Welcome

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.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween.

If you have never watched John Carpenter's film "Halloween"--described as how a "psychotic murderer, institutionalized since childhood, escapes on a mindless rampage while his doctor chases him through the streets"--now would be a good time. Just when you thought all was safe, there would be another shocking surprise, and that feeling of being choked or suffocation would return.

That's how this month has been in the world international finance. It was so bad that every day was a drama until the end; the New York Stock Exchange especially saved all the fireworks for the last hour, or worse, the last 15 minutes. Before that, heart strings were pulled this way and that, up large amounts, down large amounts. Those involved had no idea where was up. Me, from my computer trading platform? I was stunned at the ranges of movements in prices, as I have written about recently. As they say in some films, "It's dangerous out there." My head has not ached but nights have been interesting. So much happened during trading in Asia and Europe that it became very risky to have any position open overnight; that's one reason why a lot of selling at the day's end was seen on Wall Street. The crazy weather in Barbados, with those wild thunderstorms and heavy rain, woke me up several times and given my interest, I checked goings on in Asia or Europe. Have you ever been in an abattoir?It's gory and really unpleasant. That's often how I viewed things. I checked my little one; tried to go back to sleep myself; adopted a tight foetal position, and thought sweet thoughts about the day to come.

The chief currency strategist of the company with whom I trade wrote this weekend: "Good riddance October. A month that began with much hope as the US government pursued the housing/financial sector rescue package ended with unprecedented carnage in nearly every asset class, leaving few investors unscathed. Hedge fund and portfolio withdrawals forced asset sales, driving down shares worldwide and triggering margin calls, which prompted yet further selling. In currencies, this sent the JPY-related currency pairs (so-called "carry trades") plunging and the US dollar soaring. Additional government steps late in the month (Fed extension of USD swap lines to Brazil, Mexico, Singapore and South Korea; interest rate cuts from the Fed, China, Norway, and Japan; and the start of the Fed's commercial paper program, to name just a few) triggered sharp rebounds in shares and carry trades, but much of the damage remained. The economic outlook deteriorated still further as US 3Q GDP printed negative (and the details of the report were even worse than the headline reading), US and European confidence gauges fell to new lows (for many, all-time lows). Credit conditions continued to improve, but remain above pre-Lehman levels, as is overall market volatility. With financial market conditions still at stressed-out levels and economic outlooks eroding rapidly, it would be premature to suggest that further bouts of panic won't still materialize. However, the stabilization seen in this final week of October does favor a more prolonged period of consolidation as markets get their feet back under them."

I could not put it better myself. I am absolutely thrilled that All Hallows Eve is here--when the dark spirits roam abroad--and the nightmare that was October is gone. I do not work in a firm, but on my own. That can be good, because you don't get herd-like panic; but it can be bad because you don't sense herd-like panic. I surround myself with calming things: Bloomberg TV commentary has so many views as to ensure that all is balanced; watching tennis or football in between times as its broadcast; having my 5 year old take over my office and play PBS Kids or Disney on my computer is more than a distraction.

I asked a friend who works in London to give me a sense of the sentiment in one of the world's major banks. She was succinct: "Numb. So much up and down, you stop feeling. I stopped watching and the credit guys were on auto pilot, monitoring margin calls!" If you do not understand about margin calls, let me explain. You often trade with large amounts of money based on being able to put down the equivalent of a deposit--the margin. If your margin falls below a certain level relative to the trades you are doing, your trades are either forced to close, meaning loss of all or part of the position, or you are required to put up more margin money. There's been a lot of this because the price declines have been so savage. But, to raise the money means selling something, like some existing stock holdings, turning the screws a little tighter.

If you have never lived in a country with hyper inflation you may find it hard to understand what dramatic price movements are, but this time prices falling. The panic that comes with the plunging stock markets led to billions of dollars being withdrawn. Bloomberg reported that "Investors withdrew a record US$70.7 billion from U.S. stock mutual funds in October... after [the] previous high of US$56 billion in September" (see Bloomberg report). The fear of stock markets that comes from periods like this often takes a long time to overcome, usually four to five years. Cash is king again.

I've learned a lot in the year since I started trading. But I learned so much this month. I have my eyes set on an overall target, but I now also have my eye on something very simple. All is never lost. There are many horrible bad days, but even these have great bright spots. Huge disappointments are there: the many trades that were sent for a loss by a sharp movement in prices in a few minutes, of the kind you would expect to see in a whole day, and then go back to following the direction you wanted and denying you a potentially large gain. My trading strategy guru had to vent this week after several such experiences. I vented too, internally.

But, this month is over. The ghouls will go back into their caves. I and others in the market will hope that a fresh start that comes with a new month will allow for a breath of clean air. I will see where things are at year's end, but I wont forget October.

Can't Touch This!

I so love it with children that life throws you many teaching moments. This morning was priceless. Nothing much going on, other than a morning after Mummy came back last night from a week of travel, and was just packing to head off on another plane this morning. The excitement of that whirlwind was not even nearing a peak because today is Halloween and all things related to the "Tinkerbell" costume consumed my five year old's brain.

Cue the teaching moment. A lovely little garden snail was hanging onto a flowering vine that trails onto our upstairs veranda. "Oooh, yuk! A giant African snail!" I picked up the stray and showed "Miss Bliss" that this was neither giant nor African. We looked at its eyes and I showed her how they recoil if touched, and encouraged her to try to touch them. "Ooh, no! All that slimy." I told her not be afraid. But she would have none of it. But at least I had shown that these things are just one of the many neighbours we have to live with. I then put him into a patch of lush weeds for a buffet breakfast.

Within minutes, I found a tiny whistling frog sitting on my bed. I scooped him up and took him to meet my now-dressed-for-school child. "What's that in your hand, Daddy?" I told her that this little mite had a mighty voice, as we heard his singing loudly every night. She peered into my cupped hand and looked at the frog's eyes. No fear. So, perhaps our brief moment with the snail had worked speedily.

We humans tend to think of the world as our playground and want to control natural things. At its worst, we try to wrest control from nature by force--weapons, new construction, destruction of things that we dislike. Co-existence is not something we are very good at. We have dealt with the dilemma of fight or flight by being well armed. I am trying to pass on what I believe: we all have our space and we all have a role to play. I don't step on ants or swat flies or put salt on slugs. I used to have a garden where I left it to natural predators or particular plants to deal with what I called "pests". Nature has its means of control and we don't need to mess with that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Plumbing The Depths of Price Gouging.

A Bajan acquaintance, "McDonald", sent me a story about his recent experience with local price gouging.

This is what he actually wrote:

"A few days ago, I noticed that the water in the sink located in our drying yard was draining very slowly. Then on Monday my helper informed me that water was leaking from the top of a manhole. The last time that this happened, and I was slow to act on the signals, the water in the powder room toilet, the washing machine and the kitchen sink backed up, creating a mess. At that time I called a company called H & J Septic Services Ltd. They came promptly and pumped out the entire system doing a creditable job for an affordable fee.

Thus, because of the problems I had then, I decided to call the same company hoping that they would respond as quickly as last time. Unfortunately, the telephones at the company were not in service. I then called WHITE'S SEPTIC SERVICES, picked at random from the Yellow Pages ( I deliberately avoided calling the larger companies because I figured that I would stand a better chance of a speedy response from a smaller company). A gentleman by the name of "Victor White" answered and promised to come over and check out the problem as soon as he had dropped the children at school. He appeared in less than an hour to my delight. I explained what was happening and told him that the system was cleaned approx. a year ago and that I suspected that the roots of our Jamaican ackee tree had invaded the pipes and caused the blockage.

He checked the manholes out then snaked the system and blew compressed air through the pipes. Then he removed some twisted root tendrils that had grown inside. The job was completed in less than thirty minutes, at which point I requested the cost. He pursed his lips and said $450. I was surprised and commented that I was in the wrong profession, to which he replied that the hazardous nature of the work justified the price.

I know that he is a professional in his field doing a job that I could not do myself and I was at fault because I did not get an estimated cost up front, but I am convinced that he charged me based on my address. There is this misconception in Barbados that everyone living in "the heights" is rich, and unfortunately some unscrupulous tradesmen overcharge. I got caught because I was so eager to have the job done that I did not get a price up front. Later in the day my plumber came to my house and was blown away when I told him what I had been charged. On October 24, 2007, I paid H & J Septic Services Ltd. $172.50 for cleaning the grease traps and pumping the entire system.

In future, if I am dealing with any tradesman for an emergency job, I will enquire about the cost before the job is started."

"McDonald" has a number of legitimate beefs, I think. Is there this location discrimination in Barbados? It would not be rare. It's a similar phenomenon if you take a taxi from in front of a stooshy hotel. But, it's something we ought to be able to check, both in terms of knowing and stopping.

The rate for the job is another bone of contention. It's notoriously difficult to get an idea of the rate for a job from many contractors, and those who deal with emergencies know that the crisis can drive the price higher--really to where the market will bear, as we economists say. You are over a barrel if you have a leak in the middle of the night or you have flooding in your house. Where is "Joe the Plumber" when you really need him?

According to "McDonald's" story, he paid the equivalent of ₤140 (British pounds) for this little call out job. A quick check on the Internet shows that in London, you could easily pay between ₤40-140 (pounds) an hour (see one UK website) . So, our Bajan lad was paying something well over the going rate in Blighty. Again, this moniker for Barbados of "Little England" rings hollow. The place is bigger than the old Motherland, when it comes to pricing. Maybe, we can persuade one of the UK airlines to always bring a few plumbers for free holidays in Barbados, give out their names and let them work in the local market. Maybe that will drive prices down.

"McDonald" admits that the average Bajan is reluctant to pursue incidents which they deem to be "unfair", mostly because of their placid nature. Like everything else this is a generalization because one only has to listen to the daily call-in programs to hear the Bajans who do not fit the "placid" mould.

It's hard to know how to get justice done in situations like this but I'm sure we'll figure out a way.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The 'Ow Jones Index

News media have been very excited by the amazingly large movements in stock market indices over the past two weeks. October is known to be a rough month for equities. Now, foreign exchange rates have fallen into the mire. Last week, we saw the British Pound start the week at a rate of a pound was around US$ 1.75. By the end of the week, the sucker had fallen to 1.59! That's a fall of some 9 percent. It is what you could expect over several months. But in a week? Other currencies, especially against the Japanese Yen, have had to weather an amazing rise in the strength of this now "ninja" currency--it's been kicking the buck hard. Against the US$, it moved from 102 to just below 91, nearly an 11 percent movement. Against the Euro, the Yen moved from nearly 139 to about 114, that's an 18 percent movement; more scary is that over the month of October it had moved 25 percent. Yes, these are all unprecedented moves in currency markets. The movers and shakers are moving and shaking all over.

In terms of what has been going on in world wide financial market, especially in New York, the recent days have been all about the equity markets--data have taken a back seat. So, the focus on stock markets has been:
1. What is the likely outlook, indicated by futures prices?
2. How does the market open, in line with these indications or not?
3. Can the market sustain any gains or limit any further declines during the day?
4. Can gains be maintained till the close of trading, at 4pm?
5. If there is a fall, how much further will it go?

Yesterday was so amazing, for instance, with the market up and down, and up, then in the last 15 minutes, down a huge 200 plus points. Today, the market started up, and stayed that way most of the time, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (or as I now call it, the "'Ow Jones") ending with an amazing flurry 889 point increase--with another charge in the last hour. All that on a day when data showed US consumer confidence was the lowest for over 40 years. So, the "'Ow Jones" posted its second-best ever point gain as the cheapest valuations in 23 years lured investors and increased commercial paper sales signaled credit markets are thawing.

But, this is near the month's end and all sorts of book balancing is needed. hat was the 2nd biggest up day in the equity market's history. And want to hear something funny? After the 100 point S&P rally today, another 100 point rally from today's close would still leave us stuck in a 840-1040 range! The markets are still making a sideways move.

Nerves have definitely been jangled. I have had to take a few lumps. These are crazy times and irrational actions are plenty to see.

The best plan in recent days has been to leave and go to do something else. Yesterday, I did battle with Cable and Wireless to get a replacement SIM card for my phone: one hour of arguing about what was good ID, but in the end I prevailed. Today, I helped my friend, "Thesephone", sort out a problem with a non-cooperating computer, and then joined the kids at the beach.

Someone calculated that this month, US$12 trillion of market value had been erased before today. That's so big a number that I do not really know how many zeros it has.

It's an insane time but no need to forget that markets can stay irrational much longer than investors can stay solvent.

A Man of Many Talents.

An interesting feature in my daily life is a man named Jeffers, who is first and foremost a painter. He comes to scrape and rub down, and repaint walls, windows and doors in the house that I rent.

His other side, when he is out of his work clothes, and is dark for being so bright, is that he is also a ballroom dancer. I have seen him show off his moves at my house, with my housekeeper. You can imagine him waltzing with his ladder and paintbrush? Bad weather here over many months, and travel on my part have stopped me seeing him strut his stuff with the ladies of Barbados at dancing clubs in Bridgetown.

He is truly "Chalk" and "Cheese".

My day does not usually go on for very long before I hear "Dennis. Morning." Though he's older than me, he seems like my son. He's always asking permission for something, whether it's a glass of iced water, or he needs to walk through the house. That said, I get concerned when I don't see him for a day or so, either at my house or my landlord's, which is just a few doors away, because he is also occupied painting there, too.

He has other "gifts", including a line in herbal remedies, similar to those my mother used to give me, and by which he swears.

But his main gift is a simple sincerity that I really appreciate. He came to me yesterday and asked how much it would cost to print the pictures that I had taken of him. I told him that there would be no cost because the images were digital and I could print them on glossy photo paper myself. I could see that he had no understanding of what I had said, as he asked me again how much it would cost to print the pictures. For him, I printed his pictures just a while ago, and will give them as a surprise later in the day. I hope that they will make his day.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Falling Off The Cliff is Easy.

My dear Jamaican friend, "Thesephone", sent me the rough outline of a new TV comedy series, loosely based on the 1970s British sit-com, "Fawlty Towers". That production was about a small boarding house in Torquay, on the "English Riviera" of Devon. The hotel was run by an eccentric manager, "Basil Fawlty" (John Cleese), supported by wife "Sybil" (Prunella Scales), a general go-for, "Polly" (Connie Booth), and a never-to-be-trusted Spanish waiter, "Manuel" (Andrew Sachs). Things were always going wrong and guests were always a meal away from poisoning. See an extract:



"Thesephone's" series is based in a mythical tropical Caribbean paradise island called "Barhaven". Instead of a hotel, the series is based around a restaurant named "Top Cliff", which is located on what is affectionately known as the "Plate and nyam coast" (that's a sort of Jamaicanism for "good food served here"). In contrast to "Fawlty Towers", "Top Cliff" leaves nothing to chance and has rules to make sure that all runs smoothly.

"Top Cliff" prides itself as being the island's best, with dishes so mouthwatering, you need to have a towel draped around you.

All diners must have a reservation, with its unique number, and these cannot be exchanged with other people. The restaurant prides itself on having a wonderful location beside the sea, but in a cruel twist to frustrate some patrons it occasionally will say "Unfortunately all of our waterside tables are fully booked for this evening." But, given the reputation, what's wrong with dining inside?

Cocktails are available before dinner, but must be taken 30 - 45 minutes prior to your reservation, to allow the well-trained local staff enough time to pick the organically grown fruits and press them with bare hands into juices freshly, them blend them lovingly with alcohol for your pleasure. They can then just be ready for you as you are about to go to your table.

"Top Cliff" make sure that if you do not show for your reservation they will still bill you, by insisting on your credit card details. The cancellation fee is BDS $215.00 per person--the standard meal price. Who would not turn up and still want to pay for the meal?

"Top Cliff" likes rules, or as they call them "policies". Here is a sample:
  • Dress Code is "elegantly casual": no jacket or tie is required for gentlemen, however, long trousers and a nice shirt is suggested. I think that means that you can decide to not wear either long trousers or a nice shirt. But you must not be in beachwear, sleeveless shirts, shorts or slippers. So, I guess nude is the rule. Cool! That is elegantly casual, for sure.
  • The best tables are assigned on a first-come-first served basis, with the first 10 reservations getting the plum tables by the sea. Hence, the "all of our waterside tables are fully booked" slider, I mentioned above.
  • Children over eleven can go to the restaurant, "provided that they are well-behaved". I have no idea what that means. There is nothing about adults having to be well-behaved, so that seems to be somewhat discriminationary. But I am sure the urchins will behave once they realise that there is no children's menu and their meals costs the same as everyone else's, at BDS$ 215.00. "That's a lot of pocket money, Mum."
  • The "rule" for groups of 10 persons or over is that you should arrive 30 minutes prior to your reservation. I guess that is to allow for you to mix your own cocktails, or learn how to wait your own tables.
So, the weekly episodes are built using a cast of patrons plucked from the studio audience, who are mainly foreign visitors. They will work with actors pretending to be the restaurant's management and staff, and the show is developed in "reality" fashion around how the make-believe patrons deal with the make-believe restaurant and its "policies".

Some of the patrons will be encouraged to find them rather officious, and try to "negotiate" them. In good British fashion, we may hear catch phrases such as "Come now, my good fellow. This was never a problem at my private club in St. James ... England that is, not Barbados."

Some patrons will be urged to come up with their own helpful suggested additions, such as "We would prefer our patrons to desist from chewing with their mouths open, drinking while eating and using the napkins to wipe any part of the body except the mouth," or "Breaking wind or expelling bodily gases is permitted but only if it does not disturb the other diners."

The comedy relief is in how the actors/management of the restaurant are taken to task by the live audience over the rules, such as the liberal interpretation of the dress code.

This series will begin in a few weeks.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The World is Bigger and Smaller Than We Realize.

One of my subscribers decided that this blog was no longer relevant, and ended her subscription. I wanted to know if there was something offensive or otherwise inappropriate about what I might have written that could be corrected. She replied that there was nothing of the sort. Phew!

What I discovered was a very interesting insight into how people see things Caribbean. She said that I could use any of her remarks and I will use mainly the words of the lady concerned, whom I shall call "Galina". She wrote:

"I have enjoyed reading your blog but noticed that I just don't read it anymore. I began reading it when I was dating a man from Barbados and it gave me glimpses into the culture he had grown up in. I also learned to cook coucou and conkies and also the curry and vegetarian dishes he favored. Unfortunately, my caramel-skinned Caribbean man turned out to be very married. Now, I am dating a Cuban, belong to a Cuban cooking website, and have moved on with my life. By the way, the Cuban is a much better lover. And a much better person."

Well, I said to myself, Cuban cigars seem to be better liked than Bajan sugar cane. This is the kind of inter-island rivalry that could make it hard for Caribbean people to live in harmony, even forgetting linguistic and cultural differences. 

It was great to see how people make many adjustments to make love work. You have to go at least half way toward your partner. It's a personal investment that does not always pay off in the short term. But, in the long run, I think the investment in better personal understanding always has a good pay off in the long term.

It was a little awkward for me to know that my blog had been involved in a love triangle, and also that because of me, a woman had been pushed away from love of a God-fearing English-speaking democracy into the arms of a socialist dictatorship. I have never been to Cuba, but have serious concerns about what has happened to that country and its people under President Castro. I also know, however, that Cuba has been one of the best friends of many Caribbean countries, for instance, by providing resources, plus medical, educational, and technical sporting support and staff to many countries such as Jamaica. My only contact with Cuba was that my maternal grandfather used to travel there to cut sugar cane when I was a very small boy in the 1950s.

Now, I have learned that one of my former readers is "a native Texan. Born in central Texas near Austin, lived almost 25 years in the big city of Houston and am now back in the Austin area. ... Texan all the way." But, "Galina" adds that she likes "a little spice in my life as well. My Cuban tells me I am not like most American women and alluded to my intelligence and my open mindedness. I enjoy living close to where I grew up in semi rural Texas. But I also enjoy a little international flair." 

She tried to rationalize her choice of "regime:

"Maybe it's all the suffering at the hand of Fidel Castro that they have experienced, but Cubans try harder. They don't rest on their laurels (or think that genetics...er...uh...size...is enough). They are very skillful lovers. The best tool in the world is wasted in the hands of an amateur. (sigh) Most men in this world are amateurs. I am a lucky woman."

She seems to be an American ready to embrace foreigners, literally and figuratively.

Over the weekend, I also had an extended exchange with the reader who had been concerned about coming to the Muslim hotbed of Barbados--about which I wrote a few days ago (see "You Cannot Be Serious")--and she confessed to being very unaware of places and people outside the US, even fearing them in some sense. She has been seriously misinformed about this island and I tried to set her straight, and I think she is now at ease about her coming holiday here in a few days' time.

What I also learned from this other reader, "Daphne", who lives in South Carolina, was a lot about her political views and also what were forming those. She has concerns about all the candidates, but also feels that the media has given Sen. Obama an easier time than merited. Our exchange showed that a lot of misinformation was being absorbed as fact. For example, "Daphne" felt that President Bush had been hampered by a Democrat-controlled Congress. But, the fact is that Congress was led by Republicans from 1994-2006, when the Democrats gained control. I don't know why an American would not know that. Maybe we outside the US follow events there much more closely than those who live there. But that's part of why the voting issues are of such concern. Ignorance abounds. Accusations stick, and many have seen how a move to more negative campaigning by the Republicans has a good chance of working, though at the moment there are signs that it is backfiring.

These contrasts are not shocking or surprising. I always find it hard to accept definitive views about people in a country. So much is framed by what you know, what you think you know, who you've met, the experiences you have had, etc. But, you also don't know what you don't know.

I'm an internationalist by experience so find it much easier than many to absorb differences as positives rather than treat them as threats. I've had the mixed, but I think, good fortune of being born in a region like the Caribbean. I was then raised in a different country and culture, in England. I had to adjust from living my life as part of a racial majority to being part of a feared and disliked minority. I moved to live in another country, the USA, where black people were still coming through a long period of horrible institutionalized racial prejudice. That had never touched my life before, and like many Caribbeans, I found it hard to feel the bitterness that black Americans carry like a ton weight on their shoulders.

I have had the benefit of extensive foreign travel, which showed me that differences are contextual: the Chinese and Japanese find white people with red hair stranger than black people with black hair--because most Asians also have black hair. I have a facility with languages: I speak French and Russian. I try to learn at least simple greetings in the native language of countries I visit. So, I feel comfortable trying to speak Welsh or Latvian or Estonian or Turkish.

I'm now back almost full circle, living in the small world of the Caribbean islands. From here, I see that "globalization" is a myth. Having fast and extensive abilities to connect and contact has not made the world one. We can transmit things rapidly, good and bad: a disease from one part of the world only needs one plane with a carrier to become a problem elsewhere. But cultural differences do not move that fast. We have moved so far and yet have so far to go.

Playing Word Games.

When public figures get caught with their pants down, literally and figuratively, they are fair game. If they get caught with them down on the job, so to speak, they are even fairer game. So, when the head of a major international organization is exposed for having an affair with one of his senior subordinates--consensual or not--he at least should get the gloves-off treatment.

I do not agree with Anne Sinclair, wife of the IMF's Managing Director, Dominque Strauss-Kahn (the couple are pictured). She is a celebrated French journalist, who said on her own blog: "Just this, before any malevolent rumours start, a few quick details: everyone knows that these things can happen in the life of any couple. For my part, this one-night stand is behind us. We have turned the page." Interesting. He turns the sheets; she turns the page. This is now the standard public officials' wifely response: remember New York Governor Elliot Spitzer and Senator Clinton? In good political fashion, because let's not forget that Mr. Strauss-Kahn is first and foremost a prominent French politician, the call is for the "establishment" to rally round.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn apologized to the IMF's Executive Board, his family, the former employee, and staff of the IMF (the Fund), saying that he made "a serious error of judgment" in having the extramarital affair with the employee. No kidding! But after an official enquiry (see Board statement and report), he will be allowed to hold onto his position.

So much irony. Here we are at a time when the world is looking for new direction and leadership in a worsening financial crisis, and politicians are again talking about giving the Fund a new mandate. The same weekend that its MD stands up to call for major changes, the noted financial newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, scoops and tells the world that he has been finding himself a new man date. This happened in January-February this year, when financial meltdown was not yet looming, and calm heads should have been in place.

I'm sure that the staff employee, Ms. Piroska Nagy (who has since resigned and now working for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), and her husband, Mario Blejer (former President of the Argentine central bank, former IMF employee, former Bank of England Advisor, see his website) have gone through enough public grief to last a life time. But, after only a week of this public glare, it may not even be much beyond the beginning.

The Fund has made a great play in recent years for more transparency, greater accountability and improved governance, not only amongst member countries over economic and financial policies, but also with regard to what it does itself (see its website). Does it pass its own test? I would say not. As Mr. Shakour Shaalaan, the doyen of the Fund's Executive Board, is reported to have said (see NY Times report): "Mr. Strauss-Kahn would have to work to regain the trust of the staff, particularly female employees. 'There are a number of staff who are not at all happy, and do not approve of the managing director’s behavior.'" That will be the very least.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Make 'Em Laugh. Make 'Em Cry.

Here I am, languishing in Barbados, pining for one good thing. I need a good belly laugh about what's going on in the local political scene. What I see in the local papers are some feeble attempts at ridiculing politicians. Where are the hard hitting digs at the local "high and mighty"? Without searching very far, I can find so many good digs in other parts of the world. Take a look at a few I found this morning.

Is there a climate of fear
that leaves the local cartoonists too timid to poke fun at these often larger-than-life figures?

Jamaica used to have a great cartoonist, Urban Leandro,who took his swipe at politics but also at many aspects of local life. A wonderful anthology of his works are now available, "The Best of Leandro".

One of the local blogs, Barbados Free Press did a puff for their own political cartoons. (see link). But why should they be alone, even though we know them to be our local "mavericks" when it comes to getting in their licks?

The best "cartoonist" in Barbados is really not a drawer, but a sharp-witted commentator, "Market Vendor", whose wit and irreverence in his oral digs are never matched by any images in a local paper.

I will have to think why the standard fare here is so much about "playing it safe" or "with a straight bat", to borrow a cricket image.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

You Cannot Be Serious!

I received an e-mail yesterday from a lady in America, whom I shall call "Daphne". She wrote:

"I just found your site and found it very informative. My family and I are traveling to Barbados, for the first time, during the American presidential elections. I am a little nervous considering the amount of Muslims that appear to be in Barbados that it may not be safe for us at that time (especially if Obama doesn't win the election). [My emphasis.] Do you have any thoughts on that? The trip was already purchased before we realized it was during the election."

I tried to be my diplomatic self in my reply, saying: 

"I'm not sure what country you have in mind to visit, but it does not seem to be Barbados. I'm not sure what your concern is with Muslims, but last time I looked Barbados had somewhere less than 1000, out of a total population of about 290,000--that makes for a NOT-whopping less than half a percent. That compares with nearly 10 million Muslims in the USA (about 3 1/2 percent of total population). Maybe you should look at some figures on Muslim population by country (see http://www.factbook.net/muslim_pop.php). 

I'm also at a loss as to why the Muslim population's presence should be an issue if Obama loses the presidential election."

I have to be frank and say that I found the original message very disturbing. I asked a few friends what they thought. As you know, several of my friends in Bim are fellow Jamaicans, and we have a number of "colourful" ways of expressing displeasure, orally.  One erudite friend thought it was from a comedy skit from "Saturday Night Live" or the "Daily Show". Another female friend, whom I can call a "hooky mom", said that she had "t'ree Jamaican blue lights for her". (You have a lot of latitude on what that can mean, but it's not pretty.)

I have no wish to mock the lady who sent the message, whom I do not know, but several things are disturbing. We often hear comments about Americans' lack of awareness about other countries: the USA has a president who was described by the Washington Post as "certainly not an avid foreign traveller" before he was elected to that office (he had actually made brief trips to a few places in Asia, Europe, African and Latin America). The Republican Party now has a vice presidential candidate who only obtained a passport in 2006 and made her first foreign trip in 2007 (to Kuwait--a Muslim country at that). We also often fail to realise that our little islands, wonderful though we think they are, are imagined to be many other things, but probably never hotbeds of Muslim discontent. The most glaring examples are places like Haiti, know more for its destitute poverty than its elegant history as the first French colony to gain independence. We also know Jamaica, which is known for its ridiculous murder rate as much as for its reggae music. 

The lady mentioned that some of her concerns were raised by what she had read on a blog (unspecified), which included what she perceived as an image of Barbados as a hotbed of Muslim discontent as well as many disparaging remarks about women. I try to keep the content of my blog reasonable and responsible, but there are many which are not so careful, either in their own postings or in the comments that they publish. There's a warning there to take care what you put out on the blogosphere. 

On further probing, she did not seem to have a particular bias for either presidential candidate, to quote her: "There are some things I like about Obama and some that scare me (the same with McCain)."  From what I have heard and read, many American voters may be similarly conflicted.

Many Americans that I have met over the years have a sense that foreigners do not like them or their country, and that fills them with a fear that permeates many of their views about visiting foreign countries. Many non-Americans do not take kindly to the spread of American culture, which they feel swamps their own with lots of aspects that reflect consumerism and greed: the French have been notorious for fighting officially against such aspects. Many countries have never been comfortable with the American presence they know well, in the form of NATO bases. Many in Europe pride themselves on being internationalists, with so many countries sharing borders and speaking different languages; Europeans feel that they are more tolerant of foreigners than they believe Americans to be. But we have plenty of modern evidence to show that Europe has some serious and violent divisions (look at the fighting after the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia; look at the always simmering fight between Belgium's linguistic and cultural "halves"; look at Ireland; look at the parts of the former Soviet Union).

While I glibly urged "Daphne" to do a bit more reading and research before she heads out on her trip, I know that the problem is much deeper than can be corrected by reading.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ooh, Aargh, Canada.

The final 24 hours in Montreal were eventful enough.

"Miss Bliss" gets to meet a bunch of jugglers performing on the street, and while they help teach her the art, mention that she will feature in a TV program in mid-November. Cue one very excited five-year old. Yes!

We were all geared up to leave before dawn this morning and we did our part well enough, leaving the hotel at 3.3oam. Who sent us the Haitian driver with his car from a place near Hell? So, in the first wet day we had experienced, there was our taxi on the side of the road with a puncture, at 3.45 in the morning. I asked Booby what we should do. "I am going to eat my muffin, Daddy." Sort of not my problem, mate. I could not just sit there, so there I was on my knees too humping on the doughnut replacement tyre. Poor driver was panting like a puffer fish after all that. We made it to the airport with plenty of time, though. Canada, being on the verge of socialism in American eyes, showed this by having its security operations closed until closer to 5am. Bizarre.

But we weren't done. Nice smooth pull away from the gate, on time, was spoiled by a long wait to take off. What the heck. Fuel gauge problem. Back to the gate. "We will inform you as soon as we have an update from the technicians...In the meantime, you can enjoy the in-flight entertainment...The in-flight system is not working and we will have to reboot..." An hour and a half later, we were ready to leave again.

Beyond that, all was smooth sailing, or correctly, flying. Bim was in sight within five hours. Nice to be back in sunshine.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Welcome To My World.

If someone gives your five year old a furry toy camel that sings in Arabic, it should be no surprise that come the next morning you hear "Daddy, my dream was real. I was surrounded by real camels." Was it my mistake that I told her that camels bite and smell really bad?

"Gerald McBoing-Boing" is a character created by Dr. Seuss in the 1950s. He's a small boy, who cannot talk but only makes noises--so you may think that his conversations are much like real dialogue with toddlers. If he meets animals, he brays or bellows or howls like they do. Dr. Seuss is no genius, just very observant. Two of my daughters are curled on the floor watching this cartoon child at work--or play.

My little one has been discussing Halloween costumes with me, and is very excited to see the father in one cartoon series dressed as/in a bowl of spaghetti. Her older sister thinks it's a cool outfit. Maybe, it's her sister's cough medication working. But if not, then I may have to cut off her sister's university allowance or send her for therapy.

Now, they are watching "Harry and his bucketful of dinosaurs". Terence the tiny Pteradactyl. ... Lines like "Safer than a salad in a snow storm."... Grief!

All of this is just by way of preparation. Today, our plan is to go to see dinosaurs and natural history stuff at the Redpath Museum. I have a feeling that the Triceratops skeleton that we are due to see later, who is affectionately called "Sarah", will be with us during the night.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Images of Black Men.

Black hockey players are rare. I'm sure you've heard the remark "I went to a fighting match and a hockey game broke out" as a backhanded reference to the fact that a lot of fighting goes on once the men don their skates. Canada is hockey, and if Sarah Palin wanted to really get a leg up in politics, she'd expand her foreign policy experience, cross the border from Alaska and become a Canadian citizen. She is a self-proclaimed hockey mom, and Canada is anything but mum about hockey. But, I digress.

I know nothing about hockey other than it's played on ice, is part of the winter Olympics, and is not really a major attraction for black athletes. But there are black ice hockey players. One, infamous, current player is Georges Laraque. A native of Montreal, Georges is an "enforcer" who now plays for the Montreal Canadiens: his skating skills are moderate but he can fight, and was unanimously awarded the 'Best Fighter' by a hockey magazine in 2003.

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General/Secretary Colin Powell made his much anticipated endorsement of Barack Obama this morning, on NBC's "Meet the Press". Powell (an American, though born of Jamaican parents) is a Republican and former Bush-W Secretary of State at the time of the invasion of Iraq. He became the highest-profile Republican to add his support to the Democratic ticket. Important positive reasons for this support were that Obama is "a transformational figure", "a new generation coming onto the world stage"; "reaching out in a more diverse, inclusive way across our society"; has "demonstrated the kind of calm, patient, intellectual, steady approach to problem-solving that I think we need in this country". But Powell also touched on negative reasons: he was "concerned about the negative direction McCain's campaign has taken recently"; that the U.S. has "managed to convey to the world that we are more unilateral than we really are''; that the Republican Party had moved more to the right than he liked; that the McCain campaign was seemingly "narrower and narrower" and "exclusive" (citing the feeble and over-the-top attempts to suggest that Obama is associating with terrorists). He was also concerned about the judgement shown in choosing Governor Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate: "I don’t believe she’s ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president.”

Tom Brokaw showed what is really a problem with America's attitude to race--amazing distrust of black people--by asking that Powell deal with the suggestion that his endorsement was because Obama was black. Powell rebutted by saying that he would have endorsed months ago had that been the case. It's extraordinary to get major political figures crossing party lines. But would anyone have suggested that a major woman politician endorsing Senator Hillary Clinton was because the two of them were women?

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Obama has "mo". More information suggests that the coming election is his to lose. His fund raising remains amazing (another record, US$ 150 million, last month); he pulls amazing crowds--an estimated record 100,000 people in St. Louis yesterday; he got a slew of endorsements from major newspapers over the weekend.

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Black political commentators arise. Nothing deep, but I love the interventions of CNN's Roland Martin. He's pro-Obama, and very feisty, very probably supports the senator because he is a black man.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Situation Vacant: No-On-The-Job Training Needed.

A good friend and former colleague of mine just lost his job at the start of this week (see Reuters report). I had to hold back a snarl. He had made a tough decision just over a year and a half ago to return to his native country, Guinea, to become the Finance Minister. The country had just come through a national crisis, and a new government of "national consensus" was being put in place.

His working career started simply enough (see summary). He was an engineer by initial training and only later gravitated to economics, a field in which he then got a doctorate in the US, taught and then worked at the highest levels.

He had done what many sons and daughters with origins in poor countries do after they get a good education. He migrated to a developed country (USA) to further study and work. He then did what is also common, he made a decision to go back home and "help". I remember once being told by Alassane Outtarra (former prime minister of Cote d'Ivoire; former deputy Managing Director of the IMF; former presidential candidate for his country) "Dont stay too long at the Fund." He meant that every economist at the IMF, who had come from another country, should aim to go back home and help his or her country develop. If they worked again at the Fund, it should always be at a higher position than the one they left. He really meant those who had come from poor, developing countries, but the advice could apply equally to say those who came from developed European countries.

My snarl was forming because my friend was yet another "sacrifice" on the altar of a president who has a long habit of dismissing successful officials, especially his prime ministers. Dr.Dore had chaired the organizing committee for his country's 50th anniversary celebrations, and his pparent failing had been to organize these poorly: there had been a number of diplomatic snafus, and some major protocol errors concerning foreign dignatories. He was also getting some heavy flak from the unions. His reported failings were not in having managed to get his country's economy back from a financial abyss--of hyperinflation, rapidly falling currency, and little growth--and into a shape where they could once again get financial assistance from institutions like the IMF and World Bank. Nor were they in the area of helping his country move to a point where they would get major debt relief, which would then open the way for more investment in education, health and other social services.

Our careers were not necessarily similar, though we had both worked a lot on European countries. We had each started at the IMF in the early 1990s and really only met in early 2003 when we were each designated to be "resident reprentatives" (similar to an ambassador but for the IMF) in Africa. He was to cover Senegal and Guinee-Bissau, both of which bordered his home country, Guinea. I was to cover Guinea (and later also Sierra Leone). We met and got to know each other better during a week of discussion with other resident representatives, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We stayed in touch as our work continued over the next 3-4 years. I visited Senegal and stayed in his residence, with him there or when he was not there. His office staff got to know me and take care of my needs whenever I was in Senegal, and often when I needed help for someone who had to pass through Senegal. He visited Guinea often to check on his family and home, and we would often talk in my office or at my residence about problems he had in his job, very rarely did we speak about problems in Guinea. We spoke more about our problems doing a job whose value is largely about "keeping the door open" to discussions. It's the only form of institutionalized daily contact with a country that the IMF has. But, being out of Washington, out of sight can often be out of mind--until there is some crisis.

My friend is from a part of Guinea that I adore, the Fouta Djallon, a lush mountainous region in the middle of the country, sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Africa. That would be for the natural beauty, not for the wealth and efficiency. He helped me appreciate some of the beauty of a country whose natural resources are to die for--bauxite, gold, diamonds, rivers, rich soil--yet are mainly squandered or plundered. A country that could feed most of the subregion yet has to import the bulk of its food. A country with the potential to produce hydroelectricity for its whole area, yet cannot provide regular electricity even in its capital. A crying shame.

My snarl turned into a wry smile when I read a story at about the same time about America's equivalent to a Finance Minister, Secretary of the Treasury, Henry (Hank) Paulson (see picture; he's the clean shaven one). He, with Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke (the bearded one), is presiding over a possible financial calamity for the US and maybe most of the world--what some have referred to as the country's worst financial mess since the Great Depression. Mr. Paulson, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, a major investment bank, admitted to Fox Business News: "We're not proud of all the mistakes that were made by many different people, different parties, failures of our regulatory system, failures of market discipline that got us here". Mr. Paulson acknowledged that the government's initial response to the crisis was probably too meek. For that admission, he was not asked to "fall on his sword" and resign, nor was he fired; he is left to soldier on and we hope help solve the problem. Different strokes for different folks.

My friend worked and lived in a country whose president has been there for nearly 25 years. He is what is called a military man, a former army general who initially got power in a coup. He happens to be in his mid-70s. His behaviour is often referred to as "erratic". Some of this sounds like a picture that is a bit familiar for one of the US presidential candidates.

When I started writing this, it was 2am in the morning. A short while after starting it a friend posted a Facebook item that the IMF's Managing Director (MD), Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), was being investigated about an improper sexual relationship with a subordinate (see Wall Street Journal report). I honestly thought I was dreaming, but got confirmation from another friend/ex-colleague later in the morning. This MD had been in the post just about a year and last weekend was seeming like the toast of the town at the G7 Finance Ministers' Meetings. Now, he may be toast. Ironically, the former President of the IMF's sister organization, the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz had to resign about 15 months ago under the pressure surrounding his relationship with a staff member. I will be interested to see how this plays out and if in someway DSK avoids either resigning or being dismissed.

High office comes with many stresses, and always has the risk that dismissal will come for real faults or for no real faults at all. At the highest levels, good conduct and performance are no guarantee for success; nor is poor performance and conduct a sign that dismissal will follow. Most of us never get the dubious pleasure of working under such bizarre conditions.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's A Small World After All.

A day in life can also involve a life in a day. A rather innocuous day in Montreal revealed again that coincidences are nothing of the sort, and you wonder if it is by chance that people come across their relatively close connections.

"Bubby" and I were glad to see her sister for a few hours ahead of a class, and the two of them had some good time together strolling around campus, and collecting Maple leaves. Miss Bliss and I then hooked up to meet a friend of my wife's, with whom the "trouble and strife" had studied back in the day and deep in the woods of western Canada. "Doreen" and I had first met on a 25th anniversary of the school reunion that took place on Vancouver Island. It was back in "courting days" and I remember thinking that the people who went to this school were a very different bunch. The school's philosophy is/was "promote peace, sustainability and international understanding by bringing young people from all walks of life", and many of its ex-students now have high standing in world affairs, my wife included.

"Doreen" reminded me that one of the things I got involved with during that reunion was organizing kids in games: I am a coach, so it was not major surprise. It was, though, one of the very pleasant experiences for me, during a time when other spouses really had a hard time fitting in with a group that had been tightly knit as students and whose knots became quickly retied--often to the seeming exclusion of the spouses.

We had last met over three years ago, when my daughter was enrolling at university. We had planned to maybe meet tomorrow, but "Doreen" had decided to take today off, and we had no other plans, so agreed to meet for a long walk and coffee.

As "Doreen" and I talked about a whole range of things, she let out that she had been to Barbados to scuba dive. Her sister had been posted to the island by the Canadian government. We discovered that her sister lived in a house just down the road from where we are now living! "Doreen" also knew several Canadians with whom we have since become friends in Barbados. After many years as a single person, "Doreen" was now in a relationship--with a man with whom she had worked for eons, but had never been more than colleagues. Him, I have yet to meet, but we discussed that he has done a lot of travelling and study about French-speaking west Africa and Haiti. He has a lot of experience with Mauritania. That's the country where I was sent on a baptism of fire to test my working knowledge of French.

Mauritania is one of few countries where slavery is still rampant. Mauritanians are desert people, and though the country has a lovely Atlantic coast, the locals' idea of a good weekend place to relax is...in the sand dunes, under a tent, eating roast lamb, nuts, and drinking tea. This is an odd culture, and I had two years sampling it. People joke about the English and their tea drinking. You do not joke about tea drinking in Mauritania: it is too important. Refuse to share the three glasses of hot, sweet minty tea during a meeting and risk making a major social offence: it does not matter what else may seem pressing, take the tea.

So, the afternoon went on as we trekked up Montreal/Mount Royal. We discussed past work--Doreen, once upon a time, about when we first met, had been a day trader. We talked about the origin of nicknames, prompted by "Bubby" asking me if my name was different when I was a boy. Where did that question come from? "Doreen" is a journalist; I have my little attempts at journalism. We are both relatively new owners of BlackBerries: we can smile at that. We both understand Russian: her family roots are Ukrainian; I learnt the language for work.

I am not bewildered by any of this and wonder what else will emerge over the weekend.

It all provided interesting twists to the long walk up and down the mountain. My little one and I had very tired feet and legs, but it was a good way to decompress after a long flight. We loved the cool weather of Montreal as a change from the recent mix of sweltering heat and torrential rain in Bim. We enjoyed hearing that odd Quebecois French accent, and feeling at ease in this odd place in the North American continent.

"Doreen" is in training for a triathlon. Maybe during the weekend we will get invited to go with her on a 4 kilometre swim or a 100 kilometre bike ride. I hope that it just stays as an invitation for supper.

Ho, Canada!

There are few things like long trips with a five year old to get your perspective back on track. "Bubby" and I are now in Canada, for a few days to visit one of her big sisters, who studies in Montreal. We are well prepared: warm clothes--check; French accent--check; Canadian expressions--check. Ready, eh. We even met on the flight one of the few Bajan-Canadians I know in Bim, who managed an adjacent apartment where we first lived; he spends most of his time in Montreal--I cannot understand why, except for tax purposes.

We had an afternoon departure and got to Toronto around 8.30pm. I am a dab hand at wheedling my way into airport lounges--much to my wife's horror at how brazen that can be. This time I made a coup as there was no one at reception to even try to cajole with the story of my tired little lambkins. So, we snuggled down for 30 minutes of "executive pleasures"--bread, cheese, other snacks, gourment coffee, beer: in-flight pay-to-eat policies have to have an upside as far as I am concerned.

We got to Montreal at about 11.30pm and flopped into bed at around 1am this morning. Pumpkin was pooped, and had caught three good naps over the last few hours of the trip, and was really pleased by the midnight traffic jam on the freeway due to roadworks, which gave her an extra 30 minutes. Daddy was not in bad shape, and still bright eyed even after watching two nice films, which are as contrasting as they come: "Hancock" (Will Smith as super hero who needs attitude management) and "Amal" (Canadian-Indian film about a kind-hearted New Delhi rickshaw driver who gets left a fortune by one of his passenger).

We quickly got through the check-in pleasantries and could not get to the room fast enough. Miss Bliss loves the room and her big bed in our hotel room. But happiness does not last long: "Oh it's cold...I want my coat"; "But where is my sister?"; "When is she coming to stay with us?" I will try to solve all of these "problems" momentarily. In the meantime she can have some Canadian TV: "All the words are in French!" Well, she will just have to use the French part of her brain for a few days.

I needed to decompress for a while and caught up with some of the day's events. I am well briefed about the parliamentary elections on Tuesday, thanks to a friend who lives in Montreal, whom I'll call "Doreen". She sent the following "live update" by e-mail before I left Bim:

PM Harper and his Conservative party have increased their number of seats, but still have no clear majority. It looks as if the Liberal leader, the very intellectual but not very charismatic Stephane Dion, will step down in the next few days. He was a compromise choice as leader to begin with, chosen just under two years ago when the two leading candidates, former Harvard scholar Michael Ignatieff and former social democrat premier of Ontario (who switched parties to run for the Libs) Bob Rae, more or less ate each other up in the fight for the top job. Dion went into this election unwillingly, as the party didn't have its act together on anything except a very bold and innovative carbon tax initiative which he called the "Green Shift". But this was attacked by the Conservatives as "a new tax".

Poor M. Dion, who is a French Canadian, is reviled by most Quebecers because he has no time at all for the arguments of sovereignists. So he's seen in Quebec as a sell-out to English Canada and/or arrogant, overly-professorial, you name it. Apparently, though, his English is so abysmal that he simply can't communicate his complex ideas to English Canada. This cost him an extra 19 seats in the "ROC"(Rest Of Canada).

In Quebec, the separatist Bloc Quebecois lost a bit of the popular vote but strengthened its seat count to 50 of the province's 75 seats. By refusing to use the word "sovereignty" throughout the campaign, merely arguing a vote for the BQ would prevent the Conservatives (much reviled for their cuts to arts and culture financing, for their support for the war in Afghanistan and for committing to put in place an American-style tough stand on youth crime, in a province that prides itself on rehabilitation and keeping kids out of detention wherever supports can be put in place to do it) from winning a majority. The BQ strategy worked. The Conservatives went into this campaign counting on getting 30 seats in Quebec (had 11 to start, ended up with 10) but blew their campaign there and alienated francophones.

So, the country ends up more divided than ever. The west is mostly Tory blue. Ontario is split with no seats for the Conservatives in all of Metropolitan Toronto - where 1 in 5 Canadians live. In Quebec, same story: no Conservatives elected in Montreal. Atlantic Canada is split between the parties.

The Green party did participate more than ever before - taking 7 per cent of the vote overall - but failed to win a seat. this will probably renew calls for some kind of proportional voting system, but that happens after every federal race and never goes anywhere.

So - in the end - Canadians have now gone to the polls THREE TIMES since 2004 and for the THIRD time have a minority government. People are getting tired of this.


So, now you know as much as I do. I may look for M. Dion panhandling on the streets, and offer him a US$ bill and an invitation to visit Barbados to overcome his woes.

Maybe it was sheer coincidence, but it was good of oil prices to drop below US$70 yesterday and push the US$:Canadian $ rate toward 1.20, so that it would be cheaper for us. To think that when I planned the trip a few weeks ago, the rate was hovering near 1--nice going to get a 20 percent discount thrown into your holiday.

I can't say that I really missed the day in the markets yesterday, as it looked so horrible for equities when I was leaving that I just could not bother to watch another day of "blood red" ink all over the place, and all the angst and hand wringing. My buddy, "VIX", hit a new record of over 80. Boring! I was not surprised that things had rebounded by the day's end with plenty of positive movement. But, that's what happens when the market is bottoming out. You have to have relief rallies, but they don't last. Today, I will not be much interested either, as I don't want the distraction. I have more fish to fry with listening to children's songs like the "Wobbly Whoopsy" (by the Doodlebops) and practising "Santa Claus is coming to town" with my own Shirley Temple. Check out the dance:



All we need now is to hook up with our poli-sci-history-English major and we will be ready and set to go. In the meantime, we are putting our hands in the air and dancing the "Wobbly Whoopsy"--which is like you have ants in your pants--and my little one is doing it on the coffee table. We are in a Residence Inn and we are acting as if we are in residence.

I am just going to press my personal "parental control" button for a few hours now and gear up to meet some loveable Canadians.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How Will Joe Vote?

The third and last US presidential debate last night was more riveting than the anodyne offering last week. For one thing, this as the last chance to "strut the stuff" in front of a national audience. In that sense, each candidate reverted to his "natural" style. Sen. McCain was the "attacker" and "angry"; in fact, he was so zizzed up at times, with eye brows flipping and smirk widenin, that he reminded me of The Joker in the last Batman movie, minus the lipstick (which was left at home in Wassila?). Sen. Obama, is a professor, and I have to profess that though he looked directly into the camera more convincingly, he seemed as if he was on a lecture tour. I found little to change my view of the candidates. I am bewildered how hard Sen. McCain seems to find public speaking, at least in front of cameras. Sen. Obama, for a nerdy, presidential wannabee, seems to have a better, easier style in front of the cameras.

But the man who stole the show, for good and ill, was Joe. Not Biden. But Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber", whom Sen. Obama had met last week in Ohio, and tried to explain--at great length--his tax plan to a man who wanted to buy his business (see video).



Sen. McCain tried to talk to Joe all night, using him as the stock figure for Mr. Average America. By my reckoning, Sen. McCain mentioned "Joe" more times (15 times, check the transcript, if you like) than he mentioned "Senator Obama". It appeared from the real time reactions that independent voters did not take to Joe, as the lines dipped at mention of his name and plight. My own take was that this seemed like too much talking to one specific person than addressing the problems facing the whole nation. They say all politics is local, but on national TV it has to be national.

The immediate reaction of the CNN pundits was that Sen. McCain won the first 30 minutes, but then got distracted by questions about negative aspects of the campaign that have been higher over the past two weeks. He seemed so upset about Congressman Lewis' comments, but I wonder why he would expect his opponent to deal with an unprompted comment from another politician. Come on, John, go to the Congressman's office and sort it out with him face-to-face: fight your own fight, soldier. True, Sen. McCain seemed better able to defend economic policies this time around. I loved his line "Yes. Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I'm going to give a new direction to this economy in this country." It was a well-aimed put down, and so far the best effort to put distance with what Sen. Obama calls eight years of failed policies.

After the distraction of negativism, Sen. McCain seemed to have his foot firmly on the pettiness pedal--already there with his concentration on "earmarks" and "pork barrel", which are important in principle but such a small part of the whole picture.

Sen. Obama got going better when he had a chance to counter attack. He seemed to deal will the "issue" of Bill Ayers (former Weatherman, responsible for bomb attacks on some US public buildings), and "palling around with terrorists":

"Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Sen. McCain's campaign over the last two or three weeks. This has been their primary focus. So let's get the record straight. Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago.

Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg.

Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois, the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican, the president of The Chicago Tribune, a Republican- leaning newspaper.

Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that's Mr. Ayers."

If anyone was listening, there was enough "mainstreaming" of Ayers to make doubters at least wonder what the fuss was all about.

