, se a intenção for indexar indefinidamente as pensões ao PIB então estamos perante um enorme disparate económico. Porquê? Qualquer aluno do 1º ano de economia tem obrigação de saber como funcionam os chamados estabilizadores automáticos. Por exemplo, o subsídio de desemprego e outras prestações sociais funcionam como estabilizadores automáticos para atenuar os efeitos negativos sobre a procura agregada resultantes de uma redução da atividade económica. Por isso se chamam de anti cíclicos.

Fazer o inverso, isto é, reduzir as pensões (e já agora porque não os salários?) quando a atividade económica desacelera ou recua iria agravar ainda mais essa contração. Isto é, seria pró cíclico e transformar-se-ia num desestabilizador automático!

É conhecido que alguns dos nossos atuais governantes e respetivos assessores tiraram cursos duvidosos em escolas de baixa reputação, mas por favor consultem alguém que saiba antes de proporem a primeira ideia que lhes vem à cabeça. O país não aguenta mais!

Friday, 21 March 2014

A maldição dos Fundos Estruturais

A generalidade dos Portugueses acredita que os fundos estruturais da União Europeia são bons para Portugal, mas serão mesmo? Aparentemente sim. Quem não fica satisfeito com as belíssimas autoestradas que nos permitem viajar comodamente pelo país fora.

No entanto, quando comparamos o desempenho económico do país com o de outros países da chamada coesão verificamos no gráfico abaixo que Portugal foi o país que menos se aproximou da média Europeia ao fim de 25 anos de Fundos Estruturais. Na verdade, estamos praticamente na mesma relativamente ao resto da Europa, apesar de anualmente recebermos cerca de 2 mil milhões de Euros em transferências líquidas da União Europeia.
Fonte: 25 Anos de Portugal Europeu, Augusto Mateus, ed. Fundação Manuel dos Santos.

Como autor de um modelo para medir os efeitos da integração Europeia e de alguns estudos empíricos sobre coesão feitos na década de 1980, é natural que me sinta bastante dececionado com os resultados obtidos por Portugal. Por exemplo, em Economic Coehsion in Europe: the impact of the Delors Plan, no Journal of Common Market Studies de Setembro de 1990, eu estimei que os fundos estruturais poderiam contribuir com cerca de 0.2 a 0.3% para o crescimento do PIB em Portugal. Então o que é que correu mal?

Como referia nesse texto as transferências financeiras só podem beneficiar o país recebedor se não houver uma aceleração da propensão a importar e se os termos de troca em relação a outros países não forem afetados adversamente. De outro modo os benefícios das transferências podem ser eliminados ou mesmo transformados em prejuízo, nomeadamente se o ritmo dessas transferências tiver um efeito pró cíclico. Esse risco é tanto maior quanto mais longo for o período durante o qual se recebem essas transferências.

Sem entrar nos aspetos técnicos que são complexos, o problema pode ser ilustrado com uma analogia muito simples. Imagine-se que um clube de bilionários aceita no seu seio um membro com poucos recursos. Incomodados com a pobreza do novo membro, e sem querer ferir a sua suscetibilidade, no primeiro aniversário da sua adesão decidem oferecer-lhe um Volvo. Agradecido, o beneficiário vende o seu velho Fiat e passa a viajar mais e melhor embora as suas finanças se ressintam um pouco. Vendo a satisfação do beneficiário, no segundo aniversário os bilionários decidem oferecer-lhe um Ferrari para ele poder substituir o Volvo. O beneficiário ficou satisfeito mas rapidamente se apercebeu que a sua manutenção seria difícil porque o dinheiro da venda do Volvo não chegava e teria de pedir um empréstimo ao banco, passando a andar angustiado com as suas dificuldades financeiras. No aniversário seguinte os bilionários decidiram ir mais longe e oferecer-lhe um avião. Desta vez ele ficou receoso porque teria de manter uma tripulação e não podia vender o Ferrari. Consultou o seu banco, mas este vendo como o cliente tinha progredido nos últimos anos, descansou-o propondo-lhe uma solução financeira que lhe permitia transferir para o futuro esses custos. Sossegado, decidiu aceitar alegremente a prenda e passou a viajar de avião. Porém, contrariamente à sua expectativa de uma nova prenda ainda maior, no aniversário seguinte os seus colegas deram-lhe apenas uma prenda simbólica enquanto as prestações da tal solução financeira começaram a aparecer e ele teve de declarar falência.

