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Resilience at Nairobi Airport:  Kudos to Kenya!

By Shlomo Maital

Nairobi airport                          Nairobi airport

Then: Destroyed by Fire                                    Nairobi Airport now:  A Tent!

Kenya is yet another example of how the West underestimates the resilience of relatively poor countries, in Africa and in Asia.    Kenya was vilified when it was found that Nairobi has only one single lone modern fire engine.    

The Economist reports:

     “When a big part of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta international airport was gutted by a fire in early August it was widely expected to wreak havoc on Kenya’s vital tourism industry. Instead, it has become a model of the country’s talent for makeshift solutions.     Instead of passing through the wheel and spokes building opened in 1958 by Britain’s last colonial governor, passengers are directed towards a complex of white tents with sash chairs. In the darkness, the atmosphere resembles that of a wedding party at the end the evening, with tired guests searching for the exit.   The airport is east Africa’s biggest hub, serving five million passengers a year. Yet while many feared it would be running a reduced service for weeks, it was back at close to full capacity in a matter of days. 

Repeatedly, we in the West underestimate the strong resilience of those in Africa, Asia and South America, who ‘make do’ under difficult circumstances.  They are good at it, because they do it nearly every day.  Except for The Economist, few newspapers or websites reported on the remarkable makeshift airport-tent in Nairobi.

      In India,  there is a Hindi word called “jugaad”, which means “work around” – like what the Kenyans did to get their airport back in action.  Here is what I wrote in a blog three years ago:

       “Jugaad … are locally made motor vehicles that are used mostly in small [Indian]  villages as a means of low cost transportation in India. Jugaad literally means an arrangement or a work around, which have to be used because of lack of resources. This is a Hindi term also widely used by people speaking other Indian languages, and people of Indian origin around the world. The same term is still used for a type of vehicle, found in rural India. This vehicle is made by carpenters, by fitting a diesel engine on a cart. …. They are known for having poor brakes and cannot go beyond 60 km/h. They operate on diesel fuel and are just ordinary water pump sets converted into engine. “

    Let’s salute the Kenyans (and travelers, who endure less than ideal conditions) for their ingenuity.  Let’s salute people in all poor countries, who use their creative savvy to work around insolvable problems, without a fat checkbook. 

Fix Our Schools? Ask the Kids!

By Shlomo Maital

                  Genius 1

  It is widely understood that schools (primary and secondary) in the U.S., and in Israel, are broken.  They persist in teaching, and measuring, mainly memory skills, when the Third Industrial Revolution needs creative thinking.  It is a miracle that somehow, a handful of creative kids survive the system with their creative juices more or less intact. But how many do not? 

    Amanda Ripley, an American scholar, has written a new book that sheds new light on the subject.*  She chose the clever method of asking the ‘horse’s mouth’ – the kids.  She enlisted field agents, three American high school students studying abroad (in Finland, Poland and South Korea).  Here are the ‘secrets’ she discovered.

     Finland: “Rather than try to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations andvalue-added data analysis (!), they allow only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs [tougher to get in to them than to get in to engineering], more demanding than those in America. Better-prepared better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.”

    South Korea:  Notes Ripley: “In an automated global economy, kids need to be driven; they need a culture of rigor.”    And “Rigor on steroids is  what [one] finds in South Korea.   Her field agent Eric is shocked to find students dozing in class in Busan, only to realize why – they spend all night studying at hagwons, cram schools where Korean kids get their real education.   True, the Korean “hamster wheel” creates as many problems as it solves.  Ripley says “it is relentless, excessive – but it felt more honest”.

     Poland:  Poland scaled the heights of international test score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: “well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors.”  Field agent Tom notes that in his hometown, in Pennsylvania, sports were the core culture.  In Wroclaw, Poland, there was no confusion about what school was for —    or what mattered to kids’ life chances. 

    Reviewing this book, Annie Murphy Paul asks whether America [and, I add, Israel] “can generate the will to make changes.”   The answer is, no.  In both nations, entrenched mediocre educational bureaucracies perpetuate mediocrity.  This is a doom loop.  Bad teachers fear good ones.  So bad teachers lead to even worse ones. 

     Good teachers love better ones, because they help them get better.  So good teachers generate even better ones.

     Which loop does your country enjoy?  Which would you prefer?  And how in the world do you change a doom loop into a genius loop?   And, what future do your kids have if they go to schools driven by the doom loop? 


