Front to back: A new language

This a-ha moment is brought to you by the French ‘R’.

In the past two months, I’ve been ‘secretly’ learning how to  speak French. I have always loved the French language but found its utility limited. For business reasons, I’m better off learning Chinese or Spanish.

But an upcoming holiday has spurred me to take the plunge and indulge my inner Francophile. Thanks to Duolingo, an app that brought gamification and language learning together, I am now a proud “Level 10” French speaker – according to Duolingo that is! There are 25 levels so I’m far from fluent but on the assumption that I won’t forget the words I have learnt so far, I can supposedly read more than 62% of all French text.

I have combined my Duolingo practice with an expensive $300-odd CD set called Fluenz. While I could have just gone through YouTube and not spent a cent, I think the structure provided by the Fluenz program keeps me focused on my objective: conversational French.

And for good measure, I’ve been watching French films: L’arnacouer, De Vrais Mensonges, Le Visiteurs, La Fie, Supercondriaque, The Intouchables, L’Aubergne Espagnole, Priceless, Amelie, Le Diner de Cons, It Boy, Populaire, etc. 

My problem at the moment is that I can confidently (ish) read and write French but NOT speak French, and this is because French introduces sounds that don’t exist in my mother tongue – the hard R and the dry R. There are also the subtleties in pronouncing words like vous and veut, and not pronouncing consonants at the end of a word (allez, regarder, manger) that separates the native speakers versus the non-native speakers. But mostly, like many, I struggle with the ‘R’.

I share this because I think many ‘new’ investors are the same: they are trying to learn a language that is unfamiliar to them. We are wired to spend and spend sooner, not save and save sooner. In a similar manner that the way the English ‘R’ is pronounced differently to the French ‘R’.

That said, learning a language can be extremely difficult, but with practice and familiarity comes proficiency and, ultimately, success. Here’s to someday soon learning how to say the French ‘R’ properly – and to more market newbies understanding how their investments work!

Au revoir!

 

The French R

 

Three reasons yoga made me smile tonight

No tension here!

No tension here!

I just did yoga tonight, for the second time in my life. Working in financial services, I can’t help but draw comparisons. Here’s three:

1) There are no ‘bulls’ or ‘bears’ in yoga. Tonight I did the downward facing dog and the gentle (gentle?) cobra. Both poses relieve stress, strengthen your spine and don’t cost you any money (nor make you some).

2) In finance, you need to be in the right head space. In yoga, you need to be in the right heart space.

3) Finance creates tension. Yoga releases tension.

#justsayin

The 40-Year-Old Yoga Virgin

An article series made of half-truths and hyperboles for the sake of my amusement. Flavoured with financial services references. 

***

If yoga instructors ruled the earth, we would all be lithe, luminous and lush human beings.

Also, Tony Abbott wouldn’t be Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, yoga instructors have better things to do than evil world domination – that role was left to Justin Bieber and boy bands.

And if yoga instructors worked in financial services, the hedge fund sector will die a sudden death.

I know this because after doing yoga for the first time today, I have discovered many things about how yoga works, how yoga instructors work and therefore, why financial services wouldn’t be their natural home.

Here are my observations to support this theory:

1) In yoga, you are encouraged to take your time. This is not the case in finance. Time – and speed – is of the essence. In yoga, slowness in encouraged. In finance, speed is.

2) It was an hour-long session. I was getting restless in half an hour, mapping in my head how I can introduce efficiency measures to reduce time on stretches.

3) I almost attended a yoga session when I was in London several years ago. But at that session, farting was encouraged. It is apparently natural to expel air when you are such in a relaxed situation.

In finance, farting is a silent but lethal career killer. A whiff of anything funny in the boardroom is unforgivable. In yoga? No big deal.

4) I was getting really drowsy that when she said, do the “Backward facing down dog” position, I thought I heard her say crazy dog. But even when I’m only half-awake, yoga instructions are easy to understand. Not like in finance where there is an entire language created that is indecipherable to most people. What Yoga would call ‘backward facing down dog’ position is called ‘reverse-leveraged-dynamic-strategic-physical-assets-balanced-allocation’.

