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Monday, 30 March 2015

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem says “nyet” to the IPO of ABN Amro. Of course all the usual suspects are in a state of shock. The question remains: was it a wise decision by Dijsselbloem?!

Those days are gone forever
I should just let them go but

This week was a very special week for the Dutch, state-owned bank ABN Amro. The date had been written in the agendas of ABN Amro’s executive managers with thick, black markers.

It should have become the week in which the Dutch Finance Minister and Chairman of the Euro-group Jeroen Dijsselbloem announced the date for the IPO of this bank, at the Euronext Amsterdam stock exchange. 

This would become the IPO, that would make an effective end to the dark period, formed by the full state-ownership of ABN Amro, and it would enable a new and more promising episode in the long history of this old bank.

There was only one problem: there was no announcement for an IPO of ABN Amro this week!

Instead, Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem flabbergasted the executives of ABN Amro with a firm decision to postpone the IPO for the time being, leaving them in shock and awe.

There had been a few incidents regarding ABN Amro, during the last two weeks.

First, in 2014 the executive layer, residing under CEO and former Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm, had been rewarded with an additional €100,000 per year on their fixed salary. De Telegraaf:  

ABN Amro, which is still firmly in hands of the Dutch State, rewarded the executive management with a payment raise of €100,000 last year. This has been announced by the bank today, in an explanation upon the remuneration policy.

With an exception for CEO Gerrit Zalm, the fixed salary rose by 17% to €707,500. According to the stateowned bank, this raise was part of the prohibition arrangement for bonuses and variable remuneration for state-supported banks. This arrangement actually offered a possibility to compensate for missed bonuses through a payment raise of up to 20% of the fixed salary.

This raise of €100,000 had indeed been negotiated earlier, as a compensation for these executives having to abolish their bonuses and variable payments.

In spite of the fact that this deal had been rock-solid on paper, it led to public outrage anyway, when the Dutch citizens heard that the highest level management of this stateowned bank would receive this extra annual payment.

A second nail in the coffin for ABN Amro was formed by a large corruption scandal in Dubai, which had been described in Het Financieele Dagblad a few weeks ago:

In January, the Dutch stateowned bank ABN Amro had to fire almost the whole executive layer of its very successful private banking desk in Dubai. Six bankers have become victims of this lay off operation. 

Cause for this scandal was the discovery of widespread malversations, in which employees of this desk had been involved. This question is painful for ABN Amro, because the bank stands at the eve of a reintroduction at the stock exchanges. 

While trying to make investors forget the chequered past before the nationalization in 2008 and present a unstained bank to the investors, this fraud affair at a distinguished foreign subsidiary comes at a very unfavourable time.

Yes, indeed it does... And there has been even more. 

The Dutch national bank DNB had sent a confidential letter to the executives of ABN Amro, in which DNB condemned the mitigation of corruption risks at ABN Amro, as being ‘insufficient’.  This DNB letter leaked to Het Financieele Dagblad and quotes from it have been published this Saturday:

From an industry-wide investigation into corruption and conflicts of interests, the national supervisor concluded that there are ‘shortcomings’ in the bank-wide policy against ‘corruption risks’ [at ABN Amro - EL]. Earlier criticism by DNB did not lead to decisive changes, in spite of a few improvements. DNB urged ABN Amro to address these shortcomings now and announced a secondary investigation in this matter.

A large gap is that, according to DNB, the first line (i.e. the bankers who are doing the actual business) are ‘insufficiently’ involved in the bank's anti-corruption policy. The bank puts ‘too little effort’ in improvement. ‘It did not became clear at all that ABN Amro did actually identify the inherent corruption risks for its organization or its activities’. This failure is ‘especially present’ at the division, which trades in energy and commodities, like oil.

To cut a long story short, Jeroen Dijsselbloem shorted the IPO plans of ABN Amro and put them in the refrigerator for an unknown period of time. When asked, he mentioned ‘a few reasons’ for taking this decision, of which the "blunt" salary raise was one.

The ABN Amro executives were not the only ones who were baffled. Also in the London City investments bankers had to grab the seat of their pants after hearing the news. 

There had been numerous reactions like:”what was the minister thinking?”, “well, now he waved goodbye to €15 billion in shareholder money” or “he has turned back the clock for at least two years, when it comes to confidence in this stateowned bank. How can investors ever build up trust again in the discretion of the Dutch government, with respect to ABN Amro?!

I can understand the astonishment at the ABN Amro bank, as it wants to fight its way out of the government yoke of stateownership and return to the free market, in order to fulfil the international ambitions that undoubtedly reside within the bank. 

And I can understand the frustration in the London City, which sees this juicy target suddenly disappear after the horizon.

Yet, I can also understand the Finance Minister, who wants to earn back with the IPO a considerable share of the €32 billion, that have been invested in the bank after the nationalization. He probably does not want to take a risk with a bank that is subject to a few scandals. On top of that, the minister also has to deal with the still explosive mood in The Netherlands, against bankers and the banking industry as a whole.

Perhaps the minister did make a wise decision, by temporarily withdrawing the IPO of the bank, as the aforementioned scandals were indeed simmering until boiling point and new scandals are the least that both the bank and the minister could use.

The main question for me, however, is how much the ABN Amro is really worth when the IPO would indeed be continued. The figure of €15 billion has been mentioned, but is this a realistic figure?! Let's find out!

In earlier days, before the troika of Banco Santander, Fortis and Royal Bank of Scotland took over the bank, the ABN Amro was a global player with a truly international portfolio of services, with branches all over the world and a bedazzling stock value of above €75 billion, “but those days have gone forever and we should just let them go”.