Portugal, ao fim dos primeiros dois ou três Quadros Comunitários, estava numa situação semelhante ao do beneficiário dos milionários quando recebeu o Volvo. Porém, depois passou a investir em projetos cada vez mais megalómanos, sem qualquer retorno a curto prazo e sem capacidade de sustentar o nível de vida a que se habituara e que tinha sido aumentado de forma artificial.

Tal como os bilionários viram a sua boa ação transformada num desastre, também a União Europeia tem de ponderar se os fundos estruturais em vez de uma bênção são de facto uma maldição para os seus beneficiários.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Reestruturação da dívida pública: sim, não ou talvez?

Esta semana, na sequência do chamado manifesto dos 70, debateu-se com grande alarde se Portugal pode reduzir a sua dívida pública para níveis sustentáveis sem fazer uma reestruturação. Os campos dividiram-se entre o Governo que continua a dizer que nunca o fará e os signatários do manifesto que advogam a sua necessidade.

Formalmente, o Governo tem sempre de negar qualquer reestruturação para evitar a contaminação imediata dos juros. No entanto, Passos Coelho parece acreditar genuinamente que é possível evitar essa reestruturação. Avaliação oposta fazem obviamente os signatários do manifesto, entre os quais se encontram três reputados ex-ministros das Finanças (Silva Lopes, Bagão Félix e Ferreira Leite). Em qualquer processo de reestruturação de dívidas sejam elas pessoais, empresariais ou soberanas é normal que as partes envolvidas façam avaliações distintas sobre a sua indispensabilidade, pelo que não se justificaria o alarido atual.

Já quanto à oportunidade do momento escolhido para o debate também é normal que cada parte tenha calendários diferentes. Por exemplo, para um Governo, que está a preparar uma ida ao mercado a breve prazo, este é certamente o pior momento para debater tal tema. Já os signatários do manifesto entendem que este é o momento ideal, pois foi relançada a nível Europeu a proposta para a criação de um mecanismo de reestruturação e mutualização parcial das dívidas soberanas. Mais uma vez temos de respeitar as prioridades de cada um e não as usar como o principal argumento do debate.

Porém, o retomar de um debate sereno é indispensável, para não ficarmos prisioneiros do sim ou do não. Pois, na verdade, existe uma terceira via que pode ser a melhor para o país. Existe o talvez. Isto é, deixar para mais tarde uma decisão sobre a necessidade de reestruturação se as alternativas propostas falharem.

Por isso, entre a insensibilidade de um Governo que não se importa de continuar a empobrecer o país para não penalizar no curto prazo os credores e a imprudência dos signatários do manifesto que menorizam os custos de uma eventual reestruturação e o risco de se ficar na dependência de uma decisão incerta de Bruxelas, prefiro uma solução de iniciativa nacional que não necessite de uma reestruturação.

Que solução seria essa? Sem entrar em pormenores técnicos, pois o Governo não me contratou para isso, direi apenas que em termos gerais ela poderia ser negociada com os nossos parceiros da União Europeia nos seguintes termos: a) antecipação imediata do recebimento da maioria das verbas previstas para Portugal nas perspetivas orçamentais da União Europeia para o período 2014-2020 (cerca de 20 mil milhões de Euros) que seriam usadas exclusivamente para amortização da divida; b) negociar uma reorientação dos empréstimos do BEI para o financiamento do investimento público (cerca de 10 mil milhões de Euros), c) reformulação do programa de ajuda aos bancos para um modelo semelhante ao Espanhol e abandono do disparate de criar um novo banco de fomento (financiados em 15 mil milhões pelo programa da Troika), e d) caso não seja criado nenhum mecanismo de mutualização parcial da divida, negociar um prazo mais alargado para reduzir a divida para os 60% do PIB.

Os benefícios desta estratégia seriam enormes. Com as medidas a) e c) reduzia-se imediatamente a divida pública direta dos atuais 210 para 165 mil milhões de Euros (isto é, abaixo dos 95% do PIB) e evitavam-se os efeitos perversos que essas transferências têm na economia Portuguesae (obras megalómanas sem qualquer rentabilidade, distorção da concorrência e promoção da corrupção e subsidiodependência). O financiamento do BEI ao Estado (cerca de 2 mil milhões anuais) permitiria reanimar o investimento público indispensável. Finalmente, uma maior flexibilização do programa de redução da divida pública permitiria adequar a mesma às necessidades de um crescimento mais rápido da economia, indispensável para assegurar a sustentabilidade a longo prazo da divida pública

Em suma, simultaneamente, Portugal podia acelerar o crescimento económico de forma a recuperar do seu atraso em relação à Europa e recuperar a sua credibilidade junto dos mercados.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Programa Cautelar: Sim ou não?

