Sunél’s Blog | Wealth built on inequality, is fragile

Last week, I took some time away from my blog space. I needed some time to process what has transpired since the outbreak of COVID-19. While away, I felt compelled to send this blog – a version of it was waiting in my outbox.

The world has never been a more unequal place. South Africa specifically, tops the log as the most unequal society in the world. When the top 3 500 people in a country are worth more than the bottom 32 million, the distribution is unsustainable. When the bottom 32 million are almost all black people, it also becomes a race issue.

COVID-19 exposed the marginalisation of groups of people, particularly along colour lines. And not just in South Africa.  Even in the US and the UK, people of colour were more likely to die of the virus: COVID-19  exposed the lack of access to healthcare and the impact of poverty on health. The environment was fertile for revolt. People were already scared and angry. Revolt came in the form of #blacklivesmatter protests. #blacklivesmatter is as much a result of systematic marginalisation of groups of people in the social realm as it is an economic reality. Police brutality against black people is just one symptom of a system which keeps people out.

As a white person, I acknowledge that I do not understand enough about the systemic racism that affects people of colour. I am trying to listen. I am reading. It will be part of my life’s work to eradicate the racist lenses I have been raised with.

Here, however, I am writing as a financial commentator and predominantly addressing our clients and community about the need to dismantle the systemic marginalisation of people. 

The recent protests are just a sample of the outcry of those who find themselves at the bottom of the economic pile and an indication of what we can expect to come. Those at the top are likely to increasingly defend their territory with force, rising nationalism and right-wing politics and those at the bottom of the system are already becoming increasingly violent in their demands.

When wealth is built on taking from the bottom to give to the top, which is effectively what has happened over recent decades, it can never last. History shows us this. Just go back to the French Revolution. In the US, earnings of the top 1% have increased by 157% since 1980, whilst the earnings of the bottom 90% show a meagre 24% increase. When the earnings of the top increase exponentially while the bottom suffers a declining standard of living, it is not sustainable.

If you have ever played Jenga, the game of building a tower by taking blocks from the bottom to build on top, you will know that at some stage, it all falls in a heap. The higher the tower, the more tension in the room and the more likely it is to come crashing down.

Sadly, the world’s leaders cannot be trusted to dismantle the system or to use our money to redress the wrongs of the past. Many of them are part of the problem. We must do it. If we want to protect our own wealth, we should start by taking an active part in dismantling the system. 

We should all begin by acknowledging our position in the pile. Perhaps you think that you do not fit at the top of this pile. If you earn more than R7 300 per month, you fall in the richest 10% of this country’s earners. The richest 1% of earners take home R48 753 per month. If you have R80 000 to your name, you are richer than half of the world’s residents.

In other words, most readers of this blog will be at the very top of this pile. We are extraordinarily wealthy by local and global standards.

We also need to acknowledge that the game is unfair and not protest at every opportunity to defend our gains or position. Access to capital, not talent, or creativity, is the biggest contributor to success for entrepreneurs and even corporates. It means that intergenerational wealth and access to connections determine the success of the next generation.

Our current form of capitalism has failed the bottom of the pile – the spoils have not trickled down, either intentionally or magically. The bottom of the pile has stayed behind while the top has experienced exponential gains. Hard-working people in the ranks have gone nowhere.

We can no longer play Jenga. We need to do the right thing, the moral thing – which is also the prudent thing. Ironically, we can now only protect our wealth by giving up some of it.

Ps. I love to hear your comments. You can comment by hitting reply. Or you can comment in the section below on social media.

Kind regards,

Sunél

//26 June 2020

Sunél’s Blog | The long-term will not fix this

On the 13th of October 2000, I was standing at the end of a jetty on a lake high up in the Drakensberg selling my clients’ Dimension Data shares. I remember the day because it was my 10th wedding anniversary. My husband and I had gone to a remote guest house to celebrate – the jetty was the only place where I could find a signal. For a reason I cannot recall, selling Dimension Data shares became urgent enough to interrupt my wedding anniversary.

Dimension Data was the darling of the stock exchange at the time. It had enjoyed a meteoric rise, in anticipation of the ‘new economy’ of which IT was going to be the central driving force.

For a while, we were unpopular for selling some of our clients’ favourite shares. But then the Dot.com bubble burst. The share price declined by 97% before it stabilised.

Many people said that a long-term view would fix everything – they could just hold their shares and eventually it would come right again. The dot.com bubble was my first taste of what it could be like when the long-term does not fix a problem. I learnt that the long-term cannot fix poor business models or having overpaid for an investment. Also, the long-term doesn’t fix the world having changed.

For Dimension Data, the world had changed at the time – their market became overcrowded and the hype of Y2K and Dot.com burst. After restructuring, the company survived, radically altered.   The share price never recovered to much more than a fraction of its previous lofty levels.  They went on to delist the company from the stock exchange.

When the Great Lockdown struck the world economy, I thought of that time – the end of the 1990s. For many industries, the long-term will not fix the problem. The lockdown has accelerated certain inevitable trends. Think of work-from-home, online retail or travel – after the lockdown, we will not go back to how we worked and shopped before and there may be a greater reluctance to travel. 

The long-term may not fix the aviation industry or the conference industry, or it may be several decades before the capacity in the South African property sector is utilised again.

This may sound obvious. Our asset managers are already taking this into account in our clients’ investment portfolios. However, it is at the personal level, where this will be painful. It may mean that you must change your career. It may mean that you must concede that certain personal investments will never recover. It may mean that you must close your business. It may mean that you will have to cash in your retirement funds to survive.

The sooner you adjust, the better. The longer you hold out, the more likely it is that you will only deepen your troubles. You may have to draw a line below your losses. You may have to move on.

Ps. I love to hear your comments. You can comment by hitting reply. Or you can comment in the section below on social media.

Kind regards,

Sunél

//12 June 2020

Sunél’s Blog | You may acknowledge that you’re sad

Emotion has such a bad reputation. The general belief is still that emotions should be ignored or repressed. Worse still, is the belief that emotions are signs of immaturity and should not come into play in decision making. Some emotions seem more acceptable, like happiness or surprise, whereas fear and sadness frequently leave us uncomfortable or are regarded as a weakness, particularly in men.

These are outdated and unscientific beliefs. We now know that most decisions flow from emotions to the rational brain where the emotional decision is then rationalised rather than critically observed. We simply cannot separate our thoughts from our emotions.

According to Herbert Simon, American Nobel Laureate scientist, “In order to have anything like a complete theory of human rationality, we have to understand what role emotion plays in it.”

This concept of human rationality is worth remembering when we consider how we make decisions about our money.  Money is one of the most emotive things. In our money decisions, emotions are often particularly powerful.

Would it not be better if we acknowledged our emotions, if we welcomed them to the table so that they could be observed and discussed, rather than hide them? It is the hidden emotions which play havoc with our decisions. It is when we don’t recognise that we are fearful about our future, or angry about the implications of our money decisions, that we deny ourselves the opportunity to review the actions which follow.

During this pandemic, we have all gone through a range of emotions – fear, sadness, regret or anger. Many of us have had to make more money decisions than is normally the case – our money situations have changed, in some cases drastically and suddenly. To make good decisions, we must recognise the role our emotions play.

It is time we all become emotionally aware, in tune with an integral and undeniable part of ourselves. Ps. I love to hear your comments. You can comment by hitting reply. Or you can comment in the section below on social media. If you are not on our mailing list, you can subscribe to receive this blog every week on our website www.foundationsa.com.

Kind regards,

Sunél

//05 June 2020