University of California-Davis doctoral student Jorge Nunez, supervised by Dr. Alan Klima, will undertake research on the relationship between culture, nationalism, and banking system reform. The research will be conducted in the industrial Catalonia region of Spain, which is appropriate because in 2010, with the aim of solving liquidity problems derived from the 2008 global financial crises, the Generalitat of Catalonia launched a public debt package sold directly to citizens in the form of bonds. The project was named "Seny," which means sanity and good judgment in Catalan and appeared to address Catalan citizens active in a long-standing political struggle for Catalonia independence. Despite various critiques coming from mass media, social movements and political parties, the Generalitat's strategy was a successful financial operation creating an over-demand twice the size of the initial offer. The objective of this research is to study what made Catalan citizens wager on this risky investment and what more general lessons this case might offer about nationalism and debt reform in the global economy.

Jorge Nunez will conduct fieldwork in Barcelona, Tarragona, and Girona as well as the French Catalan region. He will employ a combination of ethnographic methods including in-depth interviews, focus groups and participant observation in order to gather empirical data amongst key actors, such as public servants, financial experts, and citizen investors.

This project will contribute to the understanding of emerging forms of financial nationalism in the aftermath of the sovereign debt crisis in the Euro zone. By investigating the financial system to shed light into the issue of nationalism in Catalonia, this study hopes to produce new conceptual tools to look at the cultural articulations of citizenship, nationalism and the banking system. This research will also add empirical information about processes of financial integration in an era of regional monetary unification. Funding this research supports the education of a graduate student.

Project Report

This ethnography is about the ethics and aesthetics of personal savings in Catalonia with a focus on investment and speculation. It documents the allocation of public debt amongst citizens, the purchase of toxic assets by ill-advised bank customers, and the everyday life of non-professional online traders. At the same time, it is a study of money cultures based on notions of citizenship, consumption, and technology. My hypothesis suggests that after the housing bubble, a sizeable number of low and middle-income savers became a ready-made source of liquidity for both the Catalan government and the Spanish stock exchange system. This happened through the retailing of billions of Euros in patriotic bonds, preferred shares and subordinated debt, and financial derivatives to everyday citizens, triggering a cultural conflict between preexisting local moralities of savings and emerging global notions of investment and speculation. The main argument I develop emerges out of a dialogue with individual savers about the morality of money. However, I also take into account the point of view of several other key actors in the world of finance such as bankers, account managers, brokers, traders, public servants, consumer associations, financial journalists, public relation experts, activists, politicians, and online forum users. In the field, my first ethnographic goal was to depict the process by which the government of Catalonia created a citizen-based bond market between 2010 and 2012 in order to fund itself during the sovereign debt crisis. I focused on how the notion of citizenship buffered uncertainty and created 'moral hazard' among bondholders amidst the increasing tension between Barcelona and Madrid over Catalonia's independence. By paying close attention to the way in which financial difficulty and conflict translated into discourses of nationalism, independence, and sovereignty, my research showed how the government engaged with the banking sector in the making of citizen investors. On another level, this ethnography was also an analysis of the ongoing wrangle over financial responsibility between the Spanish banking system and its preferred shareholders and subordinated debt holders. It became a story of depositors whose savings were frozen for at least the next ten years, as well as the strategies they employed to retrieve their monies. I documented how these retail investors, mostly senior citizens, reacted differently to forced settlements, since I learned in the field, most saving depositors bought into liquidity pools implemented by local banks without knowing the stakes of their investment. In fact, these financial products created the demand from which the government of Catalonia was latter able to resort for cash. By tracing links between patriotic bonds and toxic assets retailed among saving depositors, my ethnography illuminated the way in which global moralities of finance clashed with local notions of savings and consumption, as well as the consequences of such cultural collision. Finally, this research was also an attempt to draw connections between what may seem to be at first entirely different moralities of money: investment and speculation. However, I stayed close to stories of small savers who ended up in the stock market to analyze different ways in which citizens with diverse backgrounds, embodied institutional moralities of global finance. To investigate the links between investment and speculation among small saving citizens, I explored the everyday life of non-professional traders who used their savings for online stock speculation. I narrowed down the scope to a group of young apprentices who attended a seminar offered by a self-styled trader turned into a sponsored triathlete. I also followed them closely when they joined a Twitter community of online stock trading aficionados. By immersing into the everyday life of amateur online trading, my ethnography departed from a particular context with the aim of theorizing the financial system otherwise; not only as a too-big-to-fail business, but also as an expanding global morality of money that increasingly affects everyday citizens worldwide.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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University of California Davis
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