Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hurricane HaHa

If only I had decided to spend this past weekend in some remote forest, completely cut off from civilization, without network coverage would I still believe that Irene was just Sherlock Holmes' evasive love interest. Given the continuous hammering given by the news channels and news websites, I have no choice but to know now, that  Irene is/was also a hurricane. Hurricanes are not new to the US, with places like New Orleans, North Carolina, and even provinces like Puerto Rico, Bahamas being so used to hurricanes, that they have an additional season - the hurricane season. But Hurricane Irene came and went like a breeze. Except that the media refused to let it just go! And decided that everyone else had to endure non-stop hammering with senseless, meaningless news all day long. Rains ensured that one couldn't step out. And news channels ensured that one could not tolerate sitting inside the house. Why did I spend time watching the news? Well, soaps need some conditioning to get used to (pun intended), Netflix was being rude and after a while the idiocy of the news got super hilllarious!

So what started as a category 4 storm projected to hit North Carolina, got downgraded to category 2 by the time the weekend approached. And when it finally arrived over the weekend, it became a category 1 or rather a tropical storm, much like the winds that lash Mumbai's sea face during the monsoons. But the hype had been built, the speeches written and Bloomberg exhorted New Yorkers to buckle up and face this adversity, as they were after all living in the 'world's best city'. Clearly he hasn't visited Tokyo, or Paris or Mumbai! And Fox and CNN had found a reason to finally ditch Gaddafi. They started 3 days before the weekend with continuous analysis of the storm, and expert views on which way the wind should ideally blow. Then followed a big discussion of the psyche of New Yorkers who were worried about the hurricane, given that all they've faced so far was light rain in the wake of hurricanes hitting elsewhere. There were special reports with people saying that they were stocking up ropes, wooden boards, flashlights, clearing up their patio and worrying about what they would do in the wake of the wind! Then the hurricane arrived and in typical 'Khoda pahaad nikla chooha style', it ended up being a whooshing wind with some rain.But the stories continued. They had to, given that they had already ditched Gaddafi. So came a video of a rotund guy swimming in shin deep water on 160th street with the newscaster proclaiming how New Yorkers, as always, found something positive to turn any situation around, saying, "What do you do when life hands you lemons? Make lemonade!" People, on their part, took the cue and got scared. Definitely in NYC, and also all over the east coast. Bread vanished from shelves in my nearby grocery store, and flashlights and batteries are still missing!

Unfortunately, the crumbling infrastructure ensured flooding ensued and swaying old trees broke on electricity cables rendering a greater part of the east coast powerless - literally too! So the vanished flashlights perhaps came to good use, given that 4 days after a wind blew, most gas stations still don't work. and a greater part of East Coast Americans are out of power. Floods were all over the place. Basements flooded, people complained, and Tylenol ads have since been on an overdrive.

Mumbai, on an average has faced rains. Our prediction systems are not as wonderful, and no one knew 26 July 2005 would inundate all of Mumbai. Almost every year we have intense rains, leaky ceilings, waterlogged roads, and transport is painfully slow. But somehow, the panic is never there. No vanishing flashlights, no stockpiling of food, and no weather channel on primetime television. I must say, people here, the media in particular have psyches as volatile as the weather! Given a choice, the media could sense a breeze and call it Hurricane Haha and all of America would definitely react!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Anna Hazare is not following FB and Twitter posts

A movement that began in April with an Independence Day ultimatum is on in full force now thanks to Anna Hazare, a man known best for his developmental initiatives - Ralegaon Siddhi in Ahmednagar in particular - a drought-prone village which began seeing year-round water supply, a grain bank, a school and no poverty after his efforts rallied the villagers into becoming self-sufficient and empowered. The blatancy of the Commonwealth scam, the 2G spectrum allocation scam, shamed the average Indian, but a sense of 'what am I going to do, anyway' crept in as always and we kept watching the TV screens in horror as scam TV started hogging prime time TV space! Till one day, one man decided that enough is enough. A man with a track record, given that his crusade got the Right to Information act enacted and this act has benefited people by the millions! Very good! It is high time someone told our Government that we are a democracy and though we may be too involved in the throes of everyday life, at some point, some of us care about how we are perceived in this small world!