A opinião pública Portuguesa está dividida entre os mais cautelosos, que defendem que Portugal devia recorrer a um programa cautelar, e os arrojados que advogam a chamada saída limpa do programa de ajustamento para retomar a onda despesista e/ou camuflar o falhanço do programa da Troika.

Infelizmente, os mais prudentes não têm razão. Em teoria um programa cautelar é uma boa ideia, mas na realidade tais programas podem trazer mais desconfianças do que certezas.

A política de programas cautelares foi introduzida pelo FMI na sequência da crise Asiática de 1998, através das chamadas Contingent Credit Lines, mas em 2003 ninguém ainda tinha recorrido a essa medida que entretanto foi abandonada. A principal razão para a sua não utilização foi atribuída pelo FMI ao facto dos países elegíveis temerem que o recurso a essa medida fosse interpretado pelos mercados como um sinal de fraqueza e não de solidez.

Tal receio é fundado, como podemos ilustrar através de uma analogia simples. A Troika, tal como qualquer professor, tem vantagem em subavaliar o mau desempenho dos seus devedores (alunos) de forma a convencer os mercados (empregadores) a financiar (empregar) os participantes no seu programa.

Por exemplo, se este ano tivesse utilizado a minha exigência habitual mais de 60% dos meus alunos teria chumbado e no próximo ano o meu trabalho quase duplicaria. Em alternativa, podia passá-los de forma limpa, isto é subindo as notas entre 7 e 9 para dez sem quaisquer condições, ou dar-lhes 10 valores condicionados à frequência de aulas suplementares. Esta solução parece a mais razoável, mas na verdade era pior para mim (mais aulas) e para eles (menos oportunidades de emprego) porque os empregadores iriam interpretar a frequência de aulas suplementares como sinal de fraqueza e preteri-los no seu recrutamento.

Em conclusão, embora a “passagem administrativa” de Portugal no seu programa de ajustamento não augure um futuro brilhante para o nosso país, é preferível deixá-lo livre para tentar encontrar uma saída da crise ou voltar a pedir um novo programa de ajustamento dentro de três a cinco anos. Infelizmente, o programa de investimentos públicos já anunciado para o próximo QREN é mais uma lista de “elefantes brancos” sem qualquer rentabilidade, que agravará as disparidades regionais e faz antever que não evitaremos mais programas de ajustamento no futuro.

Monday, 20 January 2014

O dogmatismo dos “recém-convertidos” às exportações

Os nossos governantes não se cansam de proclamar o bom desempenho das nossas exportações. Infelizmente, os números não justificam esse entusiasmo (ver tabela abaixo). Mas mesmo que o justificassem, podiam ser enganadores se considerados isoladamente.

Tal como na religião, também os recém-convertidos ao milagre das exportações enveredam pelo dogmatismo, ignorando que todas as políticas (incluindo as boas) têm as suas limitações.

Em geral, o crescimento relativo das exportações traduz um aumento da especialização da qual podem resultar benefícios significativos. Então porquê ser cético em relação ao entusiasmo dos novos convertidos? Porque as exportações e o investimento estrangeiro tanto podem ser bons como maus. O mesmo pode ser dito em relação aos chamados bens e serviços não-transacionáveis (todos aqueles que só podem ser consumidos localmente).

Pessoalmente estou à vontade para criticar a confiança cega nas exportações porque fui, provavelmente, o primeiro académico a escrever um artigo(1) propondo um modelo de crescimento baseado nas exportações. Artigo que até esteve na origem do rancor vitalício do meu “Salieri” pessoal. Mais recentemente, publiquei neste blog um modelo simples para mostrar porque é que as exportações não são todas iguais.

Porém, como distinguir as boas das más exportações? Os políticos invocam frequentemente critérios enganadores para agradar aos vários lobbies. Entre estes destacam-se o apelo à exploração dos recursos naturais, a promoção de novas tecnologias, a eficiência energética ou qualquer outro tema da moda que caia bem junto dos eleitores. Nenhum desses argumentos é suficiente para justificar o favorecimento das exportações e pode levar a políticas erradas.

