Saturday, March 14, 2009

europe view column


Put the beam before the mote
Mar 12th 2009

Eastern Europe should not be tempted by paranoia

WAS it all a conspiracy? It is not the first time in east European history that the question has been asked. Wicked western manipulators were a staple of communist-era propaganda. Before that, anti-Semitic politicians used to blame Jews (and Freemasons) for manipulating the destiny of other countries. In the 19th century, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Czarist and Ottoman empires kept almost the whole region from the Baltic to the Black seas divided up between the great outside powers.

Now the conspiracy theory is back again. Somebody was spreading rumours. Somebody with foreknowledge or malevolent intent was shorting currencies, stocks and bonds. Someone was using sinister-sounding financial instruments such as credit-default-swaps so that whatever happened, they would profit from a panic. These somebodies could be anywhere, but they are certainly foreign.

Or maybe it is all a plot by Germans to push the Austrian banks into bankruptcy so that they can buy them up cheaply. Or maybe it is a means for “old Europe” to destroy the competitive threat from the unloved “new Europe”. Or a French-German plan to create a core Europe round the euro zone, excluding the troublesome countries farther east. Or it is all some super-clever plot by the ex-KGB regime in Russia, details to be announced later. All that is missing is hook-nosed men in ringlets drinking the blood of Christian children.

The truth is more prosaic. Financial markets are usually wrong, often hugely so. When greed trumps fear they are over-enthusiastic, believing all kinds of positive nonsense and pouring money into dodgy companies and countries. Then the tide turns and they overreact, dumping perfectly good assets in an attempt to get their books in order.

Anyone tempted by the idea that outside conspiracy is to blame for eastern Europe’s woes should first reflect on the past. Was it an outside conspiracy that led supposedly sane Western institutions to lend tens of billions of dollars to Russian companies notable for their weak corporate governance and cash-splattered business models? Was it a western conspiracy that made supposedly sane people buy homes in derelict rural slums in Bulgaria in the belief that it was the new Dordogne? Was it a Western conspiracy that equated the reforms that were promised in the run up to European Union membership with actually making government transparent and efficient?

The right word for this is not “conspiracy”. Something like “groupthink” or the “madness of crowds” would be a better term. In any market movement, there will always be people who profit by betting against the herd. The wise investors who bailed out of the Russian short-term treasury bill market in early August 1998 made a packet. Those who stayed in lost a fortune. They left for the airport, in one case vowing that they would rather “eat nuclear waste” than invest in Russia again.

Conversely, savvy investors who bought at the bottom of the market in late 1998 have done well. A few years later nuclear waste was back on the menu, as investors praised the stability and prosperity of Vladimir Putin’s regime and guzzled anything in sight. Anyone who said that the good times came from rising oil prices rather than real reform was drowned out in a chorus of hurrahs. Again, some people sold their Russian assets in time. No conspiracy there, just foresight, or luck.

As so often with market downturns, the pain and unfairness now seem intolerable. It may perhaps be some consolation that the gloomiest and most ignorant outsiders are those most likely to lose out.

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