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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Will 2017 be the year that the new strong men of Europe, Russia, Turkey and the United States finally shake off the remains of their “veil of civilization”?

The cocktail consisting of the enduring, global economic crisis and the societal unrest that it causes, in combination with the soaring wave of nationalism hitting the globe since a decade and the mounting, almost ubiquitous need for ‘strong, decisive politicians’ is an extremely poisonous one.

Next to the ‘usual suspects’ consisting of whole and half dictators in the Middle-East, the Far East and in the former Soviet Union (i.e. Russia itself, according to many, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Chechnya to name a few), this cocktail yielded a bunch of authoritarian leaders within the EU itself. 

People such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, who is an autocratic leader and a  declared opponent of the free press. And in Poland the shadow-leader of the country, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of the PiS (i.e. Law and Justice party), who made the country turn into an extremely conservative direction, in which minorities come more and more under jeopardy. These are leaders that couple a undeniable amount of xenophobia and populism with self-reverance and an allergy for (inter)national criticism.

On top of that, there is the Brexit in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Theresa May has been morphing from a initially EU-friendly and moderately conservative politician into the terminator-in-chief of the British EU membership: at any price and cost and in the toughest variety possible. And this Brexit itself might be followed by a split off of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the UK, as they see more future for themselves as independent countries within the EU than within the UK. 

This might cause yet another political implosion within the European continent, after the unfortunately events in the Balkan countries (i.e. former Yugoslavia) and the quest for independence of Catalunya in Spain.

And last, but not least, this poisonous cocktail yielded of course Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. A president, whose seemingly erratic and sometimes straight-away racist, undemocratic and xenophobe presidency is causing more and more commotion at home and abroad – this even includes the Kremlin, where ‘dictator-ish’ Russian President Vladimir Putin is scratching himself behind his ears, whether he did not get much more than where he bargained for, with this rogue 'leader of the free world'.

Trump is adamantly against the to his eyes “hostile mainstream press and media”, who he started to shut out from the White House press briefings, and by his appointment of ex-Breitbart editor-in-chief Steve Bannon – an extremist-right wing  swashbuckler and prominent producer of fake news – as a member of the National Security Council, he created a formerly unheard of precedent regarding the American security situation. 

Even among the GOP senators and congressmen, who genuinely hate the Democrats’ guts, the clamor about this loose cannon Trump is getting louder and louder.

But that’s not all…

The Netherlands, Germany and France are on the brink of national elections in which the question is not so much whether their populist politicians Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom), Frauke Petri (Alternative für Deutschland) and Marine Le Pen (Front National) will do well, but HOW well they will do and what their (devastating) influence on national politics and the European Union will be.

And the only thing that the existing, moderate parties in these countries can seemingly do is adjust their visions and points-of-view to their populist counterparts, in order to not lose all their grassroots to these more extremist views, that seem to become more and more in vogue in these countries. 
The whole situation is akin to a pressure cooker with the safety valve being stuck.

The latest event in this range of ubiquitous societal tensions within the Western societies and the mounting global acrimony is the diplomatic war between Turkey at one hand and Germany and The Netherlands at the other.

Riding on the wave of the Turkish nationalist-religious outbursts in Turkey, that soared after the failed coup d'etat, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has organized a national referendum in order to change the Turkish constitution. 

This change is planned to give President Erdoğan nearly absolute power as president and to prolong his reign well into the Twenties of this century, when he turns 75. In order to secure his nearly certain victory in the referendum, Erdoğan does not only mobilize his domestic grassroots, but also the vast amounts of Turkish citizens in Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands.

Initially Erdoğan planned to administer a speech himself in these countries, but he very reluctantly withdrew these plans, only to send his Minister of Foreign Affairs instead to do this job. This led to a strong reaction of disapprovement among the leadership of The Netherlands and Germany, who remembered all too well the mounting tensions within their Turkish community shortly after the failed coup d’etat in The Netherlands, allegedly organized by the grassroots of religious leader-in-exile Fetullah Gülen.

Especially in The Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte – under fierce pressure of his most feared opponent Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom) – felt the urgent need to stop this Turkish hunt for favourable referendum votes on Dutch soil at all cost, in an attempt to show that “in his country he is the boss and not Recep Erdoğan, for crying out loud”.

So when Mark Rutte learned that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stepped on a plane to keep his speech in The Netherlands in spite of the urgent request to not do so, he took the drastical step to personally withdraw the landing rights of this Turkish airplane, thus effectively stopping the Foreign Ministers of landing at Dutch shores. Whether this hardly precedented step by the Dutch Prime Minister was legal and appropriate in this situation did not matter too much, in this international match of diplomatic sharpshooting.

