A drink with the boys these days isn’t half as much fun as it used to be. After the recent UK budget the new sugar tax is going to bite pretty hard in these here parts of Scotland, particularly for my buddy Zeke, who’s favourite tipple is moonshine mixed with ginger beer. Who knew that if he’d been adding Lilt to his hooch all these years then he may have kept his teeth from falling out and his weight under 320lbs? Admittedly he wouldn’t have been able to claim all that lovely disability benefit as he can barely walk, but then again the double whammy of paying more for his mixers while getting less for his medical worries seems a bit harsh to him. Still, as he brews his own liquor in his boiler cupboard, he’s skipped paying all those dues to The Man in the end. It was a win for the little guy, although in Zeke’s case he ain’t so little.
As we got to talking in the snug at the the Drumgelloch Bar (rated no.51 out of 51 in Airdrie on TripAdvisor) one of the boys told me that a packet of smokes now costs more than £10 after the Conservative government’s latest budget. ‘Even more in London I reckon’ puffed Zeke. Now I remember times in the dry bulk markets when things were rough. I also remember getting a helicopter to pick me and a buddy up from the office to take us to a casino. Shipping has its good times too you know, but let’s briefly focus on the bad again.
‘So how bad is it down there?’ I asked Slick Ricky Pratt, the best ship broker in London that I know. ‘Oh mate’ he said, ‘It’s more than a tenner for a packet of cigs now. I tell you what, with the commission I earned on a Capesize fixture I did today, by the time I’d parked the motor at the station, bought a copy of the current bun and got a coffee I’d spent all the bro I’d earned. So once I’d paid for the train into the office I was losing money by showing up. The boss wants us to work in the dark to save on the electric bill.’ Knowing his boss I don’t doubt that to be true.
He told me that one of his mates across town at another London brokers got an email from the CEO last week asking all of the dry desk to attend a meeting. When he went the CEO asked if any of them would volunteer to work from home for the foreseeable future. When one brave soul asked why, he was told that they wanted the desks so that they could get more tanker brokers in. This is the same brokers who’s chairman once strutted along the streets of London wearing a cape while wafting an ivory tipped antique cane like a slightly camp Jack The Ripper.
Such tales from the City are now rife. Smart Eddy told me that he went for dinner with his biggest broker last week. It turned out to be egg and chips at a Wetherspoons for him, while his broker had a tap water with ice. Eddy ordered a pint of Stella and was told by his embarrassed broker that ‘brand beers are not allowed on expenses until the 4tcs are back over $8,000/day. Now can you still reverse the charges on pay phones? I need to call a client and I’m out of 20ps’.
All of these tales, while titillating, are not really why I am bending your ear today. It actually goes back to the UK budget: it turns out that the UK government is rubbish at forecasting its own economy. Please don’t take this as a political statement because this government is no different from any other in this respect. While it is going well they think it is because of them, but the circumstances cannot be replicated it seems, so each review seems like an exercise in pointing out how little they actually know about what happens and why.
I called up a very earnest young analyst who is a head global chief of worldwide research strategy (or similar) at a maritime data provider and asked him a straight forward question. ‘Do you make forecasts?’. ‘Oh yes,’ he trumpeted. ‘We have developed a model that can track and forecast freight rates in real granular detail. For instance I can give you a month by month forecast for the next five years on any single dry bulk route’. ‘How so?’ you may ask. ‘We take the bottom up approach, using all of the base case economic data available and building it into our forecasts. Then from there we take the relevant demand data to build a picture of what is happening to cargo and in what regions, helping to see a tonne mile as well as actual volume outlook’ he explained enthusiastically. ‘It’s all built by algorhythms’ he said proudly (because algorhythms are notoriously unshakably reliable right?).
Now I don’t know what you think, but we are now in a situation where his model in theory must be more capable of predicting the economic outlooks for individual countries themselves. He claims his output is accurate, so the components must be accurate. So he gets the economic forecasting for the UK right, right? One would assume that in his ‘bottom up’ model he pays close attention to the fortunes of the world’s fifth largest economy. So if he is so confident that one of the key foundations of his model is correct he should let the Chancellor of the Exchequer know his thoughts.
Alternatively, one might cynically put his efforts (which when back-tested look very convincing) into the category of ‘exponential guess work’. This means that by using thousands of guesses of thousands of different factors, while not realistically being able to forecast their changing relationships (even if you could truly understand their current ones), you can come up with one single figure for one single route by month for the next five years. The path to this number is so complex and circuitus that questioning any single input into it becomes entirely meaningless. That can be deflected by the phrase ‘It was built using algorhythmns’ one assumes.
What does the future hold then? Let’s be frank here, whether you are George Osbourne, fat Zeke, Slick Ricky Pratt or Nostradamus, your guess is as good as mine. Smart Eddy put it more bluntly; ‘If oil is $38 for the balance of this year, iron ore is $50 and the meaning of life is 42, does that tell me when I can order brand lager again when my broker takes me to Wetherspoons on a jolly?’