His protest has managed to galvanize the average Indian, and that is heartening. It feels good to know that people are gathering in places to express their solidarity and also joining Anna Hazare in his fast. Finally, after putting up with terror attacks, the Government's damp squib responses to terror abatement, image damage in the wake of scams, the average Indian perhaps believes he has had enough. And Bravo to that!

But while the protest has managed to rally people together against the ineffectiveness of the Indian Government, it has managed to stoke the imagination of the 'Social network patriot', as I'd like to call that breed! The timing of Anna's protest has been very opportune for the average Indian. Tahrir Sqaure is fresh in everyone's mind and the Facebook Revolution has seemed like a fun thing to do for everyone! People suddenly got fired up, seeing how one FB message overthrew the rulers in Tunisia and 40 years of dictatorial rule in Egypt, and completely shook up the Middle East. Urban India suddenly wanted their own Facebook saga. And the tweets and status updates began in April and lasted a couple of days. And on August 16th, they began again. Trite comments like "Anna...I am with you" or "Down with corruption" are all over the place. And I wonder why. Does someone believe that these messages are going to scare the Indian Government? Does someone believe that FB updates are going to be collected and sent by Anna Hazare to the Government? Does someone think that such messages imply patriotism? I still remember how in 2008, when Mumbai was besieged by Kasab and his cohorts, a friend of mine in the US kept asking me in Mumbai for updates, as he wanted to update his tweets and report about the attack in real time on Twitter! Why, I exclaimed then and I ask now.

If one really wants to 'Root out this evil corruption', one needs to realize that we are ourselves at fault. And little drops do make an ocean, but not on Facebook. One must stop rolling that 100 rupee note inside his palm while whispering to the traffic policeman - 'Kaka, zaaoo dya na', when booked for a traffic offence. One must stop investing in houses where the 'black' or unaccounted and untaxed cash component is 5 times the white or taxed amount. One has to stop bribing Ticket Collectors on trains while traveling ticketless. And then, when every young Indian is rallied in this manner, it makes sense to ask the Government to 'root out this evil', by looking at the pay scales of Government employees who are most prone to bribery. We can then ask the Government to enact laws that have a self-correcting mechanism when it comes to corruption.  We can ask for better transparency in property deals and the like, and that can in effect root out asset bubbles! 

And  then we can show that the final power does indeed lie with the people, when we choose not to elect a corrupt government. The power does lie in our hands, but not through 'hip and happening' social networking routes which go more like 'one status update, a dozen likes, end of story.' True power needs true words and real, sustained action.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Darwin in today's world

'Survival of the fittest' screamed Darwin in the 1800s while explaining his theory of natural selection in the process of evolution. Not many believed him and he was accused of heresy, by none other than the Church, which for all purposes lies at the peak of civilization and knowledge. Or so it was believed. What Huxley, Darwin's earliest and strongest supporter should perhaps have told him is, "Don't you worry, Charlie old boy! When the world enters 2010 and beyond, they will learn to believe!"

Now, welfare states are those exalted nations that have amassed enough wealth, so as to be able to provide for the basic needs and more, for their people. So, if they're poor but American or French or Italian or Spanish or plain developed nation citizen, they'll still eat, get healthcare, pocket money courtesy dole, etc etc. In other words, even if one is unfit, one survives and how! In a way better than an average working lower middle class Indian! In other words, someone, in this case the government covers up for all faults and incompetencies of its citizens. Now what happens if a greater part of the nation goes 'poor'? The coffers don't have enough! And all hell breaks loose, as on London roads today or Athenian roads a year ago!