* Amanda Ripley.  The Smartest Kids in the World.  And How They Got That Way.  Simon & Schuster, 2013.   Reviewed in the Global New York Times, Aug. 24-25, 2013, p. 19, by Anne Murphy Paul.  


Rose-Colored Glasses?  Get a Pair and Wear Them!

By Shlomo Maital

           rose colored

   There is a condition psychologists have discovered and long known about, known as ‘depressive realism’:    the proposition that people who are depressed actually have a more accurate perception of reality.  For instance,  they are less affected by positive illusions of   superiority (depressed people see themselves accurately as others see them; most of us think others see us far more favorably than they really do). *   Most students, for instance, when asked, say they think they will get a grade “higher than average” in the course they’re taking, even though in reality it is impossible that everyone is above average (as they are in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon). 

   Writing in his Psychology Today blog, Dr. Ben Hayden quotes a song by Kurt Cobain: “I think I’m dumb, or maybe just happy.”   Cobain was seriously depressed.  The lead singer, writer and guitarist for the grunge band Nirvana, Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994.   He seemed to believe that to be happy, you had to be dumb or ignore reality. 

    What depressive realism suggests is that if you see the world as it is,  with war, hunger, deprivation, poverty, homelessness, disease, and now, people gassed to death with Sarin,  well, the only reasonable condition is depression.  But if you wear rose-colored glasses,  and are hopelessly optimistic, you are far less likely to be depressed.   Incurable optimism creates energy, serenity, and above all,  hope for a better future, without which it is difficult to surmount daily difficulties.    

    Voltaire mocked optimism,  in Candide, in his character Dr. Pangloss (“all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds”).  Well, Voltaire, I’ve known pessimists and I’ve known optimists.  I prefer the latter. 

     Hayden disagrees with the concept of depressive realism.  He thinks that it somehow justifies being depressed and hence keeps those with depression from being treated.  He thinks that if you accept depressive realism, then you accept being depressed rather than battle it. 

     Accept it or not,  it does seem there are strong reasons for erring on the side of optimism.    As psychologists affirm, perception sometimes is reality.  If you perceive the world as a great place, then you are more likely to act to make it so.  Imagine if we all wore rose-colored glasses.  Soon, we wouldn’t need them. 

Alloy, L.B., Abramson, L.Y. (1979). “Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser?”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 108: 441–485. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.108.4.441.

Never Again?  Sarin Gas Kills Syrian civilians

By Shlomo Maital

           Syrian gas attack                

   Is it nearly certain that Assad ordered the use of Sarin nerve gas, near Damascus, that killed over 1,000 civilians?

    America and  Israel both believe so.  According to The Guardian newspaper,  “Expert opinion is hardening behind attributing the deaths on Wednesday of hundreds of people in Damascus to a nerve agent such as sarin, with regional and western governments expecting to receive smuggled biological samples from the site in the coming days.   Chemical weapons specialists, who have studied footage showing the dead and dying victims of the attack, said several symptoms offered strong evidence that a nerve agent was used; it would be the worst such attack anywhere in the world in the past 25 years. … The [missile]  strike occurred around 2am Friday at a time when the Syrian military had launched an advance into the rebel-held area east of Damascus. The missiles bore similarities to those used in at least two previous attacks where a toxic gas was reported to have been used. … Eyewitnesses have described the missiles and rockets launched in the attack as having come from two areas of Damascus which are both under regime control – the Mezze airbase, south-west of central Damascus, and the October War Panorama military museum in the city.”

    Has Sarin killed people before?

    Yes, the Halabja attack, when up to 5,000 people were gassed in Iraqi Kurdistan by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988.    In 1995, the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo sect released an impure form of sarin in the Tokyo Metro. Thirteen people died.  

     Has the Syrian army used Sarin before?

     Yes.  According to the Guardian: “Biological samples had been given to MI6 and to French intelligence members  after alleged small-scale chemical attacks earlier in the year. Both governments, along with the US, then declared that sarin had been the agent used.”

   What is Sarin?  Who invented it?

   Wikipedia:   “It is a colorless, odorless liquid, used as a chemical weapon owing to its extreme potency as a nerve agent. It has been classified as a weapon of mass destruction in UN Resolution 687. Production and stockpiling of sarin was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.”   Sarin was discovered in 1938  by two German scientists attempting to create stronger pesticides.   In mid-1939, the formula for the agent was passed to the chemical warfare section of the German Army Weapons Office.  Estimates for total sarin production by Nazi Germany range from 500 kg to 10 tons.  Though sarin, tabun and soman were incorporated into artillery shells, Germany did not use nerve agents against Allied targets.”

    How do people exposed to it die?

    They are asphyxiated.   Sarin inhibits how the body eliminates “acetylcholine”.   “A build-up of acetylcholine in the synaptic cleft, due to the inhibition of cholinesterase, means the neurotransmitter continues to act on the muscle fibre, so that any nerve impulses are effectively continually transmitted. Death will usually occur as a result of asphyxia due to the inability of the muscles involved in breathing to function.”

   Did the Nazis use Sarin in their gas chambers?

   No.  They used Cyclone B,  a cyanide-based pesticide  use by Nazi Germany to kill an estimated 1.2 million human beings, including approximately 960,000 Jews, in gas chambers of extermination camps during the Holocaust. 

    How do you, as a Jew and an Israeli,  react to Assad’s use of Sarin gas to kill over one thousand Syrian civilians?

    I am strongly pro-peace, pro-compromise, pro-two-state-solution.  I also have not a shred of doubt, that if Assad and his Israel-hating equivalents are willing to gas their own citizens, would they hesitate for one second to do the same to us Israelis, if only they could? 

     Nearly every Israeli [including my wife and I] has a gas mask in his or her home, including versions for children.  Is there any other country, among the 242 nations of the world, that has to store gas masks at home?  

     Russia and China, Assad supporters, are accomplices in Sarin war crimes.  So is Obama, whose empty ‘red line’ words humiliate and demean all Americans.  So are we all, who just sit silently and cluck our tongues.   And where, by the way, are the demonstrators in Arab nations and abroad, who are quick to boycott Israeli-designed water meters sold in UK, for example?      

The   Global Crisis Never Ends – Here’s Why

By Shlomo Maital   

mimic octopus the mimic octopus

   In Nature, there is an incredible ‘mimic’ octopus that can change its shape and its color, to imitate its surroundings.  (See above).   It does this, with only a pea-size tiny brain. 

     If you’re paying attention, dear reader, you may have noticed:   The global financial and economic crisis has not ended.  It simply keeps changing its shape – just like the mimic octopus.                                                 global crisis

    It started in 2007-8 as a subprime mortgage crisis, with banks and financial services companies requiring massive bailouts.    Next, it became a government budget deficit crisis – when governments assumed the bad debts of the banks. 

  Then it metamorphosed into a ‘euro’ crisis, because weak southern European countries (Greece, Portugal, Spain, even Italy)  skated close to defaulting, thus endangering the euro, because of the debts they subsumed.

    Now?  It’s become an emerging markets crisis.  Ironic, because last time, the Asian contagion was a financial crisis that began in Thailand (1997) and migrated quickly to the rest of the world.  Now it is an American crisis that has infected Asia.

     According to Landon Thomas Jr., in a front page Global New York Times article (Aug. 21),  “Fed policy poses risks to emerging economies.”  Why?  The American Fed printed enormous, massive amounts of dollars (quantitative easing) to stimulate the US economy. Because US interest rates were so low, a huge part of that money fled abroad, to emerging markets, fueling property bubbles in Turkey, China, India and elsewhere.  

   Now, with Fed chief Ben Bernanke hinting that it may soon be time to raise interest rates and end ‘quantitative easing’,  much of that money is fleeing emerging markets and returning home, in anticipation of higher rates.  The result:  deep drop in the exchange rate of the rupee, and the threat of disastrous bursting property bubbles in Turkey, Brazil, and South Korea.  China, too, is quietly struggling with enormous bad loans given by state-owned banks.

    U.S. Treasury Secretary John Connolly said, in March 1973, “the dollar is our currency – and your (rest of the world’s) problem.”      By focusing its monetary policy solely on American  GDP, employment and growth, America is causing collateral damage to other nations.  This is inevitable – it is the fatal flaw of the current global financial system.    

     The current global crisis will not be terminated, until the conflicted dual role of the dollar (it is the American currency and also the world currency) is resolved.   The crisis will continue – it will simply keep changing its form and center of gravity.   The world will continue to oscillate between “far too many dollars” (bubble) and “far too few dollars, or dollar flight” (bubble bursts).    

 Entrepreneurial Energy: It’s Everywhere

Sizwe (S. Africa) and Atef (Jordan/Syria)

By Shlomo Maital      

Sizwe Nzima 

Sizwe and his ‘capital’

   My friend Prof. Dan Shechtman, Nobel Laureate for Chemistry (2011), has for over two years been trekking tirelessly across the globe, using his Nobel pulpit to deliver a message:  Entrepreneurship can change the world.  His infinite passion and energy, despite his age (72), reflects the infinite inexhaustible energy of entrepreneurs who seek to create value and build businesses, even in difficult circumstances.  Here are two examples, both from the BBC World Service  (I am a huge fan). 

   1.  Sizwe Nzima:   “Collecting medicine from a hospital or dispensary in some of South Africa’s townships can be a challenge- with the cost of transport and queuing times a problem for many people.    Now one young man from Cape Town, Sizwe Nzima, has come up with a novel solution, which is not only helping patients in the community but has also seen him build a successful business.”

 Nzima identified a need:   People in South African townships spent hours in queues, losing valuable work time, to get medicines from hospital dispensaries.  Why not get the medicine for them, and deliver it, with squads of bike riders?  How did he get the idea?  He had to get medicine for his grandmother.  Like many great startups, his began when he identified a very personal need, and realized others had the same unsatisfied need as well.

Now, the 21-year-old has a successful business.  Like all great ideas,  you have to ask:  Why didn’t we think of that before?   


Atef and his inventory

    2.  Atef, wedding dress magnate:    “The door of a metal cargo container creaks open to reveal a row of embroidered and bejewelled dresses in red, pink and white.  I had stepped into Atef’s wedding dress hire shop, a business that serves as a reminder that romance blossoms in the bleakest of environments.  Atef’s business in is the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, home to about 120,000 people who have fled the conflict in Syria. His container is located on a street that aid workers have nicknamed the Champs Elysees, due to the hundreds of shops and businesses. Atef has been in the camp for over a year now. He fled the fighting in Daraa, about 30km (20 miles) away in Syria. It is a city rich with businessmen thanks to a long history of cross-border trade with Jordan. “We started this as an abaya (robe for women) shop,” says Atef. “Women used to come here and say they had weddings but they couldn’t find dresses. So we bought two dresses for rent and it worked out well. “We have two weddings a day and there are people who come from outside the camp to rent dresses because it is cheaper here. “The profit is not that much but we are doing ok. We rent the dress for 10 dinars (around $14) whether it’s people inside or outside the camp. “Sometimes we even take 5 dinars from people who can’t afford to pay much.”

    Over a million refugees have fled Syria’s brutal bloody civil war.  They now know it will be a very long time before they can return home.  Entrepreneurs like Atef are trying to make the best of it.  His shop now serves not only the Zaatari camp but nearby residents as well.  And he even has a Corporate Social Responsibility program, giving half-price discounts to those who lack the money. 

    The lesson here is so obvious.  Governments everywhere:  Stand back, get out of the way, turn loose the entrepreneurial energy – and let Atef, Sizwe and other dynamic men and women create value, for others and for themselves.  If you can, governments, give them a bit of help, perhaps a few dollars.  But at least, don’t interfere with them. (The Arab Spring began, it will recall, when a corrupt bureaucrat tried to extort a bribe from Mohamed Bouazizi  in Sidi  Bouzid, Tunisia, on Dec. 18, 2010, who scraped out a living with a vegetable cart).      

   Entrepreneurship is like flowers in the arid desert – they sprout and flourish even in the toughest of conditions.   Why not give it a chance?

 Should Our Political Leaders Drive Cabs?

By Shlomo Maital     


Norway’s Prime Minister driving a taxi

  There is a growing feeling, all over the world, that our political leadership is totally out of touch with the struggles of ordinary life that we endure.  Prime Minister Netanyahu never buys milk or bread, fills out a tax form, or struggles to board a crowded train.  Nor has he for many years.  Nor has any senior political figure anywhere.

    Except Jan Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of Norway, up for re-election on September 9 and well behind in the polls.  According to Reuters:

 Norway’s prime minister worked secretly as a taxi driver in central Oslo for a day in June, leaving his passengers wondering whether their elected leader had quit the day job.  Wearing a taxi driver’s uniform and sunglasses, Jens Stoltenberg drove passengers around the streets of the Norwegian capital for several hours, confirming his identity only after his passengers realised who he was.  The stunt, dreamed up by an ad agency as part of Stoltenberg’s campaign for re-election, was filmed on hidden cameras. A video of the event was published on Sunday by daily newspaper VG and on the PM’s Facebook page.  Stoltenberg told the newspaper he had wanted to hear people’s honest views on politics. “If there is one place where people say what they really mean about most things, it is in a taxi. Right from the gut,” he told VG.

