Friday, January 25, 2013

Crisis sparks new ideas - and fantasies

Three stories emerged this week that gave some respite from the unremitting gloom on offer from the national and international media about Portugal’s economic crisis.
In very different ways, each of these stories shows that while the current crisis has created crippling problems, it has also presented opportunities.
A report from Lisbon on the France 24 television channel extolled the virtues of young people who have chosen to stay at home in austerity-riven Portugal and meet the challenges head-on rather than emigrate to seek employment elsewhere. It gave examples of young entrepreneurs setting up their own businesses – creating their own work instead of remaining jobless or exacerbating the brain drain.
One of those interviewed on the programme was a maths graduate who is heading a company using modern methods to produce vegetables. With agriculture now a growth sector (in more ways than one) and likely to help Portugal emerge from recession, other graduates who in better times might have considered becoming doctors or lawyers are now passionately returning to the land with entrepreneurial success rather than the more widspread pessimism firmly in mind.

Some of those who have gone abroad have done rather well too, of course. Luis Amaral is a remarkable case in point. In 2003 he bought Eurocash, a struggling Warsaw-based grocery business, for $30 million. Now Poland’s biggest distributor of non-durable goods, Eurocash last year sold, among other things, about three million bottles of champagne and 7.8 million lollipops.
The company’s value has surged more than fifteen-fold since selling shares in an initial public offering in 2005, helping Amaral, the 51-year-old CEO, amass a $1.1 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Bloomberg quoted a Vienna-based analyst as saying of Amaral: “He’s a visionary who created a custom-built business for the Polish market. Eurocash has helped traditional retailers to survive against the onslaught of giant supermarkets.”
No wonder Amaral is happy to be in Poland.  He lambasted the Portuguese education system because it “promotes mediocrity,” the judicial system under which “crime pays,” and the financial system that “gives money to people and not to ideas.”

In a rather more quirky story that first broke around Christmas time, there were further revelations this week about  Artur Baptista da Silva, the widely-quoted pundit who told the Portuguese weekly Expresso last month that Portugal needed to renegotiate its bailout package or risk social problems spinning out of control. 
“If it's not negotiated now, then in six months' time, we'd have to do it on our knees. All the projections that we've done for the economy, debt, unemployment, lead us to believe that Portugal will be in serious difficulties in terms of social control in half a year,” warned Baptista da Silva in a report relayed by the Reuters news agency. It sounded sensible enough.
His comments during a debate at the prestigious International Club in Lisbon were greeted with thunderous applause and a part-standing ovation, according to the Spanish newspaper El País. He was taken seriously as an expert by the news media because he was an ex-presidential consultant, a former adviser to the World Bank, a financial researcher for the United Nations and a professor of social economics at a US university.
Well, actually he didn't hold any of these positions.
The 61-year-old looks the part. In fact he is a convicted forger and a conman. None of those who lapped up his financial wisdom saw through his fake CV until after he had established himself as an economics guru. By then some of his former cellmates had been duly impressed by his TV performances.
Although comvicted of 10 crimes between 1982 nd 1998 and having been released from jail a year ago, Baptista da Silva now claims he is the victim of a witch-hunt and has reportedly disappeared from public view. A fresh investigation into alleged falsification of documents is now underway and it is thought likely he will face more charges and be returning behind bars.
In a way that’s a pity. The man clearly has talent. It’s sad that he may not have an opportunity to put it to better use.

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