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Friday, 5 February 2016

another spin of the dice?


I've been challenged to one of those weekend warrior step count things again this weekend.

I'll probably accept.

I seem to use metrics for quite a few things, although the main ones I publish on this blog usually relate to my cycling. As an example, today I cycled 20.3 miles.

A few recent conversations mean I'll be taking a closer look at some of my more financial metrics too.

Talking with a mix of friends and relatives over the last month or so indicate that it is an area that many of us neglect. Not the day-to-day bills so much, but more what the financial institutions are doing (or not doing) with our savings.

In my own case I wrote to one of the financial providers supposedly investing my money. It was part way through last year and although they charged me a regular fee for the 'management' of my investments, they somehow managed to lose quite a lot of the money. Something similar happened once previously when I had money stashed in an Equitable Life scheme that tanked.

This recent well-known organisation replied with some kind of standard letter about market volatility, but it just reinforced my view that there's still a lot of cavalier fee-chasers operating the accounts of people like me in the financial markets. Tellingly, the well-known original company (with ethical Quaker origins) had been taken over/renamed by another well-known company and then later that had been taken over by a third well-known company. Try finding the right part of their online system. I also noticed that recent written communication from the now de-mutualised organisation are now from offshore.

What also got me at the time was that they didn't bother to send me any notice of their poor performance other than an annual statement. I'm sure there's many other folk in a similar situation who don't even realise what has been happening.

I was drinking with a friend of mine who is pretty smart at all of this stuff, but he's also been zapped out of money through an opaque managed fund, and a different friend took IFA advice to put money into some funds that are suspiciously tax free when the money gets released in about couple of years. He feels a bit trapped into something that seems to be more like a sealed unit where he doesn't really know what is going on.

Someone else told me about an investment model which was causing them a few hiccups, and when I glanced at it on-line, the mechanics of the way the thing worked and what was in it were completely hidden. It reminded me of the section in The Big Short where no-one knew what was in the sub-prime housing funds.

Back to my storyline. It seems to be that these generally switched-on people are letting someone else do the work (i.e. through the payment of fees) but in practice the end result isn't particularly good. Not payment for resultant performance as much as payment for desultory performance. We all know the current economic climate remains poor because of all the prior banking mishaps and the losses are now running downhill.

The reality is that many people in regular employment have these types of situations, whether it is through savings in ISAs or investments towards pensions or similar.

I feel another metric in the pipeline.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

reading about Mabel the goshawk

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I've just finished reading the Helen Macdonald book 'H is for Hawk', about her very personal story whilst training of a goshawk. It's been a Costa book of the year.

It is a cracking read, about one person's coming to terms with changes in her life and with the raptor almost like a Philip Pullman sprite providing some of the counterpoint.

Helen drives from Cambridge to Scotland to transact for the goshawk, seen in an online advert.

Originally a different raptor was earmarked but this became her immediate preference. Then we hear how this captive-bred, 2 month old goshawk appears as “A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary."

I love Helen's writing style and the descriptions of the goshawk, wired for its hunting tasks with astounding eyesight operating across more spectrum than humans can see and with reflexes jacked for ultra fast flight transitions when on a hunt.

The goshawk gets the name Mabel. Apparently the best hawks don't have names like Hunter, Flash, Thunderbolt and so on - the more gentle the name the better spirited the hawk. Mabel, the lovable.

A goshawk takes immense patience to train and we get the sometimes stream of thought account of the odyssey.

Helen runs a parallel story of the hit-and-miss training of another goshawk, this one in the hands of the novelist T.H.White, best known for stories like 'The Sword in the Stone'.

In some part this whole book is steeped in a mono-obsession about every aspect of working with hawks whilst also a story with a real heart. Well worth a read.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

in which i accidentally shop in the wrong town


I decided that Southampton was completely broken yesterday.

We were in a dual lane of cars pointing towards the central car parks and it took us 90 minutes to drive the last 1000 yards to the entrance. That's about 0.4 mph.

When we eventually arrived inside the first available car park it signalled for us to go to the roof around a spiralling metal system and as we'd predicted, the whole area was full. After fruitlessly exploring two of the lower floors, we drove out and away from the centre, finding a space in a more out-of-town looking car park. Another 20 minutes.

I wasn't best pleased as we yomped around the temporary fences put up to block the shortest pedestrian route back towards our destination.

Later, we stopped at a well-known casual mid-range eatery. Fortunately we were chatting, because it took almost an hour for the starters to arrive. Our parking was almost expired and we had to ask them to hurry what turned out to be an insipid main course.

As we drove away, it took less than two minutes to drive beyond the end of where we'd been waiting on the inbound traffic jam.

I shall remove this from my list of desirable destinations.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

sharpening the eraser


Despite my recent winnings, I've decided its time to properly opt out of the national lottery.

Winning an occasional lottery lucky dip is rather pathetic and symptomatic of their attempts to get publicity by making the odds so high that the wins will be every 12 or so weeks and each time create free publicity. Only committed gamblers need apply.