The Turkish goverment reacted to this step as being bitten by a snake: both Erdoğan and Cavusoglu called the Dutch government “a bunch of fascists and nazi remains” and warned that this step would have fierce consequences for The Netherlands… both for Dutch diplomats and the Dutch tourists, who just cautiously started to return to the Turkish beaches and all-inclusive hotels as a summer holiday destination.

And this was not the end of it: not even close. Turkey sent their female Minister of Family Affairs Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya by car(!) from Germany on a mission to The Netherlands, to show that President Recep Erdoğan would bend for nobody in his struggle for a favourable referendum outcome. 

“Who the hell thought this clown Mark Rutte of this teeny-weeny country at the North Sea that he was, that he tried to stop the undisputed leader of the most powerful country in the Middle East?! Captain America? Superman? Get out of my way, you darn SOB!” That were probably Erdoğan most intimate thoughts, I presume.

But PM Rutte did not plan to give in to this Turkish attempt to brutally overpower the desires of the Dutch government by stealth. He sent a police force to the Turkish consulate, where they caught the escort of the Turkish Minister before she could give her speech to the large numbers of Dutch-Turkish citizens who all wanted to hear it. The Turkish minister was expelled as ‘an unwanted visitor’ of The Netherlands and she was escorted to the German border, whereafter she soon returned to Turkey.

The Turkish outrage was now complete and President Erdoğan warned the Dutch government that he would take “strong countermeasures against this outrageous treatment of the Turkish political officials”.

The fact that this political situation between Turkey and The Netherlands got out of hand so quickly and in this formerly unheard of manner – irrespective of with whom you sympathize in this very awkward political situation – shows how messed up the current political conundrum in the world has become.

Turkish President Erdoğan feels so powerful and mighty at his hometurf and he sees his own leadership for Turkey as so righteous and “God-given” that he thinks he can brutally overpower the strong and crystal-clear desires of the Dutch and German government, by sending his ministers in spite of the strongest demands to do not so.

And PM Mark Rutte of The Netherlands feels so weak in the wake of the elections for the new Dutch cabinet – in which he hopes to become PM for the third time in a row in spite of the mounting populism – that he took the risk of breaching Dutch constitutional laws (i.e. of free speech and free association) and causing an international incident with Turkey, in order to make his point clear.

Whatever the outcome of this peculiar international incident might be, it makes very clear once more to these eyes that the boundaries of international diplomacy are about to be stretched substantially in 2017 and that the world is not becoming more safe in the process.

Irrespective of whether the populists might eventually win or lose in Germany, France and The Netherlands and how these European countries might be governed in the aftermath of the general elections, 2017 could become the year that the strong men of Europe, Russia, Turkey and the United States finally take off the remains of their “veil of civilization”! And that is a very worrisome prospect for our own safety and that of our children and loved ones.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

In which country The Netherlands do I live?!

“Can you tell me where my country lies”
Said the Unifaun to this true love’s eyes

We live in confusing times, that is without a doubt...

Times in which feelings and emotions suddenly come to the surface that we thought to have "pushed under the rug" for eternity, after the first half of last century.

Times in which fear for other people, other countries and other religious groups seems to beat our feelings of compassion, cooperation, friendliness and hospitality.

And times in which some people – mostly politicians and influential opinionists with their own hidden agendas – shamelessly exploit our darkest fears for their own benefit and ‘claim to fame’. People, whose only achievement is seemingly to have broken down things, that better people than they built up for them before them, with their own blood, sweat and tears.

And now, I am confused in which country The Netherlands I live?!

Do I live in The Netherlands of LinkedIn and the 'highlighted' tweets?

A country in which 'passionate and meticulous freelancers' and 'independent, selfstarting teamplayers' achieve miracles on a daily basis and the impossible once per week?!

A country in which ICT, robotization, agile/scrum, outsourcing/offshoring and blockchain technology lead to a technological Utopia with interesting work for everybody, in which there is only room for ‘shiny, happy and successful people’ without any doubts and fears.

A country in which failure, uncertainty, temporary lack of self-confidence and a realistic view upon one's own weaknesses are fatal flaws, as they don't fit in the image of the shiny, happy and successful people.

A country in which no problems, but only challenges exist; ready to be conquered by the shiny, happy and successful people

And a country in which (excess) consumption and a life full of traveling in style, extravagant luxury, food from Michelin chefs and other tinsel are the only things that count.