No entanto, existe um critério simples e universal para avaliar as exportações. São boas todas as exportações que permitem uma remuneração elevada dos fatores (capital e trabalho) utilizados na sua produção. Podemos ilustrar esta regra através de um exemplo simples, imaginando que os Portugueses tinham de escolher entre investir numa nova fábrica de sapatos ou numa nova refinaria de petróleo cuja produção se destinava na totalidade para exportação.

A refinaria poderia exportar refinados num valor anual de mil milhões de Euros enquanto a fábrica de sapatos apenas exportaria duzentos milhões de Euros. Será que o volume de vendas é suficiente para preferirmos a refinaria? Claro que não, pois esta também teria de importar o petróleo para ser refinado. Será que se em alternativa optássemos por estimar o valor acrescentado de cada um dos investimentos já podíamos saber qual escolher? Também não!

Para percebermos o porquê, imagine-se que os dois investimentos tinham o mesmo valor acrescentado. Por exemplo, 100 milhões de Euros sendo que no caso da fábrica 30 seriam pagos ao capital e 70 ao trabalho e vice-versa na refinaria. Independentemente de ambos os investimentos gerarem o mesmo valor acrescentado, nós não os podíamos avaliar sem saber quanto é que os trabalhadores e os investidores teriam de investir nos dois casos. Imaginemos mais uma vez que os investidores na fábrica e na refinaria tinham de investir 300 e 700 milhões de Euros, respetivamente, de modo a que o seu retorno de 10% fosse igualmente idêntico. Neste caso, a vantagem relativa das duas alternativas teria de ser decidida com base na remuneração dos trabalhadores.

Se admitirmos que a fábrica emprega 4000 trabalhadores e a refinaria 1000, então a sua remuneração média mensal seria de 1250 e 2142 Euros, respetivamente. Admitamos ainda que 1250 Euros da remuneração dos trabalhadores da refinaria podia ser imputada ao seu esforço e responsabilidade mas que os restantes 892 correspondiam a um retorno (de 10%) no investimento que estes tinham efetuado na sua educação e formação. No caso da fábrica suponhamos que os trabalhadores não precisavam de formação, pelo que as remunerações finais dos fatores utilizados (capital, capital humano e trabalho) nos dois investimentos seriam idênticas.

Quer isto dizer que mesmo recorrendo à análise da remuneração relativa dos dois projetos não conseguimos escolher o melhor investimento? Neste caso extremo não, e teríamos de decidir com base na valorização relativa do maior emprego ou das melhores oportunidades para os trabalhadores rentabilizarem o seu investimento em capital humano.

No passado, esta possibilidade teórica conjuntamente com a possibilidade dos investimentos terem externalidades diferentes foram com frequência utilizadas para justificar que para além da análise financeira se fizesse também uma análise económica baseada nos chamados preços-sombra. Infelizmente, dada a dificuldade em calcular estes últimos a análise económica foi muitas vezes abusada para justificar opções desastrosas. Assim, a análise das boas e más exportações deve incidir sobre a remuneração financeira do capital e trabalho utilizados, diferenciando apenas, quando tal se justificar, a nacionalidade dos mesmos.

Embora o critério da remuneração financeira seja fácil de aplicar, a questão subsequente está em saber quem o deve aplicar e com que finalidade. Por exemplo, competirá ao governo ou a qualquer outra entidade externa decidir se é melhor a fábrica ou a refinaria? Claro que não! Isto porque num mundo ideal a concorrência entre investidores fará com que estes acabem por escolher a alternativa que assegura o melhor retorno ao capital e na maioria dos casos essa alternativa é também aquela que garante a melhor remuneração do trabalho.

Às autoridades cabe promover esse mundo ideal, isto é, velar para que não existam distorções que favoreçam as fábricas ou as refinarias nem discriminem entre investidores nacionais e estrangeiros. Se ainda assim houver casos extremos de externalidades e/ou situações de divergência entre o interesse do capital e do trabalho, o seu papel deve limitar-se a só corrigir tais situações quando as mesmas não causarem novas distorções. Por exemplo, promovendo a formação do capital humano em geral ou infraestruturas ambientais.

