29 January 2009

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Cambridge Crocus by .mushi_king
Perhaps I am imagining it, but I have been wondering whether we investment bankers have turned a corner, and perhaps everyone suddenly doesn't hate us any more. Or at least: not quite so much. Either way, I don't seem to have spent so many dinner parties pressed against the back of my chair, and I was cheered to read this week that:
One can’t explain an unusual cluster of errors by citing greed, which is always around, just as one can’t explain a cluster of airplane crashes by citing gravity. Anyway, the greedy aim at profits, not losses.
Lawrence White, writing in Cato Unbound
A sentence with a clarity of thought that made me remember why twenty-five years ago I enjoyed being an economist. Probably, now I think about it, more than nowadays I enjoy working in an investment bank.

In those days I went to lectures, read books, wrote essays and in the exam room attempted to invent clever little economic models on the fly.  Nowadays I go to Town-Halls, read policies, write powerpoint and late at night when I get home I attempt to amuse mysterious people I am never likely to meet with silly little blog-posts written on the fly.

Not that I am complaining - for banks pay more money than universities and as an ex-economist and current investment banker I certainly understand the power of incentives. Great big medium-sized yearly incentives. In return we're willing to work for them when we need to and, this being January, we need to very much indeed for we are reorganising which is quite the most exciting project that anyone who works in a large organisation can engage in. (We're breaking down our horizontal silos with the some front-to-back verticals)

I studied my economics at Cambridge (the one in England) but if I was nineteen now I'd be strongly tempted to study at GMU which is in. .... well, it's in America somewhere... choosing the economics faculty solely on the quality of their blogging. Does that sound silly? To me it's a lot more sensible than the criteria I chose when I selected my old alma mater (the density and colours of its spring crocuses). For a taster of GMU, and the way economists think you can do worse that listen to this conversation with an earnest Russ Roberts and a laconic Robin Hanson in conversation - eventually - about whether economists actually know anything useful at all. Answer? They do.

Mind you, economists are pretty unpopular as well, but in the long run I hope it's going to be hard for the public to maintain a serious dislike of either economists or bankers - patly because there simply aren't very many of them and partly because I think they're going to be maintaining a rather lower profile.

But I worry that, before too long it might be turn of another group to bear the brunt of the public's displeasure: I found this in the FT rather chilling
So why should industrious Asians earn a tiny fraction of what citizens in the west earn? Especially when they have so much of the cash and productive resources, while we have deficits, high costs and poor demographics.
Prepare for a wrenching, unstoppable redistribution of wealth – and I am not talking about domestic taxes. For too long it has been more profitable in the west to finance consumption rather than production. That cannot continue. I am afraid that the west’s credibility – and luck – has run out.
This vast reordering of our economic system has only just begun. We shall have to cancel all the self-indulgence of endless welfare spending and cultivate rather more of a work ethic and a sense of self-sufficiency  

Luke Johnson - The West's Luck has run out   
It may not be a comfortable time to be out of a job in the next few years.

28 January 2009

New Year Makeovers & What We Are.

Just like John Thain, I have redecorated.

He spent $1,200,000 on his office; I can report, dear reader,  that on my cubicle I spent less: Approximately $1,199,985 less.

Thain's centrepiece was a stupidly-expensive designer rug, purchased solely to demonstrate his wealth and power  (only a banker could do that, right?)  My centrepiece was some new art postcards from the National Gallery, which I blu-tacked onto the glass partition between myself and my neighbour to allow me to surf the internet undetected improve our mutual privacy.

Thain was sacked. But even so, I guess he won't have to worry about his pension like I do. Oh well.

New Years Resolutions - because We are what we repeatedly do.

This year I have stolen three themes from older, wiser friends, who know better.

Theme - learn moderation, not abstinence
  • in drink: to drink with friends and loved ones not with clients or co-workers, to oil a conversation not to wash down a plate of pasta, to accompany a smoked salmon blini, not Trial and Retribution
  • food: to eat three meals a day not four (or two). To be able to tell whether I am hungry and if I'm not, to stop eating. At all costs to avoid canapés.
Theme - to OCD only the good habits (because it's hard when a habit takes a hold)
    • to weigh myself once a week, exercise five times - and blog twice
    • to have breakfast with my children every Wednesday -  whether they like it or not
    • to be nicer to Mrs Botogol
    Theme - to have more human contact at work
    • fewer emails, more phone calls
    • seek out Kate, whomsever she is
    • find out the name of the youtube, Ocado and google-news fanatic in the next door cubicle. I mean - why not? after all these years...

    Meanwhile... at work 

    In our secret santa  last month an anonymous co-worker bought me a book of art pictures. It turned out to contain two of the postcards I have on my cubicle wall.