Sen. Obama came stronger from midway and was certainly better at the finish.

"We need fundamental change in this country, and that's what I'd like to bring.

You know, over the last 20 months, you've invited me into your homes. You've shared your stories with me. And you've confirmed once again the fundamental decency and generosity of the American people.

And that's why I'm sure that our brighter days are still ahead.

But it's not going to be easy. It's not going to be quick. It is going to be requiring all of us -- Democrats, Republicans, independents -- to come together and to renew a spirit of sacrifice and service and responsibility.

I'm absolutely convinced we can do it. I would ask for your vote, and I promise you that if you give me the extraordinary honor of serving as your president, I will work every single day, tirelessly, on your behalf and on the behalf of the future of our children."

Well, American voters seem to have economic issues front and centre in their concerns. There is more real economic gloom waiting out there, not just the lowering of the stock market indices, but in the form of job losses and firm closures. It's interesting to look at the so-called "misery index" (see report and graph), which is the unemployment rate. Over the period since the early 1980s, you see that under President Reagan, the rate rose from 7.5% (January 1981) to a peak of 10.8% (1982) to finish his term at 5.3% (December 1988). President Bush "The First" presided over a rise in the rate to 7.5% (December 1992). Under President Clinton misery was almost eradicated as the rate declined sharply to 3.9% by the end of his second term (December 2000). But, under President Bush "The Second", misery has again found company with the rate rising toward 7.4% (August 2008). So, many Americans going to the polls may feel that they have lived through not just eight years of failed policies but the better part three decades, when Republicans were in the White House.

The talk of the current period being worse than the Great Depression resonates more with people if they feel that work is hard to get, and is made worse if basic elements like housing seem under real threat. Loss of wealth through pensions and investments is an added whammy. So, we will soon see if the belief that Democrats are better at reducing misery will strike the ears of those voters.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How to Morder the Language.

I got another day in the sun, when I was called to appear again on "Brass Tacks", this time to talk mainly about local interest rate policies, but also about where we are with the financial crisis.

It was good to get away from my trading desk after a light morning, but ahead of what I suspected would be another gloomy day for equities. All that euphoria on Monday was going to be short-lived. Market participants are beginning to really come to terms with the fact that fear is rampant. My buddy, the VIX (fear index), which soared to over 70 last Thursday and Friday, dipped to a previously high level in the mid-40s yesterday when the markets opened, but closed at 60. Today, it rose further, to around 65 in the early afternoon, as I write. Some traders know that the VIX moves inversely to the S&P 500 index...therefore...yes, the indices are looking to be down 5-6 percent in the early afternoon, as I write.

Well, on the radio I got to say my pieces, but did not have any local bankers to lash; I also got to deal with some of the callers on everything from EPA to entertainment. I liked very much the man who said that I made things clear, but who did not like my accent. I also listened attentively to a man lamenting what his MP in St. Thomas was not doing, and how she was now sponsoring a "mordament". Well, I could not get to my BlackBerry fast enough to try to Google this word. I knew about "mordant", which is what is used to set dyes. I know about "murder". I scratched my head, but I could see my host, Pat Hoyos, smiling. Then I figured it out: this was a particular local pronunciation of "monument".

Well, it turns out that Rock Hall, St. Thomas, has an elegant "freedom monument", commemorating its establishment as Barbados' first free village. That much I've learnt.

I also learnt--again--how free Bajans can be with their criticism. One caller applauded me for the clarity of my explanations. Whoo-hoo! Then in the next breath said he did not like my accent. If me did decide fi lik 'im wid some chayce Jamayka patwah, unno know 'ow 'im wuld react? How is it in "Little England" local people can have a "thing" about someone who speaks with a pretty clear English accent? Rather than talking about moderment, he might have been yelling "Murderation!" Fortunately, the radio show has a moderator and in keeping with his role he helped me remain calm and stay moderate.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Water, Water, Everywhere.

I laughed yesterday morning at "Market Vendor" on the radio, when heading back from school drop off, as he lamented how in Barbados "We does complain so much 'bout de rain. Barbados among de 10 most water distressed countries in the world. Why we can' be like otha islands and collect some o' dis here warter? Hey, hey hey!". Well, I laughed too, as I remembered the long, wet summers of Guinea when rain teemed down almost non-stop during the period July-August. That rain finds its way to the Caribbean, during our hurricane season.

Today, I just got a call that school was closing because the cloak room was getting flooded. I was shocked at first because I thought that my child had lessons in a class room, and wondered if this was some kind of cruel and unreasonable punishment being meted out for something that I as yet did not know. No. It was just where the children are herded before they can go home.

I knew it was raining heavily as a bedroom just had to be mopped; there is the lake forming in the front yard; there is the pounding thunder; there is the constant plop-plop of heavy rain.

So, I am looking through the Yellow Pages to find a number for a man with an ark. Not an architect, but someone who can take me away from this. I thought that my focusing on things other than financial turmoil I would find that my day was simpler. Now I have to go to be "Sponge Bob", even though I don't wear square pants.

After last week's flooding on the island, I guess we will hear more about blocked drains, and how they need to be cleared. We need to figure out how to put a finger in those rain-laden clouds.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Rally Round the Bull Flag. Are We All Comrades Now?

The weekend was amazing for producing one of those rare occasions when nations put aside many political differences and somehow manage to collaborate, or at least appear to do that. Crisis or the belief that there is one tends to lead to extraordinary human acts. When people realized that the stock market correction appeared to be worse than in 1929 that sent more than a few shivers down politicians', financiers' and ordinary citizens' spines.

After a weekend waiting to see if the well-couched words of the major international political financial masters would make investors forget that they were gripped by panic, I could see from Sunday night in Asia that at least for a day, all would be right with the world. We don't have many details but many trillions of money will be involved in calming those jagged nerves.

I wont bore with the details of today's market activity but most equity markets liked what they had seen and heard--and it seemed that almost everyone in the industrial world would be bailed out or nationalised--and decided that it was time to buy again. The Japanese, bless them, took their annual "health and sports" holiday and wont get in on the act till tonight. Banzai! I guess they needed some R&R more than most as their stock market has been in decline for the best part of the past 20 years, since it hit an all-time peak in 1989.

Well, all of the rest of the world could not match my homonym, the DJ, as the Dow (up nearly 950 points) and S and P roared to their biggest one day advance in 70 years; that's before either John McCain and Joe Biden joined the US Senate, and well before Obama and Palin were born.

I knew that things would be a bit special when my currency strategist giving the web-inar mentioned that the closing charts from Friday--when there was an amazing rally into the close, indicated a rare formation, called an "abandoned baby", which is a strong signs that prices will reverse--not that they will do so immediately, but that they will likely not go down any more. In recent times that's enough to stoke a monster "relief rally" and so it did--again with the best action in the last hour of trading. This is what the little urchin looks like, stuck at the bottom and left behind as the market turns. Doesn't like like much, eh? But people in financial markets take much notice of these chart indicators.

There is so much uncertainty going around these days that no one has a good sense of what the next day will bring in these wild financial markets. Some people like that uncertainty, but others do not and cannot live with it for practical reasons.

Once all the financial dust has started to settle there will be a very different world of international finance, with most of the world's major banks owned or largely controlled by the State.I'm fascinated by what Karl Marx would have thought of all this. His thesis was that capitalism would produce internal tensions which will lead to its own destruction. He then believed that capitalism itself would be displaced by communism, a classless society which emerges after a transitional period called "socialism"; then all would be controlled by the State in what he described as the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

Is this what the USA and most of western Europe are embarking on? I could understand this move to socialism in Europe, but in the USA?