"The opposite of a sovereign debt crisis"

Being paid to look after money isn't what governments ought to be doing.

Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal has written a blogpost which is doing the rounds at the moment, in which he argues that the world is experiencing the opposite of a sovereign debt crisis:

The problems of Spain, Italy, and Greece are often pointed to as being somehow bleeding-edge, canaries in the coalmine that serve as warnings to other governments of what might happen if they don't get their acts together.

But the real story today is just the opposite. The world is experiencing whatever the reverse of a sovereign debt crisis is, as borrowing costs for government are plummeting EVERYWHERE. . .

What this essentially means is that there's a lot of money out there that sees no productive investments in the real world, and thus people are willing to stick it with entities that promise them a very meager return.

The whole piece is great, with compelling charts and stats, and is definitely worth a read.

As government yields hit zero or lower, conventional economic realities fall apart. Jonathan Portes has written about the possibility of financing a £30bn infrastructure program using just the income brought in by the now-defunct pasty tax, while Matt Yglesias has arguedfrequently –  that when real interest rates are negative, it simply makes no sense to collect taxes.

It isn't just governments facing unusual situations in a world of free money. Google's chariman Eric Schmidt was faced with the reality of his company's situation in a debate with tech investor Peter Thiel:

ADAM LASHINSKY (Moderator): You have $50 billion at Google, why don't you spend it on doing more in tech, or are you out of ideas? And I think Google does more than most companies. You're trying to do things with self-driving cars and supposedly with asteroid mining, although maybe that's just part of the propaganda ministry. And you're doing more than Microsoft, or Apple, or a lot of these other companies. Amazon is the only one, in my mind, of the big tech companies that's actually reinvesting all its money, that has enough of a vision of the future that they're actually able to reinvest all their profits.

ERIC SCHMIDT: They make less profit than Google does.

PETER THIEL: But, if we're living in an accelerating technological world, and you have zero percent interest rates in the background, you should be able to invest all of your money in things that will return it many times over, and the fact that you're out of ideas, maybe it's a political problem, the government has outlawed things. But, it still is a problem. . .

ERIC SCHMIDT: What you discover in running these companies is that there are limits that are not cash. There are limits of recruiting, limits of real estate, regulatory limits as Peter points out. There are many, many such limits. And anything that we can do to reduce those limits is a good idea.

PETER THIEL: But, then the intellectually honest thing to do would be to say that Google is no longer a technology company, that it's basically – it's a search engine. The search technology was developed a decade ago. It's a bet that there will be no one else who will come up with a better search technology. So, you invest in Google, because you're betting against technological innovation in search. And it's like a bank that generates enormous cash flows every year, but you can't issue a dividend, because the day you take that $30 billion and send it back to people you're admitting that you're no longer a technology company. That's why Microsoft can't return its money. That's why all these companies are building up hordes of cash, because they don't know what to do with it, but they don't want to admit they're no longer tech companies.

What we are seeing is two sides of the same coin. When companies like Google – which, as Lashinsky says, is one of the biggest fans of blue-sky innovation in Silicon Valley – can't find anything to spend their war chests on, then they have to keep them somewhere. Banks are, for the first time in a generation, perceived as risky, so they turn to sovereigns, thus driving yields even lower.

The problem is, since these companies are looking for safety rather than income, yields have a lot further to fall. How much will Google pay for a safe place to keep its money? We don't know. But it's likely to be a lot more than a measly 0.3 per cent.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who has the unfortunate problem of Too Much Money. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage