Casually sinister, Prime Minister

Headlines are often misleading, usually written by someone other than the article’s author.

Regardless of that, the casual manner in which this is written, seemingly without considering the alternate ways it might be read and received, is truly frightening:

Earn“. As in, “earn” your freedom.

…more app downloads are needed“. All that’s needed to complete the sentence is, “or else“.

Perhaps the headline doesn’t reflect the facts contained within the story. After all, the Sydney Morning Herald had hundreds of headlines about Russian hacking of various elections without providing any evidence within those articles.

Sadly, no; The Prime Minister really went there:

About 3.6 million people, or 15 per cent of the population, have downloaded the CovidSafe app, used to determine who has had contact with an individual carrying the virus, since its release last Sunday. This is far short of the government’s target for 40 per cent adoption, with a focus on those over the age of 16.

“That is the ticket to opening up our economy – to getting people back into jobs and getting businesses open again,” Mr Morrison said.

Great. Suddenly that “voluntary” app (that still hasn’t had the associated privacy legislation passed, by the way) is starting to feel a little less of a free choice with no negative consequences for conscientious objectors.

In fact, who else wonders whether, if 80% of the population vote “nien danke” to the app, there won’t be further legislation defining what public services and spaces one is unable to use without showing it running on your device?

Bill’s Opinion

The opinions about this app are polarised. It’s yet again another Brexit/Trump/gay marriage type issue; if you’re on one side of the conversation, you are able to loudly express your opinion without fear of censure. The other side, however, sit quietly seething in the knowledge they will be shouted down for even suggesting there may be a microscopic smidgen of merit to the suggestion the app is government overreach.

Personally, I’m not downloading the app voluntarily. If I find myself restricted in society as a consequence, I’d reconsider that for precisely as long as it takes me to emigrate.

The question would be at that point, to where? The entire globe seems to have pivoted overnight to a socialist, Keynesian, semi-authoritarian dystopia.

Appy clappy people of faith

Whenever there were skirmishes in satellite states during the Cold War, some wag would always crack the joke that, to compensate for being late for the first and second world wars, America was determined to be early for the third.

Now that the data starts to arrive from many locations around the world suggesting the infection fatality rate of the Kung Flu is a fraction of the first estimates, governments are demonstrating the sunk cost fallacy to compensate for their previous tardiness.

One example is the multiple “tracing” apps developed for mobile phones, ostensibly to enable the tracking of contacts once an individual has been diagnosed with the virus.

Both the UK and Australia have launched their versions of this, despite the now obvious fact that the health systems have not been overwhelmed and the less obvious but increasingly likely calculation that the death rate is only a little higher than seasonal ‘flu, a risk we have long since accepted as part of daily life.

This is a classic sunk cost fallacy – spending money on this development was possibly the right decision at the time given the contemporaneous information, but events have overtaken us in the meantime, yet we are still pressing ahead with the roll out.

The Australian app is particularly pointless; new cases have decreased to a trickle and happily, new deaths are in the single digits. An Australian resident currently has more chance of winning the lottery jackpot than meeting an infected person.

Yet, the app was launched yesterday to much fanfare and, frankly, virtue signalling by our media-political class. “Download this app and save lives“, is our generation’s “Dig for victory“, it would seem.

What is most remarkable is the cognitive dissonance required to accept the triple proposition that this app will, 1) be effective, 2), won’t be used maliciously or for a new purpose and 3) won’t be subject to the usual data leaks, cyber weaknesses and failures of every government IT project.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Australian Federal government and all of its security and intelligence departments couldn’t prevent “a sophisticated state actor” from hacking the parliamentary email system.

Ah, those naive and simpler days back in, erm, February last year.

What is most remarkable though, are the loudest voices proclaiming their virtue regarding the questionable app.

The same people who recently were ascribing mendacity and duplicity as motives to the current governing political party with regards their actions on refugees, climate change, bush fires, Julian Assange, same sex marriage, etc. are now the loudest voices calling for absolute trust in both the motives and competency of the current administration.

You can find your own celebrity examples of this, I’m sure, but even the most cursory wander in the sewers of social media will provide evidence of this miraculous volte face by the government’s previously most vociferous critics.

Bill’s Opinion

I would like to offer a pertinent and relevant axiom;

Anyone who believes the government is benign and/or competent has either never met a politician or civil servant or has achieved an almost Jedi level of cognitive dissonance.

Risky business

Over the last few decades, there has been a proliferation and expansion of career categories and roles within large organisations, many of which add dubious value to their stakeholders.

Examples might include the exponential growth of the previously named “Personnel” department; the size of the Human Resources’ departments as a ratio of the entire company has generally expanded exponentially since, say, the 1980s.

This spawned the utterly pointless diversity military industrial complex, based mainly on a ridiculous 1989 essay by Peggy McIntosh.

Another example, perhaps less obvious, is the Risk department.

Financial institutions in particular, have an increasing footprint of staff with “Risk” in their job title. For those who have been lucky enough to not work with these people, “risk” is a code for “no responsibilities“.

Being a “risk professional” means never having to be accountable for anything.

That might sound like an inflammatory statement but it’s easily empirically-checked; there have been plenty of documented failure in organisations’ risk management over the last few years. Examples include Wokepac’s Paedophile Enablement Programme, CBA’s Mafia Laundry Scheme, and dozens of leaks of personal data by private and public sector organisations.

How many of those resulted in the resignation or firing of the most senior risk officer? Perhaps you could let us know in the comments if any “risk professional” lost their job as a consequence.

The Audit team, at least, serve a useful purpose of checking compliance occurred as required for critical activities. By contrast, the Risk team are generally worse than useless as they advise on avoiding things that might happen. Proving they have helped is an impossible task as it is like proving a negative; the car didn’t crash because we took the keys from you.

Risk is one of those departments capable of parthenogenesis. Decades ago, risk was mainly a safety or financial function; what can we do to not kill workers or how do we hedge against this financial transaction going to shit?

These days though, all sorts of risks are documented in Excel spreadsheets or expensive software products that are just glorified versions of spreadsheets. Risk “professionals” in a crappy mediocre retail bank pretend they can somehow quantity geopolitical risks or mitigate for earthquakes in Indonesia by facilititing post-it note workshops and acting like over-promoted junior police officers bullying and pestering those people whose job it is to actually generate revenue.

The science behind risk management is complete bollocks. Depending on which source you select, you’ll be shown a complicated methodology which pretends it can somehow grade probability and impact to provide a credibility-lite relative score of the risks to the organisation.

Of course, with all models, the input parameters and assumptions behind the calculations are critical to the likely accuracy of the result they give. GIGO – garbage in, garbage out.

The people in these risk roles are never impressive individuals either. As with any kind of critic, they are most likely providing feedback on people whose job they simply couldn’t do themselves.

Those who can, do.

Those who can’t, teach.

Those who can’t even teach, measure risk”.

An classic example comes to mind from my recent experience in an Australian bank. My interlocutor was a chap who seemingly had made a career out of being deeply unpleasant.

In one of those frequent coincidences with ugly personalities, he was also physically repulsive; no chin, terrible dentistry, a lopsided face (think Thom York without the talent). Better still, he suffered from extreme rhoticism; he pronounced “th” as “f” or “v” and “r” as “w”.

Hi, I’m ve genewal manager of wisk and I fink we must gwade vese wisks“.

We once had an illuminating conversation over a corporate slide deck; there was wholesome picture of a young child on scooter. The kid was wearing a helmet and open-toed shoes. We had an argument about which was the greater problem.

My view; it’s almost certain the kid will rip her foot whilst scooting.

His view; if she bangs her head she might suffer a brain injury.

He seemed somewhat offended when I asked him how many children he had (spoiler alert; none, and little chance of that changing).

So how did it go for us, corporately and in government, with this massive army of risk managers keeping us safe?

Bill’s Opinion

Just as the lawyers of the world mainly missed writing the word “pandemic” in their definition of Force Majeure, the Risk team in most organisations have completely failed to do their job.

Of course, the most likely response to this will be to hire more, not fewer/better risk managers.

Wince and wepeat.

Freedom ‘20

1993

Many lifetimes ago, a young worker in the City of London watched as, in response to a large IRA bomb attack, armed police officers were deployed to patrol the streets and the road entrances to the area had permanent checkpoints installed and manned around the clock.

That young worker watched in horror as his fellow citizens happily accepted this radical change to the method of policing in response to a single event which, arguably, was a result of a multiple failures of policing and intelligence-gathering (for example; how did a purchase of 1 tonne of ammonia nitrate go unrecorded?).

2001, 2005, 2006

Eight years later, further radical changes were made to anti-terror legislation following the 911 terror attacks in New York and Washington DC. A further increase in powers was implemented in 2005 and yet again the following year as a reaction to the London attacks in 2005, including the ability to hold suspects without charge for 28 days and impose house arrest without a conviction.

Similar legislation was passed in other countries throughout this period.

Australia, for example, has passed 82 anti-terrorism laws since 2001. It might be argued that, given the comparative low level of attacks since 2001 (12 deaths, including the perpetrators) in Australia, this legislation has been incredibly successful. An alternate opinion might be that there’s been significant overreach relative to the low level of domestic threat.

2018

A decade following the financial crisis of 2008, Australia passed the Financial Sector Legislation Amendment (Crisis Resolution Powers and Other Measures) Act 2018 creating further powers to handle future financial crises.

The media scrutiny of this legislation was woefully shallow, otherwise you might have read somewhere, anywhere, that the legislation allows for “bail-ins”. That is, the funds in your bank account can be accessed by the Reserve Bank of Australia to bail out the retail banks.

2020

In response to the unclear threat of the China virus, legislative and policing precedents were overturned in a matter of days by governments around the world. In the largest abuse of Eminent Domain since 1066, businesses were ordered to cease trading, police were given powers to fine and arrest those who were not complying with highly dubious and contradictory guidelines for social distancing.

Social and tradition media has plenty of examples of police overreach as a consequence, from police drones buzzing hikers in the Derbyshire Peak District, to Yorkshire police threatening, “to make something up, who they gonna believe, me or you?”, and a lone swimmer manhandled and arrested in Bondi for the crime of exercising alone.

The Australian Prime Minister expressed a desire for a social tracking app to be made compulsory for all citizens (and then changed his mind after some horror was expressed by anyone with the IQ above a gnat).

Many of these emergency measures will eventually be challenged in the courts and will be overturned or reduced in severity. The precedent suggested by the chronology described above is the legislation will then be amended to a form less likely to fail in the courts. i.e. the powers will remain, just with tighter legal wording.

Bill’s Opinion

As far as I’m aware, none of this legislation has ever been wound back. For example, the UK’s prevention of terrorism acts were initially designed to be temporary and had to be frequently renewed by Parliament. These measures are now permanent.

Similarly, financial and taxation legislation has only moved in one direction since, well, since the creation of the concept of income tax to pay for the Napoleonic Wars.

It is looking increasingly likely the fatality rate of this virus is nowhere near that predicted by the experts (who’d have thought that multi-variable computer models might not give accurate results?). Potentially, the final fatality rate is going to fall within the range of 0.1 – 0.6%, or about as bad as strong version of the seasonal ‘flu.

In which case, the global governmental response is disproportionate and should be wound back immediately.

But that’s not the point. Even if this virus was as dangerous or worse than, say, the Spanish Flu (2.5% fatality rate), there’s a bigger question you need to ask yourself:

“Am I OK with all of this?”.

Well punk, are ya?

The death of Princess Diana, 2020 reboot

Initial results are in from a programme of antibody testing.

The first large-scale community test of 3,300 people in Santa Clara County found that 2.5 to 4.2% of those tested were positive for antibodies — a number suggesting a far higher past infection rate than the official count.

Based on the initial data, researchers estimate that the range of people who may have had the virus to be between 48,000 and 81,000 in the county of 2 million — as opposed to the approximately 1,000 in the county’s official tally at the time the samples were taken.

Early days, first proper study, risk of confirmation bias in terms of selection, etc. BUT…..

This takes us closer to learning at least the order of magnitude of the critically important denominator; how widespread is this virus already?

Extrapolating the mid-range of the estimated scale (50-80 times greater than originally thought), the UK’s infection rate might be 7 million (65 x 108,000).

With an idea of the denominator, we can apply the numerator – the official statistics suggest 14,000 COVID19 deaths. Assume it’s more than that due to a lag in reporting, let’s say 20,000.

20,000 / 7,000,000 x 100 = 0.3%

A “regular” ‘flu has a fatality rate of around 0.1%.

Bill’s Opinion

The probability of COVID19 killing millions in a short period of time is looking increasingly unlikely.

The probability of increased deaths, long term harm and hardship due to shutting the global economy is absolutely certain.

Which is more likely to be worse? Last week, we might have said the effects of the virus. This week, that’s not such a compelling argument.

The reasons given for the suspension of economic activity and personal freedoms were twofold; this is highly contagious and highly fatal and due to this, our health systems will be overwhelmed.

It’s starting to look like the “fatal” part of that argument was incorrect. Excess hospital capacity isn’t even close to being used in most locations. Our numerator/denominator question is starting to be answered.

In a moment of collective madness based on mendacious Chinese statistics and by listening to an Imperial College academic with a dubious track record, we’ve created The Great Depression 2020/21.

The antibody testing must continue in other locations and rapidly so we can make informed decisions about rebuilding what is left of the spark of the miracle that has saved more lives than any other invention; a freely moving economy.

In the meantime, reopen and keep a close watch on hotspots of infection as they arise.

There is a war….

There is a war between the rich and poor,

A war between the man and the woman.

There is a war between the ones who say there is a war

And the ones who say there isn’t.

Why don’t you come on back to the war, that’s right, get in it,

Why don’t you come on back to the war, it’s just beginning.

Leonard Cohen 1974

Modern wars are funny beasts; they happen all the time but very rarely does anyone ever bother to formally declare it.

In the USA, Congress has the Constitutional duty/sole prerogative to declare war. Did you know that? How many times do you think they’ve done so since, say, 1942?

That part of the USA Constitution was broken once intercontinental ballistic missiles were capable of delivering nuclear warheads and a 3 minute warning was not long enough to hold a vote.

To Marxists, the real war used to be between the workers and the owners of capital. Since the Soviets lost the argument, many Marxists pivoted to looking for wars between ethnicities and gender, resulting in much of the lunacy in which this organ finds hilarity.

In the meantime, a massive war is playing out, hiding in plain sight, as illustrated by our Hierarchy of Kung Flu:

Where do you sit on this scale? Have you been Instagramming pictures of inedible home-baked sourdough and stodgy cakes?

Chances are you’re currently on the winning side of the war.

Now flip all of those statements upside down and put yourself in the shoes of that person. Obviously, the lower levels regarding health are universal, they could happen to all of us.

The real point of bifurcation between the combatants is the level 3rd from top; “I am a keyboard warrior; my income is unaffected“.

Depending on whether this is true for you is the difference between this period being a relaxing skive on your sofa, consisting of lazy mornings, online yoga, perfecting your barista technique on your Gaggia, chatting with your colleagues on Zoom, baking sourdough like an 18th century crofter, some online shopping, an early start on the Briar Ridge rosé and a pleasant evening with the significant other binge watching a streaming series OR absolute desperation as you deplete your sparse savings and watch your livelihood destroyed in just a few days by the stroke of a ministerial pen.

At its bluntest level, this is war between white-collar and blue-collar workers. Sure, it’s a fuzzy line; there are previously well-paid office workers who are now unemployed and wondering why they took out such large mortgages and there are blue collar workers who are still building and billing for their time.

In general though, the metropolitan types are having a lovely war, the people in the ‘burbs are staring down the barrel of destitution.

Magnify that out from your comfortable 1st world reality and look at the less developed countries.

India has hit “CTRL C/V” on the western world’s approach to COVID19 and enforced a 21 day lock down. Millions of the lowest paid workers have been told to somehow travel back to their home villages and have no additional source of income.

The human cost to this, in terms of malnutrition, riots, suicides, murders, etc. will clearly not be zero. Quite the opposite, in fact, it is probable there will be an appalling increase in harm to the population.

It puts the current 1st world problems into context but they are versions of the same issue.

Bill’s Opinion

The modern global economy has a complexity that is beyond the reach of current human understanding. Dismantling it at the stroke of a government pen has unintended consequences. It is not yet obvious from the available data which is worse; the effects of the virus or the consequences of the lockdowns.