Since the nationalization, the bank has turned into a local player, which mainly operates on the Dutch market. It only has a few international services on offer that can truly compete with the large British, German and American competitors of the bank. 

When looking at the Boston Matrix, in my humble opinion the bank will therefore not be a star, but it could be a cash cow, yielding decent annual profits and solid dividends on its stock. That is about it, unless… the bank decides to change its strategy again and turn into an international champion after all. 

I have serious doubts, however, whether this will take place with politician/banker Gerrit Zalm at the helm or not, as he obviously lacks the international banking experience to achieve such. Currently, the bank is as the Dutch say: too big for the napkin, but too small for the table cloth!

As I’m not an investment banker and therefore not subject to the need to “talk the stock up”, I want to take a look at a realistic value for the bank, based upon the annual data of 2014.

I start with the income statement of the bank.

Income statement of ABN Amro for 2014
Data courtesy of
Click to enlarge
The bank managed to earn a considerably higher operational income in 2014 (+€600 million or 8%) at slightly higher operating expenses. On top of that, the impairment charges (for write-offs on f.i. bad loans and bad mortgages) were considerably lower in 2014(-/- €500 billion) than in 2013: a clear sign that the worst might be behind us, when it comes to the credit and euro crisis.

That the reported profit for the period is eventually slightly lower than in 2013, has to do with the unfavourable amount at the special items (one off material expenses or profits, which are not related to normal business activities), where 2013 showed a favourable amount.

When you look at the profit of ABN Amro in 2014, before deduction of these special items, this amounted to €1.5 billion. If one would take a rather conservative P/E (i.e. profit to equity) ratio of 10, the value of the bank would indeed be around €15 billion.

However, like the recent scandal in Dubai and the letter of DNB showed, the bank seems still quite vulnerable for allegations of corruption and fraud. Such allegations could possibly lead to serious penalties in the future, as especially the United States government has little patience with offenders of its banking rules and fights corporate corruption with massive penalties, that could cost the bank a shedload of money.

Balance sheet of ABN Amro for 2014
Data courtesy of
Click to enlarge
The balance sheet of ABN Amro is clearly growing again by €14 billion in 2014, but the leverage in the balance decreased slightly to 26 from 27 in 2013, which is a good sign.

Particularly conspicuous are the massive increase of the derivative portfolio at both the debit and credit side and the financial investments. According to the bank, the former has been caused by ‘changes in FX rates and interest movements, impacting the fair value of derivatives‘, while the latter is the results of investments in the liquidity buffer.

The increased ’liabilities due to customers’ in 2014 show that people and companies still wanted to save money during that year, in spite of the disappointing interest rates. It is a tell-tale signal that in 2014 both consumers and companies were still reluctant to spend or invest their money and rather hoarded it at the bank.

Income statement for Corporate Banking
of ABN Amro for 2014
Data courtesy of
Click to enlarge

Income statement for Retail Banking
of ABN Amro for 2014
Data courtesy of
Click to enlarge

Income statement for Private Banking
of ABN Amro for 2014
Data courtesy of
Click to enlarge
When we zoom in at the achievements of the corporate, private and retail banking parts of the bank, these look all quite solid with considerable improvements in the reported profits. 

Everywhere, the interest margin improved considerably and the overall reduction in the impairment charges shows indeed that the Dutch economy has become much healthier in 2014 than it was in 2013.

Inspiring confidence are especially the achievements of corporate banking, as it seems that the large corporate clients, as well as the small and medium enterprises (SME), did fine.  Especially SME clients have formerly been a pain in the neck for the Dutch banks, so this favourable development of the profits at corporate banking seems a massive improvement.

Finally I want to take a look at the cost to income ratio of the bank:

Cost to income ratio for all company parts
of ABN Amro for 2014
Data courtesy of
Click to enlarge

What stands out here are the cost to income ratio for private banking and – to a lesser degree – for corporate banking. As the following benchmark for private banking of the Scorpio Partnership shows, ABN Amro’s cost to income ratio in 2014 was 4% higher than the global benchmark of 77% for a diversified bank in 2013.

Global cost to income benchmark
for private banking
Data courtesy of
Click to enlarge
This means quite a deterioration of the operational expenses and it could mean that ABN Amro has to further cut its costs in that area of business.

Summarizing, overall the annual data for ABN Amro for 2014 look really good and when the one off special items would be taken out of the equasion, a total stock value of €12 - €17 billion seems viable indeed. 

Especially good is that all parts of the bank make solid profits and there are no real negative outliers. From that point of view, Finance Minister Dijsselbloem could have missed a good opportunity to sell the bank in 2015.

However, unless the strategy of the bank changes dramatically, the bank seems rather a cash cow with steady dividends than a star, as it lacks the international ambitions and strategy to achieve that. On top of that, there are a few looming scandals nowadays, which could dramatically spoil the results in future years, under pressure of (inter)national supervisors.

That, and the enduring discussions in The Netherlands with respect to the executive remuneration at ABN Amro, caused by the badly calibrated social antennas of ABN Amro's executive leadership, means that Dijsselbloem could have made a wise decision indeed, by not going all-in with the bank.

The fact that the executive leadership of ABN Amro decided this very afternoon to abolish the €100 K payment raise after all, does not change much about that.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The VVD and the ultimate N.I.M.B.Y. statement: “close the door of Fortress Europe for African and Middle-Eastern refugees”

"Giving in to dictators and tyrants in Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe is like giving in to the mob. While doing it, something goes broken inside of you and the harder you try to ignore that, the more broken it gets"

The VVD – the Dutch liberal-conservative People’s party for Freedom and Democracy of PM Mark Rutte – has to deal with two enormous elephants in the room.

