capital flight and brain drain (II): Greece

what would Greek exit from the Eurozone look like?

I mean what happens in general terms, not the nitty-gritty details of how a sovereign debt default and currency devaluation would be put into place.

Several things would occur, I think:

1.  Greece would stop making principal and interest payments on its sovereign debt and open negotiations with creditors for new, more favorable, terms.

2.  The country would force conversion of all cash held by Greek citizens or Greek companies into a new currency–call it the drachma.

3.  Greece would prevent reconversion of drachmas into foreign currency.  It might ban citizens from holding foreign currency outright, for example.  It would certainly make it illegal for anyone to transport foreign currency in and (especially) out of the country.

4.  It might institute a crawling peg (a specified daily weakening of the exchange rate) or some other mechanism for continuing devaluation of the drachma vs. the €.

how would Greek citizens react?

This default/devaluation path is well-defined.  Look at Mexico in the early 1980s as an instance.  Knowing the roadmap far in advance, what can Greek citizens do to defend themselves against loss of wealth?  Again, the moves are pretty standard:

–move cash holdings to a bank outside of Greece

–raise cash locally–either by selling assets or by borrowing from a local bank (in the hope that your debt will subsequently be devalued)–and move that out of the country, too


Businesses would presumably be thinking of similar measures.  In addition, they would likely begin to drag their feet on paying for stuff bought from Greece, while accelerating payment deadlines for Greek customers.

what about investors?

They do pretty much the same.  They extract cash.  They stop making new investments.  Yes, they study what they might like to buy once devaluation occurs, but otherwise they sit on their hands.

taking a very long time…

…makes the situation worse.  While uncertainty remains high, an increasing number of citizens are likely to make and execute capital flight plans.  And the flow of new investment in the country drops to a trickle.  So the country sits in neutral and idles.

effects on the rest of the EU?

I perceive a sharp difference between the local reaction to debt problems in Italy and Spain, on the one hand, and Greece, on the other.

I think the former two have made it clear they accept responsibility for their weak economic situation and are taking action to fix their problems as quickly as they can.  In contrast, Greece seems to me to believe that its sovereign debt is basically an EU problem.  Its strategy appears to be to implement no reforms and instead bargain for ever better terms.

If that’s an accurate representation, one could argue that the contagion effects–the adverse impact on Spanish and Italian bond markets–of Greece leaving the Eurozone (and, presumably the EU) shouldn’t be severe.

In an investment world dominated by short-term chart-oriented traders, however, I don’t have a lot of confidence other investors will see things my way.  I certainly wouldn’t want to bet the farm that I’m right.

capital flight and “brain drain” (I): what they are

a Guatemalan airline

I got my first practical exposure to the phenomenon of capital flight when I started to work on Wall Street.  It came from a creative colleague at work who gave me a prospectus to read for a bond issue from a Central American airline.  Kind of like a puzzle, he asked me what I thought was unusual.

I had no idea what was going on…

…until he pointed out four things:

–the company was family-owned,

–it bought planes outright rather than leasing them (a much more expensive way of operating),

–it would sell perfectly serviceable planes when they were two or three years old and replace them with brand-new ones, plowing all the firm’s cash flow into this effort (again, very inefficient), and

–the planesalwaysspent the night in foreign airports, mostly in the US.

On the surface, this behavior seems crazy.

But think about it.  Most of the family wealth was tied up in the planes; they spent most of their time outside the country.

Perfect in case of a sharp change in the political winds.  And not obvious enough a move to catch the sitting government’s eye.

The airline was the family’s vehicle for capital flight (no puns intended).

two sides of one coin

“Brain drain” is the term coined in the UK for emigration of its highly skilled and educated citizens to the US after World War II.  It has become synonymous with the flight of human capital in general.

The term “capital flight” typically refers to the flight of financial capital.

why does capital flee a country?

Three main reasons:

–political repression, actual or feared

–limited economic prospects in the home country

–high taxes, either on current earnings or on accumulated wealth.



