Barely a year ago, Leopoldo Abadía, a retired professor at the IESE Business School at the University of Navarre, embarked on an adventure: writing his own dictionary for terms that appeared in newspapers. He did this “without any criteria,” Abadía recalls in an interview with Universia-Knowledge at Wharton. This simple hobby advanced steadily, until the word “crisis” came up. Without realizing it, Abadía created a new, accessible way to explain the genesis of the global economic crisis – one which has changed a 75-year old father of 12 and grandfather of 36 into Spain’s new guru of finance. Although he has retired in San Quirico, a village of barely 200 people in Catalonia, Abadía is conquering the world thanks to the miracle of the Internet.
From that location in San Quirico, he began to sketch his own particular “Ninja Crisis,” a term he used to define the global storm that has shaken the foundations of the capitalist world. (He also used that term as the title for a book he published recently on the same topic.) Using the famous “Mutant Ninja Turtle” cartoon characters to describe happenings on Wall Street, Abadía figured out how to explain the epicenter of the crisis to an audience across the world. In his version, “Ninjas” are people who have no income, no job and no assets, but banks nevertheless have given them mortgages of the infamous subprime variety. To share the extremely high risks they have assumed, institutions divided this debt (“liabilities” in financial terminology) into tiny packets that were shared among other investors who, in turn, re-divided their shares and sold those to many others, until the virus spread across the entire planet. What is the moral of this story? When the Ninjas stopped paying their mortgages, the financial world came crashing down like a house of cards.
With this simple explanation, Abadía became Spain’s latest guru, and one of the most authoritative voices for talking about the crisis and its possible solution. The remedies he prescribes for getting out of this situation are derived from his own life, and from his family and his neighbors in San Quirico. They are commonsense-based. The Internet enabled Abadía to carry his message to any spot on the planet in a matter of seconds, even faster than subprime mortgages were granted.
The Birth of a Guru
“When I started to write up a definition of the crisis, instead of writing four or five lines, six pages came out of me. Then, I decided to send my ideas to a friend, unsigned, so that he would tell me, simply, what he thought about it. He liked it a great deal and he sent it to another four or five friends. Fifteen days later, the same manuscript came back to me from another friend, along with a note in which he said the manuscript must have been written by a young newspaper reporter. That filled me with pride.” That’s the way Abadía recalls the beginnings of his story. It’s a tale he always tells with a mixture of irony and simplicity, two elements that have made him the new guru of the crisis.
In fact, the quality of his explanations is the reason why people have flocked to him in great numbers to find a solution for the financial virus that has affected the entire population: More than 2.2 million people visited his blog last year. His portal, www.elconfidencial.com, is one of the most popular sites in Spain, and his articles are widely read. Even “Buenafuente” [literally, “Good Source”], a nightly talk show that has the largest audience in Spain, has signed up to consult with him every two weeks. He is also a weekly presence on “Public Mirror,” one of the most important morning programs on Spanish television. And he has given more than 400 interviews to a range of different media.
Following up on that success, Espasa, the prestigious Spanish publishing company, asked him to write The Ninja Crisis. Published in January, it sold more than 100,000 copies in eight printings within barely one month. Even the Spanish Embassy in London asked him to present at a conference. He prepared the meeting with the same keen concern he showed for the other 190 dates on his agenda. “Even a girls’ high school in Zaragoza asked me if I could hold a discussion. My son told me that we had to go, and we went.” For him, it is a “very false fame.” Simply put, he is enjoying doing what he likes to do – teaching – but with the advantage of having enough gray hairs and so few restrictions that he can “say what I want to say.”
The Revolution of the Internet
Abadía only talks about those things he understands. When he was writing the famous dictionary that changed in his life – and those of many others – he never wrote up a word that he didn’t understand. And when he believed that he understood something, but then found out that he was wrong, he removed that word.