Their former "party-member-turning-renegade" and extreme right-wing politician Geert Wilders, of the populist Party for Freedom, is a force to be reckoned with at the right side of the political spectrum. The liberal party D66, on the other hand, was recently very successful with its stance slightly left of the VVD: a little bit right to the centre of politics.

These forces from both sides caused that the VVD, although officially being the largest party in The Netherlands, became ‘stuck in the middle’ between two parties with IMHO a much clearer profile than the VVD had: a quite schizophrenic position. That the VVD was the largest coalition member in a cabinet with the social-democrat PvdA and that it had to grant a few “bones” to this battered party, in order to keep them not too unhappy during their stay in the cabinet of PM Rutte, did the popularity also no good.

That requires perhaps an explanation. The VVD has always been a – quite happy and successful – marriage between the liberal and conservative factions of the party:
  • The liberal representatives of the party (often competent national and local officials and civil servants) were traditionally in favor of a strong and quite social national state, funded on liberal principles, and thus not per sé against a strong government. These were the people in the centre of the political spectrum, where entrepreneurship, success and wealth were important, but not all-prevailing;
  • The conservative representatives were traditionally in favour of a smaller government and wanted to run “The Netherlands ltd” as a company, with a keen eye for the needs of wealthy people, successful entrepreneurs and large corporations and a not so keen eye for the ‘losers of society’. “People were responsible for their own successes and failures” was their creed. Subsidies – unless for companies and start-ups – and social security were a drag and paying taxes was an even bigger drag. The neoconservative paradigm has been their natural habitat lately. 

In spite of their obvious differences, both squadrons within the party coexisted for a long time without large quarrels, which turned the party in a stronghold of stability.

This changed, however, when Geert Wilders argued himself out of the VVD in 2005 and subsequently started the Party for Freedom (PVV). Suddenly there was a party that represented the most conservative voices within the VVD: much better than the VVD leadership itself could.

And to make things worse for the VVD, the PVV was a party which also attracted two large categories of voters in The Netherlands:
  • The anxious, white and older voter, who is already retired or close to his retirement and sees the immigration, the breakdown of the Dutch welfare state and the increasingly interconnected European politics as a threat for his personal wellbeing;
  • Young white workers and unemployeds with a poor education and limited chances for improvement on the labour market, who see the globalization and free traffic of labour from the European low wage countries as a threat for their future.

Wilders’ popularity among these groups was caused by his anti-European stance, his enduring verbal attacks against muslims and immigrants from Africa and the East-European low wage countries and his desire to treat The Netherlands as a “brave but lonely stronghold in a further hostile world”. 

This was topped off by his extraordinarily “leftish” social security plans, which planned to restore almost all social benefits that had been taken away, as a consequence of the various austerity measures of the last few cabinets.

The preference of these voter groups for the PVV was quite easy to understand, as particularly these groups saw the drawbacks of globalization, immigration and the European Union and hardly enjoyed the benefits of it. Wilders answered their demand for a purely Dutch oasis in an increasingly interconnected world. This turned the PVV into an instant success with a steadily rising number of voters.

The VVD itself was utterly confused by the success of the PVV and its rogue leader, Geert Wilders. The consequence of this success was that, under influence of the PVV, the VVD went into a more conservative and populist direction as well.

The focus came to lie with key concepts as:
  • Law & order;
  • Less taxes for entrepreneurs and wealthy people and more taxes for simple workers with a fixed contract;
  • A focus on national successes and Dutch exports, at the expense of (inter)national solidarity and a more balanced European economy;
  • Development aid and immigration, which had to be mainly used as tools for our own benefits and hardly for the benefits of other people and countries.

These developments caused many true liberals to escape to D66, which was more leftish, leaving the VVD with a mixture of entrepreneurs, political hustlers and local government apparatchiks, as well as endorsers of a conservative law and order society, a smaller government and less taxes on wealth.

Yet, the right flank, formed by the PVV, remains enormously attractive for many VVD voters, thus causing a growing hazard for the future success and sheer existance of the VVD itself. The VVD, in its apparent despair, now seems to make stranger and stranger capers, in order to beg for the fading charms of their grassroots.

Last week, the VVD member of parliament Malik Azmani (himself partially of Moroccan descent) launched the audacious plan to close the European borders for refugees from Africa and the Middle East, “as he could not stand anymore the thought about those hundreds of Syrian and African refugees in their wrecked boats and ships, many of them drowning in the Mediterranean Sea”.

The following snippets were acquired from the website of BNR News Radio:

The VVD wants to make an end to the large flows of refugees to Europe. According to Member of Dutch parliament Malik Azmani, it “cannot be prevented that also terrorists find their way to Europe”. He stated that principally he only wants to offer asylum to European refugees. Azmani:”By creating sufficient safe refuges in the region itself, we make requests for asylum within Europe superfluous”.

MP Azmani stated that he does not want to watch helplessly how people drown in the Mediterranean Sea. On top of that, he thinks that the influx of refugees leads to a serious straining within the Dutch society.

How can you explain to an ostrich, that the bad things it does not want to see, will happen after all; even when it does not look, but puts its head in the sand instead?!