It’s possibly a false dichotomy anyway. The choice isn’t and shouldn’t be framed as binary. Shutting down India as if it had an economy and society that operates like Switzerland seems like a regrettably poor choice.

Similarly, shutting down an economy in a consistent way across an entire national geography without reference to the multiple differentiating factors between regions isn’t logical.

The result is highly likely to be a continuation of the decades-old wealth transfer from the poorest to the richest. If you think you’re in the second category, I would warn against complacency; this trend is coming for you and yours.

Have a look at your luxury car, 2nd home, children’s private school, photos from expensive overseas holidays, etc. and take a moment to appreciate what might prove to be a view of the past during the “Roaring 2,000s“.

Orange Spaceman Bad

Donald Trump signed an order authorising future mining activities in space.

This is a very bad thing, apparently, because something something colonisation.

Imagine suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome so severely that you’re upset about space exploration.

Worse, imagine being concerned that the space exploration might upset other countries and this prompts them to do something hostile.

Really?

What other acts of human endeavour and exploration should we avoid due to the possible and imagined sensitivities of third parties?

Should we stop seeking a cure for cancer, investigating fusion energy, fixing the connectivity issues with Microsoft Teams, etc.?

Bill’s Opinion

The term terra nullis has a bit of a chequered past in places such as Australia, but it’s fairly safe to use it wth regards to the Moon, Mars and passing asteroids.

The idea that President Trump is being a warmongering meanie for suggesting the USA might go into space and mine some useful minerals is bordering on delusional.

Not least because the USA is the only country with a realist chance of actually being capable of doing it on a sustainable basis.

I look forward to hearing about the Peruvian, Nigerian or Cambodian space programmes in the comments.

We went to the moon, and you know what we got?

Bored.

Left a car up there with the keys still in it. Why? ‘Cos we’re the only ones going back there.

Bird? Plane? No, Superhubris!

Pension funds in Australia (or “Super”, in the vernacular) are, obviously, a big deal.

To a large degree, they are a captured market as legislation requires all employers to contribute 9.5% of salary into an employee’s chosen fund.

Typically, there isn’t much movement between funds, you are offered one when you start work and many people don’t pay attention to which is good, bad or mediocre.

Similarly, and like passive investors the world over, people don’t tend to pay much attention to what investment choices their Super fund is making on their behalf. One occasionally hears horror stories about people close to retirement in 2008 suddenly discovering they were all in on USA CDOs.

One such Super fund is Hostplus, the “industry” fund for people working in hospitality. Obviously, one doesn’t have to sign up to Hostplus, but I assume it’s one of the main options offered when you start a job.

Hostplus’ members are worst hit by this virus-induced recession and presumably most likely to want to take advantage of the changed rules allowing early access to $20,000 of their money.

Hostplus have a problem though;

They’ve slipped a clause into their product disclosure statement preventing members from withdrawing funds. It’s not clear whether this is even allowed under legislation such as the Corporations Act, but regardless, it’s a bad precedent and one that won’t give people much comfort in the security of their pensions.

There is a some mild amusement to be had at the directors’ expense (well, ultimately the members’ expense, poor bastards);

This from those heady days of January 2020;

Bill’s Opinion

What follows is not financial advice, and you should never seek financial advice from pseudonymous bloggers on the internet.

However if you are young enough for this current crisis to not completely destroy your imminent retirement plans, may I suggest taking a far more active interest in the following elements of your finances;

  1. Is a single managed fund really the best option for you, or should you consider diversifying across funds (e.g. via a self-managed fund)?
  2. If you are staying in a managed fund, are you really invested in diverse (asset class and geography) assets?
  3. Are the management fees fair value?
  4. How quickly can you pivot your investments if required?
  5. How is your financial advisor paid and by whom?

Feed the birds, tuppence a bag“.

Awkward silences by the barbecue

There are some axioms of Australian life that are best observed from an outsider’s aspect.

They can be witnessed in action at suburban social gatherings, such as barbecues or kids’ sport.