Alas, the whole thing was a “stunt”, dreamed up by an ad agency. 

    But – could we the people make this part of the job definition of every senior politician?   Each week, he or she will be required to:  shop for groceries;  ride on a bus and on a train;  drive his or her own car and park it downtown;  take a small child to school and chat with a teacher.  

     Former American Joint Chiefs of Staff head Mike Mullen, a navy admiral, was told this by a close friend, just before he began the top job:  “Mike, today is the last day anyone will ever tell you the truth.”    Why?  Because the bearer of bad news to the top honcho risks being the messenger who is beheaded for bringing bad news.  It happens all the time.  What Mullen did is pack his bags and travel the world, speaking directly to soldiers from the ranks.   Few civilian leaders, if any, emulate him.  Stoltenberg simply tried a publicity stunt. 

    I ride taxis a lot.  Taxi drivers are a superb source of information about what is going on, far better than GDP numbers.  If you want to know what is going on in Norway, Prime Minister Stoltenberg, ride a taxi once in a while, rather than drive one.   And – leave the ad agency and the cameras at home. 

 Subprime Mortgage Crisis? Hey – It’s About People!

By Shlomo Maital     


  On the day devoted to recalling victims of the Holocaust, in Israel, there is a moving ceremony in which the endless list of names of those who perished is read.

   I wonder if we could organize a Wall St. Victims day, in which the names of all those who lost their homes are read.  How many are there?

    “Already some 5 million homes have been lost to foreclosure; estimates of future foreclosures range widely. [Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi], who has followed the mortgage mess since the housing market began to crack in 2006, figures foreclosures will strike another three million homes in the next three or four years”. 

  That makes 8 million homes lost by families.  Far more than in the Great Depression.   And each lost home is a tragedy for a mother, father, children.   Assuming 3 persons per household:  24 million people have lost their homes or will in the next few years, as they struggle to pay for mortgages whose value far exceeds the value of their homes.

     Journalist Peter Eavis has done us a great service by tracking one single mortgage, with a family name, through the Wall St. machine that turned it into a toxic poison pill.   (New York Times, Aug. 14, 2013, “A toxic bond that keeps causing pain”).  Here’s how it goes. 

   The bond is GSAMP Trust 2007-NC1.  GS is Goldman Sachs, who packaged the bond.  NC is New Century, a mortgage lender which lent Wendy Fillmore and her husband $274,000 (in 2 mortgages), to buy a $276,000 house in Las Vegas. (Yes, 100% mortgage).  “I was wondering how we managed to get approved,”  Wendy told Eavis.  NC didn’t care if Wendy and her husband paid their mortgage or not; because NC sold it right away to “GS”.  GS packaged the Fillmore mortgage and others, as collateral for a mortgage-backed security,  GSAMP Trust 2007-NC1, that got AAA credit rating so pension funds could buy it.  GS didn’t seem to care much, either, if the mortgages backing the bond were any good.  Those pension funds relied on their trust in Wall St. and in Goldman Sachs, which created the bond in Feb. 2007, when the housing market already had begun to look shaky.  They didn’t, and couldn’t, check on every mortgage that backed  GSAMP Trust 2007-NC1. The bond-rating agency didn’t, and couldn’t, check every mortgage either. That was the beauty of the whole game.  The toxic poison was hidden.  But it was there, for sure.

    Three-fourths of the mortgage payers, whose mortgages back the GS bond, have fallen way behind in their payments, according to the Boston Federal Reserve Bank.   Wendy still pays, but struggles, and is desperate, because the value of her house today is half the value of what she owes in the mortgage.  And of course she can’t sell the house either,  Las Vegas’ housing market is terrible.  Why would you struggle to pay a $276,000 debt for 25 years only to own an asset worth half that?  Well, Wendy wants to continue to live in the house.  But others have simply walked away. 

    What about the GS people who created the toxic bond?  Former GS senior manager Jonathan Sobel left GS in 2008. He is a defendant in a federal suit.  He recently bought a duplex on Park Ave., NY,  for $19 m.  

   According to the New York Times, former GS head of mortgages Daniel Sparks wrote in an email, a month before Wendy got her mortgage, that he was a ‘bit scared’ of New Century.  That email will doubtless haunt him, and has been used in a Congressional investigation.  He didn’t tell the pension funds that.  He should have. 

     p.s. the monthly payment on a 30-year $274,000 mortgage, at 5.25% interest,  is $1,524, or $18,000 a year.  By the time Wendy and her husband finish paying their mortgage, in about 24 years, they will have paid (in principal and interest)  $548,669.60.  


