You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2008.

I am not a long term experienced blogger. Mine was only started out as an experiment this September – I have to say I am enjoying the experience, if finding it a bit time consuming as it can be very involving. There are several returning readers and it’s great to interact with (anonymous) people around this planet and share ideas.

The reason my blog was an experiment is that I wanted to see how much interest there would be in what I have to say if I don’t promote my blog in any way amongst anyone who knows me. So apart from two close people in my family, no other friends or family know I am doing this. It feels quite liberating, actually, and yes as you can see from the stats I am getting a few hits, so obviously someone cares to read my stuff. Great!

But here is something that caught my attention the other day. Wired and several other sites are hailing the end of blogging. The key issue the author is noting is that compared to 2004, there are just too many professional journalistic voices out there in the blogosphere that make it nigh to impossible for amateur bloggers to get noticed. Many experienced bloggers are pulling the plug on theirs. And they advise others to reconsider starting a new blog or continuing with an existing one.

Another problem is that Twitter, a competing site, through limiting the number of characters to only 140 (that’s a few words only, right?), is very fast moving. It allows one to get to the point fast without agonising about the choice of words or the structure of one’s essay-like post.

This is making me ponder over the question of whether it is worth keeping my own blog going in the longer run – and what am I personally trying to achieve with it. As I’ve not got an established track record, no-one would notice me vanish back into obscurity 🙂  

Which feels a bit sad, as I am enjoying my newly found anonymous virtual life, and learning quite a few things en route whilst chatting to lots of people, so I won’t do this just yet.

Read the Wired article here.

Any thoughts on “decline of blogging” from the readers of this post? What motivates you to keep your blog or website going at the moment?

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In the few days, the UK Government has published its plans to collect more data on people’s phone, e-mail and web-browsing habits under the generic umbrella of measures to fight global terrorism.

This will be included in the innocuously sounding ”Communications Data Bill”, due to be introduced in the Queen’s Speech in November.

We do not oppose the fight against global terrorism. But we don’t want to have constant police presence everywhere in my house.

Frankly, many people are outraged by this further intrusion into our civil liberties. A growing number of people want oppose the increasing Big Brother intervention of the present government. Alongside many bloggers, I am voicing my opposition to plans for further spying on our affairs and private lives.

The general sentiments are very well expressed and illustrated in the following post by the Power to the People website and I thank the author for allowing (in fact positively encouraging) the article to be reprinted here, something I would not do normally: Link to article.

As many will be aware, Britain already has the highest amount of surveillance cameras watching over its citizens. City dwellers are typically filmed dozens of times per day – something that has not actually reduced violent crime statistics under the present government! We seem to be heading for – if not there already – a police state. And this is scary, because once a government acquires certain powers, it does not typically ever give them up. So there will unlikely be a relaxation on the current policing techniques employed. And I am not sure police can even use their newly acquired powers to get us the degree of protection they claim they will offer.

The initiative to indicate our common outrage at this most recent government measure has in fact come from a blog at shrewdmammal.com – the author is urging people to include the tagRESIST‘ in all like minded posts and has included a logo which I have included on the front of my own blog.

If you share our views, and think the government is beginning to enjoy too much intrusive power over Britain, please feel free to reprint this article in your own blog.

Thank you.

Ah, what did we expect! Lord Mendelson, only back in the Tory government for less than a month, has already – tangentally – been involved in a scandal.

Mendelson: The chap does truly have a talent for sniffing out trouble. This time, he has been invited to stay on a yacht by a Russian multi-billionaire Oleg Deripaska. What business does he have to mingle with a super-rich oligarch – someone with proven connections to Russian mobsters? I am sure the subject matter of his meetings were all totally above board… yeah right…

Bravo, Mendelson. I guess it is a new twist to his CV to befriend old mates of Russian mafia – or shall we just call it networking with a wider group of contacts?

More details on Mr Deripaska here.

George Osborne: And yes, if we call this “impaired judgement”, then the world of UK politics is currently full of clowns with impaired judgement. George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, was reported recently trying to solicit a donation of £50,000 from the same Mr Deripaska whilst staying on the same yacht in Corfu. Which he strongly denies, which must mean it is true.

It is illegal in the UK to obtain donations from members of non-UK electorate. However as “soliciting a donation” is not an offence, he is not going to be investigated for this further. Wow – now that was close, wasn’t it?

So much for David Cameron’s assertion that “character and judgement” is more important than experience if Tories come to power. Mr Osborne’s judgement was, shall we say, examined and found wanting in this matter.

Read the full story on this here.

I do despair. The current Labour government has caused a total financial fiasco and seem to have forgotten they were responsible for it. Perhaps bringing Mandy back is a smoke screen to distract the voter from their economic incompetencies – anticipating the inevitable scandals – which as we can see were not long in coming?

Tories, as their major opposition have no consistent political platform, seem to only be capable of finger-pointing and petty bickering with Labour, and are showing an embarassing lack of experience and judgement. Which only poses questions about whether they are fit to be in the hot seat.

Aaahhhhhhgrh!

 

Copyright 2008 by CuriouslyInspired

The role of stratospheric banking bonuses in encouraging the culture of greed and excessive short-term risk-taking by bankers has now been fairly widely publicised in the context of the financial meltdown of 2008. Is this the full story, however? Should bonuses be reduced, controlled, set differently, or abolished altogether?

Conflicting interests: The biggest problem that massive remuneration packages cause is the misalignment between the interests of bank executives, who want to maximise their year-end cash reward by any means open to them, and the companies’ shareholders, who are interested in long-term growth and stability of their investments. There is thus a different appetite for risk between these groups: bankers are risk-takers as incentivised by their pay structure; shareholders are much more risk-averse.

Banks’ top management will say all the right things about the duty they have to responsibly manage their shareholders’ investments. The truth remains, that if one’s banking bonus is many times the basic salary, in the heat of daily deal-making and profit-chasing it seems all too easy to forget this duty to the ultimate investor. It seems that presently, there is no 100% effective mechanism ensuring bankers are fulfilling their responsibilities to look after this money.

Ultimately, if a banker messes up and loses their firm a lot of money, they tend to be able to find another job elsewhere. And they might not feel strong pangs of conscience – as the money they gambled never felt like it was their own, duty to the shareholder forgotten, and their own assets retained. However if shares become worthless, shareholders feel the pain immediately as it was their own money.

Fancy words: Whilst banks’ management will all say (in AGMs, on their mission statements, in the press, etc) that they aim to maximise shareholder value, effectively they often allow more junior staff to do this with risky strategies that take a short term view despite being long term in their execution. This can backfire like it did with sub-prime mortgage investments in America: bankers who packaged these very dubious loans and sold them on as over-rated investment bundles only wanted to earn a bigger bonus in that particular year.  

Internal compliance and risk control departments – here to give comfort to senior management that all is well – cannot have kept tabs on such activities effectively, otherwise banks would not have gotten into trouble.

Thus we have a lack of accountability of the real deal-makers, plus a disconnect between senior management’s eloquent words of responsibility to shareholders and the reality. The few high-profile court cases where senior people were brought in before legislative bodies to answer for the negligent financial misdeeds of their firms are presently the exception, not the norm. And the real deal-makers are never being brought in to answer.

Banking bonuses in recent years: Let’s look at some recent numbers.

UK: In 2006, 4000 people earned more than £1m each in bonuses in the City of London.

In 2007, with the global credit crunch already in full swing, City million-pound bonuses seem to have been given to over 4200 people. In total, the City paid out about £14 billion in bonuses for 2007 to 1 million City employees – an increase of 30% on 2006 (2006 bonuses: $10.9bn. Source – Office for National Statistics (ONS) ).

Overall, bonus payments in the UK financial sector have more than trebled since 2003, when about £5bn was paid out (Source: ONS).

US: Wall Street bonuses were approximately $24 billion in New York City for 2006. In 2007, despite the credit crunch, mounting billion-dollar losses and write-downs on Wall Street, bonuses were $38 billion.