Do I live in The Netherlands of the mainstream politicians?

A country were every hard-working man and family is promised €1000 in cash from the Prime Minister’s liberal-conservative VVD party, until the PM is re-elected! Then nobody from his party talks about this €1000 anymore.

A country in which the same Prime Minister shamelessly promises €2 billion extra money for extra jobs and large improvements in homes for the elderly, until he is re-elected. Extra jobs and improvements that must mitigate the years-long negligence regarding these homes, that the same Prime Minister allowed. After his re-election, everybody from his party will suffer from spontaneous, but lasting micro-amnesia regarding this very topic.

A country in which the vice-PM from the Labour Party promises even more money on behalf of care for elderly people, until hé is elected as PM. Then everybody from his party will complain that this very promise turned out to be an impossible proposal to negotiate upon with their counterparts in the new government.

A country in which one party fears the ubiquitous climate change and promises to change the country in one big greenzone, while another party promises unlimited tarmac for every car-addicted person to drive upon, with the highest possible speeds.

Do I live in The Netherlands of the populist parties?

A country 'allegedly' being victimized by nameless, yet invincible herds from the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, who are going to take away our money, our jobs, our pensions and private wealth, our women, our own religion and our freedom of speech and freedom of religion and replace all those for the eternal darkness of new religious middle ages. And perhaps they are going to take away our lives too!

And a country, in which the remaining debris and the last remains of our own free will and freedom allegedly are annihilated by 'the faceless herds from Brussels', who want to assimilate everybody into nameless and unresisting monsters, akin to the Borg in the Startrek series.

A country, in which the populists are the only ones to understand and express the real ‘vox populis’, while ignoring all the voices from the people that disagree with them for various reasons, as “these are not the real voices of the real Dutch people”, but only ‘fake persons’ that should move out of their way.

Do I perhaps live in The Netherlands of the captains of Industry? (source: Financieel Dagblad)

A country in which ‘the captains of industry’ want to starve the beast of populism, by offering a “positive alternative”, as “the country lacks a clear growth perspective, which feeds the negativism. To fight populism the country needs a new business model; a dot at the horizon towards which we can work during the following decades...".

These business men realize that “they live an a world in which people increasingly zoom in on what divides them and not what bonds them. They look for a way to create an exiting, future-proof and sustainable society, together with positive people; people from all layers of society.”

Are these the same captains of industry who had put shareholder value and profit hoarding above everything else? And who had put their factories at the spots where labour costs and establishment costs were the lowest and where governments resided that didn’t care too much about labour circumstances or the environment?

And were these the same captains of industry, who spurred their companies to hunt for the lowest – if any – corporate taxes and who built up their labour force around temporary labour, flexible labour, (East-European) freelance labour or outsourcing and offshoring of labour to the Far East?!

Or were those captains of industry, avoiding corporate taxes and turning their labour force in a totally flexible one, all DIFFERENT captains of industry and do these captains of industry from the FD-article all preserve their Dutch factories and their fixed (Dutch) labour force for the mid-term future?!

Do these very captains of industry indeed want to live in a country in which the Dutch people have decent jobs against decent payments, including those captains of industry themselves.

And won’t these captains of industry look to American executive paychecks anymore as thé standard for their own future paychecks?! Because these huge wage differences, between the highest and lowest paid people and people living on welfare, are appaling and bad for the country in the end?!

Or will their compassion go skindeep instead and is it only aimed at making the Dutch satisfied, meek, humble and obedient again, so they accept their fate with an understanding smile and without any form of protest?!

Do I live in The Netherlands of Alt Right? (Source: Elsevier (paywall))

Statement by one of the Alt-Right people translated below
Courtesy of:
Click to enlarge
Do I live in arguably one of the happiest nations in the world, in which seemingly deranged people under the moniker Alt-Right nevertheless predict “a civil war in which people with a migration background will die, ‘just as Dutch people who don’t care for their own people”’?

Do I live in a country in which the same deranged people tell the world that they are following shooting practice and combat training, as they fear “...that it will be us or them... in a very bloody battle”?

Or do I live in The Netherlands of my office and my children's chess club and basketball club?!

Do I live in a country were people of all colours, religions and cultural backgrounds work together successfully, respectfully and joyfully, with humour and compassion and with a keen eye for the needs of their companies, as well as their colleagues?! Because working together and achieving successes or coping with failure together is fun and makes you feel confident in others.

