After my wife and I saw a TV report on this year’s La Biennale, we got Venice fever. It was so fascinating that even before the emission was over our minds were made up: we had to go back. All the memories of our previous trip came flooding back – Giardini della Biennale, the old Arsenale shipyards – like it was yesterday. But would a trip to the Venetian Lagoon be possible at such short notice – right in the middle of the summer holiday season?
Poor Warren Buffett (that sounded odd); the bidding on eBay for a place at his annual charity lunch table was so tame the auction was ‘won’ for only one million dollars. Compare that to the bidding wars of the previous two years: in 2011 a lunch with the Oracle of Omaha cost the winner $2.63 million; and the entry ticket to his table at New York’s Smith & Wollensky steakhouse went for $3.46 million. So this year’s lunch was a veritable bargain. Alternatively, one could see it as a price crash of 70 percent.
There was surprise waiting for me in my mailbox yesterday. Nestled between the bills, newspapers and Whitsunday promotional offers was a silver package. It looked a little like a box of luxury chocolate pralines, but it made no sound when I shook it next to my ear. I was intrigued, until I saw the name of the sender:
It was just three months ago that I had to call the customer service hotline because my dishwasher broke down. The repairs came at a stinging cost of €320, a figure that was almost at the border of a decision to simply buy a new machine, so I had hoped I would have my peace for a while. In addition to the overpriced repair, the technician also wanted to sell me an insurance policy that would cover future repairs to this machine
I relish the chance to make a trip to the Black Forest whenever I visit my native Freiburg. Those woods have the magical ability to chase away all thoughts about financial markets and to stir up long-forgotten memories from my childhood. One such reminiscence on a recent trip was of the fairytale by Wilhelm Hauff, ‘The Cold Heart’. For those who do not know it, the tale, which was set in the Black Forest in the 19th century, recounts the misadventures of a poor charcoal burner named Peter Munk.
A tweeted link to a story about Margaret Thatcher caught my eye this morning, as it certainly did other readers. It related to an accusation by Australia’s foreign minister that Margaret Thatcher held ‘unabashedly racist’ views. The bold headline about the late Baroness’ xenophobia was well chosen; Bob Carr’s other recollections about the former British premier were rather glowing and therefore boring. This was the only titbit likely to generate a few clicks.
A generous waistline is my sin in life; diets are my suffering. It doesn’t seem to matter which diet I try, the kilos I fight so hard to lose always seem to creep back again. It makes no difference whether I try milkshake meals, WeightWatchers, or Atkins. The only difference is how much or how quickly the weight disappears at the outset. In every case, though, the missing kilos always wind up back where they seem to belong: on my waistline.
Strasbourg played host to the 20th Independent Wine Producers and Wine Fair last weekend. It was a great event: it not only gives wine-lovers the chance to sample hundreds of wines from every French wine region, it also provides an opportunity to meet the independents vintners who do the cultivating, the harvesting and the fermenting. Such encounters are often the starting point for lifelong relationships between wine producers and their customers.
Cost-cutting measures in one stressed investment bank have reached such an extreme that bankers will have to forego a coffee service during their meetings from now on. Admittedly, the saving is hardly likely to felt on the bank’s bottom line; like cancelling the newspaper subscriptions,
Even without a New Year’s resolution my visits to the sports studio are three times per week these days. ‘Don’t you get bored pounding that wretched Cross-Trainer week-in, week-out,’ I am sometimes asked. Mercifully, there are TV screens on the wall in front of the machines; they provide a welcome distraction, but the training can still be very tedious. What’s more, I cannot resist looking at the clock to see how much longer I have sweat before I can finally get off.
A tiny section is reserved in every newspaper for prior errors, typos, misunderstandings and other bloopers to be publicly set right. These errors are often mildly embarrassing for the editor so, in the eyes of the reader, a printed admission of guilt is punishment enough and makes everyone feel better. The erratum published in yesterday’s Financial Times might be a little more difficult to digest for some readers though. It also provides an interesting demonstration of how cognitive dissonance is reduced and induced.