    My first thought was "That is an unusual present for a secret santa" 
    My second thought was: "Ah, I can see why they bought this: just because I have art postcards on my cubicle wall they think I am some kind of arty-type of person"
    My third thought was "But I do have art postcards on my cubicle wall.... perhaps I am some kind of arty-type person"

    What we actually are.

    We are what we hang on our cubicle walls.

    22 January 2009

    Angry Man

    Impatience by mdezemery
    So, I filled in the forms in advance and left the house early enough to allow eighteen minutes for the issuing of a replacement season ticket.

    Not long enough.

    Was long enough to provoke conflict (grimaces, eye-rolling, no actual blows) with the an angry idiot behind me who demanded know why in God's sweet earth was the ticket man taking so long?

    "Constant distractions from people in the queue?" I ventured, not without irritation (I know, a more conciliatory person than me would have apologised on behalf of ticket man, and South-West trains and fetched Angry Man a cappucino while he waited).

    "From people like you", I continued, relentlessly.

    Angry Man was not amused, but yielded to the obvious truth of my answer and subsided into a steady tut-tut, puff-puff, stamp-stamp, building to a crescendo as I received my shiny new plastic ticket wallet.

    I was done. A glance at the board told me that fast train was 3 mins away.

    Angry Man had waited 13 minutes behind me, during which two trains had left and I was suddenly curious to know what reason had necessitated his queuing behind me, sighing and grumbling, disregarding the ticket vending machines all that time?  A lack of fingers rendering him unable to press the tiny buttons with his elbow? A fantastically complicated journey to destinations remote? A pressing question of intricate and abstruse obscurity?

    I stood to one side and listened in.

    "Can you tell me, please", said Angry Man, clearly and loudly, "What is the fastest way to St Johns Wood?'

    "Train to Waterloo, and then Jubilee line.... Of course", I heard exasparated Ticket Man reply as I legged it off to platform 3, breaking the habits of 25yrs of commuting by actually running for a train. . "I mean - how else would you do it?"

    18 January 2009

    A new President

    Peace by Natashalatrasha
    You wouldn't know it this week -  but the USA is not actually the first country to get elect a black president after a long history of oppression and white rule.

    South African apartheid may have outlasted American segregation  - by just 20 years - but when it eventually fell in 1990 the impact was more immediate and, in 1994, to world-wide excitement and joy, South Africans elected a charismatic black man promising renewal, change and hope as their first black President.

    And I was there.

    We were living the plush Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg. We had two (very, very) small children and in the January of that year, with the absurd self-confidence of youth, we had set out with our young family for a South Africa that the Sunday Times - and indeed many of our friends -  assured us by April would be an anarchic bloodbath.

    During the ensuing months it would be fair to say that we experienced some trepidation but in the event our election day ended not in riots but an impromptu evening picnic on the streets. Well, on the finely-manicured suburban roadside, owners, maids and gardeners all together drinking champagne, clapping, laughing and talking into the late autumn evening.

    There was no blogging in 1994, and instead I wrote monthly letters home.  Here's what I wrote in April 1994.

    Letter from Jonnesburg - Election Special
    The election campaign formally started in the middle of March with the Absolutely-last-and-final-This-time-we-really-mean-it-No-really-just-try-us date for the registration of political parties.
    I rose early the following morning to watch on  live television the draw to determine which party would appear at the top of the ballot paper - with 21 parties standing, an 18 inch ballot paper, and maybe 25% of the population illiterate or semi-literate this was a big issue.
    The agreed procedure was a random draw for first place,  and  thereafter alphabetical order.
    Like so much else in the election, the event was a circus: instead of drawing a party at random, they drew a letter.  So seven of the eight parties whose names begin with 'A' had no chance of being at the top, but with no parties at all beginning with G,H,I,J or K, the Luso South Africa Party had six chances of winning.

    At the moment of the draw the ANC observer complained that the papers weren't shuffled properly; the hapless Mr Justice Kriegler had to insert his arm into the slot and stir them about a bit. 
    Eventually the draw was made:  P. 