Em conclusão, as autoridades deverão usar a rendibilidade do capital e do trabalho nacionais incorporados nas exportações para monitorizar a sua evolução e ajuizar sobre a sua maior ou menor valia. Mas, não devem “embandeirar em arco” em relação ao seu crescimento em valor nem tentar orientar a alocação de capital entre o sector dos bens transacionáveis e o dos não-transacionáveis correndo o risco de escolher gato por lebre.

(1) Marques Mendes, A. 1988. "The case for export-led growth", Estudos de Economia 9, 1: 33 - 41

Monday, 23 December 2013

Dress codes and individual freedom: Topless vs. Burkas

In many countries politicians try to rule about what is acceptable or not in terms of dressing in open public places. Frequently, legislators are moved by political and religious prejudices and fail to distinguish between the various dress codes and the distinct nature of public places.

Currently the debate is mostly about the use of burkas and veils by women. In the past similarly heated discussions were about topless, barefoot and mini-skirts. Then as now, many justify the prohibition on the grounds that its use offends other people´s beliefs and moral values. Namely, that they encourage the oppression of women or the lust of men.

Whether these are true or not (they may be true) they should not be an acceptable reason to limit individual freedom. Indeed, any offence taken is the result of one’s moral and religious beliefs. But, one of the basic freedoms is the freedom of religion. Therefore we cannot use one’s freedom to prevent other people’s freedom.

Acceptable limits to individual freedom may be universal or apply only to designated professions or places, and their justification varies. Nevertheless, one should only apply universal limits to individual freedom if it may endanger other people’s life or property, not its moral beliefs. For instance, the public use of balaclavas or burkas may be prohibited only if there are reasonable grounds to assert that they pose a threat to our security.

However, in restricted places it is acceptable that the operators of such places impose specific dress codes, such as uniforms for schools or the military, formal dress for some concerts and casual for others. The objective of such dress codes is to facilitate identification or to signal specific characteristics.

Humans’ dressing varies not only with income, tradition, climate or circumstances but also with the desire to signal specific messages. For instance, in egalitarian institutions without a dress code such as universities, it is often observed that finance professors dress formal while sociologists may dress in rags. The first wish to signal the financial relevance of their field while the later may wish to signal their left leaning politics.

Yet, there are some types of signalling that we may consider controversial. Among the most controversial is the signalling of mating desires. The arousal of sexual interest in humans is stimulated by displaying some parts of the body. Therefore, some types of dressing (topless, mini-skirts, etc.) can be designed to display such parts and be used to signal a mating mood. Here we confront two distinct possibilities. First, to argue that if society forbids sexual relations in public it should also ban the signalling of mating desires. The second is to argue that signalling is not the same as soliciting and therefore the public exhibition of such body parts should be free.

In general, the second argument seems more reasonable. Especially if one bears in mind that the interpretation of the signalling may diverge substantially between issuer and receptor due to tradition and personal circumstances. For instance, the male reaction to a topless female is substantially different whenever he is before a young or an old female and whether he is in the beach or in a night club.

So, we may conclude by saying that, under liberal principles, the ban of some forms of dressing in free public spaces can only be justified in the case of unequivocal danger to people and property. Prohibitions based on whim, fashion or religious beliefs do not qualify as legitimate restrictions of individual freedom. However, in delimited public spaces more restrictive dress codes may be applied. For instance, if, within his power, the director of a public school decides to ban mini-skirts or burkas he should be entitled to do so. Another completely different matter is the civilized expression of disapproval or dislike in relation to some outfits. In a polite manner we may criticise friends and acquaintances.

Friday, 20 December 2013

A armadilha dos subsídios

A proliferação dos subsídios em Portugal é típica dos países subdesenvolvidos. Isso só por si seria razão suficiente para nos deixar desconfiados sobre uma possível relação de causa-efeito entre ambos. A própria experiência regional na União Europeia parece confirmar essa relação (vidé caso do Mezzogiorno Italiano). No momento em que Portugal pede emprestados 5 mil milhões de Euros para criar mais uma máquina de subsidiação (o famigerado novo banco de fomento), importa relembrar porque é que os subsídios generalizados são nefastos.

A União Europeia é corresponsável pela peste de subsídios de toda a espécie que alastra em Portugal. Subsídios que podemos agrupar em subsídios ao consumo e ao investimento para melhor avaliar o seu impacto na economia. Importa porém salientar que no caso dos subsídios Europeus não se trata apenas de tirar ao Paulo para dar ao Pedro mas sim de tirar ao Schmidt para dar ao Silva. Isto é, trata-se de uma transferência internacional. Poderemos então invocar neste caso o ditado de que a cavalo dado não se olha ao dente?