So, we can see that bonuses have been on the rise up until 2008, the year when the proverbial really hit the fan. Bankers have been heard justifying the increase in 2007 bonuses citing large profits of early 2007, before the credit crunch really hit. Yet again, it just shows bankers taking a short-term view of their activities.

Are bonuses to blame for the current crisis?  To some extent, yes, although there is a danger of over-focussing on bonuses themselves as THE only culprit.

We have seen how the promise of bonuses can encourage short term irresponsible risk-taking. But some trading strategies can yield large profits in a short space of time and not destabilise the bank.

What is really missing is the ability of management to assess the riskiness of activities of its deal-makers, and adjust their bonuses accordingly – not just look at the bottom line profit number earned in the current year.

For instance, if the effect of banker’s transaction can be felt over several years, rewards for its success should be deferred and spread over a number of years years and not paid immediately. So if a deal goes sour in the longer run, the individual will not get rewarded for it at all.

To encourage longer-term view of banking, more bonuses should be paid in shares or options rather than cash. Such share or option schemes can be sellable only several years down the line, encouraging the individual to stay with the firm, work hard and wait for their incentive schemes to come into force.

And I think that there needs to be more accountability by more layers of bankers – not just top CEOs and an odd rogue trader. Regulations should be watertight so that irresponsible behaviour is easier to spot and stop, and if need be taken to court.

Will bonuses be reduced? In the short term, definitely. 2008 bonuses are expected to fall 60% in the City.

However big bonuses are probably here to stay to some extent. This is partially because bankers make big investments to get top jobs (an MBA can set you back £100,000) – and give up their personal lives for their careers.

But crucially, I feel that the external regulators and internal risk controllers must step up their game and play a strong role in defining the guidelines and recommendations on how banking rewards should be set. The objective is to incentivise responsible risk-taking behaviour that takes a long term view.

If this line is taken and successfully implemented, then surely rewarding some exceptionally hard working bankers will not be such a big deal – as long as we know they are taking good care of our finances?

Then I would suggest the answer becomes – bonuses should to some extent be controlled through following new regulatory guidelines and should be set using different methods and types of incentive, but not abolished or reduced on a whim.  

… but the culprit goes unpunished today: What hurts most is that even as the global credit crunch is unravelling this year, bankers who caused it and earned their massive bonuses in recent years are currently in the Bahamas sunning themselves not knowing how to best spend their money.

Apparently there is a real shortage of luxury accomodation in exotic tropical destinations.

And that really shows that we are letting the real culprits get away with it today.

 

Copyright 2008 by CuriouslyInspired

As the global credit crunch and deterioration of confidence is starting to bite Russia harder, Russian banks are experiencing panic deposit withdrawals. Add to this the rapidly falling stock markets – and you have a dangerous cocktail of financial instability.

Customers want their money back: Last week, Russian bank Globex banned depositors from taking their money after a run on its deposits sparked by crumbling confidence. It is the first bank to suffer this problem in 2008 – but undoubtedly not the last. A number of other banks also experienced an unexpected rise in people withdrawing their money and closing their accounts. Long queues of investors desperate to have their cash back are starting to form outside smaller banks. Many failed to get their money as bank operations were suspended. So this crisis is not doing anything for the average consumer who is now seriously worried about losing their hard-earned money.

In the last couple of months, three banks have been forced into mergers because of the liquidity crisis brought on by the global credit crunch. There is anecdotal evidence that banks are being bought for nominal sums, one of them quoted to have been sold for $5,000.

Bailout Russian style: The Russian government’s financial bailout package of $120bn is aimed primarily at large captive state-controlled institutions such as Vneshtorgbank (VTB – the Bank for Foreign trade) and Sberbank (the Savings bank). The government also intended to spend a portion of it on shares purchase to support the tumbling stock market, but not so much at lending activities. Overall however, there seemed to be insufficient detail and transparency about the total package which caused the market a lot of concern.

The package itself is an astronomic size of money in terms of its size relative to Russia’s GDP. For comparison, US’s $700bn bailout is around 5.5% of its GDP (US GDP is approx $14trillion), whereas Russia’s bailout is about 10% of its GDP (Russia’s GDP is approx $1.2trillion). Since the bailout has been announced in September, it has had little impact on the Russian stock market, which fell down around 60% from its high in May 2008.