    Then the International Election Commission (IEC) officials looked even more foolish as they stood, gaping, behind their table wondering 'who could that be then?'  Eventually the Pan African Congress observer lifted his hand and while the other parties were congratulating him on his achievement a quiet but distinct chorus of 'Of course! PAC! Obviously! Huh! How stupid of us
    ' could be heard.
    Apart from the PAC, also looking smug at this point were the Keep it Straight and Simple (KISS) party, who were second on the list (How's that? They had  included their 'The' on the registration papers). Also smug were the National Party who had drawn what was generally reckoned to be the second-best slot  - right at the bottom. It was to be some weeks later, after distributing 4,000 'To be tops, vote at the bottom' posters, that they would be so unluckily stickered out of position by the re-entering IFP 1
    In the following week the ballot papers were 'finalised':  Not before the IFP withdrew. The AMC (an Inkatha spoiler party created specifically to confuse the voters) were forced to become the AMCP (African Moderates Congress Party) but were allowed to keep their ANC-like black, green and gold logo. The Soccer Party were told that there wasn't room on the ballot paper mugshot to include both a soccer ball and their leader's face and no, they couldn't drop the face. Inconsistently, the Women's Rights Peace Party were permitted their picture of both of the two joint leaders (presumably standing extremely closely together).
    As the campaign got underway, the IEC voter education programme started in earnest. At first I was contemptuous: what could be simpler than making a cross? But I soon learned: polls in the Cape suggested that the majority of voters thought the second ballot paper was for indicating their second choice (it was for their regional assembly); it seemed that many people were confused by the negative implications of a cross (as opposed to a tick). It emerged that farmers in the Free State were telling their farm-workers they must sign their ballot paper (which would invalidate it) and I listened to radio phone-ins with questions like 'Can I carry my children into the polling station?' (yes) 'What if I can't read' (officials will help you) and 'What if I make a mistake?' (ask for another paper) as well as more worrying questions such as 'Can I vote for the same party on both ballot papers?' (yes) and 'Can I vote if I am unemployed / not a landowner / live in an illegal squatter camp / have a criminal record / have only a Bophuthatswana ID?' (yes in all cases).
    If the organisation has been poor, however, the campaigning has been good. Some of the slogans have been memorable including (in strict ballot paper order): the PAC's sinister: 'One settler: one bullet'; the ANC's romantic: 'The time is now!'; the Democratic Party's clever: 'If the Right get in there'll be nothing left; If the Left get in there'll be nothing right'; the Soccer Party's punning 'We're the only party FIT to govern'; the National Party's cutting: 'The ANC have yet to run a township successfully. Why trust them with a country?'; and, in a full page advert on the day that they were removed from the ballot paper, the IFP's portentous 'Vote Inkatha: When the time comes' (followed up four weeks later, of course, with a predictable: 'Vote Inkatha: The time has come!')
    Other slogans have not been so successful. Following the ANC's 'Jobs! Peace! Freedom!' and the Nat's 'Vote for Peace! Vote for Jobs!' the Democratic Party (DP')s 'Freedom! Federalism! Free Enterprise!' hardly seemed likely to capture the imagination of the nation. The outspoken DP also made few friends with 'No killers, kidnappers, torturers or corrupt politicians' (a reference to the various candidates on the National Party and the ANC lists who have been convicted of these crimes).
    The unambitiously named Minority Front didn't have any slogan at all.
    We entered into the political process enthusiastically. I took my parents to a ANC vs. DP debate in Sandton Town Hall. At first I was nervous as this was only ten days after the Johannesburg massacre 2 and the toyi-toying ANC supporters were initially even more frightening than our kiwi friend's haka at his wedding last summer. However the debate was fun and was conducted in an excellent spirit of mutual respect and rivalry.
    I was impressed. When did candidates last agree to debate with each other in a British general election? The occasion also yielded our best South African souvenirs: a Nelson Mandela for President poster, andthe local paper carried a picture of the debate with my mother just discernible amidst a sea of black faces in the ANC side of the hall.
    But while the campaign was inventive, the rumours were more so. Did you know that in the Transkei the National Party gave out porridge laced with invisible ink so that the voters would get it on their hands and be prevented from voting? Did you know that the ANC bussed 600,000 electors into the Western Cape (a marginal region). That the word in the townships is that come April the 28th the Northern suburbs will burn? That every single flight out of South Africa in April and May is booked up? That shops are deliberately encouraging panic buying to reduce their stocks before the looting? That the electricity workers are buying candles? That British Airways have made a plan to evacuate all British passport holders if trouble should flair up? That the AWB have purchased 25 Army-surplus armoured personnel carriers? That the ANC have published plans to confiscate all second homes? That thousands of Zulus stayed away from the election because the voting stations were square, which means that the tokoloshes can hide in the corners?
    Which of the above do you believe? I can't be sure, but I think that only one is true, however all of them have had a long life and a big impact in the various communities: The IEC had to officially investigate the porridge complaint; If we panic-bought once we panic-bought five times with no discernible effect on the stock-levels. The story about the armoured personnel carriers, however, was reported in Business Day (equivalent of the Financial Times) so I actually tend to give it some credence. Did you believe in the BA evacuation plan? So did I at first. But try dividing 1.5 million passport holders by the number of passengers on a jumbo jet - it's about nine flights a day, seven days a week for a whole year.
    When it finally arrived the election was extraordinary. On the 26 April, the day before polling, I sat in Village Walk mall having lunch on a balcony overlooking the street.
    There were about 20 of us gathered to celebrate the passing of the old South Africa and the ushering in of the new. In some ways it was a typical office party: pizzas, beers, a whip round at the end that was 50 Rands short of the bill. In other ways.....well even I had a lump in my throat as they all sang Die Stem, the old national anthem, followed by Nkosi Sikelel' i Afrika, the new one. (Fortunately I wasn't so overcome as to attempt God Save the Queen, despite much encouragement). We remembered the old South Africa, perhaps tastelessly, with Irish Coffee - a large amount of black with a thin layer of white sitting uncomfortably on the top. We celebrated the new South Africa by stirring vigorously.
    You will have seen the queues, read about the logistical chaos and heard all the people on the TV. What, perhaps, you couldn't see was the extraordinary sense of peace and reconciliation. People were patient and smiling. There were no drive-by shootings, there were no riots, there wasn't even any queue jumping. (Some friends were even able to leave the queue and go back home to get more beers). All over South Africa whites and blacks, rich and poor, ANC and Inkatha all stood peacefully shoulder to shoulder for hours in the hot sun, simply to vote.
    It can't last, but: Oh, what a good beginning.

