Greece and Facebook - two very different dimensions of markets
An alternative title to this post could have included the subtitle, 'contemporary capitalism and what it tells us about economic theory?'
Recent news has been dominated by a number of stories that have at their basis economics. I have chosen two which seem to demonstrate that, as the Chinese say, we live in interesting times.
Greece's travails continue to make headlines that suggest we are witnessing the very messy, and potentially catastrophic, end to the dream of single currency.
Friday's flotation by Facebook's, using what is known as an 'IPO' (initial public offering), raised over $105billion. Whilst this amount wouldn't solve Greece's crisis, it would certainly help.
What Facebook's launch certainly does indicate is that if you give investors the opportunity to buy something that has potential, they will buy; even if the world as we know it, at least in some parts of Western Europe, are going to 'hell in a hand- basket'.
What does it tell us, most especially in terms of economic modelling and business prospects?
Firstly, let's consider Greece's current situation which, we are warned, will be likely to be replicated by the much larger Mediterranean countries of Spain, Italy and Portugal and, to a lesser extent, Ireland.
I will confess to having been a fan of the Euro. Robert Peston's programme The Great Euro Crash shown last Thursday on BBC2 explained that its conception was in the aftermath of the second-world-war. Anything that lessened the chance of European nations engaging in conflict surely must be virtuous.
From a personal perspective, not having to change currency every time you crossed a border in Europe made utter sense. Travel and, of course, trade would be easier which is to everyone's benefit.
Peston's very thoughtful programme analysed the cause of the current economic crisis; the fact that countries, most notably Greece, are so heavily in debt that they are bankrupt and require outside assistance.
As Peston made clear, the origins of the Eurozone can be traced back to the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The objective was to create a 'common market' that would effectively be a "United States of Europe" and which could enjoy the benefits of political and, more crucially, economic union (as occurs in the UK).
The magnitude of the task was daunting. It was only just over a decade since the second-world-war and many nations were still emerging from problems caused by the privations of war. Moreover, Europe was, and still is, a diverse collection of countries with different languages, customs and cultures and, of course, economies.
To the credit of the founders of the project, many of whom had personally experienced the effects of war, the motivation was a better world where everyone shared in the benefits of wealth creation. What became apparent very quickly was that the nation that had caused the war, Germany, was recovering quickly and would be one of the dominant players (the other being France).
Nonetheless, the logic of what has become the European Union was pretty simple. Every country would be drawn into an economic arrangement that would increase trade and raise living standards; most especially in the poorer, mainly Southern Mediterranean countries such as Portugal, Italy, Spain and, of course, Greece; the now infamous 'PIGS'.
And, the theory went, with increased wealth comes unity that underpins co-operation in trade. This, in turn, makes conflict less likely.
History, as Churchill famously said, is written by the victors. It will be fascinating to see how the Eurozone project will be judged in future.
The thing is, in the here and now, it doesn't look good.
The credit crisis of 2008 is cited by most commentators as having been brought about by the availability of cheap finance that created the development boom in the USA and across Europe. In many countries, such as Spain and Ireland, there is a phenomenal quantity of unfinished properties for which there is no market.
For many who purchased such many properties, there is the problem of negative equity. As Peston's programme made clear, for the individual experiencing bankruptcy there is little hope.
Cheap finance also lies at the heart of what has caused Greece's current problems. Greek's are no different to anyone else and enjoyed the benefits of becoming wealthier. As long as the world economy was doing fine there were no problems.
But the credit crunch changed all of that. Greece now owes 160% of its GRP (Gross Domestic Product). As the Greeks are discovering, political (and economic) unity only goes so far. The austerity package that, by and large, the Germans imposed has proved, unsurprisingly, unpopular.
Greek are sick of being lectured that they have no choice; you have to either earn more or spend less. But what more can Greece do? Huge numbers of workers have been laid off: especially in the public sector. Spending on social security and pensions has been slashed and taxes increased.
But these measures have simply worsened Greece's plight. Ironically for a country that has a long tradition of civilisation and democracy, after the recent election it cannot form a government. Greek people have had enough of austerity (a trend that is being repeated across Europe).
And even worse, the very intention of the founders of the common market in 1957, increased union and prosperity, is now being cited as causing the opposite. Parties on the extreme right and left that offer the prospect of redemption through isolation are becoming more popular.
