Sunday, 27 November 2016

Who takes the strain?

The more frequently I travel in business, the less exciting I find it. Trips taken as part of my duties, an inevitable element of my job, come as a scourge even if I happen to visit a new place or drop in on a long unseen but likable one.

This week was particularly wearisome. As I had to take three business trips on three consecutive days. The prospect had been ghastly from the day I had learnt the New Factory had nearly run out of the (tight anyway) travel budget for 2016, so sleeping in hotels along the way would have broken the bank… Literally…

On Tuesday I drove to Poznan to take part in a workshop. After looking at the train timetable and how far out destination was from the train station, I had chosen to go by car. Given there were three of us, the choice was also economically justified – cost of my mileage allowance (covering also motorway tolls and parking charges) was over 150 PLN lower than cost of three second-class return train tickets, not to mention two taxi rides in Poznan. Woke up at four a.m. to pick up my two colleagues from Warsaw at half past five and to make it to outskirts of Poznan before nine a.m. The workshop finished at four in the afternoon. The drive to Warsaw, including stopover at the petrol station in Poznan, took three hours. Choosing the car had the big advantage to all of us – we were nearly three hours earlier at homes (we would not make it to catch the 16:34 Intercity service from Poznan, while for the next at 18:40 (arriving to Warsaw at 21:15) we would have had to wait for nearly two hours at the station or around. The (not brand-)new car has now over 1,000 kilometres higher mileage than when I took it over two weeks ago. I was only negatively surprised by fuel consumption – more than 10 litres per 100 kilometres on average on a motorway… I expected the smaller engine with sixth gear to be more economical…

On Wednesday I let the train take the strain. Woke up at quarter past four to catch the 6:40 a.m. Pendolino to Gdansk to a conference. I travelled on my own, so this choice was more economical and practical, since in the train, using my smartphone as wi-fi router, I caught up with work (at least handled all e-mail from the previous day and delegated some stuff to an intern). I don’t know how PKP IC has fixed it, but currently there are nearly no problems with mobile internet coverage aboard. Besides, journey duration of less than 2 hours 50 minutes on a 372 kilometres route is impressive. To compare it with driving you would need to add time necessary to get to a station some time ahead of train departure and from a station to your destination (door-to-door), yet in the meantime you can have a rest, read a book or work!

On my way back from a conference venue to the train station, I strolled along Długi Targ, part of Gdansk old town. The day was chilly (+3C) and foggy, dusk was nearing. Few locals and tourists roamed around. In the distance, Neptun’s fountain, a landmark in that part of the city.

Closer to the station and looking in the opposite direction. More lights ere on, fog lingers lower and swathed the church tower. The place had its charm, yet the weather was not conducive to sightseeing. Indeed one should work harder in this dark and gloomy period of year and enjoy more time outdoors from April to September.

Approaching the train station, as the file date suggests, it was around four p.m. The street was jammed, unlike in western Poznan a day earlier, where I covered the distance of 6 kilometres between Komorniki junction and the destination in fifteen minutes both in the morning and in the afternoon.

At the woe-fully organised conference (the event was free-of-charge, therefore it was a promotional show of dobra zmiana and commercial sponsors) I learnt over 66 billion zloty is to be spent on modernisation and development or railway routes by 2023, so in the coming years, especially in 2019 and 2020 we should expect investment boom on railways and… lengthened journey times. Several experts doubted whether spending such vast amount of money was feasible and advised the Ministry of Infrastructure and PKP PLK (rail infrastructure owner and administrator) to focus on priorities so that the possible large part of the funding is properly spent. Whatever happens, by the end of the investment boom travelling by train on many routes might be a nuisance.

On (I woke up at six a.m., what a relief!) Thursday I went to a city roughly somewhere between Gdansk and Warsaw to meet a client. I drove my colleague’s company car (she does not feel particularly confident driving long distance, so for our safety and comfort I offered to sit behind the wheel) so not a chance to sit back and relax (though I like driving) for a single moment. At least the meeting was fruitful.