Claro que não. Esse raciocínio esconde a primeira armadilha dos subsídios – o problema da dependência. O malefício da subsidiodependência pode ser evitado pela tradicional máxima de que em vez de dar um peixe ao pobre é preferível ensiná-lo a pescar. Porém, em muitas situações é necessário dar temporariamente o peixe até que o pobre aprenda a pescar. Na verdade, se o subsídio for “one-off”, por exemplo um convite para jantar num restaurante de luxo, a oferta de uma viagem a Estrasburgo ou a frequência de uma ação de formação, não existe o risco de habituação e de promover atividades (e.g. formação) cuja rentabilidade está totalmente dependente da continuidade do subsídio ao consumo. Infelizmente, não é essa a realidade. A União Europeia e Portugal têm continuado a financiar ano após ano o mesmo tipo de beneficiários, criando milhares de subsídio dependentes.

A segunda armadilha está nos subsídios ao investimento em atividades pouco rentáveis e/ou não autossustentáveis. Podemos distinguir nesta matéria quatro tipos de financiamento:

a) O financiamento de projetos rentáveis para os seus promotores, mas não autossustentáveis sem uma subsidiação perpétua dos seus clientes. Entre os muitos exemplos existentes salientamos as empresas de formação já referidas e as PPPs;

b) Subsidiação de investimentos megalómanos e sem qualquer rentabilidade económica ou financeira, que não geram sequer receitas suficientes para assegurar a sua manutenção futura. Por exemplo, o investimento de milhões de Euros na construção de um túnel para permitir o acesso a uma dezena de habitantes do Curral das Freiras ao Funchal, quando existiam soluções mais económicas tais como a construção de um elevador panorâmico;

c) Cofinanciamento de projetos privados, invocando a teoria da adicionalidade e das “indústrias nascentes”, apesar de à escala mundial a experiência de proteção de indústrias nascentes se ter revelado desastrosa. Entre nós temos centenas de fábricas e hotéis que podem comprovar o mesmo resultado nefasto. Porém, basta usar o seguinte raciocínio para constatar que tais subsídios podem mesmo inviabilizar outros investimentos. Imagine-se que eu pretendia investir num pomar de fruta que só começará a produzir daqui a cinco anos. Nas condições acuais eu sei que esse investimento será rentável porque a procura estimada é suficiente para eu escoar a minha produção. Porém, se outro investidor entretanto conseguir um subsídio ao investimento de 50% ele poderá aumentar a produção dessa mesma fruta e inviabilizar o meu investimento. Perante esse risco eu acabo por desistir de investir;

d) Uma outra forma perversa de subsídios é pôr os consumidores a pagarem diretamente (sem passagem pelo orçamento de estado) os subsídios através de tarifas mais elevadas aos concessionários de monopólios. O caso mais relevante de obtenção de rendas excessivas em Portugal é o das energias renováveis. Aqui, substitui-se um sistema de produção elétrica menos dispendioso por um mais caro.

Finalmente a terceira armadilha dos subsídios resulta da distorção de concorrência que os mesmos provocam. Um simples exemplo serve para ilustrar as suas consequências. Imagine-se que um investidor para viabilizar o seu investimento num hotel precisa de uma taxa de ocupação de 50% e de cobrar 40 Euros por noite. Porém, se outro investidor conseguir um subsídio ao investimento de 50% ele poderá oferecer o mesmo serviço a 35 Euros e baixar a taxa de ocupação dos concorrentes eliminando ou diminuindo a rentabilidade do investimento dos restantes investidores.

Em suma, a prática generalizada de subsídios ao investimento, ao crédito ou ao consumo resulta na redução do investimento e/ou em más decisões de investimento, perpetuando um ciclo vicioso de pobreza e dependência que podemos descrever assim: + subsídios + défice + endividamento + impostos + incerteza – investimento rentável – investimento autossustentável – produtividade – competitividade – emprego + pobreza + subsídios.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Bitcoin madness: I wrote to the FED and the ECB and they are playing ostrich

Judging from the current media frenzy surrounding Bitcoins, one wonders if almost four hundred years after the tulip mania in the Netherlands humanity is as gullible as ever when it comes to get-rich-quickly speculation.