5) “Open up your chest and allow your energy to go through your sexual column.”  Okay, so I made that up, but I’m pretty sure she said ‘sexual column’ at some point, referring to a stance where we stand and try and stretch our body with our palms over our head. I never knew I had a sexual column before so this was something new. In finance, we keep as much info close to our chest. Opening up our chest would be making ourselves way too vulnerable to the enemy.

6) There’s a position we were told to do: stand up, lift your knees close to your chest and hold for a minute. Then move the knee sideways. “If you fall down, just laugh it off and just try it again.”

That wouldn’t happen in finance. If you stumble, you get fired! Okay, not on the first fall. You get three warnings.

7) “This is your chance to be in the present. Nobody gets time to be in the present anymore. It’s all about the past and the future.” In finance, everyone’s about the future – with rigorous reference to the past. The present and ‘being’ is yoga as the future and ‘becoming’ is to finance.

What I really learnt is that I am quite inflexible and the stretches and pauses are a great antidote to my tense and boiler-room career.

Well, like they say, the more yoga sessions you do, the better you get at it.

And after just one session, I discovered a powerful lesson that I can apply in my life: everything happens in its own time.

Don’t judge me, I’m judging you

“To err is human, to forgive – divine.”

Not a day goes by when the financial services industry doesn’t go through a bout of self-flagellation.

If it’s not one faction hating on another, it’s a faction hating on itself.

For a gal like me who thinks of the world as an oyster, not a glass (full or otherwise), I can’t help but think those who are making most of the ruckus are not necessarily the ones to follow.

I called it #get80. So the industry at its present state has the attention of 20% of the population who seek professional advice, what about the 80% who don’t?

Aren’t we missing something here?

Sometimes I feel like I’m coming to the office to watch a train wreck where there are possibilities to be watching a rocket launch.

I have two choices: walk away or work with those who think there are solutions that will benefit the majority – and the minority.

Even one candle can light up a room in darkness.

Like a humming sound, the voice of reason could soon reach a crescendo and receive a thunderous applause from an appreciative crowd.

The industry won’t change overnight.

But it will. With or without the leaders who exist today.

Summer is coming.

How to wing a half marathon

Finishing the Blackmores Half Marathon today at 2:33:06 puts me at the bottom quartile of all the runners that finished the race today. If I were a fund manager and I performed that bad relative to everyone else, I’ll be out of business tomorrow. But this wasn’t about finance, and this wasn’t the Olympics neither. I am not an elite runner but among the thousands who love running and have decided to do the race against all odds.

Which made me draw the parallel between what happens on a race and what happens in the world of saving and planning for your retirement. Some of us are super-prepared for it and totally blitzes it all the way to the finish line, where a yacht and a villa in Tuscany awaits. But for the majority of us, the intentions are there but other things get in the way, like life, work, family, other commitments and Friday night benders.

Not that I was coming into a 21k-run cold. I try to run 7km on Sundays and on a good month, I go to the gym three times a week. But relatively speaking, I’m not in the league of those who wake up at 4am in the morning, stretches done and with an articulated plan on how to attack the race when the gun goes off at 6.20am.

In fact I broke some of the basic rules that I was supposed to follow before a long run. First, I didn’t store up on slow-burning carbs, I ate rice and Filipino dishes yesterday, plus three bowls of coconut-based dessert (called ‘ginataan’) and before I went to bed, I didn’t prep what I was going to wear and bring the next day. And I also forgot to buy bananas for brekky. Instead I woke up, slightly disoriented at 4.45am (the first alarm was set at 4am), spent a good five minutes finding the right pair of socks, then fast-walked it to Central station with coffee and a slice of white bread with peanut butter on one hand. It was a wee bit cold but I forgot to find a sweater I was willing to throw away on the day so ended up wearing one of my favourite green sweatshirts (it cost me $15 so I figured I’ll just have to buy another one – but it’s not the same!)

So what was the plan of attack? I kept it simple:

Rule Number One: Relax. Had I psyched myself to running the entire 21k-plus, I would have broken down at 2k. Instead, I knew that I can comfortably run/jog 5k so I split the run in four achievable target distances.

Rule Number Two: Try not to develop a stitch in the first third of the run. Once you’ve got a stitch, it’s all over. Every step would just be painful. I kept my pace tight and didn’t weave in and out of the slow and fast runners. I tried to run a straight line all the way to the first cut-off point.