Either MP Malik Azmani is hopelessly naive or this was the ultimate N.I.M.B.Y. statement (i.e. ‘not in my backyard’) from a vicious politician: someone who hopes to please the right wing PVV voters and the ultra conservatives within his own party with an impossible promise, that he naturally won’t be able to keep.

In both cases, he doesn’t deserve my tax payments… at all.

First, the region around Syria already absorbs millions and millions of Syrian refugees: over 95% of them. On top of that, the biggest numbers of refugees that reach Europe have been absorbed by the European countries around the Mediterranean Sea, while others go to the United Kingdom, France or Germany. In comparison with the countries around Syria, the numbers of Syrian refugees in The Netherlands are truly pathetic. I don’t have any reason whatsoever to think that The Netherlands absorbs many more African refugees than for instance Greece, Spain or Italy.

Second, there are half a dozen European and international laws that prohibit the European Union to further close its borders for refugees. Nobody in their right state of mind will ever think that these laws will drastically change for the worse, from the point of view of refugees.  “Fortress Europe” is already extremely hard to reach for refugees and the few lucky ones that reach European shores unharmed, cannot be sent back just like that.

And last but not least, even if the European shores would be guarded like a sheer vault, this would not stop thousands of brave and desperate men and women from taking their chances and run the gauntlet anyway. The situation in their home country is often so bad, that they rather die on their way to a better future than remaining in their current situation.

Without a doubt, this VVD politician knows this ugly truth, but he rather rejects it mentally, than having to face the music. Suffice it to say, that this plan was slaughtered by social-democrat coalition partner PvdA AND the full opposition, except of course for… the PVV.

Yet, my hope, that this would be the ultimate in bad VVD judgment for this week, was blown to smithereens today by VVD’s chief whip (i.e. leader of the largest fraction in parliament) Halbe Zijlstra.

In a “forthright” interview, Zijlstra admitted that The Netherlands should try to get along better with the remaining dictators in Europe. De Volkskrant:

The VVD is aiming for a change in direction for the Dutch foreign policy. In the future, The Netherlands should not visit the dictators at the edges of Europe with its finger raised in disapproval.

The rushed overthrowing of ‘stabile regimes’ of suppressors leads to chaos and – in the process – to an enhanced influx of refugees in Europe, according to Halbe Zijlstra. “When there is a stable, albeit dictatorial regime in a certain country, we should comfort it and try to gradually improve the situation for the inhabitants of that country. We should stop raising our finger at those leaders in disapproval”.

Through the voice of Halbe Zijlstra, the liberals are settling for a ‘realistical foreign policy’, which adds to a stable southern frontier for Europe.”I don’t state that we should have left Moammar-al-Khadaffi in power. Yet, at the time we thought this plan for regime change through insufficiently, just like in Iraq, when we invaded that country”. When the current instability in the Middle East and Africa perseveres, there will be a steady flow of refugees coming our way. One should choose the way of graduality. Away from the revolution”.

The VVD doesn’t want to keep dictators in power, according to Zijlstra, but The Netherlands has to cooperate with the suppressors: “Instead of us saying: ‘You are not acting according to our standards, so we despise you’, we have to look for cooperation with the regime, as this is in our own safety interest. Also, we have to push for slow change”.  

There are parts of this statement by Halbe Zijlstra, which undoubtedly make sense.

Of course, the situation in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and last but not least Syria went totally out of hand, after military interventions and/or political and military sponsorship by the Western allies took place in these countries, in favour of all kinds of unreliable and violent factions, with their own hidden agendas.

These unintented consequences happened as a result of the gung ho desire for regime change and a totally naive view upon the political, economic and religious snakepits in these countries, which both acted as a handful of mints in a bottle of cola.

“Look before you leap” is really one of the wisest proverbs there is, as it could prevent countries from making deadly mistakes.

Nevertheless, this statement by Halbe Zijlstra spreads an intolerable stench of NIMBY-ism, cowardness and disdain for the basic human right of ‘being able to lead one’s life in safety, peace, good health and relative prosperity’.

Giving in to such dictators and tyrants in Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe is like giving in to the mob. While doing it, something goes broken inside of you and the harder you try to ignore that, the more broken it gets.

And would it solely be for the purpose of saving the lives of the people in these countries, I would yet understand it. But no, this plan by Halbe Zijlstra is for the sole purpose of receiving less refugees on our shores. I truly despise that!

And to make things worse for Halbe Zijlstra: only few tyrants or dictators have ever been vulnerable for soft power, coming from their trade partners. The vast majority of them has not. That is why they are so successful as dictator in the first place.

You can deal with Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, but he will never change his tune for you, as this would show weakness on his behalf. And neither will Bashar al-Assad of Syriah, Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus), marshall Fateh el-Sisi of Egypt, ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran or the whole regime in Saudi Arabia.

You can see such dictators as the cork on a bottle of champagne, which prevents massive bloodsheds and civil wars from happening. Probably you are right! Still, there is a very thin line between patience and sensible pragmatism while being in delicate situations and the sheer cowardness of NIMBY-ism and dealing with the mob, when that is a prosperous operation on your behalf. 

In my humble opinion, the VVD crossed this line twice, last week.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Dutch Cabinet “helps” the faltering retail industry with all kinds of nice measures, but conveniently forgets the most decisive side of the equasion: the customers’ demand!

There is one thing that the Dutch cabinet and I have in common: our worries about the faltering brick & mortar retail industry in The Netherlands, as a consequence of the enduring economic crisis, the mindless expansion of domestic shopping space and the emergence of webshops and the internet economy. 

