Coronavirus and the Money Men

The world’s stock exchanges, banks and financial institutions allegedly have at their disposal phenomenal technology power, enormous volumes of information and data and some of the smartest (certainly the most expensive!) minds.  It’s often said that share prices (indices) don’t respond to events, but are determined in advance on the basis of what is going to happen. In turn, it is frequently said that share prices will always reflect the common set of knowledge that is freely known to all.   With that said, it might seem strange to many that the stock markets of the world could be thought to have reacted so very late to the coronavirus pandemic risks.

I should mention here that in a past existence, I worked in investment markets in London, employed by the Private Banking division of a major bank for eleven years after graduation. This time period included the 1987 stock market crash. I will never forget the hours spent on phones talking with desperate, fearful investors  looking for reassurance and guidance as to what they should do. At that time, our advice was that investors shouldn’t panic and sell, but should sit tight. Most were persuaded and thankfully it paid off as the old high levels were regained over time.

This time, however, there are aspects that look mysterious to me, making me skeptical that there may be strong forces that have worked very negatively towards the small investors. First intelligence about the covid-19 virus was received in America and around the world in mid-January. The stock market didn’t waiver and continued to be buoyant right up to 20th February. Only then did it start to fall. We now know that during that period there were fairly significant sales by senior political figures in America who were privy to briefings on the situation. After falling around 12% by 28th  February, the price then recovered more than half that drop by 4th March. Only then did the market turn genuinely negative, becoming something of a rout in the speed prices dropped.

Two weeks later, the stark reality of what the world faced became apparent. I was frankly shocked to see many financial pundits suggesting that the fall in the market had basically completed the ‘fastest bear market ever,’ was now oversold and a golden buying opportunity. Until 26th March it bounced quite strongly higher (giving one of the biggest market rises in a century). Since then, as day after day horrific news emerges around the world and as the full implications on the world’s economy are still not fully fathomed prices have drifted back down.

My suspicion lies around those two rallies in particular. In recent years, certain safeguards in the financial markets have been diluted. These included very strict limits on the ability of financial services companies and banks being both investors in markets for their own sake and market makers for the public. There have also been relaxations in the rules on the levels of gearing that financial institutions are allowed to use. Gearing means that if I have $1m dollars, I might buy $10m value of shares, putting up the $1m as margin (security) for the deal. After some time, if market prices increase by 10%, then I double my money. However, if  prices drop by 20% I not only lose my $1m completely, but I’m obliged to hand over another $1m within a certain amount of time. if I don’t have another $1m I’m busted, bankrupt and the bank has a hole of $1m in its balance sheet.

Margin calls would explain the sharp drop in prices of gold and bitcoin – assets that should have been seen as safe havens in the market storm. Investors had to sell whatever they could to meet the calls. However, I’m also suspicious that those faced with horrendous margin calls played a part in pumping the market back up, even though there was no fundamental basis on which it should rise. This would have enabled them to exit their positions without, at least losing everything. However, this would amount to a fraud on unwitting smaller investors.

It’s very early in the whole scenario, but the media has contained no hints or suggestions of any financial organisation in the world hitting a crisis of liquidity. In the current scenario the last thing any government in the world would want would be panic and a run on banks because of fear over the security of people’s deposits. nevertheless, around the world, banks and financial institutions have been riding a rise in market values that has tempted them to lend very heavily. We’ve already seen banks in India have to be rearranged under the weight of bad debts.

Reports from London reveal that bankers’ annual bonuses were paid out in February and March. So, yet again the ‘fat cats’ are likely to have walked away smelling of roses while leaving the common man to pick up the pieces. The British government had to step in this week and order them not to pay out enormous amounts of money in dividends to shareholders – money that may be desperately needed in the coming months to help out small businesses and distressed borrowers.

There are many ways that the world seems to have learned little from the financial crash in 2008 at the government level or at the level of the man in the street. It’s been a time of improved prosperity for some years. Yet, data suggests that 40% of people in America, just before this virus hit, would be incapable of absorbing a $400 financial hit. And, all this time, they’ve lived in a bubble where marketers and the government encouraged them to consume and consume, as though it was their duty to keep the economy merry-go-round moving.

The reality is this is going to be massively more than a $400 hit for millions. And the financial implications are going to be stark and painful. In a separate article I’m writing I’ll share that whilst this will be painful enough for people living in prosperous economies, the knock on effects for people in developing countries will be devastating, returning millions to poverty and even causing widespread deaths (that won’t show in the coronavirus statistics)

These are dark times, made worse by the hubris and greed of a system that so many said was broken and running on borrowed time. The cause of the carnage in the system might not have been foreseeable (a matter of debate), but many warnings were there. As we hunker down in our billions, locked in our homes to escape this evil deathly disease, we need to spend some time reflecting on the diseases in our world and society that played a part in unleashing it and making its impact way worse. This, believe it or not, is also an opportunity to give thought to the sort of world we want.

For the corporate executive who assessed winning and losing in the world by how much he/ she ducked and dived, out-grafted, out-earned and out-spent his peers – how does that big house (with big mortgage), top of the range SUV, cupboards full of suits, 10 pairs of jeans, bags, shoes etc etc feel now? Are they your source of happiness today and in the future? That car can’t move (in many countries today and maybe more soon). They don’t feed your family and they won’t save the relatives and friends you may lose to this virus. Keeping up with the Joneses is judged by very different criteria today. And maybe all those baubles were simply the superficial rewards for being loyal and dutiful cogs in other people’s bigger games.

A final thought – how busy in February and March were the secretive bankers in the Bahamas, Malta, Gibraltar and the other tax havens? Because it may be that the most powerful had already cleared a lot of their chips (and those of their companies) off the table in full awareness of the imminent storm. That was, just before they issued the layoff notices to employees in thousands.

I’m no communist, or even a socialist. However, we’ve known for long enough that rampant and unchecked capitalism was destroying our world. This may be the pause needed to decide what we want instead. So that we can build a more fair, inclusive and empathic world.

Free Online Meditation Resources

Awake Network Covid

As we all deal with the issues of the covid-19 pandemic, especially with the need for social distancing and the loss of human to human interaction, the effect for many is one of considerable anxiety and disturbance. there is an awkward irony that high levels of stress and anxiety cause increased cortisol levels – reducing one’s immunity levels.

In these circumstances, attention to mindfulness and the use of meditation is enormously valuable. Whether you’re an experienced meditator or someone who has been curious to try, this resource will be useful to you. The ‘Awake Network’ has collated an extensive list of free online resources;

The Awake Network – Free Online Meditation Resources

Reading for the Lockdown

book

While people are on lockdown idle time can play games with the mind. And, there really are limits to how much time you can spend binge-watching Netflix. So, it seemed an opportune time to share a few ideas regarding books.

First off, a very good list of 12 recommendations from Next Big Idea Club. This Club is curated by Adam Grant, Dan Pink, Susan Caine and Malcolm Gladwell. The recommendations can be found here:

12 Great Books to Make the Most of Your Time
(Click on the link above to open it in a new tab or window)

Out of the 12, 5 are among my favourite books and one is on my shelf waiting to be read. During this time, i don’t recommend ordering hard copy books as the supply services really need to be giving priority to delivering essentials (on which point I’m very unimpressed with clothes companies who bombard me with mails at this time – like buying more new shirts and trousers are the most important thing in the world right now?)

Next, a long time ago i did mention in a blog post – but it’s well worth repeating now, about the services of Bookbub. They curate lists of books being sold in e-book form at bargain prices. They issue a new email every day with a new selection of books and all the selections can be seen on their website;

Bookbub Website

Finally for this post, for the children who are adjusting to being at home there’s great news with lots of companies making their resources available. I’m going to be curating a list of some of these for later, but in the meantime I want to highlight Audible for Kids. They have announced that, for the duration of the Covid-=19 crisis, their children’s audiobooks library will be open free of charge for children:

Audible – Kids Stories – Free

Kindness

Kindness vs Covid.pptx

About three months ago I started to tell friends, relatives and acquaintances that I had started work on the outline for a book I wanted to write. As is common in such situations, most responded by asking me what the book was about.

