Signs you've gone on holiday to a fascist dictatorship

And what that means for the markets in Italy and Spain.

In 1969, as a nine year-old, the only real sign that we had gone on holiday to a fascist dictatorship was the policemen with machine guns walking up and down outside the hotel. The only other real sign was that Maria, my first true holiday love and our waitress at the Riviera Hotel Benidorm, would religiously count the number of chips each of us were given. Say what you will about Spanish fascism, it had the regularity and order of a well-run capitalist fast food outlet.

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, in Italy, they were about to embark upon "The Years of Lead" a roughly decade-long strategy of tension that would see both left and right-wing bombing and kidnapping campaigns designed to discredit their opponents and destabilize Italy. So serious was the threat, in 1990, the government of Giulio Andreotti revealed to Parliament the existence of "Gladio", NATO’s secret network of weapons readied should there be a communist coup in Italy.

Since the installation of King Juan Carlos I in Spain in 1975 and the creation of the First Republic in Italy after the Second World War both nations have designed political systems specifically to keep the extremes out of their politics – in the case of Spain it is fascism and, in the case of Italy, communism. The transition of, in particular, Spain to an unrecognizable modern democracy within a lifetime makes it almost inconceivable that either of these countries could return to their former roots. And yet as the financial crisis intensifies, the disenfranchisement of the young through unemployment and the loss of a stake in society re-ignites the 1899 words of Gustave Le Bon in The Psychology of Socialism when he says, "As soon as he has a family, a house, and few savings, the workman becomes immediately a stubborn Conservative. The Socialist, above all, the Anarchist-Socialist, is usually a bachelor, without home, means or family; that is to say a nomad…and barbarian."

Reinforcing the disenfranchisement, the contradictions within Europe are intensifying; German house prices are continuing to rise whilst Spanish property is still falling. Some estimates suggest that prices in Spain will decline between 10 and 30 per cent in the years to come, putting increased pressure on the banking system. Another cash injection can’t be ruled out. Some twenty billion euros from the European Stability Mechanism – equivalent to one year’s profits - would do the trick. In Italy property prices have hardly started to fall – they are only some six per cent down since 2010. But that isn’t the problem.

What is more worrying for the system is that the crisis that started in the property markets is now spreading to the funding of the small and medium-sized businesses which are the life blood of these nations. Euphemistically these are called "Non-Performing Loans" but to you and me they are businesses that can’t meet their debts because the economy is still in reverse gear. Larger companies have recognized this and are cutting out the banks (who can’t lend, won’t lend) and are going straight to the bond markets for their money. For smaller companies, a self-reinforcing spiral has been put in place at an employer level.  It’s also showing up in the habits of the eurozone as a whole – household borrowing has descended to a crawling pace and as we know capitalism can’t survive without a functioning credit cycle.

Problems in the banks will exclude the young from having a stake in society, as le Bon identified, which turns the financial crisis into a petri dish of social unrest. The post-war political structures of Italy and Spain were arguably put there on a "so-it-can’t-happen-again" basis. Powerful national democracies reinforced by semi-autonomous regional governments rife with self-interest and corruption makes it near-on impossible to have an electoral fascist or communist up-rising that would return them to their collective pasts. But also it creates a sclerotic system unable and unwilling to adapt and respond to crisis in a timely way. So it can’t be said that there won’t arise out of the intensification of the financial crisis a marked movement either to the left or the right in either or both of these countries borne out of a disenfranchised youth which spells trouble for their financial markets. At present both the Spanish and Italian bond markets are being held up by overt or covert market operations which is saving them from any form of real market analysis but this isn’t going to last and with it will come political change and even the end of the euro experiment.

Source: Bloomberg

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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