Recently on the beach, I overheard the solemn pledge of a generously-proportioned Austrian. He adjusted his unflatteringly tight bathing trunks, leaned over to his equally corpulent companion, and promised: “By the time we go on skiing holiday, I swear I’m going to lose 10 kilos.” She didn’t seem to take the oath too seriously, as she simply shrugged her shoulders and went back to her magazine. I only briefly observed the scene while passing yet, strangely, I can’t seem to get it out of my head.
In a column for the online edition of a popular financial publication, I recently told the tale of my friend K. He is a very forward-looking kind of person. Since years, he has anticipated the imminent break-up of the eurozone and the social unrest that would invariably follow. In preparation, he stuffed his home safe with gold coins and Swiss francs, and stocked his cellar with canned foods. It seems, however, the eurozone has taken a little longer to disintegrate than he had expected as much of his canned food has already reached the end of its shelf life. In order to avoid waste, he is now obliged to sit down to rather more tinned Ravioli dinners than he would like.
Moving house is one of life’s most stressful events. It costs sweat, nerves, and usually a handsome sum of money too. For that reason, people tend to stay put, avoiding all unnecessary changes of address. For us, though, even though we moved into our rented apartment a little over a year ago, change is again in the air.
When I learned recently that you actually had to pay to lend the German government money for two years, I couldn’t help but wonder what my late mother-in-law would have said. In the last years of her life, rest her soul, she complained how little pocket money she had because of the low yields on her savings, wholly invested in German Bunds. Back then, at least, the average coupon on the bonds in her portfolio was around four per cent, so she could still afford the odd indulgence. And this is precisely how she saw the income that flowed each time she cut a coupon, as income that she could use to treat herself to something nice. It wasn’t like income from other sources, or even like the capital that begat the coupon. This money was segregated from the others in her head – in a so-called mental account.
We managed it for a second time: almost two weeks on holiday with our three kids in Venice. It was our second an urban vacation, but this time with gorgeous summer weather. In stark comparison to the veritably chilly weather back home, Venice treated us to temperatures north of 30°C. And there was no sign of economic crisis; the sole exception being the prevalence of cash receipts. For every scoop of ice cream, the cash register cranked out a receipt. Whether the effort was really worth it, given that the vast majority of tourists simply left it on the counter without looking, is another question. I didn’t dwell on the subject too long though as I was determined not to squander even a minute of my precious vacation thinking about debt, deficits or austerity.
As our vacation residence was in Cannareggio, a neighbourhood somewhat off the usual tourist track, we just had to try one of the charming local bistros that one can find tucked away in the corner of a tiny public square or adjacent to a picturesque waterway. The food was great, the wine reasonably priced, and the children, for once, well-behaved. Everything was great, until the bill came.
We live on the second floor of an old three-storey apartment building, without elevator. From the street level to our floor, there are precisely 59 steps. I can’t remember the day I first counted them, but it must have been when my son was a little baby. I would bundle him under one arm, hoist a clutch of shopping bags on the other, and clamber the two flights. Since then, though, he has become so heavy (the shopping too), this feat is no longer possible. I have to bring the shopping to the top first and then come back down for him.
There is hardly anybody left who believes that savings achieved through austerity measures will not hinder growth in peripheral Europe. At the same time, high and rising debt burdens also have a negative impact on economic performance. Countries are stuck in a vicious circle. Yet, it is clear that somebody must bear the burden of sovereign and bank debts. The challenge here is to craft a version of this burden-sharing that isn’t totally self-defeating and that is as hedonically-favourable for those concerned.
Radiohead in an open air concert at the legendary ‘Waldbuehne’ in Berlin, a babysitter on hand for our son in the form of my sister, who lives in the German capital, and the two of us enjoying a balmy July evening. Yeah – we had this wedding anniversary all planned out. At least, that is what we thought when we bought the tickets last winter.