Rule Number Three: Get a decent playlist, with your favourite songs playing during the final third leg of the race.

I got the first two rules covered but – and this is what happens when you don’t prep the night before – I was rushing this morning and, of the 20 headphones I had at home, I had to pick the dodgiest one. Result? No music on the third leg of the race because the headphones were cheapoes and my running broke one of the wires. This added at least a good 10 minutes to my time, fiddling around with it and trying to make it work!

Still, I finished. As for the photos, I just have to wait. If I get one decent shot (or two), I’d be very happy. I was, however, stoked, that on approach of the finish line, the announcer called my name. The wonders of technology.

I have now completed three half-marathons and after the first time (which was my best time), I always say to myself that I’ll train more and run harder. But it never happens. Like I said, life gets in the way. Just like in finance, we all want to save more, invest more time in learning about our investments, but we end up spending more time doing the things we also love, like watching reality TV shows and going out to the beach (hah!).

The important thing is you do NOT quit, you just keep running, even if it’s on a slower pace than you want. In the same way, you can’t just give up on doing what you need to do, to make sure you save enough money, even if it feels like an insurmountable task.

Having not trained, I could have just said no. I could have just skipped today’s run and said to myself: “I’ll go on the next one when I’ve got more time.”

Had I done that, I would have missed out on enjoying the beautiful day today: running under the early morning sun, on one of the most picturesque half-marathon routes on the planet. I would also have missed out on seeing my friend and his family, who flew all the way from Brisbane to Sydney just to participate in the run!

Reaching the finish line today taught me once again that you can achieve your goals if you put you’re mind to it.

Okay, there’s a catch. My legs are killing me and I’m pretty sure I’ll be walking funny tomorow, limping alongside others who, like me, have decided to take on the challenge.

But back to finance. Saving for later isn’t a sprint. You can’t just plan for your retirement when you’re fast approaching it or over short periods of time. It is a long, challenging and sometimes agonising pace towards your end-goal. As they say though: no pain, no gain. Not everyone can own a yacht or a villa in Tuscany, but you’ll never know unless you’re in the race, whether you can make that dream come true.

Genius!

The holy grail in the world of financial services is to make the concept of sorting out your finances a fun thing to do. From cartoons to clever turns-of-phrase, the past five years (or even longer) have seen more and more super funds and fund managers sharpen up their brand by “dumbing down” their campaigns.

The app that launched a thousand mammogram bookings

The app that launched a thousand mammogram bookings

I say it in quotes because “dumbing down” the message they want to share is probably not accurate. Just because you make the message more accessible doesn’t mean it’s any less important. I think people realise that they need to be on top of their finances, it’s just that they can think of better things to do with their time than go through product disclosure statements (PDSs).

So it was a pleasant surprise then when I saw the video clips from the Rethink Breast Cancer campaign (see below). Now here’s a fresh idea: instead of showing women getting their mammograms or applying scare tactics, let’s leave the audience feeling positive about the whole experience of being prudent with humorous clips.

This “your man reminder” app blitzes all other awareness campaigns I’ve come across hands down.

So here’s an idea, I’d like to call on the industry to learn from this very successful tip (55 million views for the first campaign) and get more people looking at superannuation.

Can you combine “unsexy” topics with “sexy” images? Yes, you can.

Your Man Reminder App – Coolest Breast Campaign Ever

This one takes the cake!

No disrespect to the person who said it but sometimes I find it incredibly difficult to stomach some of the finance jargon that the industry makes up today.

The phrase I came across was this: “qualitative commonsense overlay”.

Who says that with a straight face?

It’s not a hanging offence but this is finance, not poetry. Let’s keep it simple to understand.

I won’t say the exact words to protect the innocent, but this exchange of conversation between a journalist and a fund manager and his sales exec truly made my day.

Journalist: So what are you doing to help investors?
Fund manager: Well, we …
Sales exec (interrupts): We are conducting an informational insemination over the social media sphere.
Fund manager: (Sighs). We’re doing a blog.

Gold.

Why art and finance need to reverse roles

The chasm between art and finance became clearer to me after a whirlwind trip to Adelaide for the annual Cabaret Festival.