Had it all been arranged in a civilised way, I would have taken a train to Poznan on Tuesday morning, took a train from there to Gdansk, checked in to a hotel in Gdansk for a two-night stay on Tuesday evening, took a train from Gdansk to somewhere between Gdansk and Warsaw and then a taxi to a client on Thursday and returned from there by company car to Warsaw. The additional cost would have been less than one thousand zlotys…

Compared to private holiday trips, business travels are a school of hard knocks. An indispensable element of such journeys is rush. Agendas are always tight, you are always in a hurry. Organising logistics, if you travel on your own, might be a challenge, but if many people take the same trip, logistics becomes an ordeal. If you travel for private purposes and pay for something, you only care whether it is expensive and you can afford it. In business trips, you need make sure you get the properly issued invoice and that each of your expenses is justified and qualifies for reimbursement. When you return to the office, you have to account for travel expenses, scan all invoices and tickets, send original documents to accounting department, fill in several formulas, get sign-offs, etc. Stopping by for a moment or sightseeing are rare exceptions, I cherish them whenever they crop up.

Since mid-October I have been in the same mode as a year ago (seasonality, fourth quarter of each year in my profession is the most busy period) and wondered many times what I have been chasing after… Working well more than 50 hours per week and travelling leaves little time for looking after one’s own affairs and is fatiguing. I must say, I am much more exhausted physically than mentally. Intense work and stress have not taken much toll on my brain and psyche, but my body apparently wishes to resist it…

Sunday, 20 November 2016

One year into PiS in power

As the PiS government stages a splendid conference to boast of plentiful attainments of its first year in charge of Poland, I feel obliged to tack on some facts to remind of and underline the most recent success stories credited to this government and contributing to the outlook of blindingly bright future for Poland

Poland’s GDP grew by mere 2.5% in 3Q2016, falling short of economists’ consensus of 2.9% and being the worst readout since late 2013. The figure is just a preliminary estimate by stats office and has not been broken down into components, but judging by the trend observed in recent quarters, the drop in investments could have been the main factor behind the meagre expansion. Mr Morawiecki, Poland’s Development and Finance Minister (and deputy prime minister) claimed the slowdown was temporary and upheld his ministry’s forecasts of 3.4% GDP growth in 2016 (to make it happen, the Polish economy would need to expand by approximately 5% in 4Q2016 on simplifying assumption there is no seasonality, but by all accounts by more than 4%).

I have no idea why the former CEO of Santander-owned Bank Zachodni WBK belies reality. I only wonder whether he knows he is in the doghouse or so deeply believes the policies he pursues are appropriate. Whichever supposition is right, I am kind of sure with such figures budget deficit is likely to rise above 3% of GDP in 2016. Mr Morawiecki is somewhat right while assuring GDP is not the uppermost measure of economic well-being, but in the same interview he stresses importance of investments for the Polish economy. The problem is however that in the meantime investments are falling back.

Fortunately the bright spark of the Polish nation, an ordinary deputy Jarosław Kaczyński (balancing on the verge of paranoia) has found a scapegoat to take the blame for poor GDP growth – these are entrepreneurs linked to opposition who halt their business plans and give up on profits they could make just to spite the government.

Yields on Polish 10-year bonds have soared above 3.5%, meaning their price is the lowest since over 2 years. Partly to blame is the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election which led to more uncertainty on financial markets. The choice made by Americans is cherished by advocates of the PiS government. I hope they have noticed it has twofold impact of Poland’s debt service costs, via increased yields at which new government bonds are issued and via higher balance of debt denominated in foreign currencies (PLN has depreciated against major currencies recently).

This week the lower house of the Polish parliament passed a draft law reinstating pension age of 60 for women and 65 for men, thus reversing the retirement age increase brought into law by the previous PO-PSL government in 2012. While governments across the world raise the pension age and tackle inevitable demographic changes to sustain the proportion of labour force to those receiving benefits from the public purse, Poland takes a step back while the bill will be paid in the next decades. The only bright side I discern is that benefits for early retirees will be low enough to effectively discourage people from pensioning off.

When it comes to pursuit of PiS’ economic agenda, the fewer promises they keep, the better for the economy (not necessarily for social spending beneficiaries, especially multi-child poor families receiving the 500plus child allowance). Having the choice between two evils, I prefer they get busy with dead-end Smolensk religion whose cost (except for pain for families of crash fatalities) is thousands times lower than of “reforms” mentioned above. By the way, preliminary results of late president Kaczynski and his wife’s autopsy indicate a transport accident as death cause, the only thing in question is whether the plane capsized before hitting the ground.