This enduring crisis causes extremely rough times for many shops and store-owners and leaves the battle scars within the Dutch shopping centres and streets, in the shape of vacant stores and sometimes desolate shopping centres.

Our cabinet and I differ, however, about the solution for this conundrum. 

My readers know that I often refer to the diminished demand, as a consequence of cautious, crisis-hardened consumers, as well as growing unemployment and long-term wage restraint and even wage decreases among the middle and lower classes. 

The cabinet totally denies this circumstance, however, and searches for its solutions at the supply side of trade.

The following snippets were published in the AD newspaper:

The inner cities in The Netherlands should flourish again, but that is virtually impossible with the ever-growing shop vacancy. This is the reason that the Cabinet of PM Mark Rutte presents a series of measures, in order to help the shop-owners and keep the shopping centres viable.

From now on, shop owners will get a permit to refurbish their shop or extend their shop with a food and beverage corner more easily. 

On top of that the often skyrocketed shop rents will be lowered, according to the commercial real estate exploration companies. 

Additionally, €40 million will become available for extra loans to the small and medium enterprises.

The 775.000 employees in the retail industry will also receive an education, which enables them to work at a web-shop easier and without the transitional problems that one would expect.

These are exactly the solutions that someone would find – in this case Minister of Economic Affairs, Henk Kamp – who is in total denial of the situation in the Dutch retail industry.

These solution just won’t work as they do NOTHING about the enormous elephant in the room: the lagging demand, as a consequence of the ubiquitous consumer strike in The Netherlands!

They ignore the simple reality that people (i.e. consumers) are still not very confident about the economy and spend much less on consumption and shopping, than say 15 years ago. And they have done so over the last ten years, slowly choking the retailers.

Besides that, the significantly diminished expenditure of consumers is divided over more shops and shopping space: for the latter, there has been at least 8.5% growth between 2005 and 2015 [no more recent data available than 2012 - EL]. 

To make things worse, there are many, many more webshops than in 2005, which take an increasing slice of the consumption pie. You could call this a triple whammy. These developments are shown by the following two charts.

The sales development in the Dutch retail industry
vs the official inflation rate
Chart by: Ernst's Economy
Data courtesy of: CBS
Click to enlarge
The inflation adjusted sales growth vs
the increase of shopping space
Chart by: Ernst's Economy
Data courtesy of: CBS
Click to enlarge
As long as the Dutch government, the Dutch municipalities and the Dutch companies fail to significantly increase the purchase power of the Dutch consumers and – at the same time – put an effective brake on the increasing amount of available shopping space, the problems in the retail industry will endure. So simple is that

The rest of the plans in the aforementioned article are simply hot air…

Let’s take a look at for instance the plan to add a food and beverage corner to stores in the shopping centres.

In spite of the fact that the La Place food & beverage formula of V&D was by far the most successful part of this extremely large retail company, it did not help one bit to keep this company as a whole afloat.

La Place flourished, but the V&D stores as a whole suffered nevertheless.

Besides that, La Place might be a successful exception, but in general the food & beverage industry suffers from the same consumer strike, which hit the whole retail industry in The Netherlands.

So when you stack ‘failure’ (decreasing shop sales) upon failure (decreasing food & beverage sales), the chances that the outcome will become a success, are minute. The only difference is that the shop owners have spent even more money and have loaded up more debt to finance this expansion of their shop.

The same is happening, with refurbishing one's shop: it is a useless investment, when there is so much competition and when the competition also refurbishes their shop. 

I am convinced that Minister Henk Kamp – who is a smart fellow – knows this too, but does not want to spoil the charisma of unfounded optimism that surrounds this Cabinet of Wishful Thinking.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Will Greece become the victim of their “Suicide-by-Cop” strategy against the troika and will police woman Angela Merkel indeed pull the trigger? We might find out sooner than we like.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

The last few months, since the election of the left-wing Syriza party and the right-wing ANEL party (i.e. the independent Greeks), the European Union has witnessed a schizophrenic Greek government. So schizophrenic, as a matter of fact, that it would put Harvey Two-Face, the supervillain from the "Batman" movie series, to shame.

At one moment, the country is teasing, provoking and screaming (at) the troika, the Eurozone and the whole European Union. Also it is spinning and bending the truth, as a genuine adolescent child would do. 

The next moment the country is soft-soaping the Euro-zone leadership and meekly obeying all the rules and demands that “master” Dijsselbloem and “mistress” Merkel lay upon the country, in order to get the financial aid money that the country so desperately needs; also as an adolescent kid would do.

“Will you follow the troika’s lead to get your next installment of financial aid?!””Yes, mistress Angela!” “And will you not speak about a minimum wage-raise for your empoverished middle and lower class?!” “No, master Jeroen!”

In its seeming erraticness and (even) self-destructiveness the Greek behaviour, as well as the response of the Euro-group to this very behaviour, is akin to an infamous US phenomenon: “suicide by cop”.

Suicide-by-cop: A suspect, armed with some kind of weapon, threatens to hurt his family, friends or even total strangers, for a reason that few people understand. In the minutes after the police arrive, there is a sinister negotiation game going on between the suspect and the police; a deal of give and take, in which the suspect demands something and the policemen try to contain the situation and protect the innocent victims of this (mostly) male suspect.

Too often, this situation leads to a bloody climax, in which the suspect threatens to pull the trigger against his hostages and the policemen subsequently terminate the suspect in a hailstorm of bullets. Final result: the suspect is dead and the police feel miserable for shooting a living person, with possibly a brighter future before him.