 GS subprime   923 of the 1604 mortgages backing a high-yield 2006 GS bond were 

                                                                                                    “highly risky”.  Guess what its credit rating was? 

When the pill is the problem, not the solution

By Shlomo Maital      


  I’m afraid this blog very often sins, by becoming ‘preachy’.   Even if blogs are meant to convey strong opinions, they can be tiresome if they incessantly preach.

  This blog is about the criminal overuse of anti-depressant drugs, fueled by the greed of Big Pharma, with some doctors complicit as well.

   Here are the data. Judge for yourselves.  (source: Global New York Times, Aug. 14: “Medication blues”, by Roni Caryn Rabin). 

  *  1 in 10 Americans now takes an antidepressant medication.  Among women in their 40s and 50s, it is one in 4.

* 2/3 of more than 5,000 patients diagnosed as depressive in the previous 12 months DID NOT MEET THE CRITERIA FOR MAJOR DEPRESSIVE EPISODE, according to the DSM, Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. 

* 6 of 7 elderly patients 65 and older diagnosed as depressive did not meet the criteria for depression.

  * Most people stay on anti-depressants for at least two years; some take them for a decade or more.  These drugs have side-effects. Some are serious. 

* A NYC woman was prescribed an anti-depressant a few weeks after her husband died, even though she thought feelings of grief and sadness were appropriate.

     Once, we knew that life had ups and downs.  When you’re experiencing the downs, you fight through them.   The drug culture that says, “pop a pill for every possible symptom of occasion” has led to a different drug culture, one that consumes a variety of drugs, mostly illegal, to make us feel good.      

   Recently a well-known Israeli doctor, speaking on TV, admitted that he had given testimony about certain drugs before a Knesset committee – but he admitted, he forgot to mention that he had received large grants from the drug company. 

   Can we trust our doctors, who get trips, junkets, research grants and other perks from drug companies?  Can we trust the drug companies, struggling to maintain obscene profit margins with a dwindling pipeline of over-costly drugs?  Are we over-medicated?  

     What is most angering is that American soldiers, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and there are thousands of them, appear to get minimal care, if any.  Why are some people popping pills for imaginary disorders, while others are not getting the treatment they need? 


                                                                        Who Will Bail out the German Banks?

By Shlomo Maital       


 As Europe’s biggest, wealthiest and most influential nation, Germany has played a dominant role in bailing out failed European banks and failed European governments in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Ireland.   Germany and its leader Angela Merkel have frequently and sternly lectured the deadbeat southern European nations for overspending and over-borrowing,  neglecting to mention that it was largely the German banks who did the lending.    

   Now it turns out that the German banks themselves are endangering Europe.  According to Jack Ewing, in the Global New York Times, “where in Europe is one of the worst banking systems, with bad management, corruption, loans to political insiders that cost taxpayers billions of euros?  Not Italy, Greece or Spain, but – Germany…  the German banks invested in almost every bad asset they encountered —  American subprime mortgages to Greek Govt. bonds”.  According to the EU,  $860 b. were spent in bailing out German banks from 2008 through Sept. 2012.   Only the UK spent more taxpayer money on bank bailouts.  Even Spain and Italy spent less.

    Ewing reports that German banks lend 50 euros for every euro in capital they hold.  This is considered excessive leverage.   Perhaps the German government has been reluctant to bail out Greece, Portugal or Ireland, because it needed (and will need in future) to bail out its own banks. 

     Germany’s banks are enormous. According to the Global Fortune 500,  the largest German banks are Allianz ($130 b. in revenues, in 2012), Deutsche Bank ($87.5 b.),  Landesbank Baden Wurttemburg ($53 b.) (the Landesbanks are controlled by politicians), and Oz Bank ($34 b.).    Their saving grace has been the strong German economy, and its huge export surplus, which kept their balance sheets strong because few loans had to be written off.  But all agree that German banks need radical reform, and many still carry toxic assets on their books. 

     If I were the Prime Minister of Greece, Portugal or Spain,   I would offer to advise the German government on fiscal reform, austerity and bank reform.  All that “friendly advice” by Germany, to Greece and Cyprus,  should first be applied at home.

     Physician, heal thyself.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
August 2013