What is remarkable this time is that the speculation is global and the object of speculation is not a venture or a commodity but a virtual form of private fiat money, notwithstanding the fact that the debate on the free issue of money was closed almost a century ago when central banks were given the monopoly of issuing fiat money.

Indeed, contrary to what some economists and central banks say, Bitcoins are not a form of virtual of real money and the scheme has the hallmarks of a gigantic Ponzi scheme – anonymous/dubious issuers promising returns that are too good to be true to be achieved through undisclosed (but implicitly illegal) sources.

If nothing is done to stop this scheme, the madness of crowds may reach proportions similar to the infamous Mississippi and South Sea bubbles and we might see again a situation where “puritan ladies” begin selling their jewels and virtue to buy Bitcoins.

This should not be happening now, since we are supposed to be protected by a plethora of financial regulators paid by taxpayers. So, I decided to search the site of some of them to check what advice they had for us. I limited my visits to the sites of the FED and ECB because they have the monopoly of issuing the two major currencies – the Dollar and the Euro, respectively – and play a key role in their corresponding payment systems.

In the FED’s site I could not find a single reference to Bitcoins while the ECB site had a single link to a policy paper with an academic tone and a badly disguised sympathy for private “virtual” moneys like the Bitcoins. So, I decided to email them to question the legality of private virtual moneys in the following terms:

Dear Sir/Madam,
Would you please confirm if the following operations are legal?
1) To pay and accept payment in Bitcoins
2) To trade Bitcoins against the USD/Euro
3) To issue Webcoins, a money similar to Bitcoins, except that it will be issued by mining real goods
4) To establish an electronic brokerage or exchange to trade Bitcoins and Webcoins against the Euro and other currencies.
I would appreciate an answer ASAP.
With kind regards
Marques Mendes

So far the FED has not answered (see note at the end of this post) my email of the 27th November, but the ECB replied promptly by directing me to the paper mentioned above as follows:

Dear Mr Mendes,

Thank you for your interest in the European Central Bank.

The ECB's position on virtual currencies such as Bitcoins is outlined in this report:

With kind regards,
DG Communications and Language Services
Press and Information Division

Both played ostrich by not replying directly to my specific questions on the legality of such currencies. Yet the answer should be easy.

Indeed, Bitcoins cannot even be categorized as a temporary currency substitute like the chips used by casinos, the token notes used by monopoly game players or the pieces of metal used by some farms to pay harvesters. The reason being that at the end of the day there is no issuer obliged to convert the Bitcoins into legal money like there is for chips, tokens or pieces of metal.

The sponsors of Bitcoins claim that it is not a Ponzi scheme, because like the growing of tulips in the Netherlands, there is no central organization and anyone can create Bitcoins by “virtual mining” a mathematical algorithm that generates the encrypted codes used for transfers among peer-to-peer electronic networks. This, is obviously a fallacy because someone has to hide the codes. The process of mining Bitcoins is just like the popular garden game of hide-and-seek messages in Easter eggs played by children. In fact, it is less competitive and worthy because in the end players do not even get something with value like the eggs.

Bitcoin promoters are equally fraudulent when they claim that Bitcoins can be exchanged through peer-to-peer networks anonymously like the legal notes and coins. In fact, a central organization ( is needed to support the network software and the peer-to-peer participants have to date stamp them so that a trail is inevitable.

Moreover, peer-to-peer networks do not provide any type of anti-fraud guarantee to their users. As a payment system, its security is even less than that of informal payment networks like the Hawala system used in Asia and India. Hawala is based on the performance and honour of known money brokers whose honesty users can check, not on some anonymous internet counterparty.

Any fiat money must be issued by known issuers on whose reputation rests its value. Of course its issuers may be central banks or private entities and these may be more or less creditworthy. Indeed, we can even foresee the existence of competing issuers. However, using as a medium of exchange fiat money issued by anonymous entities it is a complete stupidity that any half-witted regulator should be able to understand.

In conclusion, Bitcoins or any similar faceless Webcoins (the Web here stands for Worthless Economic Bullshit) must be considered as a fraud.

P.S. If I were in any doubt about the fraudulent nature of Bitcoins, that doubt would be over on the 6th of January 2014 when someone went through the trouble of writing an email to me pretending to reply from the FED and directing me to a bogus organization (Coindesk) based in the UK which claims that Bitcoins are legal "depending on what you’re doing with it".