Worryingly, Europe displays characteristics all-too resonant with the period before the second-world-war. And worse, the 'old enemy', Germany, is viewed as being part of the problem (some have suggested it has achieved economically what it failed to do militarily) .
There is the definite possibility that the Syriza Party, led by Alexis Tsipras, may emerge as the victor in the next Greek election on 17th June. Tsipras has stated his intention to withdraw from NATO and tear up the terms of the EU/IMF bailout package. This could lead to something once unthinkable; an EU member leaving.
Lest we think that it won't impact on us, I have seen reports that estimate the knock-on cost would be a 5% drop in output across the Eurozone. Even though the UK doesn't use the euro, as other economies slow down we will feel the effects.
As Sony Kapoor of the Brussels-based thinktank Re-Define has suggested, what we are seeing in Greece (and the other crisis-hit economies), is a 'dance of death'.
Economic theory does not have any easy answers.
No such problems for Facebook. The fact that the IPO was, just, taken up - it was underwritten by banks, which begs the question whose money they were using? - indicates that it is seen as having huge potential for future earnings through advertising to its 900 million users.
Facebook made a $1billion last year which was a 65% increase and shows no indication that it is slowing down. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg, and other investors (including that paragon of social justice singer Bono), must be pleased with themselves.
Facebook believes that it has potential to develop through expansion in developing economies in Asia, Africa and South America.
Its prospectus suggested that it may become a marketplace for goods, like Amazon, and that it may follow Google in developing a phone network in order to propagate the advertising and sales that will be essential to justify the hype surrounding the launch of Facebook's IPO.
But there are detractors. Some suggest that the projections for Facebook are far too optimistic. As these commentators argue, in the world of social networking, things move fast and that success can be very temporary. They point to the fact that MySpace and Friendster were once dominant in a way that Facebook now is.
What is to say that Facebook won't also be surpassed? Indeed, that other corporate technology giant Apple is said to be interested in exactly the same markets as Facebook.
There are already warnings about the Facebook phenomenon.
An Associated Press-CNBC poll in America has suggested that users of Facebook don't' think it has permanence. And worse, many point out that Facebook is simply seen as a free way to keep in contact. Its users don't use it as a marketplace and, indeed, may resent the inevitable increase in advertising.
According to eMarketer Debra Williamson, advertising may prove to be less lucrative than expected and believes that revenue growth will slow to 64% from 88% last year. Pointedly, General Motors decision not to continue with its Facebook advertising campaign does not bode well.
Another major concern of the Facebook IPO is that Zuckerberg maintains overall control. Some have questioned whether one person, regardless of how bright or energetic he undoubtedly is, can continue to develop Facebook in the way that will be required to be worth its initial valuation. He may be compared to Apple's Steve Jobs but the context and challenge is very different.
So, whilst there is much hullabaloo about Facebook, the suggestions that economic theory of oversupply has not been fully heeded.
I can offer no instant answers. If I could I would sell them at a fortune!
However, what seems abundantly clear is that we need some clear thinking. In order to assist I would recommend a book that I am currently reading by David Orrell Economyths: Ten Ways Economics gets it Wrong (Icon Books, 2010).
Orrell's view is that economic theory, especially neoclassical, is too reliant on rationality and that traditional modelling and predictions. As we know, there were very few people who predicted the global financial crisis of 2008 (those who did were ignored).
If traditional economic theory has been unsuccessful, according to Orrell, there is a need to consider better ways to deal with the influences that are much more complex and unpredictable than the standard models predict.
As Orrell and other commentators contend, the fundamental belief in markets as being like machines that conform to 'laws' (like physics) and exhibit rational standard behaviour is plain wrong. Instead, Orrell asserts, economic theory must learn to cope with chaos and incorporate irrationality.
Whether the models that Orrell and others posit would have reduced the causes of the current problems that beset Greece (and beyond), or would give cause for concern with respect to the hundred billion flotation of Facebook is debatable?
I'm sorry to sound evangelical, but surely we deserve to be in a better world that, on the one hand, allows European countries like Greece to go bankrupt, with all of the attendant social consequences, whilst at the same time creating billionaires out of what may be a very temporary fad.
If this is the consequence of unfettered neoliberalism then it doesn't seem right. We need better a better way to get out of the crisis. Perhaps a good start would be to hold to greater account the economists who currently have influence within the bodies that currently control Greece' s fate; European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.