Time passes by and level of absurdities around soars. The day before yesterday PiS politicians commemorated the 14th anniversary of Lech Kaczynski taking office of mayor of Warsaw. I hence put forward official celebrations of Lech Kaczynski:
- being born in 1949 (18 June),
- finishing studies in 1971, receiving PhD in 1979 and doctor habilitowany titles in 1990 (dates to be ascertained),
- getting married in 1978 (27 April),
- becoming a minister of justice in 2000 (12 June),
- being appointed the governor of Najwyższa Izba Kontroli in 2001 (14 February),
- being elected the president of PiS in 2001 (29 May),
- being sworn in as president of Poland in 2005 (23 December),
- telling a drunkard to go away in 2002 (spieprzaj dziadu) (4 November).

Also on Friday came to the light news of prosecutors from Gorzów Wielkopolski who have been chasing after Hanna Zdanowska, mayor of Łódź since February 2016 and accused her of loan frauds, allegedly committed in 2008 and 2009. Oddly enough a bank which granted a loan has not filed any charges against Mrs Zdanowska and the loan, as each and every fraudulent loan, has been repaid… This is one of first examples of PiS-controlled prosecutors clumsily attempting to sling mud at politicians of opposition.

On Friday I attended a conference during which one of renowned speakers told despite not just a flash in pan, populism will  wear down, as any other ideology. Neoliberalism and neokeynesianism have worn down and have had destructive influence on economies in last stages of their prevalence; the same path will be taken by populism. The only worry we should all have at the back of our heads is that damages inflicted to societies and economies by populists will be more painful.

But as the speaker said, we have to let things drift. Populism will not be eradicated by educated minorities. These must be masses, currently enchanted by populists that will have to realise they would have been double-crossed. It will take time and involve a price to pay, but after we persevere it, a better world might emerge. Or our civilisation might conceivably wind down irreversibly, a scenario which I have feared over the past months.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Donald Trump

Makes no sense coming up with a more ambitious title to this post. The US president-elect’s name stands for the sound of the world diving helplessly into the unknown.

After Mr Trump’s victory, headlines were hit by news of polls buggering it up and senseless questions “how come?”. Against what you are still told and regardless of slip-ups of both candidates, Mrs Clinton was bound to lose that battle, resulting in yet another one in a string of shifts in power aimed at capsizing the well-established, predictable, though at times seized-up machinery of liberal democracy.

I wrote on facebook on Wednesday it was the second such bad day this year (the first one fell on 24 June 2016, when Brexit referendum results were announced). The magnitude of US presidential election binding result, impacting indirectly all countries in the world, is far larger than of the Brexit referendum, which formally has been just an indicator of Brits’ opinions (now to be handled by the parliament somehow).

Fearful of implications of Mr Trump taking office? No worries. The upside of the situation is the habitual track record of various populists going back on their promises. Mr Trump’s silly waffle was meant to win him voters – words he was whispering to disgruntled electorate were music to their ears. In his wildest declarations he pledged to bring about a change deeper than the one Mr Obama had pursued. Before he is sworn in on 20 January 2017 he will get insight into intricacies of US politics and I believe the reality check will tone him down (in terms of knowing the ropes of politics he is incompetent, but has his head screwed in well enough not to spoil it all the way).

Having written that, I still believe Mrs Clinton, though definitely imperfect, was a far better choice for the United States and for the whole civilised world.

So what prompted the nation which has held foundations of democracy so dear to elect Mr Trump? He was the first prominent politician to have rejected political correctness; thus several voters perceived him as frank and straightforward. He was not a part of (discredited in eyes of many) political elite and scorned at murky establishment, a clique of spongers living off politics and pooling wool over electorate’s eyes for decades. He has struck a chord with millions of impoverished, aggrieved voters, victims of de-industrialisation, who indeed felt America was in ruins and needed to be lifted from misery.

“CHANGE” was the buzz word or Mr Obama’s campaign and a change is what Americans have longed for. Each change involves costs and benefits one should analyse before one opts for or against it. Majority of voters have chosen a soft change, or the lesser of two evils, however since the vote is indirect and in most states Mr Trump received the most votes, he was selected to become the successor of Mr Obama.