The crash of Russian stock market has been the most dramatic event of all the world’s stock markets collapses in 2008.

Market correction: In itself, the Russian crash is a huge adjustment back to the shaky economic fundamentals. Russian economy is still set to grow by about 7% in 2008 according to the IMF. However, the foreign investors who were attracted by speculative expectations of high returns in Russia are all gone and the money is gone with them, making the huge market bubble go “pop” spectacularly quickly.

Financial outlook: This is tricky as there are a few moving parts. Oil is a key one, but I am not going to touch upon it today, only noting that a fall in world oil prices is causing major concern to Russia. 

From the point of view of banking, we are seeing the start of consolidation of the Russian banking sphere, and there is a fear, which the government will strongly deny, that the financial situation is pretty grim: the major concern is that widespread bank failures will spark panic. Still, the population is pretty pleased about one thing – that a bunch of super-rich Russian oligarchs will lose their ill-gotten money in the stock market crash. That’s some consolation, isn’t it?

 
Copyright 2008 by CuriouslyInspired

The rediscovery of the original apparatus and materials from 1950ies experiments to create amino acids – the building blocks of life – reignited the interest in this debate.

Original 1950ies experiments: Stanley Miller originally performed these experiments and managed to create 5 amino acids, which the theory suggests would have formed a “primordial soup” which would have been the basis for proteins and subsequent life creation on the planet. A strand of his work focussed on creating amino acids involving steam. However in the 1950ies it was deemed that the Earth’s early atmosphere was not like that, so the experiment suffered from subsequent obscurity; the kit with his full notes was lost.

Update and enrich the findings: Now that the old experimental kit and detailed notes have been located by Miller’s former student, now Professor Jeffrey Bada, the latter managed to move forwards from the 1950ies experimental results and create 22 amino acids. He argues that ancient volcanoes, similar to existing volcanoes, may well have had the atmospheric conditions that Miller used in his earlier tests. Thus, young planet’s volcanoes and thunderstorms accompanying their many eruptions could have indeed created a “little, local prebiotic factory” of amino acids, in itself was a giant step towards creating life forms of Earth.

Read the full story from the BBC here.

Divine intervention or volcanic sparks? What is particularly fascinating about this debate is that it brings back and updates the discussion about the origins of life on Earth. The scientific explanation is now supported with some fresh experimental evidence on the possibility of creating life without divine intervention – but just involving natural processes on the planet.

To date, this issue has beeb one of the biggest debate points between atheism and religion, alongside the origins of the Universe (Big Bang v God).

What would religious people’s response be on this matter of this experiment, I wonder?

In this morning’s speech, David Cameron laid blame for the current state of the UK economy at Gordon Brown’s feet.

Labour a failure: Cameron stated that the Labour government was responsible for the “complete and utter failure” of economic policy and that it has been an “irresponsible government” presiding over a period of “irresponsible capitalism”.

The implication is that the nation is now reaping the results of this policy as we slide into a recession, our financial sectors in tatters – and that this could have been prevented.

Cease support: In the recent days, Conservatives have been seemingly supporting Labour especially in the latter’s bid to work out a bailout package. So much so that one was wondering if the Conversatives have had any of their own thoughts about the economic policy. And, whilst Cameron is now effectlively making a statement that he is ending Conversatives’ support of the current government’s economic measures, one still wonders what exactly is he going to propose that amounts to a solid economic platform that is actually different from the current course.

General noises are being made about tougher regulations, “new measures to rebalance the economy”, and changes to laws. Whilst this is all good and fine, none of these appear novel measures that have not been mentioned before by someone else.

Are Conservatives still struggling to pull it together? On the evidence I see (or shall I say, do not see) today – yes. But so is Labour, really, although at least they have some sort of action plan for now.