The understandable, but nevertheless pitiful reason for this erratic Greek behaviour is that the Greek government, represented by PM Alex Tsipras and Yanis “Stinkefinger” Varoufakis, are truly with their backs against the wall.

First and for all, the parties within the current Greek government had been chosen as a result of their promises to change the response of Greece to the troika of IMF, ECB and Euro-zone: from meek, obedient and contrite to powerful, self-confident and unafraid. This should lift the Greek mood and self-confidence to a higher level, after seven extremely difficult years.

In the proces the chosen parties should also change the way in which the troika is treating Greece: as an equal partner, instead of a boxing ball for the Northern European countries. Greece meant business against the troika and demanded the other Euro-zone countries to listen to them.

The Greek lower and middle classes, which were already knocked down by the enduring, economic crisis in their country, could not stand another round of austerity, in order to meet the demands of the troika. They were already sick and tired of their poor and hopeless situation, with the massive amounts of unemployed and empoverished people. They simply demanded a better future for them and their children from their new government.

The rich Greeks, on the other hand, had been stashing their billions or millions in Euros away; out of sight for the Greek internal revenue service or the new Greek government. When asked, they acted if the current situation of Greece had nothing to do with their past and present locust behaviour and structural embezzlement of tax money

It wasn’t me, who evaded taxes all the time, so further please shut up and go away!” And even when everybody in Greece would spontaneously start to pay his taxes (which they obviously didn't), that would probably still not yield enough money to rescue the faltering economy. 

For Tsipras and Varoufakis, there was the ungrateful and nearly hopeless task to convince the Euro-zone that Greece couldn’t stretch further and could not stand new rounds of austerity, in order to meet the demands from the troika. So they tried to talk some sense into the Euro-zone and show it that "enough was enough" as far as the austerity measures concerned, alternatingly using their good boy / bad boy approach. 

However, this only flabbergasted the other members of the Euro-group and left them in an utter state of confusion, about what the heck was going on with Greece.

And so it happened that, instead of trying to find a solution that could ease down the situation and give both parties some air to breathe, both parties (i.e. Greece vs the rest) continued their strategy of (deliberately) misunderstanding their "adversaries"and persisting to their own righteousness, which led to an escalation of the situation.

Merkel and Dijsselbloem have not been giving one centimeter of leeway to Greece and stood firmly behind their ultra-dogmatic mantra, that Greece had to fullfil the demands from the troika to the last syllable and return all borrowed Euro-zone money until the last penny.

Even Greece’s “natural partners”, the other PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy) and the former Eastern Block countries, which all suffered severely from the European austerity measures themselves, would not let Greece off the hook a little. “We have suffered heavily for meeting the demands from the Euro-zone and so will you. There will be no easy way out for you”.

This brings us to the main problem of the suicide-by-cop conundrum, both in real life in the United States, as virtually within the Euro-zone: 
the situation will only get really out of hand, when both the suspect and the cop continue their improductive behaviour against each other and thus lead each other to the inevitable climax of violence, suffering and death. Both parties often have their reasons to persist in their behaviour, but fail to understand that persisting it, will inevitably lead to the most undesired outcome of the situation.

And so the 'deadly' role-play of Europe and Greece, as the respective policeman and the hoodlum, is continuing until this very day.

Greece is excelling in its role of suicidal suspect, who keeps the whole Euro-zone as a hostage and currently threatens to blow up the very euro. 

Merkel, Dijsselbloem and even François Hollande play the trigger-happy cops, who have their guns firmly in their hand. They are seemingly ready for making the kill, even if this cost them both their own economic lives and the euro, as the common European currency.

And when signs do not betray, the moment for the final kill comes closer and closer.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

“It must become cheaper, cheaper, cheaper…!” European airliners and maintenance companies try to downgrade aircraft engineers to administrative inspectors, during maintenance work

More than two years ago, I spoke on behalf of my blog with the secretary-general of the Aircraft Engineers International (AEI) association, the Dutchman Fred Bruggeman.

Fred Bruggeman,
secretary-general of Aircraft Engineers International
Click to enlarge
At the time, he came with the revealing and also shocking story that pilots of numerous airliners report many more defects and malfunctions in their logbooks during the return flights back to their home base, than during outward flights. Although the numbers of malfunctions on outward flights and return flights should be nearly equal, from a statistical point of view, Fred and his colleagues of the AEI discovered that enormous deviations existed between those numbers. There was no other explanation for such massive deviations than that defects and malfunctions on the outward flights had been covered up until the return flight, instead of being printed in the logbook; this is in fact fraud and forgery of documents. For the reason for this behaviour, you can have an educated guess!

As many airliners – among those Air France/KLM – go through rough times currently, I wanted to know from Fred, which consequences he saw for the employment, but also for the security situation in The Netherlands and abroad. This renewed contact led to the following interview, on Wednesday 11 March, 2015.

Fred Bruggeman: At this moment, some business is going on which is crucial. At the beginning of next year – 2016 – there will be an excess in maintenance personnel in The Netherlands, as a number of large maintenance projects will be finished. As we speak, there are negotiations between the Dutch unions and the employers, about a voluntary dismissal arrangement for aircraft engineers. You will understand, however, that such an arrangement is not particularly popular at this moment.

And there is more. At this moment we – the AEI – are involved, through our lawyers, in appealing to the EASA – the European Aviation Safety Agency – that it does not maintain the current aviation laws.

During large maintenance operations on airplanes, the jobs must be executed by a blend of mechanics and aircraft engineers (AE). The AE’s are legally responsible for checking the repairing jobs of the mechanics. That is the law in the European aviation industry. The AE’s must sign an official statement that the maintenance job has been executed in the right way, while using the correct documentation, and by qualified mechanics.