‘Kindness’ I replied.

At least nine times out of ten I’d receive a puzzled, quizzical look. Most times the person would promptly ask another question in order to change the subject. It seemed that, in their eyes, I’d just said something rather foolish and they wanted to save my embarrassment by moving on quickly.

I started to conclude that others thought it a rather foolish idea, a whimsical novelty of zero interest to anybody. For a time i was downhearted. When i went home and ruminated I became concerned  – what if they were all right and I was already wasting an inordinate amount of my time on something that would be of little or no interest to anyone. I must admit, my confidence in both myself and the book idea were hit quite hard.

After a couple of weeks reflection I concluded that I still wanted to write the book. The one thing I intended to change was, until the draft was complete, I would stop telling other people about it. One of the things that influenced my decision was hearing an old adage repeated in a podcast – that you write the book you need to read most at that point in your life. So, I would continue with this book, for me, and find out later whether or not anyone else was interested.

Now, fast forward to today and the calamitous turn of world events over the last few weeks. Suddenly, everywhere I look, as the world struggles to come to terms with the  turmoil caused by the coronavirus outbreak, people are talking about kindness. This appears to be at least as much about the sort of world people want to see after this is all over, as the need of the hour now as people wrestle with issues that cause great stress, anxiety and emotional upheaval.

So, I’m glad I carried on with the book research and writing. A part of me wishes it had already been finished by now, but you can’t have it all! i can’t give an indication yet on when it will be finished, but I certainly intend to push on whilst in enforced seclusion.

Updates on Some Recent Posts

I wanted to share some further materials and tyhoughts regarding a couple of earlier posts I had written this year.

Sleep

sleep tablet

The first concerns the issue of children’s sleep, particularly in relation to the reduced amounts, their relationships with media etc. The two earlier articles garnered quite a bit of feedback and discussion including some exchange of mails with readers and discussions on social media. So, the following article from The Guardian hit me very starkly. It highlights the massive increases in the numbers of children in the UK for whom medical interventions are being sought to address issues of sleep deprivation and resultant issues that are impacting the children:

The Guardian – Sharp Rise in Hospital Admissions for Children with Sleep Disorders
(Click on the link above to open the article in a new window or tab)

Whilst the article flags up issues of sleep apnea (which are frequently linked to issues of being overweight or obese) as the cause of some of this increase, a lot of the blame is also focused on media, smart phone and tablet use by children. As well as the article itself, there’s also a link on the page (just above the picture) to a case study of a seventeen year old boy, whose mother actually works in a sleep clinic.

Here are the links for the two original articles related to this issue:

Sleep and School Start times
Going to Bed

Climate Change  – Responses to Environmental Issues

Climate Solutions

Another article i wrote earlier this year looked at the issues of how we address manmade climate changes that are leading to global warming. To date, so many of the responses, especially taught in schools have been about what people should stop doing, do less of or change in their personal lives and habits in order to bring about change. In my article I acknowledged my own gradual realisation that these ‘killjoy’ approaches will never be the solutions – telling people to stop doing things, to go without things they enjoy or to refrain from aspiring to the things they see others enjoying are just not going to be realistic. Rather, we have to look at the positive steps that can be taken. These are based in science and focusing on them changes the debate. Now, our focus needs to be on ensuring that governments are creating the right environments, incentives and investment climates to support ventures in these areas. Also, there’s a need to ensure that up to date information is shared and readily available to innovators and business people so that their interest in these activities result in real change and tangible actions.

So, I was delighted to see that there have been initiatives in this direction to bring to the fore in the public domain the information about what those scientific advances are and how they can be harnessed to address the issues and reverse atmospheric warming to prevent the worst of man-made global warming. That research comes in a report from Project Drawdown.

