Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Making it happen: Looking back over nine months and more

This is a long post, so get your coffee and get comfortable.

It's taken me a while to really appreciate the phase of life through which I am going. Having done the regular work things for over thirty years, it's not a simple transition to doing "irregular" work; nor is making the transition from going out to work to staying home to work. Long years of education and training are supposed to prepare you for a "career" and being in the workplace, and that road often goes on with little deviation until you hit retirement, and then have the chance to take a look back. In my case, I have had a chance since coming to Barbados nine months ago to take a break and at least look around myself.

Both my parents were nurses in Jamaica when I was born and they foresaw that I would do well at school and get a "good job". In the early days, I remember a lawyer being mentioned. I stayed on track for a standard middle class life, and have become a well-educated professional. I went to law school for one day when I started university, but then switched to economics.

Even though as a young boy I enjoyed and was very good at sports (athletics and football), no one really saw those as what I would do all my life to make money. In the early years after moving to England, I ran well, gained medals, trophies, and titles, and representative honours that made me feel I had done well by the time I reached my late teens and was headed to university. I ran for a year at college but had decided that I was not going to "make it" at the highest level and needed to focus on studying. (I continued playing football at college,though, because I was doing much better at that sport.)

I started playing football at the age of 9 and quickly became good, and got much better in my adolescent years after a summer of a lot of practice. I played well and managed to have a playing career in Britain from my mid-teens on clubs and at university (where I played for 5 years), and as a club level semi-professional at a very high level well into my 30s! I then moved to the US in 1990. There, I continued playing in a international semi-professional league, but also branched out as a referee and coach. I refereed youths and adults, and it actually paid better than playing! I started coaching boys' teams, but then started a girls' team in the mid-1990s (for those born in 1987), which I had for 6 years (till they went to high school). I also formed a men's team, in Washington, made up of college graduates and seasoned players, and coming from at least 10 different countries (I named the team "Internationales"), which did very well over the 4 years I stayed as player-coach, until I was 42! My coaching was never for money, but was part of my "paying back" the sport. By the time I retired from playing I had had a good run for my money and injuries had been few (mainly minor sprains, and scratches, and a cartilage removed when I was 40). I decided to step away, and save for an ironic visit to Barbados in 2003 to play in the Wanderers International Football Masters tournament, my boots have stayed hung up. OK, I kick occasionally with my little daughter (now 4) and may have to "get into it" again for her.

I had also ventured into other sports, and started squash at university (playing reasonably well), and kept that up till my mid-40s. I then started tennis when I went on assignment to Guinea in 2003, and even starting in my late-40s, with the benefit of excellent and cheap daily coaching, I became proficient in a short time.

My wife, who was keen on fitness (running, yoga, reading--yes mental fitness) has discovered "sport", however. I taught her squash, and she also resumed tennis in Guinea (playing daily) and is now on an uptrack of early morning activity: playing tennis several times a week and walking the beach in other work days. She's seeing the benefits of intense sporting activity, which I had enjoyed for over 30 years. Now we both appreciate sport and exercise. We watch a lot of tennis and as one of our important pieces of family time she has placed that at the centre of a new phase in our lives: so we have visited Wimbledon and the US Open, and have plans to see the French and Australian Opens in coming years.

But, I found that handling all of the sporting activity I had once I moved to the US and having a professional career as an economist with an interernational institution was sometimes a challenge. My job involved a good amount of foreign travel (being abroad 2-3 weeks every 2 months on average), and coaching and managing from overseas was not sustainable. When I gave up those sporting responsibilities, I was mentally freed of some very heavy burdens, even though they were "enjoyable". Taking care of the teams really needed more time than I had. It was a tough choice because the truth is that work never had the passionate pull of sport, no matter how fulfilling the job has been, but it more than paid the bills.

My career has been reasonable, and I have worked in several prestige institutions (the Bank of England and the IMF). The working world needs a lot of maneuvering and talent alone does not guarantee success: it took me a long while to realise that. The networking that is needed ("brown nosing" some would say) is not always seen early enough, and diligence will get you to an average point, but it takes something else to rise to the top. That rise in an organization has to be a pull, meaning that someone up there has to be looking to see you rise. That rise can stop if your "mentors" leave or falter or if you get caught in some awkward situations, or somehow lose momentum. In my case, I decided that a certain change was good and when I went on overseas assignment, I realised what I had believed a long time ago, which is that I am NOT a bureaucrat in the sense that I was not content being a small cog in a wheel, no matter how big the wheel. I found my "true calling" being "my own boss" and in an "ambassadorial" capacity, where I had to deal with people one-on-one to resolve problems. I have always had good communication skills and been persuasive. Now, that was what I had to do every day, and I loved it, even when the messages that I had to deliver were unpleasant. But, if you build a good rapport with your counterpart that needed tough talking can be done without animosity, and if there is honesty on both sides then the good and bad even out. A job done with integrity is one that does not give sleepless nights.