My remaining small fund originally accumulated from tiny sales of the novel 'The Triangle' will go towards a new pencil.

Friday, 29 January 2016

morning maniac music


White tee-shirted Paul Kantner plays guitar on this, with Grace Slick singing. He was said to be the catalyst for the original band.

This slightly out of sync out-take didn't make it to the original movie.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

I finally get around to using the new improved Trainerroad with Sufferfest. All good. IWBMATTKYT .


My cycling speed and effort results had been plummeting this year.

I've been using my Tacx Bushido turbo with Trainerroad and it has all been going the wrong way. I'd Googled the symptoms of overtraining and so on, but it didn't feel as if I'd been overdoing it.

Could it be a residual mince pies effect from Christmas? Another year on my personal clock? I'm also doing Dryathalon January (no booze) so that should compensate to some degree.

I'd cleaned the bike gears and then relubricated them. It did make a difference to the way the bike felt but no difference to the Garmin readouts. I even changed all the sensor batteries. No difference. Maybe it was me after all?

Then I tried one of the Trainerroad Sufferfest videos. Big Clue. It wouldn't play properly. I retraced my steps. I'd run the update to put Windows 10 on the bicycle laptop computer sometime just before Christmas. It was during that time when I'd mainly turbo cycled lightly whilst watching Jessica Jones and Mr Robot episodes.

The stuttering video was the clue that although regular movies played okay, there was something amiss.

Download the latest Trainerroad and I realised there had been a major update. The software has been completely re-written although I must have missed the memo.

The 'new' Trainerroad (actually November 2015) is easier to user, cleaner and smooth again. Sufferfest is again zanily challenging. The Sufferlandians' motto of IWBMATTKYT holds good. The pulsing music pumps out again at the right beats per minutes.

My scores shot back into the right zone. If anything slightly higher.

Trainerroad can be used as a horizontal strip across the bottom of a laptop screen, leaving plenty of space for either a training video (like Sufferfest) or for a Netflix, Amazon, iTunes or plain ol' DVD. I've used it in all the combinations and really like the fast startup so that a cycling session can be underway in seconds.

I'll have to put January's low TSS scores down to my lack of technical wizardry and make do with the knowledge that I'm on the way to this year's mileage target. Normal service has, as they say, been resumed.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Hail, Caesar : would that it were so simple


I saw the trailer for the next Coen Brothers movie when I watched The Big Short.

(Mental Note: I'm almost reviewing a trailer here!)

It looks like a celebration of Hollywood's great celluloid movie ride. The basis seems to be George Clooney playing a forgetful actor in a Ben Hur/Bible style epic, with several other classic movies (sailors on the town/russian submarines/westerns/Busby Berkeley) being made on the surrounding sound stages.

The Coen Brothers seem to have packed it with well-known movie faces too, and there will no doubt be some twisted surprises.

Although the cinema trailer said 'Next Year', I suspect it really meant 2016.

Would that it were so simple. Here's a whole scene in the making...

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Big Short


I just watched The Big Short, the movie about the financial crisis of 2007-2008, brought about by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in the USA. It's based on what really happened and derived from the Michael Lewis book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, so the characters in the movie are based upon real people. Its not really spoilers to describe any of this, although the movie does dig into some of the Teflon-coated dishonesty rampant in the system.

This was the 2005-2008 era of creating rebundled mortgages (collateralised debt obligations/CDOs) and their even more arcane derivatives (synthetic CDAs).

Hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers that there's a time bomb in many US mortgages, when the interest rates change from the 'lure rate' to an ongoing rate at around three times as much, mainly clicking in during 2Q07. These mortgages have been bundled into packages generally labelled as Triple-A rated, despite their low quality (sub-prime) loan profiles.

He's not the only one on to this and a few other players also delve into the situation, which is more rotten than most could dream, based around a mix of greed and ignorance. There's also complicity from the regulators and later the government, which has to bail out the worst excesses to stop a complete crash of the US financial system.

I can understand that the subject matter might not be everyone's cup of tea, with all the financial lingo, but the movie makers recognised this too. From time to time we have little cutaway scenes like chef Anthony Bourdain explaining blended securitisation by comparison with seafood stew using three-day-old halibut and Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bubblebath, explaining the CDO marketplace to the cinemagoers.

There's a strong mainly male cast in this 'boys in Wall Street' movie with Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt among the players in what is a strong ensemble piece.

At one level its almost a caper story with the big short being the bet against the outcome (i.e. that the US property market will tank). It would be a caper except that the CDOs really happened and people were evicted from homes, lost jobs and billions were wiped out of real peoples' pension funds as a result.

Hardly any culpable bankers lost anything from this (although Bear Stearns and Lehman were toppled) although a Fed bail-out and quick Wall Street shuffle later and those that were out of jobs could just pop up again somewhere else.

Today we don't quite have the old-style CDOs, but the new emerging instrument is called a "bespoke tranche" opportunity. Yes, get ready for it to happen again.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

mystery shopping and a spark


A couple of days ago I showed a selection of items recommended to me by Amazon.

I worked out that they were components from inside of a toilet cistern. I don't think I'll be buying anything from that selection somehow.