Here are two articles that share information on the key findings from Project Drawdown:

Science Alert – 76 Solutions Available Right Now to Slow Down Climate Change
Fast Company – Project Drawdown – 76 Solutions

This was the original article I wrote, right at the tail end of last year on which I’ve received a fair bit of feedback;

Global Warming: The Way Forward

This reinforces my belief that the answers lie at least as much in the focus in science (and STEM generally) teaching, as well as building public awareness and political lobbying to ensure that these kinds of initiatives get the right support to ensure that the world’s problems get addressed effectively.

 

Going to Bed

Girl Wearing Pajamas Watching TV in her Room

I wrote an article recently about why I don’t believe schools should be bending to the demands of those who suggest that Secondary School start times should be made later, to accommodate the tiredness of pupils. One of my main reasons was my belief that any academic gains or benefits would be only temporary, until the students simply adjusted to a new normal, their bed times shifted later and they would now be operating according to an even later sleep cycle (hence back to sleep deprived when getting up to go to school).

So, I was very interested to see the following article that outlines the findings of a paper and research on sleep procrastination – the process of delaying going to bed (and hence going to sleep), however tired one might be or however stressful one’s day might have been.

British Psychological Society Digest – Why Some People Find it Harder to Drag Themselves to Bed at Night
(Click on the link above to read the article in a separate tab or window)

The first finding that was striking was that for the worst of the sleep procrastinators, they could easily be delaying going to bed by a very significant 40 – 50 minutes each night. I have some reservations that, like so much psychological research, the test subjects were college and school-going students, but nevertheless the findings are interesting and point to a need for further research.

The key conclusion of the research was that people’s perceptions of themselves in relation to willpower played a significant part in determining whether or not they had sleep procrastination tendencies. Participants were categorised as either having a limited theory of willpower (believing it’s a finite resource that, once used up is gone until you can sleep or take other action to replenish it) or non-limited ( you can have as much willpower as you like available to you at any time, subject only to your level of self-control to draw on it.)

The conclusion was that the latter group are far less likely to procrastinate sleeping and going to bed than the former group. However, no causal link was established, so they’re still very much at the level of conjecture as to why this happens. More research is clearly needed, because greater understanding of why will offer scope to learn/ teach the skills necessary to address the issue.

At this point, i need to come clean and enter the confessional. I have had, for many years, a tendency to procrastinate sleep and going to bed. The severity of it varies over time, but i’ve never been quite sure what makes it worse. Ironically, it can, at times, seem to become worse when i put  more focus and attention on it, become frustrated or try to engineer strategies to get better. In my case, all too often, it’s about productivity. I can remember times in the past, years ago, when it might be occasions of mindlessly watching TV, continually telling myself that it’s time to switch off and go to bed, but failing to actually do it (and thinking less and less of myself for my failure to act). These day,s I watch very little TV and it’s much more commonly about an urge to get just a few more things done from whatever ‘to do’ list I had set myself for the day/ week etc. This seems to coincide with a rush of newfound energy, even though there is a voice in the back of my head reminding me that I had committed to myself to go to bed earlier (and that whatever task I’m engaged on can perfectly well be picked up on in the morning). Worse, and even more irrationally, I’ve often realised the next day that if I’d held the task over and got my rest, I probably would have done it quicker and to a much better standard.

To me, it’s further evidence that changing school start times is only likely to deliver short term benefits, that are quickly lost as the students adjust to new norms. We need alternative strategies, backed by scientific understanding about why it’s happening (not just who it’s happening to), that enable us and young people to take control of the situation and do what is in their/ our own long term best interest.

My Best Reads – 2019 – Part 2

1. This is Marketing, Seth Godin

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I’m not sure how many years it has been now that Seth Godin has written a daily blog which is sent by email to thousands of people worldwide. Some are just a few lines, some much longer explorations on an idea. I’ve been reading them for a few years and when suitably inspired have shared a few on this blog.