Silly Political games: What seems to be happening on both sides is a lot of posturing. Whilst Gordon Brown is savouring the role of the saviour of the world’s financial system, his opponent David Cameron is the homegrown oracle who had seen it all coming and can see right through the incompetencies of the present government – yeah, right. How easy is it to throw stones about, say “I told you so” and then duck for cover – as really you have nothing new to say, Mr Cameron. Come up with some really smart proposal that will tell you apart from other government policymakers, then maybe we’ll put more trust in the Conservatives.

Until then – the usual charade of ceremonial policital repartee continues. Yawn…  

 

Copyright 2008 by CuriouslyInspired

The euphoria of earlier this week, which followed an announcement of the UK bailout by Gordon Brown, has seemingly finished – as it was feared to. Shares have yet again collapsed. Asia showed probably the worst results today, with the Nikkei dropping 11% on the 16th October. As I am writing this, the FTSE has fallen below 4,000 again. And Dow will be perilously close to its 8,000 mark.

Shifting sands: Investor sentiment, similar to voter sentiment, is a funny thing. Markets are driven by it, same as elections are won on the strength of popular feeling. However stock market sentiment is also fickle and impermanent, and prone to wild swings especially in troubled times such as now. We are nowhere close to being out of the woods yet. In the weeks to come, there will be significant market volatility, and the market will trend downwards. Perhaps my fears of FTSE at 3,000 have yet to be realised.

Credit crunch biting hard: Interbank lending is still pretty frozen, although short term rates have fallen a little – with banks still not keen to do any longer term lending. Despite all government intentions and declarations, banks cannot be forced to start lending against their will if they do not have confidence in their financial partners. Somebody compared this to “asking water to flow upstream” – just is not going to happen. The impact of this has already spilt out into the real economy: businesses are finding it very hard to refinance their existing loans. This will have a negative impact on the whole economy, reducing business activity and forcing some to cease trading altogether.

Recession: What is driving the stock markets plunges at this very moment are investors realising that we are heading full steam into a global recession – and the existing bailout funds will not be enough to prevent it. A lot of government money is being pumped into the banking system – yet as long as investors think we are heading for a recession, they will keep on selling, and the money will keep on burning up and vanishing into the bottomless pit. It’s a vicious circle which under the current financial system, only restored consumer confidence can stop – and we just are not getting any positive economic news for this to happen. Read the rest of this entry »

The global financial crisis is threatening to engulf yet another state. This time we are talking about Pakistan.

Background: It’s a very different story from Iceland – and has a heavy political spin to it. Pakistan has had 9 years of military rule headed by Pervez Musharraf. He recently stepped down to avoid being impeached. Pakistan’s new civilian government is just 5 months old and is now headed by the widower of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari.

The challenge the new government faces is dealing with the aftermath of Pervez Musharraf’s outdated economic and security policies, and changing these policies to rescue the country from its current brink of default.

During Musharraf’s rule, Pakistan has been propped by aid from the USA. Now these loans have stopped, the country started rapidly running out of money.

As Reuters reports, “Pakistan has been running unsustainable fiscal and balance of payments deficits”. In the last few months, Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves have fallen sharply to just under $9bn (compared to $16bn in Nov 07), as the country is spending a lot of money on importing increasinly expensive oil, whilst also maintaining a large army and supporting programmes to fight militant extremists.

Impact of the crisis: As the result, Pakistan’s currency rupee has dropped in value by 19% in 2008. The country’s stock index the KSE (Karachi Stock Exchange) has slumped 41% from the April’s peak.

The inflation is running at 25%, and although the government has stated that it will aim to cut central bank’s borrowing, tightening the monetary policy, there is fear that heavy government borrowing (a much looser fiscal policy) will actually fuel inflation further.

Security fears: Pakistan’s people are living in poverty and many cannot now afford fuel and food staples. There have been protests where people expressed their anger at the situation. Strong popular discontent is fuelling support for militant extremist groups. This creates a big problem for the new government as it has vowed to deal with militant groups near the Afgan border. Pakistan have a large army to support at present, and lack of money will make it difficult to finance existing planned programmes.