The next day I was provided another Amazon recommendation. This time it took the idea of toilets, plus movie, plus German language and suggested this:

My guess is that it knows that I (a) watch Amazon Movies (b) have been watching a German language series recently (Deutschland '83) (c) something to do with plumbing, although I'm less sure where this has come from.

Separately from all of that, Marks and Spencer recently started a new Sparks card and sent me a special offer. I'd got just over 6000 points (I reckon 6000 points represents about £600 of spending).

There were actually five offers of similar value and I could select any one I liked! I looked for the best one. It was 20% off all eggs, in store, valid for the next six days.

Well, you can imagine how I wanted to rush to get that offer! I could save maybe 50p-60p on a dozen eggs if I hurried along - and if I selected the offer on-line first.

This is a new level of complication with a loyalty card. Offers that can only be pre-selected on-line ahead of purchase.

Now as luck would have it, when I was leaving the site, a questionnaire popped up. Normally I ignore them all, but I couldn't resist on this occasion. I like to think that my answers are why I got the explanatory email from Sparks about their offers not always being right.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

5 million barrels makes all the difference in the world


With all this talk of oil prices, I thought I'd have a look at the consumption and pricing graphs. All the press is reporting about volatility, pump prices and the re-entry of Iran to the marketplace,

I created the above slightly hand drawn graphs by comparing the barrel price with global output statements and an estimate of world demand. Notably the Nynex forward pricing appears completely bonkers with a barrel price swing of between $20 to $90 through to the end of 2017.

It looks as if no-one has a clue.

I was more intrigued to look at the sensitivity of the price around the break-even production point. It makes for interesting reading. Excuse my rough numbers, but they are close enough to illustrate the point.

The world consumes about 94.5 million barrels per day. When it produced less than this amount the (say 92 million barrels per day), the price was around $100 per barrel. On track where production equals demand it is around an America-friendly $65. Now the world is producing 97 million barrels per day, the price has dropped to $30 per barrel. That includes the Americans adding in shale oil, plus the Saudis increasing their output to hold market share and Iran coming back into the market after sanctions were lifted.

Those factors appear to affect the last 5 million barrels of production and crazily create the $70 swing in price.

Break even points are very different based upon which country is producing the stuff. Poke a stick in the ground in Iran and it will come out black from oil.

By comparison, the Americans in self-named Boomtown, USA (also known as Williston, North Dakota) are having to run high pressure fracking systems whose economically sound point is around double the current oil price.

Meanwhile tankers sit moored around the seven seas, each containing 2 million barrels of oil, today worth $60 million but possibly worth north of $100 million if sold at the right time.

This whole demand curve is strikingly non-linear, through a mix of politics and the sort of non climate friendly pricing algorithms that only machines can understand. Presumably there will be more roller coaster upsets through the rest of 2016 as the era of fossil fuels gets restructured.

Friday, 22 January 2016

inspired by my shopping trends?


Yikes.

It looks like a system error?

These robot shopping systems still have a way to go.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

no wavering from the agenda


Cameron pitched up at 14:00CET for his 30 minute handwaver, expressly about his four EU negotiation points before the Brexit referendum.
  • Competitiveness: The UK to push for stronger efforts to make the EU economy more competitive, through cutting red tape for business and deepening the single market. I suppose no EU country would oppose such a 'no brainer' but any direct steps will be hard to achieve in time for the referendum.
  • Sovereignty (nee Treaty): The UK insists on an opt-out from the EU treaty goal of “ever closer Union”. It also wants the EU to give national parliaments more powers to stall or reject new EU rules. For this one, the UK is likely to be given a written commitment that the Lisbon Treaty rights for national parliaments will be upheld. In other words, yes but it will take ages and committees to change the treaties.
  • Euro “ins” and “outs”: The UK wants safeguards that the Eurozone members can't outvote the non-euro countries on EU policies (especially financial services). It is predicted that with nine EU countries outside the euro, adjustments to voting should be feasible but will again take time to figure out. This was being discussed on the day the GBP was unexpectedly sliding to €1.30
  • Migration:Cameron has called for stricter rules on migration, in particular curbs on in-work benefits for EU nationals coming to the UK. This is the one where there is likely to be large disagreements, although possibly Cameron has built wiggle room into the 'four years qualifying period' part of his statements?

The upshot of it all was Cameron was able to say he'd like to conclude the negotiations by end February, but if it takes longer then so be it. I'm guessing he could get 3 of 4 but the migration one is unlikely to land unless there's some significant changes.

None of the questioners in the last 8 minutes mentioned that UK has 73 MEPs of which 22 (30%) are UKIP hardcore Eurosceptics determined to undermine UK's EU role.

Cameron also stated that he didn't need to have the referendum until end 2017. Perhaps an interesting way to manage UK expectations: announcing the potential for slippage from May 2016 in a 30 minute slot in Switzerland?

And we've just seen how useless the pollsters are, so I suppose the whole referendum vote will still net down to some sort of personality contest about who the voters want to kick out from (UK) office.