Tuesday, 24 March 2020

A MOMENT OF SERENITY



In these turbulent weeks, it is getting more and more important to cultivate a solitary home life. This does not come easy for me. Granted, that I am usually working at home anyway, but staying put would prove intolerable, were it not for the thrice a day visits to café, restaurant and falafel haunt. All of these will have to go, I am afraid, since the number of infected by Corona is approaching the tens of thousand in Stockholm. Gradually, I am adapting to a new life style, with preparing meals at home – that is, putting deep freeze dishes into my newly bought microwave oven and capsules of ground into my new Nespresso machine – and planning for three hiking outings a day to alleviate the plight.

This morning, I am sitting, as now is the norm, at my kitchen table at 7 am, enjoying my cup of Nespresso, when it dawns on me that this new life may not be so bad after all. It certainly helps that the view presenting itself in front of me, with Hammarby Lake spreading out its serene calm, and the ferry boats cruising slowly to and fro the quays, invites me to contemplate life and inner self.

Permit me to let you in on a secret of mine. I am a habitual foreboder. Foreboding rarely fails me, when a major calamity appears on the horizon, and often even before its first symptoms arise. It usually takes the form of diffuse worries that entice me to envisage all kinds of scenario for bad things to evolve. For instance, this happened to me in 2006, in good time to become worried about the Great Recession, and again in 2017 (Long day's journey into night). Ever since that last foreboding I have been worrying about all kinds of crisis scenario to evolve, especially since I could not visualise the precise fuse to get the carnage going.


Thus, when I first heard about the plague erupting in China, my mind was well prepared to take in the calamitous news. Ever since end January, this has led me into a substantive depression, rendering me completely unable to do serious work, just leaning back on my couch and playing out in my mind one terrible scenario after another. How could I possible invent such scenarios in advance, you may well ask. This is easy. I have a reasonably good grasp of history, from my study days, and can sample freely from this immense well of facts and stories. While pondering the present situation, the Great Plague came to mind and I envisaged billions dying, civilisation coming to an abrupt standstill and convalescing only after a decade or two of painful reconstruction.

Now, the plague is upon us. To my great relief, it will not be as severe by far. There will be only millions of dead, maybe tens of million globally, and this will affect mainly the elderly, thus rendering recovery a rash affair. So, paradoxically, I feel rather relieved and rejuvenated; this decease will be dealt with by humanity with relative ease. It just forces me to forego visits to eateries, a small price to pay for trying to evade the otherwise inevitable.

Having thus gained a healthy perspective on the present situation, let's get back to my kitchen table, watching the ferries dancing their merry dance, and leaning back on my chair in all serenity. Why not take a glance at this small video of mine, which allows you to share my morning view?


As an aside, in these days of self-induced isolation, it would be a great consolation to hear from you, Dear Readers. I would be immensely pleased to get your comments on this blog, where you can tell us how you are coping with the situation. Google is a bit finicky, so you can send my any possible comments by e-mail. I will make haste to put them in here, either in your name, or as Anonymous, whatever you would prefer. Thank you kindly in advance for taking the trouble.



Monday, 9 March 2020

IN A MIST


Last Saturday I returned home about 7 pm, after having visited downtown for an intriguing movie called An Officer and a Spy. Still rather pre-occupied with the film's tale, I hardly noticed the weather conditions, at least not before reaching the quay along which my apartment lies. There, I came to a sudden halt, shivering in the miserable and humid cold and squinting at the nearby buildings that barely made it through the fog.

It was as if trying to get a close look into the future, I thought. Most of it is hidden from us, even if some details are emerging from the mist to haunt us. Is it not that we humans are facing yet another onslaught of the plague, without being able to gauge its scope and duration? A new virus has appeared on the scene, threatening to extinguish a substantive part of humanity. So let's give it a go and try to penetrate the veil that covers the coming weeks and year.

Back in 1992, when Sweden underwent its latest crisis (2008 was only a calm breeze compared to that one), I was engaged at Sweden's riksbank as Head of structural banking issues. There, I learnt the bank's motto "Expect the best, but prepare for the worst!". So let's look at the best and prepare for the worst ahead of us in the near future.

For the best case, look no further than to Anders Tegnell, Sweden's official state epidemiologist. With a stern mien, hardly opening his lips when speaking, he directs messages of calm and comfort at an anxious population. "The peak of the plague is reached!", he keeps tellings us, even if the number of infected keeps rising in Sweden. 


For the worst case, we just have to listen to other epidemiologists, preferably without Sweden's borders, so as not to be influenced by our country's professional soothsayer. There it sounds more like the plague may infect up to 25 per cent of world population, lest an effective vaccine be developed within the year. For Europe alone, this could translate into as much as four million people dying from the plague (at a death rate of 2 per cent).

How will financial markets be affected by the plague? The optimistic scenario has already played out. It led to an abrupt downturn in stock markets around the world, to the tune of some ten per cent. Another ten per cent appears to me already in the cards within the next few days or week. Beside the fear factor driving it, there is also a marked down-turn in the world economy to take into account, with sizeable production-chain disturbances, starting with the Chinese lock-down and continuing with the reactions in the rest of the world.

But what about the worst case scenario? Suppose no vaccine has been developed within the year and prospects do not look rosy. That the number of infected and dying ever keeps rising? This may lead to a break-down of the international financial system, only partly prevented by Central Bank and Government expenditure expansion. For us in Sweden, this may well mean an annihilation of all the gains in asset value accumulated over the past ten years. More modestly, stock prices may crash by at least 50 per cent and real estate by about as much, not to speak about company bankruptcies and bank failures. Seen in that light, I can sympathise with our chief epidemiologist, whose issuances more and more look like invocations!

So, let's join the happy conviviality of diners in our restaurants, let's stay calm and content for the time being. We may yet need som cheerful memories when the tide will be rising!


But wait! Before leaving you to your frolicking, Dear Readers, let me remind you that an eminent musician wrote a cosy little piece just before the big crash of ´29, which in a remarkable way appears to mimic the softly-softly pronouncements of our state epidemiologist!