But now that the European sovereign debt crisis is rattling world markets, driving the euro lower almost every day and raising doubts about the future of the monetary union, his voluminous musings have become a must-read for an influential and growing global audience, including policy makers in the White House.
He has even been courted by the International Monetary Fund, which recently asked him to fly to Madrid to assist in its analysis of the Spanish economy.
“It’s quite nice, actually,” Mr. Hugh, 61, said with amusement as he leaned back in a plush town car that was taking him to his latest speaking engagement organized by the Círculo de Economía, an influential business lobbying group in Barcelona. “I am meeting all sorts of interesting people and they are paying me to have lunch with them.”
But in other ways, his life has changed very little. Last week, in fact, he even had to borrow money from friends to buy clothes presentable enough to allow him to address the conference of Spanish politicians and business executives. He still mostly supports himself by teaching English to locals here, where he has lived for two decades.
“I guess I am countercyclical,” he said with a laugh. “For all the years during the boom when everyone was doing well here, I wasn’t doing anything. Now I am a household name in Catalonia.”
Well, not quite. The idea of the economist as a pop celebrity in the mold of a Nouriel Roubini, whose early prediction that the United States housing market would collapse later brought him fame and a worldwide consulting brand, or a Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist who writes an Op-Ed Page column for The New York Times, is still unformed in Europe and in particular in Spain.
But as questions rise over how European governments can escape their debt trap and resume growth, Mr. Hugh, who has been pondering this topic for years, is for the first time being turned to for insights and wisdom.
His bleak message, in newspaper columns, local television and radio appearances, and in meetings with officials, is almost always the same: since Spain and other struggling countries of the euro zone like Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Italy cannot devalue their common currency unilaterally, they have little choice but to endure what would essentially be a 20 percent internal devaluation instead. That means their public and private sector wages need to fall by roughly that amount if those countries are ever to restore competitiveness, lift exports and bring in the cash needed to pay down their debts.
“Why haven’t these countries converged” with the rest of Europe? he asks. “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.”
Germany, where the average age is 45 and rising even as the population is beginning to shrink, is a nation of savers, and public policy has encouraged keeping wages under control and building up export industries.
By contrast, the younger Greeks, Irish and Spaniards went on borrowing binges, driven in particular by rising demands for new homes and consumer goods that, in several cases, turned into housing bubbles before going bust. Wages were pushed up, encouraging spending but soon making it all but impossible for their industries to compete with the thrifty Germans, Dutch and other Northern Europeans.
Most economists, beholden as they are to their “promiscuous but essentially useless” economic models, Mr. Hugh rails, missed what he considers an easily predictable outcome. And that, he adds, “is why we are in such a big mess now.”
Mr. Hugh’s demographic thesis is not airtight: in fact, it was Italy, not Greece, that attracted his early attacks.
But Italy, perhaps because its overall debt level was already so high and its population was older, pursued a policy of greater fiscal rectitude than its neighbors and avoided a real estate bubble.