Immigration, which perhaps is the reason why Canada, UK and to a large extent the US has thrived so long while Japan decayed, is called into question and threatened. For suddenly, someone fitter and more motivated is willing to work more and hard and get maybe 70% of a citizen's worth,which in itself is perhaps a three fold growth for him compared to his status in his native country! Gaps between the haves and have-nots grow. Tensions ensue. Cities burn, minor issues become burning issues. Frustrated people with no means, looking at a fast depleting national coffer, take to the streets. As is the case on London streets today.

We've seen it all at the Bastille, but we somehow believe that world citizens have evolved over time and so we condone the signs! The same we, who did not believe in evolution and survival of the fittest in the first place. Maybe it is high time we sat up and took notice or we shouldn't complain if we face the guillotine.

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Curious case of the S&P

A man is known by the company he keeps, was something told to me ages ago in a Moral Science class - a not-so-liked 8 AM class, in school. A true example of which I got to see from very interesting times in global markets! For all the dreary, sad, somber economic news doing the rounds, the least one can do is to (like self-help artists would say), 'step back and look at the situation'.

So, Obama came into office after inheriting an economy in a shambles. People believed they had not elected a President, but rather Mandrake the Magician (With the wand), Superman (out of this world capabilities) and Batman (if not anything, maybe Bruce Wayne's resources) rolled into one, to office! And so, when the economy sputtered, stalled, regressed, threatened to sink, there were cries of 'Oh No! US might default on its loans.' In the wake of PIIGS (not the cute tailed pink oink oink creature, but rather the mild name given to Portugal, Italy, Iceland, Greece and Spain  who look all set to go down under, unless Chancellor Merkel works her magic wand), everyone imagined a PIIGSU! They were afraid of uncharted territory, where risk free rate of return would no longer be treasury rates. Afraid of the face loss in case the US defaulted. Afraid of the country's debt being downgraded. So after two weeks of political tamasha, with Republicans acting like the typical 'chick flick leading ladies', who in their heart of hearts want to be wooed by Prince Charming, and yet wish to play hard to get. They did not want the accompanying face loss of default, while at the same time did not want to relent to Democrat plans! Outcome, in typical Cinderella style, the deal was signed by the stroke of midnight! Well almost, 'the stroke of midnight' was for a dramatic effect. The default was averted, Government salaries would be paid, over time prudence shall prevail. Amen - was the belief.

But then, in Munshi Premchand novel style, we have an anti-climax. S&P still downgraded the US to AA+. Note, Moody's and Fitch maintained AAA. Much ado over nothing? Clearly! 2 weeks of political blahblah, and the outcome was the same. If anything, further stimulii have been effectively canceled owing to the deal! Optimists believed that the downgrade might lead to weaker USD, better exports, and a probable recovery. But as markets are quick to reveal today, all kinds of cracks are showing up. Stocks tanked, oil stank, Gold soared. What do you do, when safe haven currency gives you the slip? Buy that which women shall covet forever. Not Adonis, but Gold!

Not just so much, but everyone associated with Treasuries is being downgraded unceremoniously too. Clearly S&P has been rubbed on the wrong side by the Government as a whole. So first the Govt was downgraded, and now anyone with a glut of Treasuries faces downgrade. The Saint of Omaha, who is famous for his own Coke story and for famously declaring in the wake of the debt crisis that US needs a Quadruple A rating, finds his Berkshire Hathway demoted from AAA. Why? Because he holds Treasuries.The question here is - what happens to the largest holder of Treasuries? As in, the mighty fire-breathing Chinese dragon? Do we downgrade the country to the level of junk?

And a bigger question is - why exactly should we believe S&P? Weren't they the ones responsible for the credit crisis in the first place? FannieMae and FreddieMac believed S&P ratings while securitizing mortgages, faced a beating, and now S&P has the nerve to downgrade them too?!!!? In summary, all one can say is that the Great Recession story just got curioser and curioser!!!