In the early 1980s, China announced it would not renew the UK lease on Hong Kong.  Therefore, the colony would revert to Chinese rule in 1997.  The UK then said it would not grant citizenship to anyone in Hong Kong (because they wouldn’t like the harsh UK climate).  So Hong Kong citizens began to look for other places in the Commonwealth to obtain passports and shift their wealth.

economic prospects

Emigration from Europe to the US post-WWII is a prime example of this phenomenon.  New Zealand or the Australia of twenty years ago might be others.


There has been a steady flow of people out of high-tax states in the US like California and New Jersey into neighboring areas like Nevada and Pennsylvania, where levies are lower. For decades, Ireland has attracted multinational corporations by offering very low tax rates.  One of the planks in the electoral platform of Mr. Hollande, the new head of government in France, was to raise income taxes on yearly earnings of over €1 million to 75%.  Reportedly, real estate agents in the UK have seen a surge in interest in London residences from French buyers.

fighting capital flight:  closing the borders

Generally speaking, there are two ways to stop capital flight/brain drain:  fix the problems that are causing the flight, or forcibly prevent capital from leaving.

Practically speaking, then, there’s only one way–closing the borders.

For financial capital, a government does this by limiting the amount of foreign currency a holder of the domestic currency can buy, or the amount of local currency he can transport out of the country.

For human capital, a country can restrict the ability of citizens, or their families, to leave.  In addition, a potential emigrant has to have someplace to emigrate to, which can make this issue a lot more complicated.

Tomorrow:  the situation in Greece.






brain drain in 2012

what it is

“Brain drain” is a term coined in the UK after WWII to describe the outflow of human intellectual/scientific/economic talent from a country.  Motivation for the outflow can sometimes be religious or ethnic persecution in the home country.  More benignly, brain drain is more likely motivated by economic prospects that are perceived to be significantly better away from the home country.  According to Wikipedia, the term may have been initially used to describe the movement of British citizens to the US, or to the inflow into the UK of citizens of India.

where is it happening today?

What forms of brain drain can be seen in today’s world?

the Eurozone

–I think we should watch the EU carefully, especially southern Europe.  On the one hand, government finances in Italy, Greece… can’t be fixed by raising taxes.  People will move into other parts of the Eurozone, for one thing,  History also shows that higher tax rates invariably trigger increased tax evasion.  So higher rates can end up generating lower revenue.  (This isn’t just a European phenomenon:  New Jersey has just released an economic study showing the state is suffering a net loss of $150 million in annual tax revenues as a consequence of two income tax rate hikes early in the last decade).

Even though cost-cutting will be the main tool European governments will use to balance heir budgets, the economic stagnation that austerity measures will produce may cause an outflow of intellectual talent from southern Europe to France or Germany, or outside the Eurozone to the UK.

the US

–Anecdotal evidence suggests there’s a budding trend toward emigration from the US to China, because of the latter’s superior economic prospects.  There’s also a movement on the Northeast to create publicly funded schools that emphasize Asian culture and history–and where instruction might be in Mandarin.

–a combination of high taxes, lack of home-grown engineering graduates and immigration restrictions that severely limit the number of Indian and Chinese engineers able to work in the US has meant a continual outflow of technology manufacturing away from the US.


–To my mind, the most curious case of potential brain drain is that recently reported by the Wall Street Journal It’s the potential outflow of wealthy Chinese from the mainland.  They’re not seeking political or economic freedom, or at least not simply that.  What’s prompting them to consider emigration–overwhelmingly to either the US or Canada–are social concerns, including:

–poor schools

–bad medical treatment


in that order.  Also:

–unsafe food (local municipal authorities sometimes offer industrial waste disposal sites for lease as agricultural land), and

–the one-child policy.

investment implications

At this point, these developments are more curiosities than anything else.  But events in southern Europe bear close watching.  That’s the place where emigration has the most potential for economic disruption, in my opinion.