The rule is, when a group of middle aged Australian parents (and this is particularly true for Sydney and Melbourne) gather socially, there must be sufficient time allocated for conversations on the following subjects:

  1. Which high schools will little Atticus and Chlamydia be attending? The sub-rule to this is that the discussion must be started by the parent who believes they have the best bragging rights in this regard. As in, “So, we’re sending Tarquinus to Shore, where are you sending Shane? Oh, local public school? I’m so sorry.”.
  2. How many foreign holidays will you be taking this year? To European readers, this might seem strange but bear in mind a return overseas flight from Australian in cattle class is about a thousand dollars, the total cost of even a budget holiday soon racks up. One annual trip is good, two is impressive, three is multi-millionaire status.
  3. How much has your house risen in value and how many additional investment properties do you own? Everyone wants to open the conversation with this but allow the previous two discussions to play out first to avoid appearing gauche.

However, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto….

Our chart has been updated with the last data points before the China Flu lockdowns commenced.

Some context might be useful; the RBA has been publishing the lending data since the 1970s and, from that time until 2017, the monthly increase in lending for domestic property has fallen to 0.3% or lower only three times.

Bill’s Opinion

The chart is already suggesting a further leg down was on its way in the winter of 2020, before the impact of the pandemic hit the data.

What happens from here is anyone’s guess; there will be competing factors of bank forbearance, historically low interest rates, removal of lender’s insurance, a sharp increase in unemployment, economic slowdown due to isolation policies, etc.

My view is there will be a sharp and relatively deep fall in property values, realised only by those unfortunate enough to be forced to sell (by the three Ds; death, divorce or dole).

Let’s say about 30% from the peak. Perhaps that’s wrong by a large factor, but if you agree there will be further falls, there is only one question left to answer;

What will the people talk about at barbecues when they don’t want to talk about property prices and the major sports leagues haven’t restarted?

There’s going to be some awkward silences…..

On numerators and denominators

Have you had the Coronavirus yet?

How do you know? Have you been tested and, if so, do you believe the test results?

The reason I ask is because I have a theory.

It’s not a passionately-held theory, so don’t read this as a call to reverse public policies and send everyone back to work, school and mass public entertainment events.

But it’s a theory for which I am increasingly open to exploring further. It is this:

COVID19 is far more widespread and, on a per capita basis, far less deadly than the current public estimates.

What would we need to know to be able to disprove or confirm this theory?

The following data points for a suitably large population:

  1. The population size,
  2. The number of people who have had or who currently have it, and
  3. The number of deaths attributable to COVID19.

Simple, right?

Not so fast. (1) is easy enough, we have a good handle on how many people live where,

Collecting (2), though, has three significant problems.

Firstly, it currently relies on the results of a test that has not been universal or even widespread in its use – many people displaying symptoms have been turned away when requesting tests for not “fitting the criteria”.

Second, the test is “real time”. i.e. it tests whether you currently have the virus, not whether you have had it and fully recovered.

Thirdly, the ratio of false negatives is not known. How many people have been sent away with “just the ‘flu” when they’ve actually had the Wuhan version? We don’t know.

Finally, we can’t be certain of the death rate from COVID19. Different countries are counting it in unique ways. The death of someone with stage four cancer in one country may or may not be attributable to COVID19 depending on the methodology.

These complaints about data may sound like nitpicking but they make a significant difference to how we might respond at a national level. Or at least they should.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, the problem is the lack of a quick and accurate antibody test, one that would tell us who has been infected and recovered (and presumably, has immunity).

There’s good news though, it would seem one has been developed in the USA and is hopefully on its way to your local population.

I wonder what it will tell us?

Bill’s Opinion

I’m very sceptical of multi-variable predictive models. Minor inaccuracies on the estimate of one or more variables result in wild ranges of outcomes.

I’m not denying COVID19 is a massive public health problem though; even if it isn’t as deadly as the models are suggesting, the contagion rate is rapid enough to swamp our health systems when it hits people with vulnerable immune systems concurrently.

I do wonder though whether many of us have already had it in early January and shrugged it off as a bad cold. If that describes you and you’ve since lost your job, I’m doubly sorry for you.

Once this test has been distributed widely to a sample population, perhaps we’ll know whether the models were accurate or not.

Lastly, I’m in good company.

UPDATE; This is an excellent analysis of the statistics.