Different World (Thoughts on COVID-19)

I remember a recent trip where my mum came up to London to visit. It was bright, and we had a relaxed lunch in a Chinese restaurant with a glass ceiling. I thought of how my routine had significantly changed – I would naturally prioritise spending time with her, instead of working an extra hour, studying another hour of German, practicing another set of logic puzzles or just scrolling through eBay.

Similarly, the recent COVID-19 situation has changed things quite a fair bit for me, and I imagine the changes I’m exposed to are still relatively small compared to what many other people face.

The obvious change is working from home, which I’m not particularly a fan of (human contact is important, and pair programming remotely turns out to be really hard – especially for me if I’m doing this more in an instructional capacity, as I like to have newer team members code while I jump in as needed), but I understand it’s necessary given the circumstances. Being able to work from home is certainly a privilege of software engineering, among other jobs. In hindsight, having the ability to work at all is also a privilege, in light of the widespread shop closures that came into effect. The UK government’s proposals should help, but it’s still a 20 percent pay cut (more, if one is earning more than 30,000 a year) – and I don’t know how exactly things are going to work for people on zero-hours contracts or the self-employed.

There is then social distancing: I’d lump the aforementioned shop closures into it, as if it is decided that civil liberties should not be restricted, one can still give strong pushes by decreasing the desirability of engaging in the behaviours that one doesn’t want. I do have a few groups of friends that I meet outside of work, but so far at least the impact hasn’t been too bad – we’ve found alternatives such as doing it digitally which are to me inferior but are still better than nothing. The shop closures are annoying, but in any case I do most of my shopping, apart from groceries and food, online. It hasn’t massively changed a majority of my weekend programmes, because of what activities are involved (usually reading, puzzles, computer games or walks – note that the last of these can still go ahead subject to social distancing). The relative absence of people (which is good!) is highly noticeable.

Travel restrictions are another factor. I had to cancel my Singapore trip over Easter, because the government requires returning Singapore citizens to spend 14 days at home. This is reasonable, but is of course problematic if one’s intended stay is less than 14 days. I didn’t have any other immediate plans to travel, though would likely have drafted some for the bank holidays, perhaps to Germany or Zurich again. In a sense the timing of my Zurich trip was good: I returned just before the number of cases spiked. That’s probably going to be on the backburner – and I wonder if (assuming the airlines survive) prices will be reasonable as we get past the peak.

Grocery shopping has changed as well: a year ago hand soap would have been a mundane entry on a list while I now actively look out for it. I also tried to execute a Sainsbury’s delivery order earlier this week, and saw no availability for three weeks. It’s unclear if the worst has already passed – I’m seeing slightly more stock, maybe because most of the stockpiling has already happened, and supermarkets are actively ramping up the capacity of their food-stocking chains.

Incidentally this makes me think of some variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma from game theory, where cooperating is not stockpiling and defecting is stockpiling. It’s best if no one stockpiles (since stockpiling has costs: the cost of carry – organising one’s supplies, finding space for them, making sure use-by dates are observed safely – and the opportunity cost of the money going into the supplies, assuming that investment performance outpaces inflation). Normally, this is the case. However, as more people stockpile, seeking to stockpile suddenly becomes rational: not stockpiling may mean that one is unable to obtain important provisions. The game is iterated, as well: one presumably visits supermarkets multiple times, and can see the state of supermarket shelves and derive an estimate of what people are buying.

There is also the recent fall of and heightened volatility on the stock market. I use a broker called De Giro that has a feature to send an email every time a position goes down by 10% (I think additively). I’ve seen a couple of cheerful 40% depreciation emails for some of the riskier assets there. It could be worse: IAG (owning BA, among others) stock is down 72 percent, and Lufthansa is down 65 percent. Interestingly Singapore Airlines is “only” down 40 percent. The numerical magnitude and speed of the damage here, especially if considered in US dollars (which strengthened aggressively) is probably a factor of 10 larger than what I’ve dealt with in the past. In a sense, the speed highlights the perception of loss, because a more drawn-out fall tends to be partially insulated by fresh contributions and pound-cost averaging. However, despite the scale of the numbers involved, they seem a bit further removed (an image of a bonfire of notes equal to the five figure sum would be more concerning).

We’ll see how things go. I guess I was too young to remember and/or make any significant decisions when dealing with SARS in 2002-2003: I was in Primary 6 then, and remember schools being closed briefly. Even when schools reopened there was twice-daily temperature taking and values had to be documented. The numbers of cases were much smaller (I think four-figures globally), though I remember it being somewhat more dangerous (contrast with UK government advice – and this is indeed true – that for most people COVID-19 will be mild).

One risk of FIRE pursuits and/or aggressive savings strategies is for some reason not being able to spend the money one has saved up later on. I’d say the financial strategy I’ve been using from 2016 to early 2020, though not at popular FIRE blogger levels, involves an aggressive savings strategy, and to some extent that risk has manifested. I certainly wouldn’t say it has caused a significant shift in my thinking, but it’s a good reminder that stockpiling of wealth as an end to itself tends to be unhelpful.

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