Moving to Barbados involved "giving up my job". My wife has a very interesting assignment and she is now the sole breadwinner. So after years of being "a suit" (collar, tie, good shoes, briefcase), I now find myself in casuals every day--T-shirt, shorts, sandals. After decades of commuting to the office by train, bus or car, I now find the walk from the bedroom to the kitchen office is as far as I need to go. After years of sharing conversations in the office, the corridors, over coffee, over lunch and dinner, I now have my own thought, and the occasional "conversation" I hear on radio call-in programs. I also get to do school pick-up, have a lot of time with my youngest daughter, and passing conversations with parents and small children (oten more enjoyable than the office corridor chatter). After years of having important assignments and pressing deadlines ("It's urgent...the Governor needs"; "It's a crisis...the Managing Director will..."), I now do as I please. [As an aside, I have found very few real crises in my working life. There is often a panic that sets in because you are badly positioned and if you don't react fast you and the organization will look bad, but rarely are these situations that warrant the frenzy that can be seen in the office.] Doing as I please is a work-in-progress, and I am going to write more about that.

But just a few pointers to what I have done to please me over the past 9 months. I have started to teach myself to play the piano: I took lessons when I was young but something never clicked and I was always playing sport and focusing on school work; but I have been a frustrated musician for a long time and tried the violin and guitar and none of the instruments ever responded to me. Now, over 4 months, I have used the good fortune of a piano being in our rented home and diligently tried to practice regularly, doing about an hour a day: someone told me several months ago that it's the repetition and quality of the practice that will help make progress, not necessarily the quantity. I can play some tunes and by December I can maybe help with backing for Christmas carols. My little daughter is also inspired and goes to the piano and "plays". I know I want to help her do well with an instrument, if she has the inclination and I can use the experiences of my less-than-successful childhood piano lessons to guide her to being competent.

I started writing regularly (the blogs are the main output), and that has been an interesting adventure. Bureaucratic writing has been a great teaching ground, but I am not putting together well-crafted position papers, which need to be reviewed and revised and perhaps then dumped in the garbage. I have been encouraged to write a book, or several, and I feel that the momentum for that is building. (Much as I enjoy reading, I found that after years of reading documents every day my appetite for books was very low. Thanks to my wife's voracious appetite for books, I have started to nibble at reading books again. I was very moved by Rachel Manley's Drumblair, her historical account of growing up with her grandparents, Norman and Edna Manley. That certainly is inspiring for a writer.) I have used the blogs as a platform for other writing, and produced some articles for fun, which have been published over the past few months. I have also been encouraged to use my experience to write more social commentaries and offer some columns to newspapers, and I will venture into that.

I have also thought about how to earn money. Having left the office life, I also left behind regular pay! I have tried to market myself, which is not simple in a new location: I have no base of contacts, and as I build them I have to exploit them to see if they can help me into earning opportunities. My career skills have markets but I also have to deal with the fact that I am still under contract to my employer, and am merely on leave without pay. But I have gained some teaching assignments at the University of the West Indies (UWI), where I have "facilitated" an Executive Masters in Business Administration course. So, I led a group of Caribbean public servants at the Cave Hill Campus, and then led a group of private and public sector officials in Tortola. The work is intellectually challenging, and I had to read text books on strategic planning, and public policy analysis, so that I could prepare and give good presentations. I now have to look forward to marking individual project reports, which should land on my desk in the next few weeks.

I have some consultancy work ahead, which will involve travel to Guinea--both a surprise, but a pleasure, I hope. I'm excited to have the chance to see what has happened there over the past 18 months of civil upheaval. Being the IMF's resident representative there placed me in a very delicate but important position. And I had my share of consultants visit me to hear the IMF's views about economic prospects. Now, I will be on the other side. It should be very interesting.

My latest venture (and it is really a toe in the water thing) is day trading! Frankly, I do not know if I can make money from this, but money can be made. I will however try to use the experience. After years of working in fields related to financial markets, and being an investor, I was bemused by some stories of Japanese housewives learning to become foreign exchange (forex) traders and doing this online to earn a little pocket money. I was also struck by some articles that I read about some investment clubs in Jamaica based around forex trading, which are paying out amazing interest (over 10% a month; see article on OLINT), and appear to be giving the little and big people a chance to make substantial financial gains. So, I registered with one of these trading companies and downloaded the relevant software, and have been trading for a month. I have not made real money, so far. I have a live account and a practice account, and I am learning. It is initially very painful. It also requires a good amount of time, which I have. Trading also requires a certain steel and nerve so that you can ride out situations that look like disastrous losses to get through to that point of bliss where there is a profit, or the reverse of seeing a profit disappear. Sometimes you can see a gain quickly, but losses can mount up rapidly and be large. No one likes to see the red ink and the declining balances.Yes, my hands get clammy.

