Sunday, 29 December 2013

2013 end-year thoughts

‘For posterity, with sincerity’ – has been one of the overriding rules of blogging I am committed to obey, as I soldier on as the author of PES. If I write, I do it not only for my own pleasure, but for others, not only to let them enjoy my work, but also leave a testimony of my mindset at specific moments, in specific circumstances. If I write, I do not conceal nor misrepresent what I think or feel (unless there is a very profound reason to do so).

Since I entered adulthood (meaning turned 18) I have found the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve the most depressing period of the year. I can give several reasons that dash my spirits in the last days of each year:
- short, often gloomy days,
- in the Christmas period everything is ticking over, after pre-Christmas rush people slow down and human activity almost comes to a standstill, it seems the world is in a limbo, hanging somewhere in the space between heaven and hell,
- last days of the year naturally are the time of summaries, finishing things, making resolutions, for some reason it is the time when successes are outshined by failures.

I come to think the western civilisation has set Christmas around winter solstice and built such pre-occupying setting around it only to light up the time of the year which is naturally the most depressing on the north hemisphere. And I come to think New Year’s Day celebrations are also set a few days after, just to give a decent excuse for everyone to get tanked up…

Despite the overwhelming gloom, in each of the previous years I was looking forward to coming new year with a dose of optimism. This year I lack that cheerfulness. My feelings are not contrary to what I felt – I do not expect my life would get any worse, I just foresee little or no chance for improvement ahead.

Life-love-wise… Quite recently I gave you a brief overview of my attempts to find a second half. For the time being, I have given it a rest… Looking for a second half too intently is doomed to fail, so my strategy is to look for opportunities, instead of looking for a girl. There are odds something good lies ahead, but I don’t want to put a jinx on it. To avoid a letdown, as a matter of principle I hope for the worst. The downside of such approach is that I don’t let myself spread wings and taste the craze of having a crush on a girl, while the upside is I don’t get disillusioned when it all doesn’t pan out.

Learning-wise… Signing up for Level II was my independent decision, so I can hold it exclusively against myself. Preparations have been under way for four months, more than five months still to go. The curriculum is not as difficult as said by those who tried to scare me (if so many charter holders were capable of passing it at first attempt, why couldn’t I?), so if enough time is sacrificed and the issue is taken seriously and not treated as a proverbial ‘piece of cake’, I should take the exam in my stride. Before the exam day comes, I will have spent hundreds of hours poring over six thick volumes and then tens of hours revising the material and taking mock exams, but at least there is a tangible goal ahead…

Work-wise…In January 2013 I was faced with an opportunity to change a job. My prospective employer operates in the same industry, my new position would have been similar to the present one. I gave it up (by demanding sky-high salary and pricing out of the market) for several reasons, before the prospective employer decided to submit a commitment letter to me:
- my current employer within 2 weeks offered me a promotion and a substantial pay rise,
- scope of responsibilities on the new position did not suit my expectations – it actually involved being a sidekick of a salesperson, a relationship I can wriggle out of where I work,
- my new manager, unlike the current one, would have been a total jerk.

Before long my current workplace went on decline. From 2Q2013 the company began to lose its biggest customers, as either relationships with them had not fetched adequate profitability, or they had found our services uncompetitive. My employer’s credentials on the market has also been grimed – prime customers from the segment I deal with no longer want us to provide them services, while those in trouble eagerly turn to my company. Portfolio of large clients shrank dramatically (new volumes offset drop by less than 10%) and is unlikely to be restored, while the existing customers require more and more attention. In the meantime two colleagues from my team got pregnant and I (as an up-and-coming senior analyst) was assigned to take over most of their duties. When on top of this I got involved in a huge transformation project as a junior leader, I ended up working for 11 hours a day not to get behind with my work. Absence of new business loomed as salvation, but if an organisation focuses on itself, instead of on its customers, it will cease to make money sooner or later – with this truism in mind, my motivation dropped…

In October the prospective employer posted a job opening for a different position that seemed a dreamt-up one for me. Hoping to break away, I sent them the application, but my candidacy was turned down. The Soulmate, who has inside ties with the prospective employer, has a mission to suss out how it really was – whether my early-year game had resulted in burning bridges with the prospective employer, or the chosen candidate had been selected beforehand and the opening had been posted for procedural reasons, or maybe I just had not met their expectations. As I called the HR Department shortly before Christmas to find out what the status of my application was, and learnt they had selected a new employee, it was a blow for me…

My current job, for this single reason that my company effectively withdraws from the segment of clients I deal with, seems dead-end. According to my current employer’s declarations and recent moves, I should not expect to be fired when my department is wiped out. In an attempt to retain me, the employer may relocate me, or leave me covering all current troublesome clients, who do not stand a chance of being taken over by any of competitors. Either option is unattractive. The former because I will not find myself in project management, I will not find be satisfied doing a mundane reporting job. After all I’m a financial analyst and in the long-run doing a job that could be done by a clever high-school graduate is… beyond my dignity.  The latter because… it offers no opportunities to develop and is… dead-end. On the other hand, as the market is tough, if competitors look for staff it often means a transfer would mean jumping from frying pan into the fire… Decisions to change a job have to be taken carefully, to avoid falling into a trap. What brings some hope is that I still have some room for pay increase, compared to my current salary.

I had plans of moving out to my own flat in 2014. Over recent weeks, when I spent little time at home (leaving for work around 6:30 a.m. and coming back between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and somehow lost motivation to move out from parents. I’m self-supporting anyway, financially independent from parents, don’t let them help me out in any way, but living with them gives the benefit of having someone to talk to when returning home. In meantime, I keep putting aside around three-fourth of my salary, the savings will come in handy, when motivations flows back.

Christmas (politically correct ‘holiday’) period offered some respite (no working day off though): I spent time: sleeping (10 hours a day), eating (more than I usually do, but less than an average Pole does), doing physical exercise (going for at least 5-kilometre walks, going to swimming pool, riding a stationary bike), studying, in other words, catching up. Family visited us only at Christmas Eve, two subsequent Christmas days were uneventful. Much benefit for the body, little benefit for the soul. Not sustainable. May it take a turn for the better in the new year, against all odds…

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Sense of justice – follow-up

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

I knock off near six p.m., being still behind with work. Enough is enough, I call it a day. Before seven p.m. odds of getting stuck in stationary traffic on ul. Puławska are negligible. Indeed, the traffic moves smoothly and as I drive at steady speed of 60 kpmh, I even manage to cross most intersections on green light. While approaching home, I get stuck in a queue of cars before intersection of ul. Raszyńska and ul. Mleczarska. Something is afoot, drivers are perplexed. After a minute I trundle forward to the intersection, pass by several damaged cars and turn right, barely avoiding being scraped by a driver of black Volkswagen SUV who thinks he’s a master of the road, and head to park my car in the garage. Then I put my father in the picture and we wander to the intersection to find out what happened. Prangs involving two vehicles are not infrequent on the nearby intersection, as ul. Mleczarska is narrow and visibility is poor, but this looked like a bigger smash-up – four cars damaged.

Some 30 minutes earlier... (full story in Polish here)

Auchan shopping centre in Piaseczno. Droves of people are roaming around the hypermarket and the adjacent shopping mall. Pre-Christmas rush is conducive to getting preoccupied and losing one’s mind. The owner of red Honda Civic walks out of the shopping centre and approaches his car. He pulls the car keys out of his pocket, press the button to unlock the door and… notices someone inside his vehicle. The thief cranks up the engine and swiftly drives away. The incident is witnessed by other shoppers. One of them instantly picks up the Honda owner, who in the meantime calls a police patrol) and they set off on a chase.

After running away one kilometre the thief comes upon a small traffic jam on his way and is caught up with by the Honda owner. In a desperate attempt to make his way through the busy road the thief crashes into three cars, forsakes the car and tries to make a getaway on foot. Some of the aggrieved (in info who exactly) jump out their cars, overpower the thief, knock him down on the road do not let him make off before the police arrives. As my father and I turn up, the criminal with a bleeding nose (probably the effect of scrimmage, serves him right) lies on the cold tarmac, cuffed in and awaits facing the music.

Sounds like a story with a happy ending. The thief didn’t manage to escape and was (temporarily) arrested. Nobody was injured. Justice triumphed again!

But on the other hand, four cars of innocent people were damaged. Who will pay for the repairs? Will they be paid from Civic owner’s third party liability insurance? If so, who will compensate him for losing discounts for damage-free track record? If not, what if some of those cars weren’t insured against own damage? What about those which were, but the repair will make them lose their discounts? The inebriated thief will be held accountable for theft and property damage, but even if convicted, will the Polish justice system manage to pull the last zloty out of his (shallow?) pocket to compensate the victims of his wrongdoing?

The exemplary, swift and sympathetic reactions of crime witnesses is profoundly reassuring. Such positive illustrations of civic attitude should be exposed to the public (and even rewarded) to induce others to follow their example. Actually by disenabling the criminal, their contributed to increasing well-being of the society.

With hindsight, I again pondered upon the borderline that should not be overstepped, when you are faced with a criminal and need to crack down on them. Recollect this post from February 2010. I’ve harked back to it instantly, read over and could write the same, in terms of content, today. When I return to my early posts of pension system, monetary policy and other issues I have clear views on, I see over almost five years of blogging my beliefs not only have not evolved, but even have become more entrenched. Does it mean my formative years have gone by so early?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Longevity – a reason to be cheerful?

Musings written with considerable delay – should have been posted here a few weeks ago, as on 24 October 2013 my paternal grandparents had their 65th wedding anniversary and my paternal grandmother turned 88 on 3 November 2013.

My maternal grandmother died from cancer aged 73, when I was only four, so I barely remember her, but until the last weeks of her life, when the disease began to advance rapidly, she stayed mentally and physically fit. My maternal grandfather died aged 87 five years ago. Until the age of 86 he was mentally and physically very fit, but fortunately the senility overwhelming him in the last months of his life did not progress so quickly to prevent him from moving around and doing basic things on his own and by the end of his days he understood what was going on around and even sensed the oncoming departure.

My paternal grandparents still live on their own and somehow manage on their own. Their self-sufficiency can be attributed only to the fact they are together (also financially, as their pension benefits are demure).

Grandma is mentally still exceptionally fit. She displays no signs of dementia, is interested, sometimes overly, in what is going around, experiences no problems with memory and despite advanced age, her brain seems unaffected by aging. On the other hand, on account of her problems with spine, several bones and joints, she moves around with aid of walking stick. If she goes out of her flat, she only ambles outside her block of flats; any further journeys require somebody giving her a lift by car.

Grandpa, aged 87, on the other hand is moderately mentally and physically fit. When he feels well, he does the shopping, strolls around the neighbourhood and cleans the house. In terms of general comprehension of surrounding world, his mental fitness is much better than many of his peers, but nowhere as good as of his wife’s. Once in a few months he loses conscience and is taken to a hospital, where he recuperates, but then return home so weak that he stays in bed most of time, recovers for some next month and does well until next such incident strikes him. In 2012 he had 2 such stays in the hospital, in 2013 he landed in the hospital three times, last time in November. Doctors openly say odds of sustainable improvement in his health, owing to his age, are very low.

Polish language lacks the equivalent of ‘grand old age’, the term intuitively referring to a person who lived very long, but in good health. When you speak of far-reaching senility when an elderly person requires as much attention and aid as an infant, it is just an ‘old age'

I am lucky to assert none of my departed and living grandparents has reached that point when the old age is no longer grand. It is that sad moment when an old person no longer recognises their relatives, does not remember their own name, cannot be left at home alone, is bed-ridden, or unable to do the most mundane things on their own.

Aging of societies begins to pose a challenge for humanity, in economic and social terms. Higher percentage population in pension age elicit a need to reshape pension systems. Higher number of senile people and other social changes raise a question how to properly take care of elderly people and give rise to businesses focusing on such services.

For the last decades it has become a paradigm that each next generation will outlive the previous one. A recent study by WHO call this assertion into question and gives evidence current children are less fit than their parents and this will translate into lower life expectancy. No wonder, youngsters fall victim of their lifestyle –  being driven in cars by parents, avoiding sport lessons at school and doing sport in general, spending time in front of computer, rather than on football pitch. Even during breaks between classes at school they stare at their smartphones instead of running around. In Poland I observe things drifting in the wrong direction, in comparison to times when I was in primary school. With some dread my parents recently noticed their parents were much more fit (meaning healthy and active) when they had been in their early sixties then they are…

What to do to grow old and live until ripe old age in good health?
Have a lot of friends and foster friendships?
Be sociable?
Be open-minded and keep track of new developments in the world?
Have hobbies and passions?
Get enough physical exercise?
Do sports regularly?
Avoid using cars when unjustified?
Having medical examinations done regularly?
Refrain smoking and drinking alcohol in small amounts?
Follow a healthy diet?
Keeping work-life balance?
Avoiding stress?
Drawing pleasure from your work?
Extend the list above?

Or do the factors above it really matter? Is it all written in the stars? Or does it run in the genes?

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Cycling and prudence

Winter has set in. This season of the year, apart from ample drawbacks, has also some upsides, such as absence of insects and one group of motorists you should beware of.

Generally, the warmer it gets, the more drivers give up on their cars and swap them for motorcycles and bikes. They share public roads with four-wheel-vehicle users, but often make advantages of smaller width of their vehicles what drives many car drivers, including me, insane.

Don’t get me wrong dear readers*. My intentions are far from decrying cyclists and depriving them of their right to use public roads. Cycling has several merits: keeps people healthy and fit, provides a daily does of physical exercise for those who otherwise would not find time for moving their arses, saves money and environment. But whatever you do, you should do it prudently and not expect others to think and take responsibility for your deeds instead of you, just because you are weaker [than drivers protected by bodyworks of their vehicles] or privileged [cyclists tend to be hailed as such category of road users].

According to Polish traffic regulations, cyclists should attempt to use the road and ride through pavements only when sharing the road with cars is forbidden or impractical. Cyclists are prohibited from moving on motorways, expressway, fast-traffic roads and other roads marked with relevant signage. Cyclists who use pavements should always give way to pedestrians and take off their bikes when they cross a street. This obligation does not apply when a cyclist rides a cycling path, on which they are superior to pedestrians and have right of way over cars if the path crosses the street.

I should not say “law is an ass”, but some regulations do not contribute to increasing safety on the roads. Let’s examine some imperfections of Polish traffic law and some sins committed by cyclists and motorcyclists.

Every candidate for a driver to get a driving license needs to pass a test in order to prove they know traffic regulations. Such requirement prevents people who know little about traffic rules from causing dangerous situations on the roads. A cyclist who is not under 18, subject to the same traffic regulations, as a road user, does not need to prove their knowledge of traffic law. This results in scores of cyclists blissfully ignorant of perils the may cause or they may be caused by car drivers. I opine that any person riding a bike on a public road has its command of basic traffic rules certified. It can take a little hassle and bureaucracy (that can be easily limited – test materials can be available online, test that costs no more than 50 PLN is taken in exam centre, then a cyclist picks up a piece of plastic, if someone has a valid driving license, the procedure is not needed at all), but could prevent many accidents.

The biggest sin of cyclists is taking a busy road, when there is a cycling path running parallel to it. The classic example is ul. Puławska between the boundary of Warsaw and ul. Energetyczna in Piaseczno, the section where speed limit is 70 kmph. The road was widened to 3 lanes and a very decent cycling path along it was built in 2007. Despite dreamt-up infrastructure, some inconsiderate bike enthusiasts refuse to take the cycling path and share the road with cars, risking lives. Is there any excuse for such thoughtless behaviour?

A common sin of single-track vehicle users which winds me up the most, is moving between lanes (to be precise, on lines marking them out) and thus often slaloming between them. This used to be a domain of motorcyclists and scooter-riders, whose engine-propelled vehicles are much faster and thus have edge over slow-moving cars. When weather permits them to get on their machines, even when my car is not in motion I continuously peek at both wing mirrors and if possible move to other end of my lane to let them overtake me in safe distance. The real nightmare crops up when two motorcyclists overtake me from both sides at the same time – this may happen not only on middle, but also on right lane (I tend to use it whenever I can, as the traffic law instructs), when one motor-rider dashes between middle and right lane, while the other moves on the edge of the right one. I then pray there is a few centimetres space on each side of the car…

The warrant to avoid cycling on pavements also lacks common sense to me. Much depends on the situation. The busier the roads and the faster cars move on it, the more advisable it is for a cyclist to give up on taking it. As a cyclist I do use roads, when I feel safe on them and when my common sense tells me I would do more harm than good by choosing a pavement (one nuisance of riding the pavement is having to cross curbs). When there is no pavement, I use roadside, no matter how bumpy it is. A classic example here might be ul. Karczunkowska, where I never share the road with cars, since drivers tend to speed there. Of course I am entitled to use the road, but what’s the value of this entitlement if I end up dead of disabled? When taking the road, I know responsibility for overtaking me safely rests with car drivers. When taking the pavement, I know responsibility for not harming pedestrians rests with me. I prefer to trust myself. The other reason why pavement could be preferable is that accidents on pavements would not be fatal. Have you ever heard of fatalities when a cyclist collided with a pedestrian? Of course, reckless cyclists on pavements can become ‘road hogs’ and the binding traffic law was designed to protect pedestrians. But what protects car drivers from trauma of running down a cyclist clearly violating traffic rules? Surely, after such accident a police could adjudicate the car driver was not guilty, any court would acquit them, but mental trauma could not disappear until the end of their days.

Any constructive strategy?
- Build infrastructure: cycling paths, cycling racks, expand the bike rental schemes.
- Amend the law: put in place regulations that would require road users to be familiar with traffic rules, allow them to use pavements when sharing a road is too precarious
- Punish mercilessly cyclists who slalom between cars or who use road when cycling path is at hand.
- Rely on your common sense, regardless of your role in traffic.

* I actually wrote the post after almost hitting a pinhead on bike on ul. Puławska last Monday. Around 7 a.m. (was still dark) I was driving up ul. Puławska, approaching intersection with ul. Płaskowickiej. I drove some 40 kmph and was on the middle lane. All of a sudden I noticed a cyclist (he had no lights on his bike, nor any flashing elements on himself who unexpectedly decided to veer from right lane to the left. I pushed the brake, peeked in the right wing mirror and without making sure there was no vehicle in the blind spot (fortunately no car was there) I swerved right to avoid running down the cyclist. I was scared out of my wits…

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Are we in 2007?

If I could revisit 2008 in 2011, why not turning back time even more and returning to 2007? If you look at the S&P chart below, showing some period of 12 months from December to November, your guess should be that it dates back to good, pre-crisis times, while in fact it illustrates recent 12 months. No major correction, low volatility and over 30% return over the year is what stockholders on average experienced in 2013.

Such patterns are typical, but for the late expansion phase, in which GDP growth is high, unemployment runs low, inflationary pressures intensify and have to be dampened by monetary tightening. Such chart could also come from a period of early economic recovery, when stock prices bounce back after a dismal bear market. But the bear market actually has not occurred since early 2009. Since late winter of 2009, stock markets have been in the bullish phase, with some major corrections: in spring 2010 when bankruptcy of Greece was a real threat, in summer 2011 when US sovereign rating was downgraded, in spring 2012 (was there a profound reason for the downward movement?), but since then most markets have been rising without a deeper break to take a breath.

Is the incline sustainable?

Every why has a wherefore. Sound bull markets the history has witnessed were grounded in economic fundamentals – economies were expanding, fewer people were jobless, taxpayers paid more in taxes and governments ran nearly balanced budgets, wheels in the economic machines were oiled property and central banks kept interest rates on moderately high level to prevent economies from overheating and preclude inflation from going up. Now the economic growth rate in USA stays below 3%, Western Europe economies are rebounding after deep slowdown. Unemployment rate in the USA is above 7% (which is very higher given the flexibility of labour market there), in the eurozone it is above 10%. To combat adverse economic conditions, tremendously loose monetary policy has been pursued over last five year. Not only have the interest rates in the biggest economies have been cut to near zero, but many central banks have been carrying out quantitative easing programmes, or in plain English, increased money supply in financial system.

Normally when if money supply goes up, everything else held constant, price level should increase by the same rate, to keep the financial system in balance. To many economists’ surprise, ultra-loose monetary policy has not sent overall price level rising. The reason for it is simple – the money intended to prop up the real economy through the financial system have not flowed out of banks and drove up asset prices.

Long ago it has been discovered that low interest rates distort economic decisions. The upshots are now visible on stock and property markets in many countries. House prices in the United States and in Great Britain have seen double-digit increases over the last year. Is this trend sustainable?

I keep asking myself a question: “why so good, if so bad?” Why are the markets red-hot if the economy is still fragile? The only plausible explanation is that market participant are buying the prospects of bright future. But can the next years be rose-coloured, if financial markets rely on drip of cheap money provided by central bankers? Near-zero interest rates cannot be kept forever. One day central bankers will have to bite a bullet on it and what then? The biggest corrections in the recent months on the stock market have been brought about by rumours of QE being tapered or petering out in near future. Central bankers realise the scale of pathological reliance of markets on monetary easing and the difficulty they have to get to grips with is how to pull out of the egregious practice of printing money without harming the markets, as the shock suffered by them would be transmitted into real economy. This dilemma niftily depicts the abnormality of current situation. In ‘normal’ environment raising the cost of credit above certain level just stifles economic activity and dampens enthusiasm of financial markets’ participants. At the present, leaving cost of credit on historically low levels, but only curtailing pumping money may wreak bigger havoc to financial system than unexpected jacking up interest rates by 100 points in a healthy economy.

Quite frequently you can hear of economists arguing, whether the recent unfettered stock market rally is a full-blown bubble, or it only has all makings of a bubble. Federal Reserve has already received a warning. Many indicators (P/E > 25, margin debt, bullish sentiment, low volatility, technical indicators) point at existence of a bubble, while other (business cycle phase, low participation of individuals in the market) may disprove the bubble theory. I only wish to stress the presence of the word “bubble” in the media and in the search engines might be a misleading gauge and should be interpreted with caution.

According to the scenario in the paper linked above, the crash is very likely to occur in 2014. If so, I foresee it will not strike out of the blue, but the show will go on in the ordinary way. At some point stock market reaches its peak, then retreats, attempts of bullish speculators to drive prices up go in vain, then ensues the waterfall (shape of a price chart when prices plummet), then a rebound, then a gradual decline and at the end the tsunami strikes… This pattern is similar to what was observed in 2008 (peak in 2007, retreat, waterfall in early 2008, decline till the early days of September 2008 and then the Lehman earthquake). The first and foremost argument against such scenario is that financial system is not full of toxic assets as it was before the crisis. On the other hand, central banks and government have run out of tools the used to rescue financial institutions and economies in 2008 and 2009. Fhe frail economies cannot endlessly underlie exorbitant stock market valuations and the sooner market participant realise it, the better for everyone.

These musings take me back to the last semester of my studies, when in late 2010 I took a course “Financial crises and financial stability”, delivered by prof. Mieczysław Puławski. I recall well the lecturer mentioning a crisis model devised in 2009, according to which a much more wrathful crisis will hit in 2H2014. Time will tell, if the prophets’ of doom prediction was right.

A few paragraphs above I stated “financial markets rely on drip of cheap money” and laid my thought out very precisely – financial markets, not real economies. Real economies are capable of bearing the burden of higher cost of credit, it may bend them, but will not knock them down and in the long run sound monetary policy will lay foundations for returning to the path of sustainable economic growth.

Compared to developed markets, Poland comes out impressively safe. The property market has been on decline since 2008. In 3Q2013 property prices nudged up, yet it is too early to judge, whether the trend has reversed, or the rebound is just a correction in a downward trend. Unquestionably, the increased demand for properties is the effect of lower interest rates and constricting regulation regarding buyer’s equity for property purchase (min. 5% in 2014, this one hastened many buyers finance the planned transactions with 100% mortgage this year). One swallow does not make a summer and it will be the summer of 2014 when with hindsight the mid-term trend on Polish property market can be observed.

The Polish stock market has been consistently underperforming developed markets. While S&P 500 and DAX indices are well above their 2007 peaks, WIG (broad market total return index) and WIG20 (blue chip price index) are not only below their 2007 peaks, but also below their highs recorded in first half of 2011. Market analyst put it down to insecurity over future of pension system in Poland. If this is indeed the case, it only bears out the reform is a step in the right direction. Despite not beating ever-time records, the stock market in Poland is red-hot, judging by IPO frequency and successfulness. 4Q2013 already saw privatisation of PKP Cargo, which was priced quite high and debuted at absurdly high price. I subscribed for shares of PKP Cargo, took the 19% profit and made off. Recently I subscribed for Newag, just for fun I signed up for 50 shares, 19 PLN each. On Friday I discovered I had been allocated mere 4 shares, as individual investors’ demand surpassed supply over 25 times, which resulted in 93% haircut in share allocation… Demand for Energa among individual investors is also record-high and over-subscription is expected. I will subscribe for those shares as well, hoping to find the greater fool to buy them from it on secondary market. I realise this has become a fad and market sentiment clearly indicates I should rush to escape.

My strategy is to liquidate my stocks portfolio in first weeks of 2014. I last bought stocks in early September 2013, when pension reform announcement triggered a short-lasting sell-off, which turned out to be a superb mid-term investment opportunity. The only reason why I have not pulled out of the stock market recently is the sizeable loss from hapless 2011 which is carried forward into next years. According to Polish tax regulations, no more than 50% of a loss from a specific year may be used as tax shield in any of next following year, so this year (in 2012 my profit was very small) I cannot use it up and sale of securities in 2014 offers a chance to reduce capital gains tax payable. And after I scram, may it all collapse. By all accounts, Poland’s economy will not be severely impacted by the downturn on financial markets and subsequent bear market might offer interesting long-term investment opportunities.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The new finance minister

At times I come to think the more I work overtime, the more hollow my life gets. It is not about doing nothing except working and focusing on mundane daily duties – over the last fortnight I easily found time to eat out (not confuse for ‘date’) with a friend, attend a conference, visit a theatre, but to offset this, I totally lost track of what was going on in the world. Just imagine yesterday, with a three-day delay, I learnt about a considerable reshuffle in the Polish government The recent pace of my work has become so dreadful (my thanks to several colleagues who have taken sick leaves, not their fault, but me is who is bearing the brunt of their infections) that I could not even find time to take a break and spend a few minutes surfing the web to check the daily news and back home, after eleven hours of toiling away, I did not feel like watching TV or reading news online. Over the working week I lost track of everything and had to catch up…

Yesterday I read the list of 7 ministers that have been replaced and their successors. Cross my heart, I cannot recall now most of them and what has left in my memory is a portrait of Elżbieta Bieńkowska, who will serve as deputy prime minister (she’s got balls) and the new finance minister.

The departing (appointment of the new minister becomes effective on 27 November 2013) finance minister, Mr Rostowski, has held his position over six years and in the recent months has gone increasing unpopular with voters, in the wake of plans of dismantling the private-run part of pension system and the budget amendments resulting in higher deficit and suspending safety debt/GDP ceilings. Having observed him over his term in office more or less cautiously, I am in two minds about Mr. Rostowski’s performance during his tenure. To make an unbiased judgement, I would need a comparison and because of the long period of time when he was irreplaceable, I cannot find a proper benchmark. When he was taking the office, Poland was in the last months of riding the waves of pre-crisis boom. In late 2008 it became evident economic reality had been turned upside down, economic growth decelerated swiftly and running a sensible fiscal policy became a much more challenging task. In 2009 he managed to strike a fair balance between using fiscal stimulus to bolster economy and keeping debt/GDP ratio on moderate levels, without jeopardising Poland’s creditworthiness. In later years he could not boast about actual accomplishments in bringing forth structural reforms that could heal Poland’s public finances in long run. In the second wave of economic slowdown, due to excessive budgetary deficit Poland ran since 2010, he ran out of tools to rouse up economy, therefore Polish economy recorded sluggish growth of mere 0.5% in 1Q2013. His plans of detracting from the pension funds were not driven by straightforward conviction of inherent drawbacks of the pension system, but by pressure to relieve the tensions in the state budget. By many Mr Rostowski is deemed to be a seasoned liar. I do not wish to examine how many times he was departing from the truth, although such summary at the end of his term could come in useful. As his positive attribute, I will memorise his power of calmness in public discussions over the pension system. He managed to clearly and substantively explain the workings of the pension system and purpose of the proposed changes. Despite being quite selective in his justifications, his way of speaking and argumentation were assessed impressive not only by me. For too many PO supporters he was intolerable, so potential positive impact of ousting him from the government has probably urged Mr Tusk to look for someone to replace him.

My first association when I heard the name “Mateusz Szczurek” was… ING. And then my second thought was… ING pension fund…

Over the whole weekend I was wondering what the rationale behind this decision was and whose decision it actually was.

By all accounts, it should have been an independent decision of Mr Tusk. Quite probably, the prime minister, minding the impact of the reshuffle on the support for the government, shied away from swapping Mr Rostowski for a PO politician and preferred to nominate a person commonly labelled as an independent expert.

Beyond all doubt, given the gruelling state of Poland’s public finances, many potential candidates turned down offers of taking up the challenge of running the shop in which one has to bend over backwards to make ends meet. A rationally-thinking man could consider such offer either as a poison pill or… as a rewarding challenge.

Mindful of this, I find Mr Szczurek’s choice mind-boggling. He had pursued his career (started at the age of 22, just like mine) with one institution – ING and in 2011 was promoted to the position of chief economist for CEE region, the prestigious and certainly financially rewarding job. What drove this 38-year-old father of five children and cycling enthusiast to give up on the position, reputation of independent expert, credentials, esteem and earnings I could only dream of, to step into the murky world of politics?

For sure the motives were not pecuniary. I estimate his salary will shrink by at least 80%. My parents told me he had been asked by a TV journalist in one of interviews, how would he get used to earnings of 15,000 before tax a month after leaving a much better paid position and Mr Szczurek was more than perplexed. The after-tax salary of some 9,000 per month will allow him and his family to scrape along, but if they do not tap their savings, their standard of living is likely deteriorate…

If it was not about money, it must have been about power. Maybe the financial conglomerate he used to work for so long was too small for him to fulfil his potential. Maybe he craved for a profession that would make him far more recognisable, influential and, if his achievements were remarkable, remembered by generations. Maybe, after years of working for a Dutch corporation, patriotic feelings overwhelmed him and he made up his mind to sacrifice the lucrative position for a benefit of his country. I am reluctant to give credence to the last explanation which here serves the purpose of playing intellectual game with the readership. I hold the view, you may share it or not, that decent people tend to stay away from the politics, do their bit in a private sector, perform their jobs as good as they can and lead stable lives far away from the spotlight…

Revisiting my first impression. I sever from any conspiracy theories, but it has to be borne in mind ING manages a pension fund being a part of public pension system, whose assets account for 24% of total assets under management in Poland. ING is a meaningful stakeholder of the pension system in Poland and has a vested interest in retaining it in the current shape, guaranteeing pension fund managers a steady flow of fees and little responsibility for returns. It occurred to me the new minister, in the light of decreasing support for the pension reform, would take steps to unwind it. On second thoughts, I abandoned this theory. Having in mind the budget for 2014 would not be overrun without diminishing transfers to social security fund, aimed at replenishing deficiencies generated by moving contributions to pension funds, one of key criterions for sure was the candidate’s promise to take over the implementation of pension reform, in line with the government’s blueprint. After stepping down from his current position, Mr Szczurek will no longer owe the duty of loyalty to ING, but by getting involved in undermining the business of pension fund managers, he burns his bridges with his Dutch-based employer.

Most economists, asked about the competencies of the new minister, either could say little about him, or spoke highly about his characteristics. Unlike many economists, he is said to be a rational and equable expert who favours modest solutions, rather than ardent follower of a specific doctrine (see besotted neo-liberal, Mr Balcerowicz) – the stance I hold dear with economists and which bodes well on his future conduct.

I wish Mr Szczurek many successes on his new path and pin hopes in him – I hope his prudent decisions will contribute to sustainable improvement Poland’s creditworthiness and reduce the scale of indebtedness in the long run. Much indicates better times are coming. When the economy is expanding, expenditure cuts, accompanied by keeping tax rates intact, or even raising them, when appropriate, are the least painful to the economy and people. May he resist temptations to sit on laurels and cut off coupons from the booming economy and calls to add fuel to the fire by easing fiscal policies! May he not waste the chance to turn around the Poland’s public finances! May he not repeat the mistakes made by PiS government, when in 2007 the state budget, instead of reporting a surplus, ran a 22 billion PLN deficit!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Twists of fate

12 November 2013

How come in almost all nations the independence day brings together people who rejoice and take pride in their country, while in Poland, for the third year in a row, celebrations end up with riots? The 11 November, national holiday commemorating regaining independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitions, was reinstated after overturning communism. I watched the presence of independence day in the public sphere evolving from overbearing official celebrations into more joyful and casual events, such as recently organised marches. Joy-rendering parades attract more people to take to the streets than sombre commemorations, especially if the routes cover places that unite people of different views – such as the independence match staged by president’s office, whose participants paid homage to monuments of heroes fighting for Poland’s independence, regardless of their political views and membership.

It is a pity state celebrations have not brought all meaningful actors of Polish politics together. The main oppositional party has staged its own, peaceful march in Cracow, but credits for them for effectively dissociating from the nationalist hooligans, who organised their own demonstration in Warsaw.

Maybe the riots were not as violent as two years ago, but Monday’s goings-on give a reason for shame to most Poles… If I can share a few considerations:
1) The word ‘provocation’ has been coming up in all shapes and sizes. For some commentators, whenever anti-government organisations botch something up, the government must have had its fingers in it, i.e. all those people who yanked sett out of pavements, threw stones, scorched the rainbow, set fire to guardsman’s hut, were put up by the government, to spoil the reputation of their opponents
2) Who allowed such huge manifestation to take place when it is dark, when everyone should know dim light is conducive to acts of violence and it’s easier to go unpunished?
3) Who allowed the people, notorious for their hatred for Russia, to pass by the Russian embassy and why were the premises of the Russian outpost left without proper protection?
4) Why did the town hall decision-makers succumb to the march’s organisers insistence on absence of police in the immediate vicinity of he march’s route?
5) How can a mentally healthy person celebrate independence day by attacking other people and damaging their property?
6) Why does a person with clear intensions wear a balaclava?
7) I also noticed, talking to several people (mostly at work), after such incidence many folks hanker after ZOMO. The tolerance for the misbehaviour witnessed on 11 November is very low and given helplessness of the police, percent of people in favour of radical treatment of hooligans is on the rise.
8) Most of those people have not taken heed of the make-up of rowdy crowd, which was the chief reason why the police brigades were reluctant to take tough action on the recalcitrant scoundrels – i.e. the crown was a blend of ordinary, peaceful people and rascals with wrapped faces. The police were facing the risk of beating innocent people while trying to crack down on hooligans. BTW – on TV I saw several pairs – ordinarily-looking girls holding hands with hatred-filled nationalist boys; upon seeing this I scaled down my odds of getting married ever

13 November 2013

Poland is slowly forgetting about the 11 November incidents, Polish diplomats weigh up what would be the most apposite way to deplore about the burnt hut. Soulmate and I pop out for a lunch to a bar on the other corner of the roundabout, then drop in on the nearby shopping centre. When we walk out of there, we sense the smell of natural gas, blown by the winding from the underground construction site. The tang is quite intense. Gas emergency service is on site, fire engines are coming over. Something is afoot. Some 20 minutes later in our office someone orders us to evacuate. We calmly leave the building, the whole procedure goes smoothly, as during exercise evacuation. Given the circumstances, I do not understand why are were told to stay on the car park (place of gathering according to health and safety procedures) which is the dangerous area. Gas leakage is not serious and relevant services are working on fixing the pipe, ripped by an excavator operator, but out of boredom we begin to wonder what would happen and what the scale of destruction would be, if the gas exploded. We bring back the pictures of gas explosion in Rotunda in 1979 in Warsaw. Our building is not connected to the gasworks, but if any pipes were laid beneath it, a little spark could… perish the thought…

14 November 2013

Gas actually explodes, causes death of two workers, leaves several locals injured and brings about a veritably apocalyptic blaze which turn a part of a village in Western Poland into a post-war landscape. I deeply hope this will be the national operator of gasworks in Poland (the company calls the whole incident a “breakdown”), not the Polish state, who will pay for all damages. Houses might be rebuilt, all materials goods can be restored (except for those having sentimental value), but no one will compensate the dwellers of houses destroyed by the fire (many of them were lucky to be at work or school in the middle of the day) for trauma they are going through, the trauma from which some of them will not recover until the end of their days…

15 November 2013

The company hatched the idea of promoting its services by giving out coffee. Those males who smiled frankly and kindly asked skilful barista girl for something special, could get such bonus. Made my day…

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Sadder, but wiser, in economics…

If you want to blame someone for the recent crisis, the easiest, and the most socially acceptable way of find a scapegoat is pointing at bankers. After all the bankers were granting mortgage loans to borrowers who could not afford even to make the first repayment. After all the bankers pooled the subprime loans, repackaged them and sold them to naïve investors, spreading the disease all over the world. After all bankers were living like lords, reaping profits when good times were rolling in and refusing to take responsibility for their wrongdoing when the house of cards fell apart.

I do not aim do detract from the banking sector’s salient and undisputable contribution to the crisis. I (not as a bank employee, but as a citizen and economist) call for looking at bankers’ faults in a broader social, economic and political context.

If you carefully dissect 20 years of run-up to credit crisis in the United States, you should notice:
- millions of people chasing the American Dream, part of fulfilment of which was home ownership – these were millions of people who could not afford to buy a house, but who thanks to easy access to credit were given a chance to fulfil their dreams, a considerable percentage of those people were those who wanted to live beyond their means,
- politicians and central bankers who wanted to make voters happy, and by decreasing cost of credit and passing laws facilitating home purchases fuelled the housing bubble,
- bankers, who noticed the excessive demand for mortgage loans, decided to earn on it and then discovered ways to earn even more without taking more risk by granting the loans and instantly pushing them away from their balance sheets.

The bottom line is that the whole societies, not only bankers and politicians, can be accused of lack of forethought. Beware though, applying collective responsibility is quite unfair in this case, as the there were several people, ordinary and among the elite, who refused to indulge in the bubble spree.

The problem is, however, that common sense advocates who try to warn of the impending moments when bubbles burst, are disliked, not only when a bubble swells, but also with hindsight. I recently read a comment under another article on property prices that in 2007 in which somebody argued six years ago, when property bubble (?) in Poland was reaching its peak, an average salary in Warsaw would buy 1/3 sqm of a flat, banks eagerly were giving out loans, everyone was happier than now, when banks rebuff many would-be borrowers, despite 20% lower (in nominal terms) property prices. These days for an average salary you can buy 1/2 sqm of a flat, so the purchasing power on the property prices has risen by 50%. Paradoxically, despite less steep prices, banks’ reluctance to grant new mortgage loans will hinder your decision to buy a dreamt-up flat. Thus I come to the conclusion people do not behave rationally – consumerist desire to possess goods without considering whether they can afford them distorts economic decisions…

To shed a different light on the issue, some more examples…

The Polish government blames pension funds for fetching inadequate returns and charging exorbitant fees, without emphasising the crucial role policymakers who set stringent investment policies, flawed system of benchmarks and capped fees at sky-high levels. Companies who were allowed to deal with pension fund management acted rationally – abided by the rules, didn’t try to stick their necks out, reaped profits and ripped off future pensioners quietly. The government regulations coercing every taxpayer to participate in private-run part of public pension system generated demand for pension fund services. Pension fund managers just came up with the supply.

Tobacco companies produce stuff that addicts is unhealthy and generally is considered harmful. Each pack of cigarettes needs to contain properly sized information on destructive impact on smoking on health and cigarettes carcinogenic effects. Are the cigarette-makers blamed for deaths of millions of people from lung cancer?

Carmakers for years have been producing vehicle reaching maximum speed at which any accident could be fatal. Does anyone who hears news of an accident with several fatalities caused by speeding think of blaming automotive industry for producing deathful machines?

Alternatively, when you have in mind the problem of prostitution, do you blame escort agency owners or prostitutes themselves for the phenomenon of the oldest profession? Maybe you see a giggling sleazy guy who runs a massage parlour who claims he runs a relaxation facility and what his female employee and his male customer do when they go together to a dim-lit room with red walls stays between them. Virtually anyone who looks into the issue of prostitution highlights misconduct of procurers and prostitutes, while has anyone bothered to delineate a profile of a typical customer of escort agencies?

Coming back to bankers – in Poland the banking sector has become a scapegoat for CHF-denominated mortgage loans and currency option crisis.

In the former case, many think the banks have earned on appreciation on Swiss currency and CHF-borrowers have been duped by the banks. In fact banks have earned on fees, margins and FX rate spreads, which are all loosely tied of FX rates. In other words, banks’ earnings have been independent of FX market movements and thus banks have not had uncovered FX risk exposure. The other story is that banks were encouraging borrowers to take out loans in CHF due to lower interest rates, which translated into lower instalments and higher creditworthiness. All this was because of the demand for cheap lending. When CHF-denominated lending was rampant, few voices of concern were audible. Banks were happy to earn on margins and FX spreads, borrowers were happy to see their dream of own flat coming true. Some even were called idiots, when they were converting their CHF-denominated loans into PLN at the rate of 2.10. With hindsight, their foresight is enviable. In Poland, unlike in other countries, all borrowers had to be extensively informed on FX risk and had to sign documents to confirm they were familiar with the risks, if they had not been properly informed by a salesperson in bank’s outlet, they should have badgered the salespeople to explain the risks… Ignorance of law is not an excuse and taking those loan contracts to the court would be senseless then…

In the latter case, when PLN was evidently overvalued, there was a natural demand from exporters being on the verge of breaking even, to hedge against risk of further appreciation and a supply from financial institutions coming up with solutions suitable for exporters (if properly used). Exporters noticed FX derivatives helped them not only offset unfavourable effects of PLN appreciation, but also earn extra income, if the same position was hedged more than once with more than one bank. Banks noticed they could earn extra income on margins and fees, if volumes of transactions hedged were higher and so foisted upon exporters the double-edged swords of currency options. When FX market capsized there was actually no winner in Poland (if Polish banks’ counterparties had their positions uncovered, they could have taken large profits). Exporters were facing financial distress, while banks had to face credit losses if their corporate counterparties defaulted. When things were going well and companies benefited from sophisticated derivatives, nobody cried out in outrage, when the tide turned against the companies some politicians were calling for nullifying options contracts. Until today I wonder if those companies that made profits on FX hedging would have to return their profits to banks…

In brief, all the paragraphs above narrow down to subject of sharing responsibility for a misery between the supply side and demand side. In each case described above, there is a demand for some service or product, matched by supply. You could of course argue, demand is a response to supply. I would point out in turn, the problem is not akin to egg and chicken dilemma. In overwhelming majority supply matches demand. Imagine there are no males willing to buy sexual services – then all escort agencies would go bankrupt and prostitutes would be jobless. Imagine nobody wants to take out a risky loan – would banks keep on foisting them upon not eligible reluctant clients?

The separate matter is whether the government should step in and impose restrictions which would prevent demand for harmful services or products from being matched by supply?

Should the government protect individuals from their own recklessness, ignorance, short-sightedness, etc. The answer to this questions probably depends on your view of a human and its autonomy. Conservatives and liberals claim a human is wise enough to take rational decisions and take responsibility for them. Socialists argue a human is fragile and pliable and someone else knows better what should be forbidden and what should be warranted. Moreover, the answer might depend on existence of spillover effects of an individual’s detrimental decisions. If a reckless individual is the one who pays the price, then OK, may the government stay away, but if price for one person’s decision is paid by other people (which indirectly limits their personal liberty), these other people are most often all taxpayers who chip in for government-funded bailouts, there is a deep rationale for governments to intervene.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Troublesome mating

Having shaken off a heartache, one usually begins to look out for opportunities to start over a new relationship. For posterity and for myself – a wry record of my endeavours over the past year. If there’s no use crying over spilt milk, I can at least indulge in recalling those hapless stories from their hilarious side… If you don’t fancy reading somebody washing their dirty linen in public, just click away.

This time names won’t be made up to withhold the real identity of persons involved. The cast are: six women nicknamed Gx, where x = 1, 2, …, 6, G stands for ‘Girl’, B (stands for my name) – me.

G1 probably was still alone because of her stringent requirements towards potential partner, or just maybe because she’d hold her head up high. To give you the flavour of it, just a short snippet of our conversation.

G1: I don’t know if you realise, but I’m a member of MENSA.
B: (concealing my bewilderment, as I heard the most above-average intelligent people associated in that organisation hardly ever boast about their membership and generally are modest) I’m impressed…
A few minutes later I mentioned in the conversation Wisława Szymborska (Polish Noble Prize in literature laureate)
G1: Excuse me, who?
B: Wisława Szymborska, you know, she got the Noble in literature in 1996
G1: Never heard of…
B: “Nothing happens twice”, “Calling Yeti” (…), rings a bell to you?
G1: Errr, no…

Exit strategy: make a getaway and then avoid like a plague!

Regular readers of PES already are familiar with the story of G2, named for them ‘Natalia’

B: After not seeing you for more than two years, I could have found you being with someone else and did consider this when trying to find you, but when we met, you told me that…
G2: I remember, when you asked how I was doing, my reply started with a declaration “I don’t have a boyfriend, I don’t have a fiancé, I’m not married”…
B: So actually you have somebody…?
G2: Well, formally we are not together… This is… a cupboard love
B: (the whole situation seemed kind of funny to me) It sounds serious.
G2: It’s a very serious feeling towards an older, mature man.
B: (I could barely help my jaw dropping open, but responded in a serious manner) Maybe it would be worthwhile to do something about it?
G2 just pulled a face and flushed…

I haven’t seen her ever after despite working in neighbouring building. None of our common friends could not tell me how she was doing, no one has heard anything from her. PES Commentator Basia claimed I could have done her an incredible favour; I doubt it – even if my emergence served as an eye-opener, she closed her eyes as soon as I made off.

The date with G3 was actually quite nice and promising until the moment I drove her home and we were about to farewell…

G3: May I ask you a question?
B: Sure, go ahead.
G3: Is it your car?
B: Why are you asking?
G3: You know, some boys tend to impress girls with not their cars…
B: (baffled) You’ve got me there, this one is stolen!
G3: You know, it’s not what I meant. Can you… show the registration certificate?
B: I took the car’s documents out of pocket and showed her (I know I should have refused, but at that stage I wanted to bring this situation to an ultimate end)
G3: It’s yours, not your father’s. So when do we meet next time?
B: Never. Because I don’t go out with blachary (blachara is a Polish word for a girl who falls for boys who have cars, don’t know if there’s any English equivalent…)

Comment: Had I possessed a barn-tuned Volkswagen Golf III with darkened rear windows, alloy rims and sizeable spoilers, the date could have had its final on the back seat of my car. Unfortunately my immaculate Renault doesn’t work on women like this…

I had to make some efforts and prove some patience to ask G4 out, but my determination was rewarded. Actually this was not an awful experience, it was in a way… uncanny…

She told me about her parents divorce, how her father treated her mother, her siblings and her since the time their family began to break up, how her brother escaped it by getting hitched to a girl from a rich family, how her sister quit studies two times. She confessed:
G4: I’ve never loved anybody and I don’t think I ever will, it’s just what I’m like – I don’t care, I don’t get attached, that’s how I function, people have to accept or not – their choice.
Then she also described me how her boss was harassing her…

Despite the whole burden she had thrown at me and despite her ‘emotional instability’ (something that attracts me in women) I claim this one relationship had a chance to work out. Months after that meeting I still regret being too open about my intentions. Had I held my horses, I could have hit it off with her and slowly tame her.

G5 was also a good example of a resistant girl. For a long time she remained totally indifferent to me showing interest in us getting to know each other better. Once we accidentally met in town. I was returning from work after doing vast overtime, it was getting late, so I offered her a lift.

B: Maybe I could drive you home…
G5: (perplexed and feeling like vanishing into the air) Maybe better not!
B: (decided to find out whether it was because she had a boyfriend or for some other reasons that she turned down each my proposal) Is your boyfriend so jealous, that he would damage my car and throttle me? (was meant to be a joke)
G5: Eeerrr… Yes… He’s very aggressive…
B: (stumped) So I’ll better hold back and go home… alone… it’s late… bye…

This short dialogue until now seems absurd and no matter if that was true, or just a lame excuse, the message is clear – keep away from such women. Case similar to G2 – the mystery to be never unravelled and even if it was, what the benefit for me would be?

G6 deserves a slight introduction. We first met in 2008 on a language course, then accidentally met during exam in April 2009 and a few weeks ago ran across each other in a tram. I sensed an opportunity cropping up, I put forward we met, she agreed…

I’m not reticent, but I somehow kind of like meetings when I don’t have to speak much. This was one of them. Before we got to a restaurant I listened to the story of her struggle in the run-up to her legal counsel exams that plunged her into neurosis and which medicines her psychiatrist prescribed her and how she reacted to them. In the restaurant the actual rough ride set on…

G6: Yes, you remembered well I don’t use Internet often, but this doesn’t mean I’m unfamiliar with technology (she pulls from her handbag some Apple-made device and shows off her smartphone – both devices keep her online all the time) – I change them every year to have always state-of-the-art electronics by my side. Actually they don’t endure more than a year, my previous iPhone’s mainboard gave up the ghost after a year and I lost all the files I had stored on it…
B: (decided to pick up the gauntlet and play this game, so took my Nokia handset bought in early 2008 from my pocket) I prefer to stay offline, I simply don’t need gadgets. This one offers me as much as I need and for almost six years has never let me down.
G6: But aren’t you ashamed of using it in public. I would be…

This was when the show was hotting up

G6: I like big cars. I feel safe and mighty behind the wheel. Recently my dad leased a Mitsubishi Outlander for me. I adore this car.
B: This is an SUV, right? finally met a woman aged less than 35 who can be seen in such petrol-guzzling hideous vehicle) Well, I somehow don’t need big stuff, they simply don’t impress me. My 10-year-old Megane serves me very well
G6: Aren’t you afraid of driving such old car?
B: Of course not, it’s as reliable as my phone (indeed, today engine cranked up briskly after 10 days of sitting idle)

Then came the part in which she laid out her opinions in fundamental matters…

G6: A man should be resourceful. He should have at least two full-time jobs and moonlight in order to have money to indulge his woman’s needs.

Then she made my hackles rise…

G6: This is awful when people bring packed lunch to the office instead of going out to eat… If they earn money, what can be the reason for them to deny themselves pleasure of eating out?
B: But don’t you realise most of them may have budget constraints or prefer to spend money on other things or have loans to pay off? Many of my colleagues spend a lot of money investing in their children and therefore they relinquish eating out…
G6: And this why I will never have children. These are sponger. If I had a child I would have to spend money on it and spent time looking after it. And as a child-free woman I can spend money for satisfying my needs and take care of my own matters…

I must have been totally bemused, if I didn’t feel like shouting in her face: “you vacuous cunt”…

I haven’t even bothered to send her a brief text message to thank for the evening…

For the two days following the nightmarish date I felt a bit off-colour, broke sweat after small physical efforts and shivered. Fever ensued on the third day before dawn. At first I thought I’d caught a cold (weather and heating conditions in my office and public transport were conducive to it), but soon I realised instead of sore throat I was nagged by aching stomach. As the disease developed, it turned out to be regular food poisoning (details left out, nothing pleasant) – first in my life since early childhood and quite severe.

I wonder whether the obnoxious tribulations I’ve gone through recently were just a coincidence, an aftermath of G6’s bad taste (after roaming around town for almost an hour and griping about menu contents in several restaurants) or a sign (maybe the Guardian Angel is vigilant and had his fingers in it) from the fate. That date was a katharsis – I felt like swimming in a pond of shit, keeping my head above water, breathing in fragrant air and knowing no one has enough power to push my head down. It made me finally realise going out with somebody just for the sake of mere going out makes no sense. It’s sometimes better to be left out in the cold if the house is on fire…

The recent date probably was also meant to serve as a cure for my fondness of older women (all six women were older than me, with age difference spanning from a few weeks to seven years). I stared at G6’s face – instead of sincere grin I saw a frown, instead of joy I saw displeasure, instead of youthful energy I saw jadedness. I saw a grumpy, elderly materialist who didn’t need a man as a human, but craved for his money. Never before have I found a company of a woman so off-putting that I prayed we parted as soon as possible and if I could I would probably run away as fast as legs could carry. I even thought about finding an excuse, writing an SMS under the table with a request for an urgent call, but gave up on those ideas, decided to stay tough and stick it out…

Now if this was indeed a turning point, then comes a question where to look for a younger girl if in my natural social groups are work and the same since years circle of friends? For the former the hope lies in staff turnover, yet beware… For the latter, if there was meant to be an opportunity, it would have long been seized or missed. Should I take second studies, sign up for language course / dancing course, enrol in an organisation? Makes a point, if I wanted squeezing extra activity into my weekly timetable, but… signing up can do the job if the real goal is to learn something new, or engage in new activity, not to meet a girl – if not, the whole idea can turn into a huge cock-up… My Soulmate told me there are surely plenty of girls that would fit me well, but I have no chance to meet them, despite quite probably passing them by every day – they follow the same daily routine I do – move between home and work, in free time help at home or meet the same group of friends. But because it takes two to tango, even if I break away from the circle, odds of meeting them are low.

Regarding back the former – I used to avow I would refrain from any ambiguous relationships at work. With time I’ve given it second thoughts and slightly changed my mind. What really should be avoided are relationships with women from your team and all other you work directly with, have frequent professional interactions with or if your job responsibilities overlap. If your positions are, however, functionally and physically separated, no one should view it as a problem. Such proximity makes it even easier to foster a relationship (how convenient to pop out for a lunch together or to meet after work).

Some time ago it occurred to me some opportunities stand no chance of being even missed. Some time ago I met a girl. Until then I had been unable to define what the “ideal woman” or “a girl of my kind” would be like. When I met her (none of the G1 – G6 described above) I realised she was such one. But when we first mean, it was all said and done, or rather the know was tied. She got married last year, a year before we met. I didn’t even dare to make any step, even held off on trying to get to know her better, just to ward off any temptation. No chance to light a single spark in the dark…

All adventures with those girls also had one common denominator – they all lacked spontaneity, something which in the past made it work smoothly, naturally. Back in middle, then high school or at the university, I had a chance to meet many girls, spend more time with time in different situations and then could find out whether I liked any of them more and if I wanted to make a step to get to know her better and ask her out. Today, when I often have to fight for opportunity to meet, I need to ask a woman out to find out whether I want to get to know her better… Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t seem to understand it. I know, this is a part of mating rituals, but if you ask somebody out, you make an effort to show that you care. And the whole absurdity for me is that I don’t know if I care, so the whole fuss seems incongruous to me…

The upside of all those miserable attempts is that none of them has got me so far to spark any emotional commitment. Sometimes I felt relief it didn’t work out (G1, G3, G6), sometimes it’d hurt a bit (G2, G4, G5) – as no one likes being turned away, but getting over it was a matter of days rather than weeks.

From time to time my colleague (30+ married woman, has no children and not the Soulmate) and I pop out for a cigarette. Actually she smokes, I take up the role of a passive smoker and we chat, not only about work. One day I asked her why she got married. Her response was straightforward and disarming: “I was about to turn 30, he showed he cared, had a job, had no addictions, was kind of handsome and just like me liked dogs, there was no use in waiting for a knight from a fairy tale”.

So what’s the reason for me to get married?
To have somebody to cook dinners for me, wash my socks, vacuum-clean carpets and iron my shirts? No, I can do it myself, or hire a servant!
To meet the most elementary needs a male has? This problem might be solved by frequent trips to escort agency or picking up girls in some clubs – I hope to never stoop so low!
To have somebody to support me? For all those years I learnt to cope with all difficulties on my own, I’m used to not sharing problems as they appear with other people.
The only reasonable motive is to have a company in life – and then everything changes…

My Soulmate also told me with age I’ll become more demanding and will find it harder to accept a woman with all her habits, shortcomings and peculiarities. In fact, at that stage I can’t pick and choose, as many valuable women are already either married or in long-lasting relationships. It’s just like in a free-market economy where rational consumers compete with one another to pick out more valuable goods before others snatch them for themselves – so leftovers are not the most desired ones. There is an option to wait until one of such relationships breaks up and step in, but one needs to have it in mind, this would be a relationship with a person burnt and bruised after a bitter experience of broken-up relationship…

Relationship is an art of compromise, but not all concessions can be made and in some matters I see no room for compromise. I can’t imagine a relationship with a woman who has totally different priorities in life, or has different hierarchy of values. Surely, I could try, but having seen many such relationships from the stage of fascination evolving into disillusionment and bitter end, I treat such opportunities as waste of time which additionally increases probability I miss the right opportunity… Which I hope lies still ahead.