The book is one of the best and most up to date that I’ve read in a long time on the subject of marketing, from the perspective of all the ways we seek to influence people to make particular decisions.

2. Vernon Subutex One, Virginie Despentes

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This is the first in a three part novel series. I had probably not read something that had such a gut-thumping impact in quite a few years. Translated from French it goes deep in to modern society, French politics and the world we live in today.

I also read the second in the trilogy, but it didn’t quite hit with the same impact. The third and final part is, I believe, available in the French, but yet to be released in English translation.

3. Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan

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I’ve long believed that McEwan is one of the most powerful British writers today. It made the Man Booker Shortlist for 2019 with good reason. A powerful exploration of a near future when Artificial Intelligence has reached the point of a human standard robot that can be purchased and taken in to one’s home.

The interplay and disruption of ethics and life perspectives for all who interact with the robot is fascinating.

4. Hagseed, Margaret Attwood

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Maybe I’m just a contrarian! 🙂

In the year when so much attention of the media and readers was on one of Margaret Attwood’s other works, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ However, as much as I loved that novel and many of her others, the one that really got my attention in 2019 was one maybe a little less known.

It’s a witty modern reworking of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and the central character of Felix is brilliantly portrayed.

5. When, Dan Pink

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Dan Pink is one of those writers I find takes scientific research in the social sciences, makes it accessible and shares it in ways that can enable us all to live smarter lives. As a repeat reader of some of his earlier books, this was one i was waiting for when it came out.

‘When’ didn’t disappoint. It provides fascinating evidence on why, as humans, we’re not necessarily good at getting the timing of things right, but also contains some very practical steps we can take to improve our ability to get the timing of things better.

6. Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

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In the first half of my book list I mentioned that Murakami was one of two writers I ‘discovered’ late in 2019. Vonnegut was undoubtedly the other. My choice for this list was a toss up between ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and ‘Slaughterhouse 5’. Both were incredibly satisfying reads.

‘Cat’s Cradle’ was published in the year i was born. A near future science fiction novel, it explores the relationship between people and technology that was so starkly presented with the invention (and use) of the nuclear bomb. Today, we have many parallels as people are faced with moral and ethical dilemmas about whether to use new technologies like AI, advanced robotics etc. for good or for bad.

7. The Future of the Mind, Michio Kaku

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I’ve never fully understood why, but as a boy and at school I never really managed to fall in love with Science enough to pursue the science subjects for study.  This was strange, because in my youngest years I spent hours looking at things through a microscope, used to make simple circuits with an electrical kit and took things apart to see how they worked (though they were never the same again!). I can’t help thinking that if people like Michio Kaku and Neil DeGras Tyson had been around things might have been very different.

I recently heard a comment that is so true – when you go in to bookshops today, the science fiction section is so much smaller than it used to be when i was a kid. In fact, today, most of what you find there could be more classified as fantasy. This is because at an ever faster pace, science has turned all the things that were once science fiction in to science reality.

Space was once considered to be the final frontier for man’s knowledge and learning. Today, it’s the human mind. We’re still an awfully long way from cracking our understanding of its workings, but we’ve come a long way in the last 20 years. This book takes that scientific learning and makes it accessible, whilst exploring possible answers on the parts we still don’t know. It also explores the fascinating ways in which this new knowledge is already starting to change the way we interface with the human mind and conjecture on where this learning could take us in the future.

So, that completes my best reads lists for 2019. There were some other books that ran close to making the list. Now nearly 2 months in to 2020 I can promise that if it carries on like this, then this year’s list will be brilliant.

I had a sobering thought the other day. In the rest of my life, if I’m lucky I may have time to read 1,000 more books. On that basis, it’s going to make sense to be quite discerning about which new books i choose to read, especially as I want to make sure that there’s a good amount of that time available to reread the books that have brought me most joy and satisfaction in my life.

Happy reading !!

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