I do respect the choice made by US citizens who have exercised their right to vote and the election result, being the aftermath of electoral college votes mechanism in place. I am holding back from forejudging the presidency of Mr Trump. Before I revisit the topic, I am waiting for the story to unfold. The first public appearances of Mr Trump fill with hope he is not a lunatic and his policies will fortunately differ from the visions he outlined during the campaign.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Selling the car

As in early September my plans of relocating to another European capital went down the drain, it became clear I would still need a car in Poland and thus no longer on hold was my parents’ decision to upgrade to brand-new Megane IV and donate their current Megane III to me. Actually, it was not the desire to possess a new model which has just crossed factory gates that drove their decision. It was rather their concern about the condition of my over 13-year-old car and its imminent unreliability, cost and hassle related to it. I did not care I drove an old car and actually was reluctant to change it before buying and arranging a flat, so my parents, mindful of it, communicated they had ordered the car and expected me to take their current vehicle…

As the date of picking up the new car drew nearer (it is due before the next weekend), I had to post an advertisement in the Internet. I cleaned the car inside (one man-hour), washed the bodywork, rubbed dry and snapped the car (another man-hour) and put up a notice on the most popular automobile classifieds service in Poland, stating I wanted to sell a car:
- bought in a Polish dealership and serviced there ever after,
- garaged and having history of no accidents nor prangs,
- kept in one family since brand-new,
- with five-digit mileage (in kilometres) despite advanced age (and recent frequent longer trips).

The first call came (literally) from the other side of the fence. My neighbours, who were looking for a car, immediately spotted the ad less than two hours since I had published it and knowing everything written in the advertisement was true. My first thought was they were stalking me, but then I put faith in coincidence, but grew resistant to seeing my car changing hands to somebody I know (not a friend, yet somebody I know). I openly expressed my inhibitions to them, yet they insisted we met on Saturday. They did insist. First call was from brother-in-law of my neighbours’ daughter, the next from their daughter, who would use the car. On top, the neighbour came to my father to reserve the car.

The string of phone calls from other potential buyers was a travesty. The most quaint questions they asked were the following:
“Is everything you have written in the advertisement true?”
“Why are you selling the car?” (My response: “Because I finally want a brand-new”)
“How serious are the scratches on the bodywork?” (My response: “Just come and see and I will tell you the story of each of them”)
“Has it ever been smoked inside?” (My response: “Come and sniff”).

A few buyers were arranged to turn up yesterday in the afternoon, while I agreed to meet with the neighbours around 10 a.m. The conversation was quite frank. They told they realised a car of such age would require next repairs, I spoke out about my hang-ups and then confessed which parts of the car are most worn-out and most likely to break down in the coming future. I also took them for a ride to show the car runs like a clockwork. I thought I would deter them by claiming the interest from buyers does not convince me to get into haggling over the steep asking price (some 30 – 40% higher than average for a Megane II produced in 2003). It did not work. Just like other serious potential buyers they preferred to pay more than to buy a pig in a poke. Finally we agreed on handover of the car and the money on Tuesday evening, ahead of two days off which I take to handle (plenty of) formalities and to pick up the new car together with my father. I called off other buyers scheduled to show up in the afternoon.

As I write it I am not seriously convinced selling the car to somebody I know is a good step, yet in a situation in which they found the ad and got in touch with me, they could also take serious umbrage if I refused to sell them the car. I have chosen the lesser of two evils I was facing. I did not conceal anything from them, so I theoretically I should have no remorse. My main fear is that in the hands of someone who is learning to drive and who will almost certainly not look after the car as I did, the vehicle is more likely to pack up sooner than later…

A farewell to my first car, mine for over five years, marks an end of era of demonstrating being aesthetic (giving up a car has been out of question, not even because I find driving convenient, but because I find it pleasurable). In a financial industry, whose employees tend to show off their wealth, a guy who chooses to drive a car whose market value does not differ much from his monthly salary makes people wipe their eyes in astonishment. However more often they were amazed at the car’s condition which justified why I found it practical to possess it.

While staying indifferent to any sort of prestige associated with possessing a newer car, the upgrade brings two reasons to be cheerful: the new(er) car will be more friendly to my wallet and environment (fewer repairs in the coming years, lower petrol consumption and gas emission) and will give me more comfort, since probability of breakdown (and subsequent legwork and expenses) is also lower.

No more posts on this. I have driven this car several times, took in for three longer trips, know what the driving impressions will be. Megane IV is also a nice car, I had a test drive and I must say its only major drawback is that it could do with a larger engine that 1.2 litres 130 hp turbocharged engine, kind of too downsized for a compact car.

An intensive week ahead, take care!