Anyone who has done business in both Austria and Germany will tell you that the attitudes and approaches can be like night and day. While Germans are famously sticklers for the rules, Austrians find more personal ways to do business, despite – or even bypassing – complex regulations.
So what happens when the Vienna Stock Exchange (ATX) – founded by Maria Theresa in 1771 – is now headed by a young and dynamic north German?
“Where I come from, we paint our churches white and that’s it,” said Christoph Boschan, Berlin-born CEO of the ATX. “When I bought my first big car, my grandma told me ‘that’s simply not done.’” After two and half years, his self-ascribed protestant ethic has become rather more Viennese. “A certain liberalness and savoir vivre, I think that can be learned.”
Boschan, appointed CEO in 2016, sees great potential in our region. As we sat in his office in the Palais Caprara-Geymüller, the self-ascribed Piefke (Austrian derogatory term for north Germans) grinned as he admitted that “north German Gemütlichkeit is an oxymoron.” He sees value in the Austrian way of avoiding conflict. “For a north German, Austria seems like a consensus society,” he said. “The attitude in discussions is much more pleasant, which is not to say that the people aren’t arguing just as hard.”
In the business world this gets more complex. “I’ve experienced Austrian decision-making processes as very fast, the dealing with colleagues, committees, stakeholders and policymakers.” Germans can get stuck in regulatory formalities, he says, holding up decisions and creating unnecessary tensions.
RISK AVOIDER TO THE MARKET
In the past, Austrians have been notoriously risk averse as investors. But a recent international study by GfK showed things are changing: one in five Austrians now invest in stocks or fund-related products – perhaps due to an increase in employee shares. That said, another 62% don’t use the leverage of capital markets whatsoever.
The head of the ATX sees his work cut out for him. He hopes that people will stop being just consumers and participate in the economy as investors. “People will stay up all night outside the Apple store to get the new iPhone,” he said, but they could be sharing in the company’s success. “If you like what you see, become a shareholder yourself and help the capital market spread wealth to the broader public.” Most who stay out of the stock market report being afraid of price fluctuation and the possible losses, according to the GfK study of 8,000 people, commissioned by J.P. Morgan Asset Management.
OF PRIVATE EQUITY & PUBLIC WEALTH
Developing a financial market will mean increasing financial literacy, Boschan says. People must understand compound interest, what he calls the “eighth wonder of the world.” Most people are just not aware of the leverage. “But it also takes political willpower,” he said. “I’m a market liberal and don’t think we should tell people what to do, but there’s an obvious instrument, an opt-out model.” He’d make it more than €25 or €50, “more like the amount we have for child benefits.” Boschan calculated: “If you pay €25 every month into an ATX index investment account over a working life, you will have put away €13,500. If every year it makes 7% interest and is then reinvested after 45 years that investment would become €95,000 of pretax money. Even after taxes and fees, the investor would nearly quadruple their savings.
Several of Austria’s hidden champions are family-owned businesses or have a handful of private shareholders. A company called Startup300 is one example of an alternative strategy for helping small- and medium-sized businesses make the step toward broad ownership. The unconventional model didn’t affect their accessibility to the index. “We made an extra market segment for companies like this, so the road to the stock market was made as fast, simple and affordable as possible.” This is very different from the much more intensive regulations for a regular ATX issuer.
Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are considered the “backbone of the Austrian economy,” although today’s startups seem to be remaining in the private equity space much longer than before.
“When I started out 20 years ago, everyone wanted to work as a broker and every company wanted to be listed on the stock exchange.” Today, he said, everyone wants to get into investment banking. We’re in the “golden age of private equity, credit is dirt cheap and if you can’t get a loan, then there’s always private equity.” Facebook and Airbnb, for example, didn’t go public until they had tens of billions in valuation. “In the past, those companies would have been floated after reaching a billion in valuation. They would have grown on the stock market and the wealth would have been broadly distributed.”
Boschan himself didn’t grow up in wealth. “I come from a working-class family in Prenzlauerberg, then East Berlin.” With that background, he said, he would never have had access to the stock market if it hadn’t been part of the public discussion. For ordinary people to be able to participate and profit from capital markets, policymakers have to provide incentives. “Capital gains tax has to be lowered, or gotten rid of. People go to work, pay taxes and when they invest it, the money gets taxed again.” He suggested a stronger differentiation between taxes on capital gains and those who invest their conventional income.
Where is the ATX headed? As a midsize exchange it tends to follow the global norms. “And IPOs are currently decreasing,” says Boschan. But there are reasons for this. For one thing, “borrowed capital costs nothing. Next to that, financing on the stock exchange doesn’t look very attractive,” he admits. “But times will change.”
The future of the ATX is not something Austrians need to worry about.
What do I get from investing long term in stocks and bonds?
If you start a savings plan with monthly payments of €50, after 45 years you have €200,000 in invested capital.
This scenario assumes an interest rate of 7 % and reinvesting (compound interest).
Note: The amounts are rounded, final capital is before tax. This example is based on ATX trends including dividends from 1991 – 2017. The final amount after 2 % administrative fees is approximately €99,000.
Source: https://www.etfs.de/kostenrechner/, 31.01.2019s
CHRISTOPH BOSCHAN’S TIPS FOR INVESTING IN THE STOCK MARKET
- Invest long term. Boschan is not the first to say that investment is a marathon, not a sprint.
- Diversify. An investor’s vulnerability can be greatly mitigated by making sure your portfolio has a good variety of products.
- Buy only what you understand. If you believe in a product, says Boschan, change role from that of a consumer to that of an investor. If you don’t understand it it, don’t invest.
- Forget market timing. Start with a monthly savings plan, so that the daily ups and downs don’t affect your gains. Sometimes you’ll buy high and sometimes you’ll sell low, but long term you have strong average appreciation and that’s what counts.