Why the White House has turned to a blogger for advice on the euro

For years Edward Hugh, a self-taught economist living in Barcelona, had been saying for years that the single currency would fail. Only now are people listening
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The Independent US

He is less wealthy than the likes of Nouriel Roubini, Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz or Amartya Sen, and he has yet to win a Nobel prize for economics, but in his own quiet way the figure of Edward Hugh has just as respectable a record, if not more, in the treacherous field of economic forecasting – and in particular the near collapse of the euro. Chillingly, he now thinks Germany should leave the single currency.

From his base in Barcelona, the British economist, who makes his living as a language teacher, has used his self-taught knowledge of "the dismal science" to entertain and educate his readers of his blog. Now he has earned himself an increasingly high profile among the world's rich and powerful.

He has advised the IMF and last week addressed a major conference of Spanish politicians and economists on the crisis in their country. International banks and the White House have also sought his counsel. However, as a prophet without much in the way of profit, Mr Hugh had to borrow the cash to buy a new suit for his latest appearance on the Spanish national stage.

Mr Hugh describes himself thus: "Officially I am 59, I live in Barcelona and I have three children – a boy (Morgan) and two girls (Sara and Andrea). If I were pinned down in a corner and had for once to say what I was – as opposed to who I am – I suppose I would say I was an "economist", although this is a destiny that most of the people who know me well would say I had spent the better part of my life trying to avoid."

He adds: "Deep down I suppose I'm doing this because I've rather stupidly convinced myself that I've got something to say."

Mr Hugh's principal achievement is to have predicted the crisis in the eurozone. Though others have also done so, it is Mr Hugh who has done so with an uncanny accuracy about the nature of the problems. As he blogged about the divergences between, say, Greece and Germany: "Why haven't these countries converged with the rest of Europe? It's demographics. As populations age, there are fewer people in their 20s to 40s to buy new houses, so they save more. The younger a country is, the more dependent it is on credit to get growth."

Thus, Germany, where the average age is 45, is a nation of savers but younger Greeks, Irish and Spaniards went on borrowing binges, often to buy property. Now, unable to devalue their currencies, as the British have, they face "internal devaluation" to restore their competitiveness – meaning painful wage cuts.

Mr Hugh is no Chauncey Gardiner figure – the simpleton, played by Peter Sellers in the 1980 film Being There – who accidentally ends up an economic adviser to the US President by uttering such banalities as "in the spring there will be growth" (he meant daffodils rather than GDP). Mr Hugh's plain language disguises an acute, intuitive understanding of the mechanisms that make economies tick, and, more powerfully, the demographics that define their futures.

So what future for the euro? Mr Hugh told The Independent: "The problem is growth – how to get the heavily indebted countries on Europe's periphery back to growth. This is why it could be constructive to have an organised exit by Germany, and let the euro drift downwards while growth returns to the periphery. Put things another way, not only are Europe's economies in disorder, the high value of the dollar means the US recovery is steadily grinding to a halt. So we could call the euro break-up story 'how Greece screwed the USA'.

"Basically the problem has always been trying to set up a monetary union without setting up a political one first. The thing is you need consensus, and people need to feel European (like people in the US feel themselves to be Americans). Then they would be prepared to share difficult burdens. But look how the Greeks and the Germans lose no opportunity to have a go at one another. Do people in Michigan speak this way about people in Florida?"

As Mr Hugh says on the front page of his blogging website, quoting Keynes; "Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again."

Luckily for the Bank of England and the Treasury, Mr Hugh doesn't follow the UK very closely.

Celebrity economists...

Nouriel Roubini

The New-York based economics professor in 2006 predicted the financial crisis, with a plunging US housing market, oil shock and deep recession. Amid a buoyant economy his comments were dismissed by many – until the events came to pass. He went from being an obscure academic to much-sought-after commentator on all matters financial.

Tim Harford

The original "undercover economist" whose books about the economics of ordinary things became best-sellers. His first book sold nearly a million copies in 30 languages. A member of the Financial Times editorial board, he formerly worked for the World Bank and Shell.

Amartya Sen

The Nobel prize winner for economics has been an influential voice in the growing area of globalisation studies. The Indian intellectual's important work has included the study of famines and he broke new ground among economists of his generation by addressing previously ignored issues of development.