Privatisation slows down worldwide

Has the money lost heart, or is it the bureaucrats?

Via Richard Murphy comes this Financial Times piece (£), suggesting that privatisation may be declining globally:

The pace of privatisation around the world has slowed sharply, with an unprecedented number of asset sales delayed or cancelled amid volatile markets and political uncertainty.

Despite governments across the globe continuing to hoist for-sale signs over state-owned enterprises ranging from airports to electricity networks, the number of completed deals last year was less than half the 2010 figure, according to the Privatisation Barometer, a joint project between KPMG and Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei, a Milan-based research institute.

The report (pdf) offers the explanation that last year was one of "global financial retrenchment", prompted by the Eurozone crisis and the fight in the US over the debt ceiling. It offers, as a "dramatic" example of the former:

The Spanish government['s] forced cancellation, literally days before execution, of what would have been 2011’s largest privatization — the October sale of 30% of the national lottery, Loterias y Apuerto del Estado, which would have raised over €7 billion ($9.7 billion) — and the near-coincident delayed (not yet renewed) sale of the Madrid and Barcelona airports that could have raised more than €5 billion ($6.9 billion).

The explanation leaves something to be lacking, however. If, as the report argues, the Eurozone crisis was one of sovereign debt, then it ought to have led to more, not fewer, privatisations, given that they are one of the most effective ways for a nation to raise in a short period of time the amount of cash necessary pay down debt.

Similarly, the big economic story of the last year has been the flight to safety, which has led to the reverse-sovereign-debt-crisis being experienced across much of the world, as well as little quirks like RORO. That too ought to lead to greater, not lesser, privatisation, since taking control of an established monopoly is a pretty safe investment. So long as a company doesn't completely misjudge how much it can make from a utility (looking your way, GNER), it's hard to fail when buying out the state (hard to fail, that is, from a financial point of view. Very easy to fail when it comes to actually providing services).

I think the best explanation is that privatisation is becoming uncool, not for economic reasons, but for political ones. States simply don't want to take the unpopular move of handing over control of their services to the private sector. Whether this is good or bad depends on the specific circumstances (as with Matt Yglesias, I think a well-thought-out mutualisation of the US Postal Service could do wonders, but the sale of Madrid and Barcelona airports risks creating the nation's own version of BAA), but Murphy thinks there is something to celebrate anyway:

Let’s hope that there might also be a realisation implicit in this that people now realise that it’s not just banks that can be too big to fail, but that much else that we depend upon is also too big to fail, and needs to be state run to ensure it survives as a result.

Barcelona airport, following a protest by cleaners. The airport was due to be privatised this year. 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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit