Thursday, 30 June 2016

…Take the moment and make it perfect

Shortly before I set off for a quick sightseeing trip I lived through 15-minutes-long episode I could not get off my mind for the past two weeks.

15 June 2016, Wednesday.
A workmate who had decided to attend the same conference I did turned up around 9:00 a.m. As his decision had been kind of belated (or to put it coarsely, he had not been far-sighted), he had not managed to find a room in a hotel where the conference was held. He was planning to leave before evening to return to Warsaw around dusk, yet when it turned out my single room was in fact a double room with two single beds, I decided to give in to his entreating and put him up overnight, illegally. Because we had one room entry card, we had no choice but to go to most places together. As I spoke on the phone to another colleague, he advised jocosely we hang around separately, since I would be scaring off his prospective clients and he would be scaring off all women interested in me…

16 June 2016, Thursday
Early morning. The workmate is kind of languorous and indecisive; two traits I cannot put up with when they are exhibited by fellow males. I delicately urge him to leave the room before 7:30 a.m.. He insists on eating a breakfast in the hotel restaurant, while I keep telling him just like in almost each and every hotel, the restaurant crew would ask him about room number and thus his free-riding would come to the light, not the course of event we both would wish for. I walk downstairs to consume my duly paid breakfast and leave him packing his stuff in my room. While I finish eating, I see him strutting about outside the hotel. Then I notice a missed phone call from him. We work together on day-to-day basis, so I overcome my irritation and walk off outside to shake his hand and wish him a good journey… He marches to his company car, while I take delight in breathing in fresh warm morning air. The past twenty two and half hours proved lack of company is better than any company…

I briskly stride towards the hotel making a plan to visit the swimming pool (went there once yesterday, but since it has been paid for, why not use it?) and in my state of sheer bliss I fail to notice a young woman crouching over an open suitcase. She begins a conversation:
Woman: Excuse me sir, does sir know how to call a taxi to the train station in Town?
Me: At the moment unfortunately not, but I am just finding it out (grabbing the smartphone from my pocket and looking for a number to order a taxi cab from Town).
Woman: The taxi driver was bound to pick me up at 7:30 while my train to Warsaw departs at 8:03…
Me: I am afraid you have some twenty minutes left and waiting for a taxi is kind of risky. If you are to make it to the station, I will give you a lift. I will just fetch the car keys and documents from my room and off we go…

While I was nearly running back with stuff necessary to fire up the car, my thought was that the taxi driver has pitched up in the meantime and I my fit of help was gratuitous…

Woman, still squatting over the open suitcase: I thought sir was joking and ran away. Sir is very nice.

From the next ten minutes I remember that:
- we kept talking (or heads off) during the entire journey and definitely were on the same wavelength from the very moment we got into the car, however I cannot recall well subject matters of our chat,
- I felt addressing each other Pani / Pan was absurdly unnatural since with newly met people on social occasions I am on name’s terms from the very beginning,
- I had to ask her to find a route to the train station on her mobile phone (with hindsight I have learnt my new company swanky smartphone has an up-to-the-mark navigation),
- she was somewhat frightened by my style of driving, while I was slightly fast and furious behind the wheel,
- when for a moment we talked about football (Poland was due to play with Germany later that day), I missed an opportunity to sound out whether she has a husband or boyfriend (by asking a casual question whether her husband or boyfriend is a football fan),
- when I parked next to the station she asked me for a business card and since I had left them in the hotel. I told her my name and private phone number and held back from asking her about hers, since my thought was that in such situation asking her for phone number would be a step too far. In my awkward reasoning I had showed immediate initiative and resourcefulness and if she wanted to pay back as she was promising when getting off the car, she would make the next step, if not, imposing myself was a bad idea.

Some four or five days later I realised I did not know her name, where she worked and given my poor memory for faces, I would not recognise her if we met again. But this was the second time (let’s pass over the first one in silence) over three months when I met a woman for the first time and for the second time some kind of chemistry (and spontaneity) was in the air that instantly shortened the distance between us from the word go. Come to think of it. So often two people deliberately date and both struggle to keep up a conversation while out of the blue you can run across somebody accidentally and talk with them (if time permits, for hours) effortlessly.

22 June 2016, Wednesday
I get a text message from my team-mate. She writes a courier has delivered a parcel for me, undersigned “with thanks from Company XYZ”. Kind of confused I google the name of the sender and learn Company XYZ was one the partners of last week’s conference. Whether the bundle’s arrival is an implication of the pleasant adventure, or just a follow-up to a cordial exchange of business cards will remain a mystery until 4 July when I return to work.

Looking back at the situation, there is no clear reason why I cannot get it off my head. The woman might be a happy wife and mother to two small lovely children. The woman might also in a long-lasting not formalised relationship. If I knew that, I would have simply come to terms with it, put giving her a lift on a list of good deeds I have made in life and give it a rest once and for all.

Twists and turns of life are frequently driven by coincidences. As the old saying goes, luck is an opportunity not missed. In this case, I hold it against myself I have not seized the opportunity. I can neither give up nor move on…

Or alternatively, if she knows how to get in touch with me and (rather) has not done it (cannot determine it, until I open the parcel) it is high time I gave over…

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Ogrodzieniec, castle

When I began travelling in business some five years ago I had a sense of excitement prospect of getting about brings out in people. With time it turned out most trips taken as part of my duties are kind of tiresome and involve more hassle than pleasure. And frequent sightseeing which I thought would be the order of the day, turned out to be impossible to pursue, due to tight agenda of the day, tiredness and priority of travel companies to return home possibly quickly.

An ideal business trip if I am do take a detour to draw some pleasure from visiting new places most often needs to meet three conditions:
1) actual destination should be a place hard to reach by train, so that using the private car is justified – this gives flexibility and saves time when moving about (does not apply to main cities, such as Poznan, Wroclaw, Gdansk, Krakow),
2) the agenda should give some headroom for spare time for leisure,
3) I take the trip on my own, or have companions who at least don’t mind such sightseeing.
The three conditions are all met on average twice a year, sadly…

Last Thursday I took such detour when return from a conference. Conditions 1 and 3 were met, however necessity to catch up with work accumulated during the previous day of the conference left me hurrying to make my way to Warsaw. Despite this I ventured to Zamek Ogrodzieniec, one of the magnificent sights in Jura Krakowsko-Częstochowska, one of Poland’s still underrated pearls. I turned up there at nine o’clock, but the ticket office was… closed despite being scheduled to be opened at that hour. I hang around for a quarter, took delight in the beauty of the place, picked up a few phone calls with workmates urging me to handle the stuff I was meant to deal with, thus had my impatience stirred and eventually I marched back to the car. A shame to admit it ended up like this. Looking forward to visiting those regions again.

Since tomorrow I’m setting off for holidays, to take some rest and think some things over, the next posting will be due in early July. Over the coming days I will be keeping my fingers crossed for the Remain option and if my hopes are dashed, will turn my smartphone on to watch the rollercoaster… Take care!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Swiss Francs, no easy way out

One of pre-election campaign promises made by president Duda and the bevy of politicians he hails from was a bail-out for FX mortgage borrowers ensnared into toxic loan agreements and trapped in their unsellable properties for years to come.

In January 2016, exactly a year after the Swiss currency had been freed to float, Mr Duda’s office laid out a proposal of converting CHF mortgages into PLN at a “fair rate”, different for each debtor and reflecting benefits received by debtors on account of favourable CHF/PLN rates before September 2008 and lower interest rates in CHF (for broader explanation in plain language click here and scroll down to the third paragraph from the bottom). The proposal has been assessed as hazardous for the Polish banking system and… shelved. Five month on, the sketch of the solution has not developed into a draft law ready for legislative process… Which is reassuring, since if Mr Duda’s experts are mindful of dire consequences of banks going under or loss of trust among foreign investors, they have held back from pursuing it and set out to reshape the proposal…

On Tuesday the “CHF task force” held a fifty-one minutes long conference, during which they attempted to outline the major conclusions of their work on the bail-out scheme until now. I will be nasty, but I will exercise my right to speak it out… This was one of the most ludicrous conferences I have ever seen in life. I have got accustomed to listening to politicians who speak a lot and say nothing. This time self-styled economic experts have told a story of guys who met up several times to sip coffee, munch biscuits and waffle on quandaries of benighted individuals who wanted to chase their dreams too much…

OK, the malice cap has been reached, time to move on to what audience have been spared, namely details…

The participation in the bail-out will be voluntary, what in practice means some better-off borrowers might not decide to get rid of their Swiss Franc burden, in practice they will continue to bet on depreciation of CHF in years to come. I personally know people who accumulate savings and hope one day they pay off their whole mortgage with one shot at favourable CHF/PLN rate.

The bail-out package consists of several measures distressed debtors could choose between, however I still cannot make out whether they are mutually exclusive or not.

One interesting measure which could theoretically be implemented with another one is the obligations to lenders (banks) to refund the borrowers the overpaid currency spreads. I came, I saw, I did not understand at all. This concept leaves more questions than answers. Firstly, what would constitute an overpaid spread? Banks naturally earn on difference between rate at which they buy and sell foreign currencies, whereas the problem with the CHF mortgages was that spreads were far higher than reasonable (bid-ask spread often above 6%)… So would lawmakers define a reasonable spread banks had been entitled to charge, or would they set National Bank of Poland rate as benchmark? Secondly, would banks give this money to borrowers’ hands or would they obligatorily prepay mortgage loans? Thirdly, would the refund include penalty interest accrued for period between it had been unduly charged and the day of refund? Fourthly, would the measure cover also instalments paid after August 2011 (enacted swiftly the PO-PSL government in reaction to soaring Swiss Franc) when the anti-spread law (amendments to the banking law) came into force?
Fifthly, facing the truth, the banks were not prohibited by the law to rip off borrowers, so would reversing it be interpreted as violation of the precept that law is not retroactive?

The concept of the “fair rate” has been revisited in the presentation. The expert spoke of four variants of the fair rate, however decided to share only two of them with the audience. One draws on the algorithm presented in January 2016, the other would additionally take into account current well-being of a borrower, with debt-to-income ratio (percentage of after-tax income spent on instalments) a key criterion. The very concept of what is “fair” and for who gives ample room for disputes and will most likely by one of moot points if works on the bail-out scheme move on.

Another measure, whose legal feasibility is questionable, is the option for a borrower to extinguish their mortgage debt by renouncing ownership of the mortgaged property. In Poland mortgage debt has recourse nature, i.e. a debtor is liable for it with all their present and future assets. Such scheme again casts doubts whether law does not work retroactively (a bank when it was granting mortgages, relied in creditworthiness assessment on claim on debtors’ assets and income). Incidentally, introduction of pure non-recourse mortgage lending under which a lender could recover from collateral only, could civilise Polish mortgage lending, but at the expense of higher cost of such debt, being the compensation for lenders for relinquishing the recourse to debtors.

The professors mentioned in passing 30 billion PLN as the total cost of their proposal (which one exactly?). No one still knows how their arrived at that figure, but to be honest, to my best knowledge none of the figures presented by any participant of the CHF debate has been backed by substantive calculations or estimations holding water.

The experts (I pull a grumpy cat’s face when I write this word, as Poland’s current ruling elites lack backing of competent experts) also claimed the effects of the bail-out would be spread over around 30 years, yet failed to explain how such spreading over time be brought into line with International Financial Reporting Standards which proscribe to recognise a loss in full amount in the period an entity learns it is going to incur the loss. One of the task force members murmured something about SPVs and securitisation as tools for spreading the cost over time. A word of explanation here… SPVs are used by banks to remove loans from their balance sheets. Some assets (pools of CHF mortgage loans) are swapped for other assets – cash. Hence a bank has its problem solved immediately, provided it sells portfolios of loans to SPVs at face value. If it sells dicey loans at discount, it recognise a loss (or pre-sale write-down) immediately. At this stage the story is not over. An SPV which buys dicey loans from banks must pay cash for it. Cash is an asset which must be funded with equity or liabilities. Who would then provide equity or liabilities? Whoever it would be, they would be exposed to sizeable haircut in their investment, as SPVs would absorb the losses on loan conversions into PLN…

The Tuesday’s proposal has been slated by nearly everyone. Economists criticised it for lack of details (during the conference the task force experts were struggling to answer most questions asked by the audience). Disgruntled debtors, who put faith in Mr Duda’s promises, also do not perceive the unveiled concept of the bail-out package as a step forward.

I suppose PiSites and Mr Duda know well only time may solve the problem of CHF loans and therefore they play on time. Month by month outstanding debt declines as borrowers make repayments and so the scale of the problem diminishes. They fully realise if they run out of money, voters will knock them out of power (if voting regulations are not tampered with), so their spending spree fortunately has halted after 500 PLN child allowance programme kicked off. I bet works on the draft law will drag on for months and by the end of this year the legal framework will not be passed.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Escape room

This sort of collective entertainment has become popular in Poland pretty recently. I have first heard of it in the summer 2015 and back then there were quite a few such facilities in Warsaw; since then several new escape rooms have sprung up and you need to book a room several days in advance if you want to go there on most popular time slots (Thursday / Friday evenings or during weekends).

The very concept is well-explained in the dedicated wikipedia article (funnily enough, there is no Polish version as of today). It is essentially a battle of wits with the forces that lock you up, so participants need to use their brains to crack several logical puzzles to break out of the locked room. Usually the game has a specific theme around which puzzles revolve. Players need to get to grips with the brainteasers within an allotted time. They win if they manage to find a key to the door before this time runs out.

I ventured to such place on Friday evening with my workmates. Such game is said to enhance teamwork skills, yet we went there off our own bat (and paid for it from our own pockets), not being ordered by The New Factory. The facility we visited was located on the third floor of a tenement in the very heart of Warsaw and was a spacious flat redesigned into three escape rooms and an accompanying office. One needs to invest a bit to create this and I estimate the entry costs at some 2 million PLN, assuming a flat is purchased (I cannot imagine a landlord giving tenant a free rein to build an escape room in their property); running costs is what I find harder to estimate. Plus to attract new clients the business-keeper should bring in new themes from time to time… The facility we went had just one significant drawback, namely it lacked air-conditioning, which in the summer season might be a nuisance, when a few persons are locked in a tiny space with area less than 20 square metres.

Most clients of such facilities are companies which send their staff to escape rooms as part of team-building programmes or just to expend integration budgets. The cost is not exorbitant. We had a discount voucher from a workmate who once had been to the same facility, but to a different room and we filled the room with maximum number of participants and ended up with expense per head below 20 PLN, while an average rate you can expect is around 30 – 40 PLN per person, still a sum which will not break the bank.

Though neither enchanted by the game, nor fascinated by it, I will eagerly repeat it in a while and recommend you also try it out with your family, friends, colleagues or whoever you want to enjoy time with.

After the hour of fun and short sit-down at a café I stroll towards the dance school along the crowded streets of the central part of Warsaw. Compared to how it looked like a decade ago, social life in the centre of Warsaw is thriving. Glad to see more and more people lap up the most beautiful part of the year outdoors. In this respects we are catching up with our Western Neighbours who socialise instead of clamming up indoors.