Saturday, May 29, 2010

Are you a terrorist ?

Answering inane questions is an unfortunate fact of life these days. Especially since security has taken centre stage in life, you are constantly asked useless questions at any place which has a security check. I was subject to a special dose of inane questions recently and hence this post.

The occasion was the renewal of my US visa which was expiring. In my line of business, a US visa is one of the necessities of life – like food, water, etc etc. Now the US visa process, for those who only want to visit it,(as opposed to immigrate), is actually a very good process. You apply on line these days, wait for an interview slot, go in person and spend half a day waiting. If you are a regular traveler, you are usually given a long term visa – usually for 10 years. Wasting half a day once in 10 years is perfectly acceptable and nobody should mind.

But in typical American fashion, you are asked some inane security questions in the visa form. Here are some gems.

- Are you coming to the United States to engage in Prostitution ?
- Do you seek to engage in espionage or sabotage ?
- Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization?
- Have you committed, ordered, incited, assisted,or otherwise participated in extrajudicial killings ?
- Have you ever withheld custody of a U.S. citizen child outside the United States from a person granted legal custody by a U.S. court ?

What do they expect as an answer ? There are probably tens of thousands of applications filed everyday and I would like to know if there was even one answer that said Yes to any of the above ?? The last question is particularly interesting. Does it mean that its OK to withhold custody of a non US citizen child or its OK to withhold custody in the US ??

Why ask such inane questions ? Of course, its only to make prosecution easier if you are caught doing any of the above – you said you would not and you did – capital crime !! In the US its more important not to lie; take the Bill Clinton scandal of a decade ago – His crime was not to have had sex with Monica Lewinski – his crime was to lie about it.

Same is the rigmarole in the airport if you are flying to the US. A bored check in clerk has to ask these questions . Are you carrying a gun ? Are you carrying a bomb? Well not exactly those, but something similarly inane couched in legal gobbledygook. Are you carrying a controlled substance ? What is a controlled substance ?? Drugs is what they mean of course, but there must be some obscure legal reason why it has to be called controlled substance.

Mischievously I have devised a list of questions that visitors to this blog must answer in their own minds

1. Are you wearing a red shirt and green trousers to evidence that you are “uber cool” ?
2. Have you watched the latest Tamil/Hindi/Chinese/whatever movie sitting in the front row of the theatre in the last seven days ?
3. Have you said Down with the Net Nanny at least three times today ?
4. Have you posted the comment "First" on at least five blogs today ?
5. Have you called your spouse "Her Highness", or "Senora" or "The Husband" or "The Fella" or "The Significant Other" today ??

If your answer is No to any of the above , you are denied a visa to enter this blog !!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Is the right to strike unfettered ?

The right to strike work is one the basic rights of workers and is recognised in law in most countries. But should this right be unfettered – and is the right to strike as valid now as it was when the principle was first enshrined ?

The right to strike was first recognised when the balance of power between employers and employees was heavily tilted towards the employer. The company could basically exploit workers as they pleased – a situation which is, alas, all too common even in present day China. Make people work in unsafe conditions, handle poisons, face serious risk of injury, withhold wages, employ children, take away passports / ID cards – these are the conditions that labour often found itself in the past, and still finds itself in , in some parts of the world. The only weapon that workers have to defend themselves is to organise themselves into a union and threaten strikes.

But in many other parts of the world, the situation is very different now. Power is much more balanced with legislation protecting such basic rights of workers. Disputes now are mainly in the area of pay and job losses. In both these areas, the balance of power is much more even. Workers have reasonable protection, including redundancy payments in case of job losses. The reasons for tensions on both issues are less to do with employers exploiting workers and more to do with competition forcing the employers’ hands.

Under such circumstances, is the right to strike absolute and unfettered ? Take the case of British Airways where the cabin crew are going on strike yet again today. Nobody can claim that British Airways cabin crew are exploited. Compared to BA’s competitors like Ryanair, BA crew are handsomely paid. This year has been a horrible year for BA – they just announced record losses. In addition to the earlier cabin crew strikes, the Icelandic volcano also contributed to their misery. Now the cabin crew are striking again. The very survival of BA is at stake. What about other workers of BA who are not striking – if BA sinks, everybody sinks with them. The current demand on which a last minute settlement has broken down is cabin crew demanding restoration of free travel perks which were withdrawn when they first went on strike. Hardly seems to justify a strike in the current atmosphere. No wonder there is very little public sympathy for BA’s cabin crew.

In today’s competitive world, strikes are simply unaffordable by any company. Customers will simply shift elsewhere and not come back. However, at the same time workers need to have some protection as well. Given half a chance, employers will exploit workers. So why not have arbitration by independent bodies to settle grievances and disputes. Sort it out mutually. If you can’t, somebody will arbitrate and the ruling will be binding on both parties.

Maybe its time to remove the right to strike other than for safety and health considerations. I would like to think that human beings have evolved something a little superior to bashing each other up as a way of settling disputes.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How do you say Net Nanny in Urdu ?

Pakistan seems to have caught the China disease. It has banned Facebook, YouTube, et al. Because some idiot somewhere in the world launched a Facebook campaign “Everybody draw Muhammad day”. As is well known, any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is considered blasphemy in Islam. People who volubly deny the holocaust, draw cartoons of the Prophet, etc must be quartered – they are deliberately inciting religious hatred and violence. Freedom of speech is a precious freedom, but does not extend to shouting Fire in a crowded theatre.

The reaction from Pakistan has been to ban Facebook. Facebook is not doing this – somebody is using Facebook to create mischief. But then, as said in the immortal lines from Casablanca – “Round up the usual suspects”. Ban them all. There's a furious debate going on in Pakistan on the sense, or senselessness, of this move.

Almost certainly, proxies will see a sudden surge of business from Pakistan. Pakistan has a vibrant social networking community – especially bloggers. We, from outside Pakistan, and especially from India, would do well to read and follow some of them. Nothing serves Indians and Pakistanis poorer than ignorance about each other. Especially since we are so similar , that we are essentially the same.

I’ll leave you with a superb post I read in The Dawn’s blog. I couldn’t help but chuckle all the way. The Dawn incidentally, is Pakistan’s leading English newspaper and a fine one at that. It’s a newspaper I love to read on the Net. It will completely dispel the stereotypes of Pakistan. I recommend its blogs – there’s some wonderful writing and perspectives out there.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Get the priorities right

There is a time and place for everything. Many of the players in the oil spill drama in the Gulf of Mexico need to consider this truism.

If you haven’t been following the events, here’s a quick synopsis of what happened. An explosion happened in the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform, in the Gulf of Mexico, some 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. 11 workers are feared dead. Oil is now gushing out of the well , some 1 mile beneath the waters on the ocean floor. Stemming this oil flow is presenting a massive engineering problem – how do you try and do damage control one mile below on the ocean floor where the pressure is massive. The oil is gushing out every day. By any account this is a big environmental problem and could become a disaster if the oil slick reaches the Louisiana coast.

The oil field’s principal developer is British Petroleum (BP). The drilling rig was however run by another company Transocean. Everybody loves to hate the big oil companies – so its very easy to vilify BP. BP’s response has been to try and contain the oil gushing out . It has also said "We are taking full responsibility for the spill and we will clean it up and where people can present legitimate claims for damages we will honor them”. Tony Hayward the Chief Executive of BP is personally leading the management of the crisis – he could hardly do otherwise.

When faced with such a disaster, I would have thought the first and only action would be to stop the oil flow. This is priority number one. Everything else is irrelevant now. All the energy, resources and efforts of everybody must be focused on solving the problem. BP is mobilizing massive resources to do this. The US Military has joined in the operation. The US Coast Guard has started to try and burn off the oil before it reaches the coast. Some 10,000 people and 250 vessels are involved in the effort.

When a crisis happens, you need to protect the people who are trying to fight the crisis, even if they are responsible for creating it. You can crucify them later. First solve the problem. And don’t tell them you are going to quarter them, lynch them, torture them, while they are trying to solve it.

But then human nature being what it is, there is a blame game going non. The US Senate , in what is familiar theatre these days, holds a hearing and yells and abuses Chief Executives of every company involved in the matter. The US Congress is launching its own probe. Every lawyer worth his salt is making a beeline for Louisiana and finding ways to sue. They have blamed BP for not accurately measuring how much of oil is gushing out. When the Environmental Protection Agency approved the use of chemical dispersants to mitigate the impact of the oil (taking a calculated view of the lesser of the two evils), environmentalists are falling over themselves to criticize the move. There are furious debates on the size of the compensation that BP has to pay. There is criticism that BP is offering to pay only “legitimate claims” – as if they can say anything else. If you read the press, there is only criticism all around.

By all means do all these things. But after the problem is solved. Not now. Right now, support the people and companies who are fighting the problem. If you distract them into defending legal positions, you are doing a massive disservice. Hold your criticism, for God’s sake. There’s a time and place for everything.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Did you feel the earth shake yesterday

The earth shook yesterday. If you are a sports fan, you would have felt it. And if you are a badminton fan, it measured 10 on the Richter scale.

The Thomas Cup and Uber Cup tournaments are going on in Kuala Lumpur. These are the Men's and Women's badminton world team championships. The Uber Cup , for women, is the private property of China. For the last 12 years they have been invincible. They usually complete the entire tournament without dropping a single match. Everybody else fights for the second place. The same was expected this year – in the world rankings in singles, the top five are Chinese. In the doubles, the top two are Chinese. Each tie in the Uber Cup consists of three singles and two doubles. What hope had anybody else got when China fields World No 1,2,3 in singles and Nos 1 and 2 in doubles.

China took its appointed place in the finals without losing a single match. In fact in all the matches, it dropped only a single game – thanks to Saina Nehwal of India. Facing them in the finals was South Korea. In the last five Uber Cup finals, it has been China vs South Korea . And the Chinese simply steamroller the Koreans and win, usually without dropping a match.

Of course, this is telecast live in China. I didn’t bother to tune in on time – what’s the point. I tuned in late into the first match – Wang Yihan of China, the World No 1 against Bae Seung-Hee, No 16 ranked. Bae played out of her skin, won the first game closely and then started to inch away in the second game. Unbelievably, she stood on match point and then won. The Koreans poured on to the court to celebrate.They had won the first of the best of five matches, a dream start.

Second on was the world no 1 doubles pair of Ma Jin and Wang Xiaoli against the scratch combination of Lee Hyo Jung and Kim Min Jung for Korea who have never played before this tournament as a pair.The match developed into a classic – if you have ever watched badminton doubles you would know how incredibly athletic it can be . The crowd roars at every smash and the rallies are long. The Chinese won the first game and it looked like they would eventually triumph. But Lee and Kim would simply not give up. Kim was playing steady and Lee was going for outrageous shots and getting most of them. They won the second. The third game was neck and neck and then finally after an hour and six minutes of pulsating badminton, the Koreans won. I could scarcely believe the match score. Korea 2 : China 0

Third on court was Wang Xin, World No 2 for China against the virtually unranked Sung Ji Hyun. Wang looks like a 15 year old and on her slim shoulders rested China’s hopes. Sung looked barely older. Shrieking a like a schoolgirl at every point Wang raced away with first game. But Sung would not give up. Fighting for her life, she took the second. But that took all that she had. Wang simply ran away with the third game. Korea 2- China 1

Fourth on was the experienced Chinese doubles pair of Du Jing and Yu Yang. They were seasoned players and had the experience to win anytime. Against them were Lee Kyung Won and Ha Jung Eun, an unheralded pair. Another classic developed. The Koreans had scented blood and played at a breathtaking level. Each pair won a game each. The third game would be etched long in the memory of those who watched it. The crowd was going berserk and there were surely some ruptured eardrums. After four hours and thirteen minutes of scintillating badminton, it stood at match point for Korea – match and championship point. A long rally ensued and finally Lee and Ha won. The entire Korean contingent poured on to the court and the scenes of celebration was riotous. The ground shook; the earth trembled. Mighty China had been beaten.

PS - How I wish I could upload the photos capturing the magic of this tie here. Alas, the Net Nanny is in full vigour ...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Las Vegas is passe; bet on the Exchanges

Last Thursday, something peculiar happened in the US stock markets. The markets were jittery due to the unfolding crisis in Greece. The market was down by some 1.5% or so , but nothing extraordinary. Then at 2.32 PM something happened. It started falling steeply. By 2.42 PM it had fallen by 3.9%. By 2.47 the bottom had fallen out; in 5 minutes the index fell another 5.5%.By 2.49 it went back up by 5%.

Nobody knows what happened. Multiple theories abound. Hacking or terrorist activity have been ruled out. The rumour that a trader keyed in a trade in P&G shares for billions instead of millions by mistake has also not been borne out. The SEC is still investigating.

What triggered the fall is not clear, but what happened next is certain. A lot of trading is computer driven these days. When something happens there are automatic triggers to buy or sell. When the first fall happened, it triggered an avalanche of computer generated trades. Hence the free fall. These days competitive advantage amongst traders is counted in speed of response time. Goldman Sachs famously claims that it has a huge competitive advantage because its computers are a few nanoseconds faster than anybody else.

What has the world come too when computers fight against other computers in speculation and cause spectacular gains and falls. None of this is real They serve zero economic value. The oft repeated argument that speculation ensures liquidity in the market has been stretched to absurd levels when computers are fighting other computers for nanasecond advantages.

This is the United States of America. Where gambling is banned except in the state of Nevada and in some small pockets such as Atlantic City and Indian reservations. Online gambling is completely banned; the US spends a fair amount of money trying to shut down internet gambling. And then they allow stock exchanges to go completely berserk. In pure shotgun gambling that would put Las Vegas to complete shame. The sin city is small change ; its entire annual revenue is probably bet in a day on the exchanges.

Here’s an idea to solve the US deficit. Impose a gambling tax on the exchanges. Because they are nothing but gambling dens. Ignore their bleating of how they serve a useful economic function (99.9% of them don’t). Bite your lip at the huge fall in the Index that will happen immediately. Laugh at threats that they would take their business to other countries.

Some decades ago America cleaned up the gambling in Las Vegas and sent the mob that was controlling it packing. I think attention must now be turned on the Exchanges.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Challenges of Product Choices and Prices in Multi-Sided Media Markets

Commercial media have faced product and price challenges in 2-sided markets for more than a century, but are encountering greater difficulties in getting it right as they try to effectively monetize multi-sided markets.

2-sided and multi-sided markets are ones in which more than one set of consumers must be addressed and there is an interaction between strategies and choices for each set of customers. Prices for one group of consumers affects their consumption quantity and this, in turn, affects the prices for and consumption by the other groups. Optimal revenues can only be achieved by dealing with all groups of consumers simultaneously.

Newspapers are a classic example of 2-sided platforms. The first product is the content sold to audiences and the second is access to audiences that is sold to advertisers. This has been the basis of the mass media business model since late 19th century and the strategy has been to keep circulation prices low to attract a mass audience and then to make the majority of revenue from advertiser purchases.

In this model, success in selling the newspaper product affects ability to sell advertising access because more readers makes a paper more attractive to advertisers; conversely, success in selling advertising affects ability to sell the newspaper to readers because it provides resources that improves content and make the paper more attractive.

Getting prices right in this model is crucial, but most media have traditionally been relatively unsophisticated in setting prices. Few have used demand-oriented pricing, based on what the market will bear, or target return pricing based on achieving a specific rate of return. Instead most have set prices based on what the closest competitors are doing or on industry average price. They were historically able to get away with it because elasticity and price resistance were relatively low because of the near monopolies of past in many markets.

Today, however, product and price choices are getting much more complex because of rising competition and because media are shifting from 2-sided to multi-sided platforms in which relationships among consumers are compounded. This complexity is evident in the difficulties newspapers and magazines are having figuring out effective ways to provide and sell content online.

The problem occurs because there are paying audiences and advertisers for the print edition; free audiences and paying advertisers for the online edition; and some joint audience and advertisers who use both the print and online offerings. If one alters the free price online to create a paying audience, it not only affects the willingness of online advertisers to pay, but affects the willingness of joint audiences and advertisers to pay and thus effects performance of the print sales as well.

Creating the correct combination of content available in print and online, getting the content prices right, generating audiences in both places that are right for advertisers, and properly prices advertising is no mean feat. The situation is made even more difficult as publishers add eReaders and mobile services to the mix.

Those who think they can easily monetize newspapers, magazines, or other information products online ignore the significant challenges posed by multi-sided platforms and need to carefully consider the impact that these factors have on product and price choices.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

An atom bomb goes off

An atom bomb was set off yesterday. Only nobody noticed it. Because it was high economics that nobody but the geeks understand. But an atom bomb, it surely was. I am referring to the nearly € 1 trillion “bailout” package for the Euro zone members that was announced yesterday.

Even if you have only a passing interest in economics, you would have heard of the travails of Greece over the last few months. This was snowballing into a crisis that was threatening to spread to the other vulnerable members of the Euro zone - the so called PIGS – Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Hence the shock and awe tactics of detonating an atom bomb. € 1 trillion rescue package. Wow !

Greece started it all. For a long time it was fudging figures that, if done in the corporate world, would have surely sent the Chairman to jail. But it is, of course, perfectly acceptable to do so in politics. Truth will always out, and when tougher financial markets laid bare who was naked and who was not, Greece got caught out. The interest rates on Greek bonds started to rise rapidly. Without the ability to borrow, Greece was in danger of default.

Because Greece is locked into the Euro zone, the traditional route of massive devaluation of the currency was not possible. Everybody assumed that the 1000 pound gorilla in the room – Germany – would rescue Greece out. But Germany these days is in no mood to rescue anybody. Everybody for themselves in tough times. How on earth do you convince the average German voter that he is penalised for being responsible and must stump up the money to rescue the irresponsible Greeks. This was Angela Merkel’s problem, especially with a crucial regional election that was held yesterday. She tried to postpone any decision till after the elections. She couldn’t do so. The result ? A stinging defeat for her party yesterday.

The announcement has huge implications. Firstly it admits that any Euro zone country, however small, is too big to fail. As each weak country is attacked, they have to step in to save them. Secondly, the European Central Bank has to intervene directly to shore up the bond markets; something which it was explicitly prevented from doing when it was set up. Thirdly, it calls into very question the basis on which the Euro came into being. Countries were left free to manage their own economies, but subscribing to basic disciplines of fiscal policy. No country was required to “bail out” another. This is all shot to the wind now. Every country now is bound to be responsible for every other ; how do you do it when each of them still wants to be a sovereign nation ? Fourthly what happens when this malaise spreads. Greece is not alone as a beacon of indiscipline. To varying degrees the others in the PIGS grouping have problems. Greece is small. Spain is big. What happens when bigger countries get into trouble. And perish the thought – if the much bigger Italy, another star in the indiscipline firmament is targeted; we don’t even want to think of the consequences of that. Fifthly, there will be very very painful cuts in Greece and whichever country needs to be bailed out. There are already massive strikes in Greece. How’s the population which has been hooked on to spending without a care going to take the chemotherapy ?

If that was not enough, there’s more worry coming. What about the countries in the European Union which are not in the Euro zone. What about the UK ?? It has run up an incredible deficit, faces political uncertainty, and is in a fair mess.

When bailouts were about banks, it was easy to get all steamed up, hurl invective at them and castrate executives. When its about whole countries, what do you do ??

It’s a gloomy world out there today morning. The skies are darkening over Europe.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

To "cool" or "not to cool"

I am confused. You may be forgiven for the retort of “what’s new? ” but tell me, should I aspire to be “cool” ? Or “warm”. Or else “hot” ; Or what ?

Over the last few weeks, I was given to understand that I wasn’t “cool”. It all started with a stupid question I asked – Who is Tamannaah ? Then I compounded the problem by asking a series of questions – Who is Asin ? Who is Vijay ? And so on … I was made to realise that I was not cool.

So to be cool, I thought I should read up on the said ladies and gentlemen. I was told that, with diligent study, I could even aspire to be “uber cool”. But then I was made to realise that at work, I was not supposed to be “cool”. Apparently a “cool” guy is one who is losing deal after deal. So you should at least be “warm”. Preferably “hot”. Like on a hot streak – winning deal after deal. At the same time you could also be “cold” actually ice cold – I believe you are good if you can remain "ice cold", while you are "hot". Doesn’t the laws of science make it just a wee bit difficult to be hot and ice cold at the same time ? Methinks I will be sued if I were to characterize one of our sales managers, a lovely lady, as “hot”.

I turned for help to my colleagues at the office. Everybody is a little (er; actually a lot) younger than I am. Since they are all Chinese, and since everybody who works here is a gorgeous, slim girl, I thought I would get to unlock the mystery of being cool or not. I even read up on the Chinese equivalent of T and A – Zhang Ziyi, Li Bingbing and so on. So, at dinner yesterday, we got around to talking of favourite actresses. I enthusiastically piled in on the charms of the said Ms Zhang. There was an embarrassed silence and the others swiftly went on to say their favourites were the likes of Gong Li ( a little bit like saying your favourite was Hema Malini) . Apparently the cool thing was to be “uncool”. Wow !

At yet another revealing conversation, I was told that the holy grail was not to be “cool” or “hot”, but to be a “dude”. I turned for help to an angel, who, chronology wise, is still in single digits. I told her that I was becoming familiar with T, A, Z and L in my attempts at being a “dude”. She looked at me as if I had completely lost it. Then in the tone that nine year olds reserve for elders who don’t really get it, she explained that if you are a girl, you had to be totally “in” to Victoria Justice, Selena Gomez and Miranda Cosgrove. But if you were a boy, you could try Zac Efron, but to be a "dude" you had to be pally about Harry Anderson. He's apparently so new that he doesn't have a Wiki page as yet.

I was looking lost and confused. Cool or uncool ? Warm or Hot ? Ice Cold or Dude ? Life seems to be very complicated.

I said so to the young lady. She said, not to worry. I was “OK” !!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fairer trade or freer trade ?

“This house believes that making trade fairer is more important than making it freer” – this is the current live debate hosted by The Economist here. This blogger is a complete and unabashed fan of The Economist and subscribes to the view that it is the best publication in the world. The Economist debates are a fascinating discussion of very relevant issues and it would be difficult to find as interesting a debate on economics as between fair trade and free trade.

The context must be clearly understood. Despite all the tall claims made, the world is nowhere close to free trade of an acceptable sort. The bastions of free trade are all fiercely protectionists in their own areas – agriculture in both Europe and the US, and pretty much everywhere else in the developing world. Everybody wants free trade in other’s homes, but not in their own backyard. Tariff and non tariff barriers abound. The crawling pace of the WTO talks, which go on for decades is testimony to this, although it has to be said much has indeed been achieved.

Ranged against free trade is an assortment of all sorts of constituencies, ranging from noble social organizations to bleeding heart socialists. Their noise making capability being much higher, free trade is being tainted as a four letter word and blamed as the originator of much misery. Arguments against free trade range from exploitation of workers in the poor countries, loss of jobs in rich, threat to way of life in all sorts of places, inequality, etc etc. There is some merit and much bunk in these arguments.

What is fair trade anyway ? Fair to whom ? Fair to the producer or fair to the consumer ?

The value free trade has brought to so many millions of people is often not given the credit it deserves. Prices of almost every good or service is lower because of free trade and competition. Producing something in the best place it ought to be produced, makes both quality and price better. While the opponents of free trade propagate the cause of the producer (the poor French farmer who will lose his French way of life if the big bad beast of free trade is unleashed), nobody propagates the right of the consumer ; why should the average Pierre on the streets in Marseilles pay more to keep the French farmer in Brittany in cosy comfort ?

Think about this. All arguments of protectionism are made by people unable to compete. If they could compete and win, they would not be scared of free trade. They are scared of free trade because they do not offer the best cost quality equation. Therefore they want the guy who offers the best deal to be kept out because only then can they survive. So they want some poor sod of a consumer to subsidise them. For every compromise somebody makes on free trade, it is the consumer who is jacked.

This is an opinionated blog, of course. This blogger believes that the only fair trade is free trade.

But read The Economist's debate. The excellent Ngaire Woods makes a powerful argument for fairer trade. As does Prof Jagdish Bhagwati for free trade. I am delighted to say that at the time of writing this piece, 52% of those voting agreed with me. But it is indeed true that the Economist reader is no average Joe Public. If there was an open vote amongst the population, I am sad to say that not even 5% is likely to take this view.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Risk avoidance vs Risk spreading

By now there is every chance that you have heard of credit default swaps, the instruments at the heart of the financial crisis of a year and a bit ago. Unless you are like me and the Tamil movie scene, that is – surely I must be the only Tamil in the world who hadn’t heard of Asin (for non Indian readers, this lady seems to be the Tamil equivalent of Zhang Ziyi/ J Lo (?) ). So I can’t say that there you cannot, but, have heard of that silly acronym CDS.

All derivatives, like credit default swaps, spread risk around; they don’t reduce or eliminate it. Most derivatives are fiendishly complicated, so much so that the most simple and basic derivative, which would surely tax the intellectual powers of the aforementioned Asin, is called “plain vanilla” by the geeks. But all they do, for their incredible complexity is play pass the parcel – they simply pass the risk to somebody else. Or chop it into individual bits and toss the bits around. Or find all sorts of devilish ways to spread it. But its all just a form of pass the parcel.

There isn’t enough done to avoid or mitigate the original risk in the first place. The analogy is one of taking a fire insurance in your house, feeling very safe and secure and then stuffing it with propane and smoking next to it. What about fire avoidance; what about fire fighting equipment; what about safety measures; what about fire alarms ……

Derivatives bring a false sense of security to the people who take the risk in the first place. Just because they have passed the risk around, they feel safe. And since the original transaction has been decoupled from the derivative, the focus of risk avoidance on the original transaction seems to fall. Therein lies the great danger. Risk has actually increased because of a false sense of security of having passed it somewhere else. The risk has not gone away, its just floating in bits and bobs all over and if it bursts, its effect overall would be almost the same as if it hadn’t been spread around.

Having spread the risk, you are tempted to take more risks, on the security of being able to pass that around too. This creates a domino effect and the total risk in the system exponentially increases. Under normal circumstances , this doesn’t matter – some punter wins and some other loses. But if a tsunami starts, it becomes a massive destructive force that can almost destroy nations, as the crisis in 2008 demonstrated. Little wonder that the inimitable Warren Buffet called derivatives as weapons of mass destruction some years ago.

It’s a little bit like this. Lets assume the fabulous Asin decides to produce and star in a new movie – lets call it “Gilsa Zenova” – just for illustrative purposes, OK ? There’s a high probability that the movie will flop and that the two featured gentlemen will write a review in their blog praising her beauty but panning the movie. So what does the lady do ? She goes out and buys an Movie Flop Swap – a derivative that says RamMmm, Ravi, Kiwibloke and such other wealthy punters shall pay her $1m if the movie flops (added bonus; she’ll have dinner with these three before they write the cheque). Now that the damsel is safe (at least monetarily), it does not mean that she should not make some attempt at getting a decent story, some attempt at getting a passable hero (a slimmer version of Vijay, I am told, will fit the bill), put a little vigour in the dance, a little more speed in running around the tree, a little more rouge on the cheek, bat the eyelids a few more times, perhaps shed a few pounds despite the fondness for buxomness ……….

Get the picture (pun fully intended) ?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Where is the modern day Rosetta Stone ?

But for the chance discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we may have never learnt about the wonders of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The tombs and the monuments had, of course, been known for a long time. But nobody could understand the hieroglyphics, for the language had died long long ago. So we knew very little about this wonderful civilisation, until by sheer accident , a stone was discovered in Rosetta on which was written a fairly unimportant decree from Ptolemy V. The information in it was utterly irrelevent, but the beauty of the finding was that the writing was both in ancient Egyptian and in Greek, a language well known now. Voila – With a small primer, and the heroic efforts of Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion, the hieroglyphic script was deciphered. We know so much about the ancient Egyptian civilization because of this chance discovery. Contrast this with the ancient Indian civilization, where, despite the findings at Mohenjodaro and Harappa, we know very little because we cannot decipher the language. And in any case, they left very little written material behind.

This historical musing was prompted by the news that Sony was going to stop the manufacture of 3.5" floppy disks. Remember them ?? Some readers of this blog such as Deepa and Vishal are too young to remember , but there are a few, who I won’t embarrass, who have known of them! They were the staple portable medium for many years – a few might even remember the 5" and then the 8" floppies that preceded them. Now they are all consigned to the dustbin of history.

Most of human knowledge today is stored electronic. But there is a sense of impermanence to electronic media – if you switch off the power; poof they are gone. And the standards are changing all the time. Data files from even 10 years ago are probably unreadable. Mediums of storage are dying all the time. Can you read a Lotus 123 file today ?? What if somebody produced a Winchester disk drive of old – you’d probably look at it as if a mummy has come back to life.

The Egyptians carved on stone. Their language changed very little for 3000 years. So when they left their monuments, they were monuments in time. Even so it was gravely under risk of not being understood until the accident at Rosetta unraveled the glories. But what will happen to modern man. He is changing standards every 10 years and stores his history in mediums that will hardly last 20 years; leave alone 100 or 1000. So are all our glories meant to be insignificant footnotes in history ??

Despite all our sense of self importance, we are , but a speck, in the ocean of time. The worst fate that can befall us is one of utter irrelevance. Nobody even knows in the future that we existed, that we achieved, for our times, great things. That we were capable of art, of philosophy, that we made wonderful scientific discoveries, that we adapted like crazy at speeds unheard of, that we were capable of high emotion and noble deed, that we were glorious. That we sometimes descended into ignoble act, but we always rose with courage and greatness. I would like to say, albeit in a small voice, that I was there. But somebody in the distant mists of time needs to be able to see us, hear us, read us.

We need to leave our footprints, not on the sand in the beach, but cast in concrete. And we need a modern day Rosetta Stone.