When you’re in the presence of greatness in art, you bathe in its light. Swim in it. When you’re in the presence of greatness in finance, it casts a shadow on your own survival. Drown in it.

The capacity for arts to accomodate great talent is infinite. For finance, it is finite – there is a market share that gets divided and someone else’s lion’s share means barely any for another. Not so with music and arts.

No question arts has its own encumbrances, bedevils and crutches. But if it boils down to it – to the core of who we are, how we feel and how we treat each other towards achieving one greatness or another, a million fans in arts versus a million dollars in finance, I’d say arts wins hands down.

Why then, does the arts community get scant funding when directly compared with finance-based activities. One suggestion is that arts is seen as a fringe activity. It doesn’t drive the economy the way the finance community does. One less painter is a far lower price to pay than one less banker – or so it seemed in the past.

But now we are staring at a cursed hour – a time when many investors empty pockets and broken dreams, a time when even the smart ones get it all horribly wrong.

There’s a famous quote running around on the back of one company underestimating how much money it has lost. It goes something like this, “a billion here, a billion there, before you know it, you’re talking real money.” Smart accounting is not new, but even those with enough smarts can’t massage the kind of financial blackhole that many finance houses could face if Europe implodes.

Yet a billion here, and a billion there for arts – lunch money in finance – have the capacity to transform lives in ways money can’t buy. A quality of living unmatched by lower and lower interest rates.

I think we’ve got it all wrong. The flow of money needs to be reversed. Someone needs to turn the tap off and hose down any delusional thought that an economic recovery – likely 5,7,10 years from now – can ever make up for the chronic underfunding in arts. Someone needs to hose down the idea that becoming a millionaire will always make you feel like a million bucks.

What price do you place on poetry that sparks a revolution, paintings that make people fall in love, or music that mellows your anger.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the economic crisis we find ourselves in. Yes, Australia doesn’t feel it as much but overseas, people have lost their jobs and savings because of botched investment decisions made by someone else on their behalf.

Let’s take a break. Let’s challenge convention. Let’s put arts in front of finance and not the other way around.

Imagine a world where the arts community gets the financial support it truly deserves. Maybe then there would be no global financial crises to deal with, because there would be no financial greed nor dysfunction to fix in the first place.

Baloney

An accident is when you slip on a banana peel or when you cross the road without looking and get run over by a car. Incorrectly reporting your smart phone app views is not an accident but sheer carelessness. I hope fairfax fixes the numbers asap. It’s classic maths: knowing the difference between sums and averages is not rocket science.

“However, a spokeswoman for Fairfax Media today told Mumbrella that the original data three months ago was wrong – rather than releasing a monthly average, the three months had been mistakenly added together and that page views on the platform had in fact grown this time round.”

http://mumbrella.com.au/fairfax-admits-accidentally-overstating-its-numbers-on-app-usage-91684

Up and Dow of the Chinese Currency

Mention ‘Texas’ to anybody and thoughts of country music and cowboys probably come to mind. But these days, a 37-year old Texan fund manager, Mark Hart III, is giving his state free tourism for another reason: he’s the same guy who reportedly shorted European sovereign debt for two years, including Greece’s, and lived to tell the tale.

He’s grabbing headlines again in yet another controversial play: a half a million dollar bet against the Chinese currency collapsing, which could net him as much as US$100 million if proven right.

I haven’t checked whether this deal is true (not surprisingly, he doesn’t talk to the media) so it could well be an urban legend of the finance variety. But if it was, and he got the Greek debt risk right, then global markets are facing a market outlier of epic proportions.

A respected US-based fund manager said that while he doesn’t think the Chinese renminbi would collapse against the US dollar (the hows and whys would be too long to explain here), it is an impossibility made possible by stranger-than-fiction investment world we live in today.

That seems to be the running theme for many investors: expect the unexpected. From bond managers reassessing sovereign risks (p.1) to exchange-traded funds becoming a product of choice in certain assets (p.16), the ground beneath the markets could remain unstable for years to come.

The question is, how will the local industry respond to an environment that is increasingly global? When a hedge fund trade in Texas can give some insight on extreme investment scenarios that, insane as they seem, could happen?

Yes, the world is upside down but it’s not going to end. Investors will find a way out of the next ‘unexpected’ crisis, but fortunes might just favour the brave – and the crazy.