Thursday, November 27, 2008

Preaching and practising

The Government is screaming at us all to spend to save the nation and yet Northern Rock yesterday raised some of its fixed rate mortgages and Ofwat is suggesting that the UK water companies should reduce their capital expenditure plans. Meanwhile David Cameron, who had been so scathing about the Govt mooting the possibility of abolishing stamp duty for first time buyers before daring to implement the policy, is now hinting that as PM he may phase out final salary public sector pensions, although he hasn't yet "ruled any option in or out."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

And thou shalt have roses in December

There are still five roses out in my garden and I hope they will survive until Advent. Do you know this poem by Robert Frost?

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But now the theory goes
That the apple's a rose,
And the pear is, and so's
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose
But were always a rose.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Slippery sardines

My colleague went to Sardinia in August and bought a garden bench. He paid half by credit card and half by bank transfer. At the end of September the bench had not arrived. He called the shop who assured him it had been sent. He called the local bank who said they'd call the shop on his behalf. The bank said the shopkeeper would send them the shipping documents to prove it had been sent. These did not arrive. My colleague cancelled the credit card payment. He spoke to the bank again. They said that the shopkeeper had been summoned in to see them. This week the bench arrived together with documents stating that it had been shipped last week. Now my colleague is repaying the cancelled credit card payment.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Citigroup piracy

The Somali pirates, renegade Somalis known for hijacking ships for ransom in the Gulf of Aden, are negotiating a purchase of Citigroup.
The pirates would buy Citigroup with new debt and their existing cash stockpiles, earned most recently from hijacking numerous ships, including most recently a $200 million Saudi Arabian oil tanker. The Somali pirates are offering up to $0.10 per share for Citigroup, pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said earlier today. The negotiations have entered the final stage, Ali said. ``You may not like our price, but we are not in the business of paying for things. Be happy we are in the mood to offer the shareholders anything," said Ali.
The pirates will finance part of the purchase by selling new Pirate Ransom Backed Securities. The PRBSs are backed by the cash flows from future ransom payments from hijackings in the Gulf of Aden. Moody's and S&P have already issued their top investment grade ratings for the PRBSs.
Head pirate, Ubu Kalid Shandu, said "we need a bank so that we have a place to keep all of our ransom money. Thankfully, the dislocations in the capital markets has allowed us to purchase Citigroup at an attractive valuation and to take advantage of TARP capital to grow the business even faster."
Shandu added, "We don't call ourselves pirates. We are coastguards and this will just allow us to guard our coasts better."
Commentators noted that Citigroup is regarded as a super-tanker in financial markets - hard to turn around - and given that management such as senior advisor and director Robert Rubin (who has pocketed more than $118 million in salary, bonus and stock-based compensation) have been acting as pirates for years, Citigroup clients and markets will not see much difference.

(Source: e-mail from DBS Vickers)

Friday, November 21, 2008

New models

The CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler came caps in hand to ask the US Senate for a bail-out. One Senator was particularly unamused at seeing them each arrive in a private jet and commented, "Really! You come to us for least you could have had the decency to downgrade to first class!"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chinese consumption

I met some Chinese analysts yesterday who told me that the milk crisis still prevails in China and that they are importing milk powder from New Zealand rather than trusting their own. The root of the problem was that cattle feed had risen so much in price that villagers were watering down the milk to maintain their profits as they couldn't raise the price due to government controls. People cottoned on to the fact that the milk was suddenly half water and inspectors were sent to test the milk for protein. To get around this, the villagers began to add melamine to the watery milk and then babies started dying. The government gave the people some compensation: if your baby was sick from melamine poison, you were entitled to free health care.
That is another point about the high savings ratio in China, by the way. The one child policy means that a working couple has to save money for five people's healthcare: their own, their parents' and their child's. It is unlikely that this sort of saving will be spent on other items. People in the UK complain that the banks are not passing through interest rate cuts into mortgages but in China, mortgage rates are cut only once per year: on 1 January. Maybe there will be a very good Chinese New Year in 2009 as all the interest rate cuts this year will finally take effect in January. Chinese New Year is the Year of the Ox which must be bullish, unless you define an ox as "a castrated bull."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Baucis and Philemon

Do you remember Ovid's story of the old couple Baucis and Philemon? Zeus and Hermes had disguised themselves as peasants and had come to B and P's town, looking for accommodation. Everybody refused them hospitality but Baucis and Philemon welcomed them and Baucis realised they were gods when the pitcher of wine remained full in spite of her frequently filling their glasses. Philemon suggested killing their goose in honour of the gods but the goose leapt onto Zeus' lap and Zeus said that they shouldn't worry about the goose but instead all leave as he was so furious with the ungenerous town that he was going to destroy it. The town was completely destroyed by a flood except for Baucis and Philemon's cottage which was transformed into a temple. Zeus granted the couple a wish. They chose to stay together as guardians of the temple and to die at the same time. When they died, Baucis became a linden tree and Philemon an oak and they remained guarding the temple.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Who is this Aso?

The title of this post is a quotation from an analyst at HSBC who was writing about the man who became Prime Minister of Japan in September. Two months later, Japan is in recession, Aso's plans for a snap election have been shelved and public opinion polls give such him a dismal rating that there is speculation he may be the third Japanese leader to resign in two years. His party, the LDP, has been in power for all but 10 months since 1955 so it's not surprising that people feel the need for a change. "Aso will become the LDP's funeral director," says one political commentator. Two of his appointees have been forced to resign after making comments deemed to be inappropriate: the Transport Minister who referred to the teachers union as a "cancer" and the Air Force Chief who claimed that Japan was not an aggressor in the Second World War. Peeople are remembering that Aso himself said in 2003 that Koreans who'd been forced to take Japanese surnames during the 1910-45 occupation had wanted to do so. There are demonstrations outside his $94m private residence which is being highlighted as a symbol of Japan's growing wealth disparity.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Extra-terrestrial recycling

For a mere $250m NASA has built a water processor for the space station which will recycle astronauts' urine and sweat into drinking water, saving the need for around 7 tonnes of water to be rocketed up there every year. Astronauts who've tried it say it is flat and has no taste (I am not sure why they thought it might be sparkling). It won't be ready to use straightaway: samples must be returned to earth for analysis and clearance first. (Fancy working as a taster there?) The processor will be vital when the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010 as that has been the conduit for all the water on the station, except that which has been brought up by the Russians.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Russian chaos

The Russian stockmarket fell 15% today in 40 minutes at which point the exchange was closed until Monday. It's now down 79% since July 07. Meanwhile Medvedev is heading off to an EU summit in France and then to Washington for a G20 meeting on Saturday. He was, I think, the only leader not to express enthusiasm for Obama, taking the opportunity instead to announce the deployment of missiles aimed at the West to Kaliningrad, although his officials subsequently restated his message, saying that the missiles would only be deployed if the US went ahead with its missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic. BO's supposed to be dismantling Guantanamo Bay. Let's see if he backs down against Russia.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

St Pelagia the Penitent

I came across the story of St Pelagia the Penitent the other day. Pelagia was a dancer and actress who lived in Antioch in the second half of the fifth century AD. She was an actress and a dancer who had many lovers, expensive jewels and a large entourage. All writers agreed that Pelagia was a very beautiful woman who lived a dissolute life in decadent Antioch. At the height of her popularity, she and some friends passed by the Basilica of St. Julian in Antioch where Bishop Nonnus was preaching. Pelagia was reclining in a litter and was provocatively dressed; her head and shoulders were uncovered at a time when women were to be veiled in public.The group of bishops who were gathered outside were shocked by the sight of her and turned away, except for Bishop Nonnus who looked at her for a long time. Bishop Nonnus then turned to the other bishops and asked, "Did not the sight of her great beauty delight you?"When Bishop Nonnus spoke in the basilica the next day, Pelagia was there. The people were surprised to see her because she was not a Christian. Apparently the bishop's words stirred Pelagia to reconsider how she was living her life. She met with the bishop soon after and asked to be baptised saying that her father and mother named her Pelagia but the people of Antioch called her Margarita, which means pearl, for she was the devil's jewel.Bishop Nonnus found a woman to act as her godmother and then exorcised and baptised her. A few days later Pelagia arranged to give all her wealth and possessions to the bishop. He handed all over to the treasurer of the church in Antioch, telling him to use it for widows and orphans, not for the church, because it was tainted money.Soon after Pelagia's conversion and baptism she left Antioch and was not seen there again. She withdrew to a cave in Jerusalem near the Mount of Olives where she dressed in men's clothing and lived an austere life. She was known as Pelagius, "the beardless monk" and her sex was not discovered until after her death.While the people in Jerusalem might have known about the hermit living nearby, they didn't know that the monk was the famous Pelagia of Antioch. Apparently Bishop Nonnus knew where she had gone. Some three or four years later, he sent James the Deacon on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to see "Brother Pelagius."James reported that when he found the little cell and knocked on the shutter, the monk opened it. The monk knew James but James did not recognise her. When he told the monk he came from Bishop Nonnus, the monk Pelagius asked him to pray for her, "For he is a saint of God." When James returned to the cell some days later, he received no answer to his knock. When he opened the shutter, he found Pelagius dead. It was when they were anointing the body for burial that they found that she was a woman.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The nervous nineties

My father is 90 today and around 40 relations, ranging in age from 6 weeks to nearly 90, descended upon us for a pink champagne birthday lunch on Saturday, the children being very excited to see 90 candles burning on a cake. He made an excellent speech, telling us that when he was a toddler he used to tell people, "I brought the peace!" He also said that when he was 13 he was on his way home from a cricket match on an "electric train" which was not scheduled to stop at his station. One of the boys with him said, "It's not going fast, just throw out your cricket bag and jump out!" My father obeyed the instructions and can still feel the impact of the concrete platform on his body as it fell with a thud, his straw hat battered. A porter approached him and asked in a strong Lancashire accent, "Eh, Lad, where have you come from?" He resisted the temptation to reply, "From heaven!" and the porter was not amused by his explanation of the events. A few days later, a railway official visited my grandmother to complain. She asked the man to repeat his name and whether he was related to a boy of that name. When he said that the boy was in fact his son, she said disconcertingly, "Well, it was your boy who advised my son to make the leap!"

Friday, November 07, 2008

Classical Arabic

Lord Wright of Richmond, former British Ambassador to Syria, writes in a letter in today's FT that if "classical Arabic" means the language of the Koran, it is best heard today in south Arabia. He says some years ago a bespectacled English traveller in a remote mountain village in Yemen heard a girl running to her mother and saying (with all the conjugations, declensions and duals in perfect order), "Oh my mother, I have seen a man and there were, upon his two eyes, two jewels!"

Acronym of the day: ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Joke of the day

I had drinks at the Bank of England the other day and saw many symbols of Britannia and also the Roman stamp SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus). One of the Bank officials joked that he had thought it stood for Small Profit, Quick Return.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The American dream

Three cheers for Barack Obama for inspiring so many Americans and renewing the world with hope for change for the better! Let's hope he can fulfil our expectations. John McCain had a pretty much impossible task. As one of his supporters said, "Without George Bush, two unpopular wars and the worst economic crisis since the 30s, it would have been plain sailing for McCain." What does it mean for politics over here? It is probably still too early to say but the Conservatives should take great comfort from the fact that people feel the need for a change of direction.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

o tempora o mores

A reader of this blog asks me what I think about councils banning the use of Latin. I cannot compete with the brilliant Dr Peter Jones' eloquence on the subject in his spoof letter to Hazel Blears:

Dear Mrs Blears,
You will be aware that a number of councils has decided that all Latin words and phrases should be subject to a veto from their communications with the public eg "eg" et cetera. As a spokesman from the Plain English Campaign said, "Often people in power are using words because they want to feel self-important. Voters should not suffer because of an official's ego." Precisely. Ergo you must take action at once. Put this on your agenda and produce a memo, or vice versa, on the topic, because the list is not nearly long enough ie they have left out too many words that are absolutely incomprehensible to any compos mentis Englishman. Via the internet, I have identified inter alia, alibi, alius, annus horribilis, apparatus, exit, facsimile, habeas corpus, ignoramus, insignia, omnibus, par, propaganda, per cent, RIP and terminus, to name but a few. Some will think this hocus pocus but I say you cannot allow the status quo to remain as it is. If you were to have a referendum on the subject, Latinists versus Plain Speaking Anglos, the decision to reject all Latin from our language would be carried nem.con. NB I do not demand a requiem for Latin in toto, let alone an in memoriam. Without Latin of course, you could not call yourself Secretary (a Latin word) of State (Latin) for Communities (Latin) and Local (Latin) Government (Latin, derived from Greek). That would of course be a complete non sequitur. QED

Monday, November 03, 2008

Indian credit

India is one of the world's most underpenetrated markets for credit cards, with only 27m in existence which equates to 1 card per 40 people, compared with 1 per 10 people in China. An engineer in a tractor factory in Chandigarh says that a credit card salesman came to his office and even filled in the forms for him. He didn't really understand that there would be finance charges on any unpaid balances and was soon struggling to reduce his debt of $1750, in spite of regular repayments. In the end he was so exasperated that he cut his cards into pieces, put them in envelopes and posted them back to the banks!