Abadía has also counted on a major ally: the Internet. He recognizes that his story would have been impossible a decade ago, when the letters “www” (world wide web) were largely unknown. “Now, when I receive those visits to my blog on Facebook, I realize that it takes only a matter of seconds to reach the other side of the world; this is something really incredible. Thank God I have always been committed to using technology. In contrast, many friends my age have never turned on a computer.”
He never thought about retiring after he left the classrooms of IESE in 1993. At the time, he continued his ties to the consulting firm that he had founded along with his sons. His workday was eight, easy-going hours. If he didn’t have enough time to finish something in one day, he relaxed until the next day came along so he could finish it then. In contrast, nowadays he spends at least 10 hours a day sharing his reflections with anyone who wants to hear them or read them.
His “movement” is aimed at making people understand that “each of us has to be an entrepreneur on our own. The first company that I have is myself, because if I am waiting for the government to come and solve my problems, then I have nothing.” His life took a lucky turn a year ago when he it occurred to him to e-mail his Ninja description to a friend, and that friend began to re-send it to others. But Abadía notes that his life is rooted in fifty years of hard work, and it is equipped with new technology – such as the Internet — that can do so much to help anyone become his or her own company, and collaborate in the construction of others’ lives, just as he is doing.
Abadía says he often communicates with his wife by e-mail — even when they are at home, facing their computers but separated by hundreds of square meters on the two floors of their home in Barcelona. “When I am writing something and I have any doubts, for example, I ask my wife to search for it in Google.”
Abadía also jokes about the inexhaustible source of information that his 12 children and 36 grandchildren provide. They are his “personal company” in need of managing, he says. “With 12 children, I have always been a state of crisis! Each Sunday afternoon, my wife and I would make an economic plan [budget] for the week. Just before we met, my wife would come and say to me, ‘Are we going to make ourselves upset?’ In effect, that’s because I had always put less [in the budget] than we hoped for, and left out what had to be left out.”
These sorts of simple examples help Abadía explain theoretical terms that are as complex as any economic model that prevails in an economy. “If we lack a model, any economy winds up being unsustainable. You have to have the entire model in your head, and realize that if you pull on one thread, that unravels the rest of the model. If one of my sons asks me for money, and I give it without worrying about that, and then another son also asks me, and I wind up doing the same thing, my wife will come and say to me, ‘Where are we going to get the money to deal with our other obligations?’ That’s because she has the model in her head.”
Restoring basic values
When he speaks, Abadía always emphasizes basic values such as effort, honesty, austerity, loyalty and sincerity. These universal principles are “timeless” because, he insists, values are not old or new; they are simply values. “It surprises me when people talk about bringing back the value of serious effort; laziness has never been a value!” All of these values can be summed up with a single one: decency. For Abadía, the current situation is the result of a crisis of decency. The cure is very difficult because people have to change.
“Capitalism is not indecent, and people are neither decent nor indecent. Ultimately, we are ourselves; we are ordinary people, and with the Internet we can communicate many things, and in three minutes they will reach anywhere in the world.” He defends any business that respects the foundations of those values, and which is constructed on the basis of sincere effort. “Everything can be ethical, except what is indecent, per se. If someone starts a business that is a brothel, that business is indecent because a brothel is indecent, per se,” he explains. “If it were only about making money, without honesty or decency, the model for that would be the mafia, which makes a lot of money. So to emerge from this crisis and prevent another similar crisis, it is very important for people to know what is good and what is evil. If we behave as if ‘anything goes,’ then I can attack you behind your back, and you can attack me behind my back, and the person who loses won’t have any right to complain because anything [we do] is considered acceptable. In such a case, our business model would be a gang of scoundrels.”
Abadía notes that common sense is the best medicine for dealing with crisis, and the foundation for building any economy. Rather than agree with the notion that common sense is the least common of our senses, he insists on the overwhelming logic that can be found in the street. He encourages everyone to become his or her own enterprise; to carry out his or her own private civil revolution. “This is how we move forward.”