I have had to develop a new routine: no more long morning lie-in. Trading is 24/5 (all day from Sunday evening through Friday evening). I presume that no one trades continuously 24/5, but you can trade a long time every day. The Far East markets open in the evenings in our time zone (say 5pm Eastern Standard Time). Then London opens at around 3am EST, followed by New York at 8am EST. You can pick and choose which markets to trade in and for how long. I have preferred to trade on London and New York, which means waking around 3am when London opens and trading through 5pm when New York closes. That is a long day. In reality, I have moved to trading in sections of the day. It is not good to leave positions open if you cannot monitor them. So, I trade when I know I have a good chunk of time, and have traded on all three markets on some days. I am slowly learning the characteristics of the markets and how to trade.

The theory and practice are different in that practice involves emotions, and emotions lead to bad decisions. You also deal differently with real money and practice money. So far, I have found that nervousness with real money tends to lead to trying to take profits early, while letting positions run longer in the practice money world. What that has meant is that the live account has done less well than the practice account. Having the guts to let the position run means that the bigger profits can come. It is not uncommon for a price to move by 100 points during a day. That means that a position can turn a 100% in a day, if you stay the course. But you have to ride the roller coaster sometimes (see image, which you can click to enlarge).

The trading situation in this image also gave me a hard real life lesson, where over the space of an hour I made a huge gain, made a bigger loss immediately after, more or less recovered the loss in minutes, at which point I stopped trading. I went to dinner only to find when I returned that this last gain was due to a glitch in the price information and that my position was still running and eventually turned into a large loss! I had a long conversation with the trading company the next day, which was settled by a credit which meant that I ended up even. One Jamaican blogger is putting his trading experience on line (see link). He shows positions and is trying to give his readers some sense of moving along the sometime bumpy rides.

So, what I have learned over my month of trading is that in theory there are huge gains to be made, but the risk of loss is also great, perhaps more so. This makes the constant high payouts from companies like OLINT are intriguing. The essence of each trade means that whether you buy or sell you start at a loss, so you need a favourable movement to get even at the start. If you trade at price levels that are not the best, the potential for profit is less, and when you get to your objective there may be a gain but not as much as was possible. So, learning the right entry points is key. There are other strategy issues but that's for later. I am intrigued by the investment club schemes that manage to pay out large profits all the time, because this presumes a performance relative to the market that is extraordinary. Clearly, experienced traders can do very well, but well enough to pay out over 10$% a month? But I am going to think about this more.

I have set some objectives for the next month of trading, which include not losing all my money. The trading accounts work on a margin basis, meaning that only a certain small percentage is needed to trade large amounts: between US$40-100 can allow you to trade single lots of US$10,000, and the money made or lost on the larger volume is your actual profit or loss. But if your margin falls below the level needed to support the trade because losses are mounting your positions are closed--no negative balances. So I wont lose all my money but my stake can get very low.

My new trading life has me waking early so, being up at 4am on a Saturday, I have blogged instead of trading, and as I have at this blog regulary for some time, I seem to have a lot to write. It's a lot of reading but it's the weekend and I hope that you reached this far.

Doing as I please has also meant a huge mental adjustment and rebuilding of values, which are also works-in-progress. In a nutshell, you need to plan to make the kind of transition I am in, like planning for retirement. Many of us who have full working lives in an office or factory have little notion of how different it is to spend days at home, working or otherwise. We are not used to that except when we are sick. Fortunately, my home is a wonderful place and I have been fortunate to have great space, peace and quiet, and a natural setting that is very calm. But home-working can seem confining and making it seem less so is sometimes not easy. But the good news is that most people who have gone through similar process have the same experience. Working at home needs structure, just as much as does a day in the office. Without structure, there is a strong sense of aimlessness, which is largely an illusion but still is bothersome. I have eventually come to really enjoy this new situation, but it has taken time to see the positives as larger than things that seem negative. There is little I miss about going to work in an office. There is much I am now learning to appreciate about being able to work at home.

Have a wonderful weekend.


Zmoney said...

Glad to see a fellow Barbadian blogger doing there thing :) Just dropping by saying hi.

Galma Rae said...

Very long but interesting post. You are lucky to have a spouse to take off some of life's pressure off you.
Working from home is, ..priceless although it requires a lot of self discipline to follow up on the top priorities.
Having done it for almost 14 years since the birth of my son, I treasure the rewards of watching my boy grow and I plan my business around his activities. Now that he's showing signs of leaving the 'nest', I thought I had missed corporate world until I recently went for a job interview and realised how blessed I have been all these years to be my own boss. It's not about the money, power or the glass ceiling. You have to experience it to understand that the bliss of job satisfaction in doing what you love to do is simply 'priceless'.

Dennis Jones said...

My wife and I have been through childrearing once and have 2 grown daughters (one still at college, one just graduated and now working) from previous marriages. So some would say it's time to do as I please.