Not so much looking down as across..

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Looking backwards and forwards

I reproduce below a note I wrote for a client in November '08, hours after Barack Obama had been elected and weeks after the first bailout of the Irish Banks. Some of the comments look dated already, but some of the issues will not go away and are as relevant as when they were first asked. I reprint the article here with some minor changes to protect client confidentiality. My conclusion on reading it again is that the existential question is larger than ever - exactly what kind of world we want to create? It's up to us, I believe....
A November perspective - 2008

Drinkers in Dublin pubs like most citizens of the developed world have been glued to their TV screens over the past month watching the recent financial roller coaster. We feel as if we have been on the fairground equivalent of the Financial Wall of Death without a helmet or a safety harness. October’s ‘Banks’ Bourne Identity’ has been replaced by November’s Modicum of (socialist) Solace. Whew, the Banks survived! – just about! We were just looking up the ancient rules of bartering when the World’s Central Banks gave the Banks a blood transfusion. The patient will survive, but in what state? And the Banks, having been given the gift of life by Nurses Paulson and King, will they pass on the gift of life to their customers?.(Aka money).

It is natural for us look at the short term and to wonder which Bank shares, if any, we might buy, which industrial shares to invest in, in which geography. It is possible we may be all missing the point. Time will tell if the world will evolve in a very different way not for the next year but for the next hundred years. This is based on the assumption that we are standing on a commercial fault line not seen since the industrial revolution (that beats even Brian Lenihan!).

Much of classic commerce and capitalism as we know it goes back to a pragmatic philosophy that people should have food on the table, a dwelling to protect them and occasional holidays to break the humdrum of the working life. This era was characterised by products that lasted – houses that lasted for decades, even centuries and were valuable for what they offered and not just for their site value. Warren Buffet in a sense is an old fashioned capitalist whose childhood saw the difficult but certain world of the thirties and forties.

The change came subtly at first in the sixties with the emergence of planned obsolescence. Phones that lasted thirty years were replaced with mobiles that barely lasted thirty months. The annual family break - often to relatives - was replaced by multiple weekend breaks. Clothes barely lasted a season and what we consumed or half consumed became a huge industry - the waste industry. What was ‘necessary’ was determined increasingly by advertisers rather than by the consumers.

The God of consumption and consumerism required ever more intensive farming, ever more exotic holidays, ever heavier cars, ever bigger burgers.. Cars like my own – Volvos with a life span of 20 years in their native Sweden never lasted beyond four years on the Murray driveway – until now! Families of ten that shared a house saw the nuclear family split, emerge and inhabit 6 homes.

It is possible that we will see a total reappraisal of what we need, who we are and where we are going. The following are a few possibilities:

Housing – adult children will spend longer living at home. Families where one or both breadwinner lose their job and cannot find re-employment may move back with the in-laws. Necessity is the mother of cohabitation. Grandparents will not be moved so quickly into €1,000 a week nursing homes but will be tended by children and grandchildren. Smaller homes – one and two bed apartments in some locations will be literally worthless. Bigger houses will become popular again. The extended family will make a comeback and families will support each rather than rely on the services of strangers paid by taxpayers.

Cars – Starting in 2009 people other than car buffs and higher civil servants will find the car they currently drive is perfectly good. Car maintenance classes will become more popular than ever. People will buy cars for less than the cost of sun roof and stereo system in a top of the range luxury car. Car dealers selling models below €20,000 will earn a modest living – the rest can retire. The number of petrol filling stations will decrease as people think twice about taking a weekend break in Killarney.

Holidays – our weather will ensure that people on alternative years escape our summer, but weekend hops to Barcelona and Prague will become a thing of the past. When you travel somewhere far – you will make sure it is worth the journey and you will stay there for a good period. We can cancel the new terminal in Dublin airport – we simply won’t need it. The working assumption that air passenger numbers will continue rising will be tested – I believe they will struggle to recover the boom numbers for at least twenty years. Airport Hotels will have to rely on customers other than air passengers. The good news is that even Ryanair will treat its customers well. There will be so few of us travelling they will know us by our first names.

Shopping will be different. Spanking new Centres like Dundrum will be the exception not the rule. Retailers will fall like October leaves over the next few months. The retailer of 2009 will agree only to turnover based rents. These rents will be much lower - perhaps 60% to 70% less. The owners of centres will find it a very different world. We will discover that we have far too much retail space. We can make do with what we have.

Financial Services. This industry will shrink by 60% to 70% at least. People who take deposits and make loans, who give insurance cover and provide simple pension products, will live long and happy lives. People who spent their lives at trading desks betting with others sitting at other trading desks will be retrained to grow lettuces. The trading desks around the world will be built into a pyre and burnt in a bonfire of vanities. Executives who worried that they might be poached if they were not paid many millions will be relieved of that worry. People of greater integrity and lesser financial ambition will be able to do their jobs an awful lot better.

Golf Courses – those traditional clubs with real members driving Ford Mondeo’s will thrive; the posh golf courses will be ploughed up and set aside for growing lettuce for which their will be an army of lettuce pickers.

Hotels – We will see the return of the family owner establishment where guests are welcomed by their first names. They will cater for christenings, weddings and funerals. Hotels that cater for product launches, management courses and corporate hospitality will disappear over the next three years to reappear only in text books of Irish social history 1999 – 2008.

Vegetables – we will rip up our decking in the back garden to plant potatoes and carrots – no need to worry about the lettuce, already catered for.

Healthcare – we will return to thinking small – realising that in most cases people want comfort and sympathy when ill – not consultants reports and MRSA. We will see local health centres. Sadly we will discover we just don’t have the money for all the centres of excellence and we will have to ensure that 90% of the money goes on 90% of the patients.

Stockbrokers – sadly they did not survive the great hunger of 2010

Conclusion – the next 20 years will be dictated not by what we want but what we need and what we can afford and what our battered world can sustain. There will be no need in Ireland, at least, to build anything new for 20 years – we have enough offices, houses, shops, hotels and golf courses to get by. Work and work places have the opportunity to become places of creativity rather than competitive stress. Bad news if you are a shareholder (who is going to tell my wife?) – the focus going forward will be equally on all stakeholders – workers, pensioners, customers, creditors. Entrepreneurs who create real products and real jobs will be cherished. Taxing employment will become illegal – employers’ prsi will be cancelled and employers will get refunds in the post with a letter of apology from the Minster for Finance. The world might just last a little bit longer and our grandchildren might just get to see snow in the arctic in the summer.(weekend breaks apart!).


4th November ’08 American re-Independence Day.

PS Thanks to those of you who follow from afar - I don't tend to look at statistics often but I was amazed and thrilled to welcome readers last month in the following (surprising?) order - Ireland, Germany, USA, Canada, Slovenia, Vietnam, Russia, Brazil and UK. The all time readership distribution is more predictable but still very encouraging (for me at least) - Ireland, followed by USA, UK, Vietnam - yes Good Morning! - Mexico, Netherlands, Canada, Spain, Slovenia and Russia. Thank you all and Cead Mile Failte!

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