My children's chess club
Picture by : Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
Do I perhaps live in the country of my children’s chess club, where people from Indian, Russian, Surinamic, Chinese, Bulgarian, Italian, Turkish or Moroccan descent and a zillion other backgrounds fight their peaceful battles on the 64 fields of the chessboard, in order to see who’s best at chess? Children who all speak the language of this fascinating game and use every break between games to play that other favorite sport of them: football?

My son's basketball club
Picture by : Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
Maybe do I live in the country of our basketball club where again children from a zillion backgrounds play together in teams to become better basketball players and also better people, under the loving guidance of voluntary coaches, who spend all their spare time to teach these youngsters the noble game of basketball?  

And where I see insecure youngsters – initially “at war” with their quickly changing, juvenile bodies – turn into confident and well-trained teamplayers, who appreciate the help and the displayed confidence of their team mates, bringing them all on a higher level?!

Do I still live in a country where a Dutch comedian can create a hilarious, multi-million-viewer mini-movie, in which he advocates The Netherlands as the natural number two behind Donald Trump’s “America first”?!

The answer is: “Yes, I do!!! I do live in this country The Netherlands!”. And strangely enough, the answer applies to all the aforementioned questions, regarding The Netherlands.

That is the strange and ambivalent situation that the Dutch have to live in, knowing at the same time that the political and societal situation in many other countries is equal or even much worse, when it comes to the upcommance of Alt-Right and populist movements and people. And also much worse with respect to unreliable, dishonest and disloyal politicians, who are only in it for the money and for their eternal claim to fame.

I realize that there is a lot at stake currently with the upcoming Dutch parliamentary elections of March 15th, 2017. Therefore I hope that the The Netherlands of the last category will win eventually: the country in which the people have humour, love, confidence and compassion with other people, as well as the headstrong directness that people in other countries might hate, but that made us to what we are today.

Not the picture-perfect, unicolourous small country with only white people that some of us might want to see, but a real country with real people; with real, but nevertheless resolvable problems. A country in which the mainstream politicians keep their relative fairness and honesty they always possessed.

My beloved country The Netherlands in which not the cynics, fearmongerers and warmongerers win, but the normal people of good will and good faith! 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Will 2017 be the breakthrough year for the non-bank, fintech companies?

Or will 'fintech' remain a buzzword without many further consequences, because becoming a real bank is more difficult than it seems at first glance?!

During 2016, I had the idea that all the large, Dutch  banks were preparing for a heavy and bloody war against the non-bank, fintech companies, like Google, Paypal, Apple, Amazon and a few other large American tech-companies. It seemed so clear that these companies were planning to take over the classic banks by storm... and the old and distinguished banks with their vast network of brick & mortar offices would probably be first on the list to be taken over.

Consequently, the aforementioned large (and internationally operating) banks, as ING Bank, ABN AMRO, Rabobank and SNS Bank, were all involved in massive lay off rounds that cost thousands and thousands of bank employees their job. They all did so in order to become “lean & mean” again in the eve of the big battle against the fintech companies. This made 2016 arguably one of the worst years for personnel working in the banking industry, as not only their own companies were involved in massive lay-offs, but also all their competitors.

Having brick & mortar bank offices suddenly seemed so “2005” and so utterly obsolete and overly expensive, that litterally all large, Dutch banks were involved in closing many of the already quite limited number of bank offices that they had left, dismissing their personnel in the proces. Only on a few key locations in larger cities, one bank office remained open. Most other offices were replaced by ATM's and cash back machines or just simply vanished from the face of the earth.

They argued in particular that their customers demanded better, quicker and especially much broader online and mobile services, covering the whole pattern of banking services, instead of having a B&M bank office around within 10 km from nearly all of their customers: 

Why would someone have to visit a bank office, when he can do almost everything via the internet or his cellphone. Online and mobile is everything and brick & mortar is nearly dead”.

In the process they took the risk of offending some of their elderly customers, as these could have nowhere to go, when they were not online or using a mobile phone. These were the casualties of this battle for the best online, realtime strategy and the best customer experience. 

The future of the banks lie on the online channels and the online channels alone: “be there or be square” was the bank strategists' motto. And in the online battles against the fintech companies, it was paramount to be cost efficient and to have the best, the broadest and the most userfriendly software for the customers. If not, the fintech companies would probably conquer their companies.