A number of maintenance companies is interpreting the European aviation law in such a way, that the maintenance job has only to be checked administratively(!) by the aircraft engineers and not physically anymore. Many companies don’t want those expensive, busybody aircraft engineers to check the maintenance job fysically and real-time anymore, as this takes time and could even lead to a rejection of the work done. The latter is bad news for the maintenance companies. Nevertheless, due to the aviation laws, the aircraft engineers must sign for the quality of the work done. 

The European aviation law is such, that the person who signs for the correct execution of maintenance work, remains responsible for the execution. When the people responsible for the quality of the work are not allowed anymore to check it physically and real time, this will lead to very awkward situations.

This aviation law is created by the EASA, but the assortion of it is left to the national authorities of the European member states. The EASA itself only checks airliners from non-European countries. This means in practice, that if you find that the law is not upheld correctly in f.i. Letland, you first have to start a legal case in Letland itself, to battle with this wrong. Only after about five years you will have reached the level, where the EASA itself can be suppoenaed. This is not how these European laws are meant to be, in my humble opinion.

European legislation should be upheld in an equal fashion anywhere in Europe. Unions cannot start legal cases in all member states, in order to assess national authorities in their application of EASA laws.

All countries within Europe execute and / or uphold EASA aviation laws, but this happens in 27 different ways. This leads to a non-level playing field and in the process unsafe situations. When this situation leads to the circumstance that qualified AE’s cannot physically and real-time check maintenance work, but are nevertheless obliged to sign for it, this would be a perversity of justice. Aviation safety is based upon the principle of check and recheck. Leaving this aspect out of the process, would turn back the clock for at least fourty years.

The difference between an aircraft engineer and a common aircraft mechanic is that the former received a much broader and deeper education than the latter. Therefore the AE is allowed to execute many more tasks independently than the common mechanic; based on his superior training, general knowledge and skills. A bicycle repairman could for instance work as a common aircraft mechanic. Check and recheck of the activities of the common mechanics by aircraft engineers must warrant the safety situation.

At the time that you let AE’s only perform administrative check-ups, based on the maintenance activities executed by others, you need many engineers less. Then you got rid of a large share of those expensive and stubborn AE’s, which are a possible disturbing factor in the timely delivery of an airplane after maintenance. Those darn AE’s state every now and then that an airplane has not been maintained correctly. Floormanagers and foremen are not waiting for such messages. AE’s regularly encounter problems during the executed maintenance, so if you abolish them or let them only check the maintenance paperwork, this will save you a lot of time.

On paper all parties involved state that safety is paramount: “safety first”. Nevertheless… well-trained people cost much more money. As they are trained much longer, aircraft engineers are more expensive. The same is happening at trainings and courses. A training for a certain type of airplane can be followed with a duration of nine weeks, but also with a duration of two weeks. Both trainings yield the same certificate.

Managers tend to choose for the cheapest training and not for the training, which is six times as expensive, but yields much better educated personnel. Especially when they are only looking for someone, who can put a stamp on a report and who is not obliged to perform physical, real-time check-ups of the maintenance work. Companies are dealing with large amounts for such trainings and many people, who should follow them. When you save €30,000 per training and have 20 trainees, you can do the math.

There is much competition between airliners and people already switch airliners for a few bucks less on their ticket fee. Nevertheless, everybody expects to get the same quality, but that isn’t true, of course.

By reducing their number of aircraft engineers – as a pleasant consequence of less physical, real time check ups of maintenance work –  airliners try to make use of a void in the aviation laws. When governments are not focused on this behaviour, the other airliners will follow the lead of such frontrunners, as it saves them a shipload of money.

Before you know it, such behaviour is the market standard. Afterwards the regulations will be adjusted. With a few colleagues, I am currently busy with the establishment of a special fund, in order to start legal battles against such practices.

Things are simple: regulations state that an aircraft engineer has to “verify”(!) that maintenance jobs have been executed correctly, with usage of the right resources and the right tools. In my humble opinion, verifying is not checking from a distance whether people did their job or not. You need to be at the spot where it happens and be ready to intervene, when necessary. When the jobs are administered, I want to know who is going to do which job, so I can follow the inexperienced mechanics more closely. I want to be present, when an inexperienced mechanic is going to undertake important steps of the maintenance process. That is what being an aircraft engineer is all about and for which they are trained.

The aircraft engineer has to sign for the job. When that is in fact impossible, as a consequence of the increasingly administrative nature of the work, they only can stamp and sign such paperwork at the end of the maintenance process. That is not for which aircraft engineers are meant to be.

In The Netherlands and all over Europe, this trend is gaining momentum nowadays. More and more often the authorities accept this as a fact of life and that is extremely dangerous. Some things appear at the surface slowly. At one time, a maintenance manual – for which airliners and maintenance companies receive the certification from the national aviation authorities, approving of their modus operandi for maintenaince jobs – has been adjusted, enabling a less stringent assessment of the activies.

When the aviation authorities overlook  such an adjustment, as they ‘did not get the memo’, the assessment slips away. At that time, the airliners can argue that certain processes were already in their manual and have been applied correctly. When authorities are unaware, that is almost impossible for them to discover. It is virtually impossible to annually scan thousands of pages of manuals, in order to see if one or two lines have been changed.

The aviation laws should be applied within a maintenance company and as a means for this, there is the “Maintenance Operations Exposition” (MOE), in which you describe how you apply the legislation in your company and how you explain this to your personnel. This manual will be officially approved by the national aviation authorities, stating that the execution meets the laws.

