Sunday, 27 May 2012

The rear view mirror

Some nasty men claim women use it to tweak with their make-up and apart from this the mirror attached to the windscreen is of no use for them. In fact drivers who do not use all three mirrors to control situation on the road almost constantly are more likely to cause an accident than those who use it as prescribed. Apart from keeping track of traffic when the car is in motion, it is worthwhile to look in the mirror inside the vehicle to look at other car users while, for example, waiting for the traffic light to turn green.

Until some time ago, I could enjoy typical sights – women enhancing their make-up, men shaving their facial hair, humans of both sexes talking on their mobile phones, smoking or having their fingers exploring the contents of their noses. The times of ordinary views in the mirror are gone. It’s getting worse…

I can distinguish two types of drivers: most travel on their own, minority take passengers. The former appear either impatient or jaded. Those for who every second is precious would be the happiest if they could push other vehicles away, faces of the more bored drivers show less and less interest in what is going on around – they drive because they have to, it can be judged by their faces they do a routine activity. I usually commute on my own and usually lean towards the “jaded” type… Aggression behind the wheel is not a good advisor…

More interesting are interactions between people travelling in the same vehicle, and here my observations are more disturbing. The first instance is no communication at all – a car is moving behind me for a longer period of time and its passengers show no sign of conversation. I assume they are not strangers for each other / one another, so I suppose it would be natural to talk. It does not happen. I also quite often notice whole families (parents and children) occupying one car and each member of family is doing something else – a driver focuses on traffic, one of the passengers looks outside a window, another reads a book or fiddles with a mobile phone. In times when people spend most of the time outside home, commuting together seems a good opportunity to talk, but for many silence seems to be a preferable option. Or am I the only one to find this strange?

The second instance are arguing people – more and more often I can see in my rear view mirror couples falling out – yelling, waving their hands, their faces getting red. The same applies to parents driving their children to school. For smaller children the case is usually that the unruly offspring wind up their parents. Teenagers in turn behave seemingly properly but fall out over more serious issues. Shouts and gesticulation also in abundance.

Even leaving out the fact quarrelling distracts drivers and may contribute to dangerous situations on the road, my conclusions are unsettling – a malaise overwhelms the society…

I used to commute by public transport only, I still cover more kilometres in public service vehicles than by car each working day and I find populations of car commuters and public transport users entirely different. Generally speaking, those who get around by car are wealthier than those using the public transport. It does not apply to people who live in areas with excellent transport links into centre of Warsaw who use underground as a faster and more convenient for getting into town, but the regularity remains. Judging by what faces of people sitting in other cars and faces of fellow bus / tram / underground passengers express, I infer those who take the public transport are happier than car users.

Some explanations could be found right away – if you travel in a public space with your family, you are generally less eager to wash your dirty linen than in the private space of your depreciating tin. Going further, money does not have to bring happiness; in many cases wealth, if not accompanied by what really matters in life (bonds with family and friends, self-fulfilment, etc.) can bring discontent. The more you have, the more you want to have and the less you are satisfied with what you have achieved, the less you appreciate what you possess, while you should.

For an upbeat ending – I do not consider what I spot among fellow road users significantly upsetting. The sample I observe is not representative for the whole Polish society, although indeed people’s moods have seen better days. It seems the second wave of financial distress (debt crisis in the euro zone) will hit Poland more severely than the aftermaths of banking crisis in 2008. Poland’s GDP is not going to shrink, again, unemployment is unlikely to soar, but is poised to go up, but consumer confidence that kept the Polish economy afloat in early 2009 gives signs of dwindling. More people are afraid of losing their jobs, households are less eager to finance their consumption with debts, purchasing power is on decline due to cost-push inflation (higher prices of food, utilities and fuel, partly owing to excessive volume of speculation on commodity markets and “thanks” to weak PLN, which now, when corporate sector is not throttled by over-hedging, boosts our competitiveness), as growth of salaries has ceased to catch up with the pace in which prices of basic goods mount. Insecurity can be felt in the air (brutal lay-offs are under way in my company), so gloom is likely to prevail and because in economics agents’ actions bring forth a mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecy, I expect harder times than in 2008-2009, not in figures issued by the Stats office, but among ordinary people.

Next week – a short guide to being fired in a corporation – onlooker’s impressions.

In two weeks – road construction programme review at the onset of football championship – will Warsaw be linked to European network of motorways by then?

Sunday, 20 May 2012

To the ones for who I’m better off

At times when nothings turns out the way I would like to, when life seems and endless way uphill, when again I feel out of luck, I try to put my problems into a different perspective, to discern how trifling they are compared to other people’s predicaments. I am dedicating this post to (order totally random):

- the ones who have experienced any kind of material deprivation,
- the homeless,
- orphans, or semi-orphans, who have sold at least one of their parents in their childhood or youth,
- the disabled and their families,
- the blind, the deaf,
- the ones who have not had the luck to be born in a democratic country,
- the ones who have taken out a 100% LtV mortgage loan in CHF in first half of 2008 and are now stuck with outstanding debt twice as high as market value of their property (suckers…)
- culprits of traffic accidents,
- the ones who have to commute longer distances than me and travel in less convenient conditions,
- the ones who have never been abroad,
- the ones who haven’t been clever enough to get in to a renowned university,
- the ones who, despite their brightness could earn a university degree, but come from such poor families that it has been out of reach for them,
- the ones who have lost more than equivalent of their two monthly salaries on the stock market,
- the ones who have been through a bereavement after a departure of a close relative or friend for reasons other than old age,
- the ones who have suffered famine or, thirst,
- the ones who suffer from incurable diseases,
- senile old people the ones who are no longer self-supporting,
- the ones who have never experienced a reciprocated love,
- those who have hurt someone else really badly,
- the ones who have no savings,
- the ones who will never afford to buy their own property or a new car,
- the imprisoned,
- those forsaken or rejected by family and friends on account of being different,
- the mentally ill,
- those suffering from cancer,
- the ones who earn less than me (sounds absurdly, but it refers to over 80% of Poles employed under job contracts),
- the unemployed (especially graduates),
- those who will be fired in the coming year and have no financial resources to fall back on, or have financial liabilities to fulfil,
- students from poor families the ones who have to save on everything to pay for their education
- everyone who barely makes ends meet,
- live in countries where free speech is forbidden,
- the ones whose job does not bring them satisfaction,
- families of addicts,
- the ones who have lived through warfare,
- those who have run up debts they will be paying off till the end of their days,
- children bullied by their parents,
- the ones not capable of mastering a foreign language to a level of fluency,
- the ones who have to look after their ill relatives day and night,
- the ones who cannot have children, but want offspring like nothing on earth,
- who have lost all their belongings in a natural disaster,
- the obese,
- the (secondary) illiterate,
- those who cannot afford to go on holiday and spend it at home (more than 50% of working Poles),
- the ones who have been libelled or slandered,
- the ones whose mistakes led to irreparable losses (including human lives),
- the ones who have complexes on account of their appearance or cannot stand their own reflection in the mirror,
- blue-collar workers who have to plug away outside when in temperatures of –15C or +30C,
- exploited workers, underpaid for their job.

So every time when your life is not a bed of roses, think it could be much worse and think how much you can still lose. The list above could be longer, but based on the above, over 90% of people in my country have it worse than me. I keep it in mind and the awareness of this holds me back from griping about my fate. If your life is not ideal, judge, whether you have more to lose or to win. Be happy with what you have, take pleasure in everything you can, grasp every small joy, look at the bright side of life. Be aware there are billions of people worse-off and try to sympathise with them.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Europe is quivering, while Poland is holding strong.

It has been kind of nerve-racking week on financial markets. Last weekend abounded in political events that could affect the future of the eurozone – presidential election was held in France and Greeks elected members of their parliament.

The latter has drawn much more controversy than the former. The south-European nation has already had enough of severe austerity programme pursued by the previous government and this time backed mostly the parties that have opposed aggressive retrenchments, without which Greek government would have gone bankrupt long ago. Votes have been scattered among many parties, yet they have failed to form a coalition. Today leaders of victorious parties and the president are making a last-ditch attempt to bring together a government. Most observers hold the view the talks are doomed to bring no coveted results and new election will be called for June.

It is almost sure the same parties will win the election, only share of votes gleaned by each of them might differ. At the end of the day, populist politicians elected by irate Greeks will be trying to pull back from the spending cuts that on one hand reduce the pace in which Greek public debt increases, but on the other send the Greek economy into a deeper recession.

Greek bondholders have already agreed on a debt swap with a haircut of 53.5%, yet even such debt relief has not put the Greek government out of trouble. Its indebtedness is whopping and its capacity to pay it off in foreseeable future is highly questionable. Since the very inception of the Greek crisis, it has been clear that insolvency of Greece is just a matter of time. One of the rating agencies downgraded Greece’s rating to C, pointing out, rightly, the big write-down is in fact a form of controlled default. The full default, encompassing freezing almost all public spending is conceivable. This scenario can materialise if the new government backs out of austerity measures on which financial drip from the EU and the IMF is conditioned. If access to this money is cut off (such move is at creditors’ discretion), Greece will be unable to service its debts and maybe this is what many Greeks want. Probably they do not care they would bear a brunt of insolvency, since suffer anyway, so why not spite creditors? When I look at that uncivilised nation, I cannot believe those barbarians accustomed to living beyond their means claim to be heirs of cradle of democracy. No, these must not be the descendants of ancient Greeks.

So called ‘financial markets’ are totally aware Greece is even no longer on its knees; it is lying with its head buried in the sand and breathing through a pipe held by the EU and the IMF, consequently I dare to claim a full-blown bankruptcy would not trigger a sell-off similar to that witnessed in August 2011. There is no evidence for it, but at the end of last year I predicted an ‘earthquake’ on financial markets in the second quarter of 2012. I can concede my mistake if WIG20 does not fall below 2,000 points. Now it needs to go down by some 7% - 8% to hit that barrier so the this can done within a one-day solid tumble.

In France Mr Hollande deposed Mr Sarkozy from the presidential office. Markets’ reaction was anything but amiable. Many feared the new president would soon set out to follow out his leftist agenda, including increasing tax rate for the richest and imposing an extra tax on profitable companies which lay off workers to push up their earnings. I have never really liked Mr Sarkozy, his celebrity-like style of wielding power was not my kind and I will not cry after him. With time some elements of leftist agenda take my fancy. Marginal tax rate of 75% is an exaggeration which will rather cause the wealthiest people to migrate to the UK than help raise tax revenues, but to my proposal of tax system based on flat rate and high tax allowance I would add a higher tax bracket for individuals earning more than six times average salary. I also cannot resist liking for an additional tax on companies firing staff to boost profits. In the coming week my company is announce who will be laid off. At least they pledged to give very generous severance packages and some employees are coming forward to leave…

But wait, wait, who gave ‘financial markets’ power to punish people for the choices they are making? I know yields on government debt should be correlated with risk of its default, I know valuation of stocks depends on tax rate, but do not some price movements express markets’ displeasure? Who gave them authority to mete out punishments? Is this part of legacy of Thatcherism commendable?

Meanwhile on Wednesday the central bank of Poland raised its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points, to 4.75%. While many European economies are threatened with recession, for Poland inflation above central bank’s target of 2.50% +/- 1.00 p.p., is a bigger problem than economic slowdown (projected GDP growth in 2012 is ca. 3%, 1.3 percentage points lower that actual GDP growth in 2011). Again I’m proud Poland’s monetary authorities have proved a forward-looking wisdom. Given the fragility of economic conditions with our trade partners, it is not clear whether the hike was just a one-off move, or a beginning of the second part of monetary tightening cycle initiated in January 2011. For sure higher rates mean good news for savers who keep their money in banks and slightly worse for all borrowers.

Depositors can cheer up even more, as Polish banks have begun to adjust their funding structure to Basel III requirements, taking effect on 1 January 2013. In practice this means many banks will have to match maturities of their assets (what they lent to households and enterprises) and liabilities (what they owe depositors or creditors). For many banks this might be a bit of a problem, as they finance long-term assets (i.e. 30Y mortgages) with short-term liabilities (i.e. up to 1Y time deposits). This means banks will be competing to garner long-term deposits from the market by bidding higher interest rates and will have to cut down on long-term lending, which essentially are mortgage loans. This means excellent news for the housing market. Property prices in Warsaw have fallen off the peak in early 2008 by some 15% in nominal terms (30% in real terms) and the market is stuck in a standstill. Banks, in order to comply with supervisor’s regulations, have curbed mortgage lending, creditworthiness criteria have been tightened, and buyers have finally noticed property prices are still steep, especially when compared to earnings. So the market may be heading only in one direction. The process of adjustment will take a few months, as sellers are unwilling to take on board that their hapless assets’ (for which many of them paid over the odds) intrinsic values are much lower than asking prices and buyers refuse to pay so much, or their mortgage applications are turned down, so few transactions are finalised. This also proves mortgage availability is the key driver of price trends on property market. May the adjustment run well and property prices should decrease by some 20% within two years – the substantial decline which began in 2011 will continue (transaction price of 1 sqm in Warsaw dropped by 11% year-on-year in April 2012), but fundamental factors point the pace of decline should speed up! Great news!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Kabaty crash site

Probably no other country in the EU can boast about such long weekend falling on such beautiful season of year, as Poland, which has bank holidays on 1 May and 3 May. This year arrangement of days was extremely favourable – with days off work falling on Tuesday and Thursday, half of the country were on holiday and the rest ticking over. Given the limited number of paid holiday, I decided to stay ‘on duty’ at work over the whole week. This strategy has several upsides – little is going on in the office, one can knock on later, knock off earlier and go out for a lunch for an hour, traffic on the roads is sparse. The only downside is that public service vehicles run according to weekend timetable and if someone saves on fuel, getting to work partly by public transport is longer than door-to-door trip by car.

This year not only the calendar was on Poles’ side, also the weather couldn’t be more conducive for leisure. An unusual for late April / early May heat wave arrived to Poland on Friday before the long weekend and lasted whole seven days. For most of the weekend day-times were hitting +30C and sunshine was not disrupted by a single raindrop. In early February, when temperatures were dropping below –20C, I promised myself not to grumble about the heat. Indeed, below minus twenty it was worse.

Looking around and judging by the picture painted by the media, it can be inferred that Poles are off for a care-free week-long barbecue, devouring warm sausages and sipping cold beer. Not a good form of pastime activity to be endorsed. Popular culture promotes unhealthy lifestyle rather when physical exercise!

OK, I also ate some sausages, drank a few beers, but haven’t succumbed to the notion that life’s easy. Even at the time when almost everyone’s laid-back, pushes aside mundane worries and laps up beauty of the spring, more serious issues must not disappear from the foreground. It’s not about seeking troubles intently, it’s about discerning complexity of the world and remembering about its sadder side.

On Thursday I finally celebrated cycling shake-down day in season 2012. Head down, it kicked off late, the first opportunity was missed on 17 March and then either weather or some timesucks were keeping my off my bike. For starters, I ventured where I had planned to go since my trip to Las Kabacki two months earlier. And the time for the trip could only be slightly better.

Next Wednesday Poles will be commemorating the 25th anniversary of the most tragic airplane disaster in the history of Polish aviation. Many of would argue the Smolensk crash was the most terrible, as many of the fatalities were eminent statesmen, however in terms of death toll the Kabaty plane crash was almost two times more tragic (183 vs. 96).

Shame on me, I have to admit this was my first visit to the place where Il-62 hit the ground. This time before setting off I checked on the map how to get there and didn’t roam in vain in search of the monument as I did in March.

Getting there is a piece of cake. Inhabitants of southern part of Zielony Ursynów and adjacent villages are in a privileged position. You just need to turn into ul. Jagielska from ul. Puławska and walk / cycle / drive (the last should be deleted, as inappropriate) some two kilometres east to find a green gate closing off a path to the forest (to the right – photo taken while riding, hence blurred). Cycle or walk two hundred metres into the wood and soon you reach the destination.

If you’re heading from proper Ursynów, you’re still in the luck – your trail will be longer, but you ma enjoy a pleasurable walk / ride through the forest (especially delightful on a sweltering day, when trees give shelter from the heat) and signage should lead you to the place.

The crash site is commemorated by a small, inconspicuous clearing (here for a moment unattended). The place is arranged to play host to few visitors and brings out a conductive atmosphere to contemplate the fragility of human life. I have to say all tourist stopping over there behaved appositely.

Two artefacts on the site are a stone plaque, with names of all fatalities inscribed on it and a cross. Photographs of both objects prove my photographing skills are inadequate – I didn’t manage to snap up-to-the-mark shots on a sunny day in a shaded place. With hindsight a good incentive to tweak with my compact Canon’s settings or a reason to upgrade. The first name on a plaque is captain Zygmunt Pawlaczyk who piloted the ill-fated plane. There is a street named after him in a nearby Ursynów. Many people owe him they are alive, as captain Pawlaczyk, having realised he wouldn’t have a chance to land the plane in Okęcie airport, decided to drop the plane into an uninhabited area, without risking lives of more innocent people.

The cross has been put up by members of a local parish in Pyry. A small Jesus crucified on it, a small wreath laid in front of. In a few days there will be lots of flowers and candles all over the place and then someone will tidy it up and only silence and rare visitors will haunt the place.

A notice attached to a tree informs two masses commemorating the victims will be administered on Wednesday. I’m looking forward to seeing archival TV coverages of the disaster. Few can be found on youtube although TV reporters have covered the story quite informatively. Censorship apparatus in late 1980s eased off and news of the crash appeared in the media immediately. Truth wasn’t said in the context of co-operation with Soviet engineers, probably accountable for the glitch which led to a engine breakage, who wriggle out of helping Poles investigate true causes of the engine breakage and denied their responsibility for the faulty part.

I’ll surely be visiting the place at least once a year, and on one of 10th days of April in the coming years I’ll take a trip to Smolensk. Regardless of political views, each Pole who can afford to travel there (provided Russian visa is obtainable) should to pay homage to the ones whose lives were shattered in the Smolensk muds…