Trouble is near: It is forecast that if the country carries on as is, it will need $10bn to prevent going bankrupt in February 2009. Government bonds traded internationally have already dropped down in value implying the market fears the government will default upon its debt.

Whilst the government has been denying it is facing a crisis of balance of payments, it has been reaching out to China for a large loan instead of the IMF.  

China is set to benefit: China presently has $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, and although it cannot be seen as totally immune from the ravages of the global financial crisis, it certainly seems well insulated at present. In fact, China might do quite well out of the Global meltdown, strenghening ties with other countries in trouble and acquiring new allies. Its prospects are presently far better than for many other states. Watch this space – China is set to grow and grow and grow…

 

Copyright 2008 by CuriouslyInspired

It’s fascinating to see how much everyone around the globe is presently applauding Gordon Brown, the UK’s PM, for coming up with “the plan” to rescue us from the economic meltdown. Features of this plan are now being adopted by other governments in need of a magic wand to get them out of the financial abyss.

UK plans: The plan amounts to the UK Government formally taking a stake in UK’s banks whilst giving them money (£37bn to three named banks – RBS, Lloyds and HBOS) to recapitalise and hence become more resistant to the current market volatility and the ongoing liquidity crisis.

This was received exceptionally well by the world’s markets. FTSE 100 is positively rocketing upwards – on Friday it closed below 3,900, it now stands at 4,400, up well over 12% in just 2 nerve-wracking days. European and Asian indices are also up very strongly.

US adjust the approach: US’s bailout package of $700bn, which was originally intended just to buy off bad debts off failed banks, was badly received by the markets earlier in October and failed to stem the fall of american indices which dragged the world’s markets down with it. Now the US government is turning towards the UK-style idea and is planning to recapitalise 9 banks (amongst them Goldmans and Morgan Stanley) using $250bn of the bailout pack for this.

This will be deeply humiliating to Goldmans and Morgan Stanley which until now have been the last 2 “pure” investment banks left on Wall Street. Goldmans, in particular, was initially trying to raise its own capital to ensure its survival, whilst Morgan Stanley was looking for a merger. I wrote about that earlier in Sept.

US markets strongly welcomed US’s change in thinking on the rescue plan and Dow Jones is finally on the up.

Knight in shining armour? Gordon Brown is getting credited for coming up with the plan that is going to work, where all else failed to date. Paul Krugman who got awarded the Nobel prize for economics, has been praizing Mr Brown as the one who might have saved the world’s financial system: more details here.

But we must not forget, before we get carried away on the sudden euphoric wave, that:

  • Gordon Brown failed to prevent UK entering the credit spending spree in the first place, creating conditions for a very sharp comedown to earth which are only starting to bite now
  • He failed to get the regulators involved when alarm bells have been ringing for months as banks were increasingly entrenched in runaway activities which were hardly regulated

And thus we must consider Gordon Brown’s achievements and undoubted strong leadership skills in the last few days in light of the fact that really, we should not have been here in the first place.

What is always impressive is the well-oiled Labour spin machine which helps Mr Brown deliver his recent “save the banking world” speeches so very well. UK is newly rebranded as “rock of stability and fairness”. The stuff that would normally make one cringe was swallowed by this week’s hungry for reassurance markets, hook line and sinker.

A very bitter pill: As for the bailout itself –  no-one likes the sound of it. In fact we all loathe the sound of it. And I for one thought in the last month, just let these banks fail, as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” – bailout or not bailout – it will hurt in both cases. But economic tools and alternatives being rather thin on the ground, I agree with some of my recent commentators, I have come round to semi-accepting the inevitability of this bailout. This is mainly because everything else I have seen suggested would have implied an HUGE social and economic upheaval. Like write off everyone’s debt and assets, for instance.

What this means is that as the world’s order is shifting towards quasi-socialist principles and a very strong government hand in regulation, we are not trying to shake the foundations of the existing society. Call me a coward but I don’t feel there is a call for that at this stage.

Yet from the UK’s point of view, it is extremely disappointing to see Gordon Brown take so much credit for an event that he did not manage to prevent.

 

Copyright 2008 by CuriouslyInspired

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