However, when 50 adjustments have been made in such a manual, without properly informing the authorities, it is impossible for the authorities to find this out. When an inspection officer does not know what he is doing and is unaware of the changes being made, companies will play a jedi mind trick on him. We see this happen regularly. When inspection officers only check 2% of the MOE during the annual audit, it will take them fifty years to fully read this manual. Companies know that all to well.

You cannot simply state that this will automatically lead to accidents; that dog don’t hunt. An accident is almost always a mixture of circumstances, in which lagging or bad maintenance could be a decisive factor. Safety cannot be quantified in advance. This makes it very hard to display deteriorating quality. Still, the odds for accidents increase eventually. It is like a time bomb, of which you are unaware when the clock is set. The chance for an accident is minimal, but when you are involved in it, you will have a very bad day.

The aviation authorities fail at their assessments and the airliners gladly take the leeway that the lack of serious check-ups offers them. Deteriation of the law starts with such processes of decay. It starts almost unnoticed at one or two companies; they try it and get away with it, without any serious resistance, as they notice that the inspectors are unaware or simply go through the motions, as it is easy to do so. When things go terribly wrong, people are brought to justice for involuntary manslaughter.

The solution is simple: no additional legislation is required, but the legislation that we have should be upheld. Also the inspectors need to improve. It takes a thieve to catch one; people must know where to look. When you slowly demolish the inspection bodies with austerity measures, you should not look surprised when in two years a plane crashes down on Schiphol Amsterdam airport or Charles de Gaulle. Stating that people follow the regulations is not enough, when you do not assess that.  

The murderous competition causes that the only creed of most airliners is: cheaper, cheaper, cheaper! They must work with less people, less authorized personnel and less trainings. When will this change?! KLM Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa and other large airliners are all involved in this rat race. They simply have to... 

When they do their maintenance jobs properly, their tickets will become too expensive. Their competition, the companies that are walking between the rain drops, suddenly demands much lower ticket prices. The cheapest airliner is the one that finds the most loopholes in the aviation laws and profits from it. The rest is sucked in involuntarily, as they otherwise fail to sell tickets.

When the authorities would thoroughly check both the cheapest and most expensive airliners and compare the quality of their maintenance operations, the decay would be removed very quickly. When other companies get away with walking over the edge, the others have to follow.

That many airliners get away with this behaviour, is caused by the lack of serious inspections and serious penalties. When they get caught, they receive the ‘don’t be a bad boy’ speech and then they are finished. In the USA, companies who break the law are simply shut down or they receive draconian penalties. Legislation lags behind in Europe. You can do a lot of nasty things here, without serious consequences. Civilians are traditionally penalized very substantially for traffic offences, but airliners and maintenance companies seem to get away with everything.

Many authorities want to keep good relations with the airliners and put the safety of passengers in jeopardy, actually. When you would shut down a company every now and then, when it messes up, this would send shockwaves through the industry.

I am convinced that jobs disappear in The Netherlands and the rest of Europe, as a consequence of maintenance being executed elsewhere, in a cheaper and less maticulate fashion. We lose jobs because of that. And when the downgrade of aircraft engineers to administrative assessors is carried through further, many more jobs will be abolished. You need fewer people then.

When you take maintenance work seriously, you simply need a certain amount of aircraft engineers, who execute active assessments and actively watch the mechanics do their jobs. Not for every step of the way, but just enough to let maintenance work being executed safely and responsibly. However, that is impossible when an aircraft engineer gets the reports at the end of line, for a stamp. All assessment possibilities are gone then. On top of that, there is the pressure to get the plane back in the air, so it takes a strong personality to withstand the pressure and check the airplane anyway. In such a situation, the aircraft engineer is the fall guy, as he halts the process. Nevertheless, as an aircraft engineer YOU are supposed to put down the stamp!

In earlier times we had one AE for every three mechanics. When in the future only one AE remains per 20 mechanics, who is involved in paperwork only, serious assessments are gone. We see this happen all over Europe. Companies that bend the rules get away with this, as the authorities stand at the side lines and watch things happen. There are no companies where this does NOT happen; everybody is participating more or less.

Aviation authorities have been established to assess, but fail at it, in spite of the fact that they received the mandate from the European parliament. There is a massive lobby going on at the European authorities in order to reduce the mandatory assessments. All large aviation companies (Boeing and Airbus) and airliners are involved in this lobbying process. They state:“assessments must be cheaper, with less personnel involved, because we already achieved so many safety procedures”. They don’t say, however, that the current safety level within the aviation industry is established by assessments and safety checks and not due to those magnificent airliners.

In our conversation of last Wednesday, Fred Bruggeman stated that the problem with the difference in numbers of defects between outward flights and return flights is still extremely topical. He and his fellow AEI-members have been involved for years in convincing the national aviation authorities to give serious attention to this mounting problem, but he gets constantly ‘no’ for an answer.

When asked, the Dutch aviation authorities state that the statements of the AEI about the numbers of defects are not correct, but nevertheless they are not willing to check the logbooks of a certain number of airplanes, just as a proof that they are indeed right about that. 

Thus, the Dutch and foreign authorities seem to rather lean backward than to do their job, until things go terribly wrong once again, like what happened in 2008 with the Turkish Airlines flight near Schiphol. This plane crashed, after a multiple times defective altitude meter, which had not been reported in the logbook before, fatally misled the pilots. Don’t let such a catastrophy happen again.