I have been engaged in a fruitless search for a new mattress for weeks. I have come up short, but not for want of alternatives. On the contrary, the abundance of choice is precisely the problem. Looking back, I recognise now how woefully unprepared I was the first time I went into a bed store. The only thought I had was that the old mattress had to go. I hopped up onto the nearest bed; it felt absolutely divine. For comparison, I then tried out three other mattresses, but still had the impression the first was more comfortable. My mind was all but made up, and then I heard it. It was a little voice in my head that said: “You’re not just going to buy the first mattress in the very first shop you visit, are you?”
“If only days like this could last forever,” sang Die Toten Hosen. These are perhaps not the kind of romantic sentiments one might expect from a punk band, but they are certainly ones that almost all of us can identify with. Every now and again, those special moments in life come alone when we think how great it would be if we could only stop time.
The conviction of Rajat Gupta, (the former head of McKinsey and ex-board member of Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble) is being seen as a milestone in the long crackdown on insider trading by US prosecutors. Gupta was found guilty even though he did not personally benefit from the crime and the conviction was secured largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. By setting the bar lower than the usual standard for conviction, the prosecutors hope to establish an effective deterrent for would-be insider traders. It could be working: the UK’s financial market regulator, the FSA, has revealed that there has been a dramatic decrease in unusual trading ahead of the London-listed M&As. Among other things, it attributes the decline to the much-debated Rajat Gupta trial.
Third, second, third – this has been the series of achievements of the German national football team in major tournaments of recent years. It starts with the World Cup in 2006, followed by the European Championships in 2008 and then the World Cup again in 2010. Now, after a blazing trail in the group stages and a convincing performance against Greece in the quarter-finals, Germany is poised to battle for a place in the finals this week in the European Championship in Poland and the Ukraine. The yearning for a title win is palpable.
I have had many and varied experiences with the major hotel chains and their individual establishments. Some have been good, but most have been a let-down. So I tend to aim high when choosing a hotel in the hope of avoiding the worst. That was my thinking when I reserved a room at the five-star Ritz-Carlton in Berlin; my belief was that one couldn’t go too far wrong with that.
Classicalmusic doesn’t figure very highly among my musical preferences but I have been known to attend the odd concert when particularly celebrated artists perform. In the past few years, encouraged by my wife, I have learned to appreciate the finer side of violin and viola, as well as the talents of musicians like Sol Gabetta, Nigel Kennedy or Uto Ughi. So my ear is familiar with the sound of bow on string. Yet, even though I may be more attuned to classical music than many, I am not sure that I would not have been taken in by this extraordinary experiment.
My son came down with a frightful case of bronchitis recently. He wasn’t able to go to the kindergarten and I was obliged to stay at home to nurse him back to health. Skipping three days off work left me with a bad conscience. Even though I had a good reason for my absence, I didn’t feel good at all. However, had I done things differently, i.e., gone to work and had someone else look after him, it probably wouldn’t have felt any better. With the knowledge that his infant immune system was besieged by a high fever and a wrenching cough, I might have spent an unproductive day worrying about his well-being.
My friend has just switched jobs. She is a lawyer and decided to accept the offer of a former colleague to join him at his new firm. Things like that happen all the time in the law business. In this case, though, she was not the only one to have been lured away – many members of staff received an offer of a job at the new firm and all of them, like her, wanted to accept. Wary of the huge shock that at mass exodus would have on the firm’s boss and on the remaining staff, my friend wondered whether there was any way to mitigate the ‘damage’ so that good relationships wouldn’t be spoiled nor ill-feelings left behind.
My daughter’s class is doing a project on the European Monetary Union. Before you ask, the class is economics, not history. I briefly looked over some of the course material at the weekend. Naturally, everything had been published before the debt crisis and therefore spoke of the political and technical achievement of monetary union in what now looks like overly-glowing terms.