    1  IFP  - The participation of Chief Buthelezi's Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party was generally considered crucial to the success and credibility of the election. Buthelezi realised that and with an acute sense of brinkmanship entered the election, withdrew and then eventually re-entered. By the tame they camme back in, the ballot papers had been printed and millions of stickers were printed, and had to be manually affixed to ballot papers, one by one. In some marginal areas the stickers somehow never arrived.

    2. The Johannesburg  Massacre. On March 28th ANC Security Guards in the Shell Centre in Joburg opened fire on Zulu demonstrators in the street below, killing 19 of them. A long time later emerged that Nelson Mandela himself had authorised the guards to open fire (something you don't hear much about now that he is a Saint)

    17 January 2009

    Not much blogging recently

    No, I am fine! Green Ideas is still going  - it's just that the last couple of weeks I have been putting work first.

    Hopefully normal service is now resumed. Twice a week: that's the aim.

    05 January 2009

    A Dinner Party Surprise

       'Surprise' by O'mages     
    In the face of a surprise one imagines oneself unflappable and calm, suave and assured, decisive and charming. Or that's the hope.

    At dinner last Thursday on the French Riviera, champagne glasses tinkling around our table, I had the chance to put my hope to the test when the bien chic, bien elegant French woman seated to my right gently touched my arm, flashed a white-toothed smile and breathed softly: "Can I ask you, Alibert? Eez eet OK if my sister and I kiss you zis ev'ning?"

    I blinked, and not in a calm, suave way. Very possibly, dear reader, I flapped.

    "You see, 'ere in France it eez  zee custom", she continued, in a waft of Givenchy, "at New Year, to kiss, at midnight.... but we know zat you English, you don't like so much to be kissed, and you must not be uncomfortable 'ere in our country".

    I think I must have had too much Pomme Dauphinoise and Pouligny Montrachet, for my voice when I spoke quavered unconscionably,  "Well, I think that... I mean... well, obviously..."

    I trailed off,  for over her bare, french shoulder I could see her excitable (and suspiciously wired) 'usband, dancing tanned, wild  - and now shirtless - with my daughters.

    Beyond him, far below our hosts' beautiful villa shimmered the Mediterranean, redly reflecting the fireworks of St Tropez on the far side of the Gulf.  In the kitchen yet another champagne cork popped and I collected myself.  "Naturellement, Sylvie, bien sur, zat would be  - I mean that would be - perfectly agréable"

    But the moment had passed: Sylvie was paying attention to her right-hand neighbour; to my left everyone had switched to a type of incomprehensible French that resembled-not language I learned at O-Level long ago.  Through the Bose sound system Abba asked: Does your Mother Know? and I fell silent and tried not to look as if no one was talking to me.

    "What would very agreeable, dear", asked Mrs Botogol, appearing unexpectedly at my elbow.

    I sighed, calmly and suavely,  "A 2009", I replied, gravely, "that proves better than 2008 - now that would be very agreeable - don't you think?"

    Big Ben, carefully Mp3'd and play-listed earlier in the week, bonged right on time, and the iPod segued smoothly.

    Poor old Johnny Ray
    Sounded sad upon the radio, 
    he moved a million hearts in mono.

    "So, shall we dance?"