And I have to be fair to the banks: candidates for overtaking the role of the classic banks seemed everywhere around. Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Paypal and perhaps some other new kids on the block, of which we had not even heard yet, but which was making its plans to surprise the industry. You name it, they would do it…

But now? We are almost a year later and I wonder where the large fintech breakthroughs are?! Except for buzzwords like 'blockchain' and a lot of background noise, I don't see real improvements and the real killer apps yet. Am I just too impatient? Or won't it happen, in reality?!

Many people were talking about the blockchain as killer technology and everybody seemed worried about the future of classic banking.

However, when you ask a few persons where they would go with their money when the classic banks would vanish immediately, I guess they would say: “I will put the money in my pillow again, just like my great grandmother did”. 

In other words: none of these “emerging” fintech companies is ready to collect your savings’ money yet (in my humble opinion), none are offering the products and services yet that the classic banks do and nobody from outside the banking industry has yet invented the killer app that 'solves it all.

Is it perhaps not so simple to replace the classic banks as it seemed initially? '

And are the banks perhaps better in what they do than these new kids on the financial block?! That is not so improbable as it seemed last year.

It is quite easy to offer some of the services that the classic banks do. You can easily:
  • Sell a mortgage;
  • Sell a car loan or another kind of personal loan;
  • Offer a credit card;
  • Start a special purpose bank for collection of private savings’ money and deposits, like the Dutch special purpose bank Leaseplan Bank did in order to finance their car fleet (as car leasing was Leaseplan’s core business);
  • Sell Small and Medium Business loans, if one is willing to take the risk;
  • Offer a certain range of financial services to corporate and wealthy private customers.

However, the big point is: there is no fintech company yet, as far as I’m concerned, which can do it all and which can do those things better, quicker, more efficient and especially cheaper than the classic banks can! 

The simple fact that one's company swims in a stockpile of cash and investment money does not make one a better entrepreneur in the banking industry automatically.

And especially the American entrepreneurs and shareholders prefer a mindless share buyback program above an awkward and risky investment in a finance company, when it is not their core business. Share buybacks keep the shareholders happy and lift the obligation of thinking about profitable investments much longer and harder.

Wonder why for instance Apple and Cisco chose to enter the path of clueless, multi-billion dollar share buyback programs in 2016 and not chose for starting a fintech bank, when it is indeed so easy and prosperous as the fintechies always say?! Go figure! It is definitely not a lack of cash within these companies.

It is rather this: the current bank strategists and employees are not just “a bunch of pathetic losers and nitwits who blatantly fail in thinking out-of-the-box and just maintain doing the things that they had been doing for ages, with the techniques and infrastructure of ages ago”.

People like Ralph Hamers (CEO of ING) and Peter Jacobs (CIO of the same bank) are really some of the smartest, brighest and most visionary people of their breed and they are both darn capable of envisioning the future in the banking industry, as well as of acting to enable this future they envision within their bank. 

And they both sit on nearly hundreds of years of experience in the financial industry, as well as on very trusted computer and software systems that were improved and optimized during decades of ICT projects, without neglecting the modern developments. These guys are extremely hard to beat, even if you have billions and billions of available cash money to beat them, as they are simply masters in THEIR line of business: the finance industry and everything that comes with it.

And also the other large Dutch and most modern European banks are generally very good in what they do and how they do it, making it very hard to beat them on their own turf.

To be frank: I don’t see it happen that suddenly a fintech company emerges that takes the rest of the financial industry by storm. Can I be wrong? I can be wrong! But probably I am not!

I am certain that some fintech companies will do their amount of cherry picking with respect to some of the most lucrative parts of the banking industry. And I’m sure that they will be fierce competitors in their respective areas for the classic banks. I am also sure that these companies could become very successful in their new line of business and make a lot of money in the process. 

But will these companies make whole banks obsolete and push them out of business?! No way, José!

And now that the Dutch banks (and many other European banks too) have shrunk their personnel base to much smaller (sometimes even skeleton) levels, making their operation much cheaper and more efficient, they will be even harder to beat.

In the end, when you have inherited a large heritage of your parents or you earned the revenues of a large company stock sale and you want to invest that in order to put the money to good use. 

Would you then go to a company of which the experience lies in whole other terrains than banking and investing? Like a phone company, or a virtual book store, or even a payment service provider, like Paypal?!

Or would you still go to your trusted bank, as you have known them for ages and you know they were always careful with your money?!

To make a comparison: when your car breaks down and an expensive repair is looming. Would you go to the Walmart, because they just started a car repair and overhaul service? Or would you just visit your trusted dealer, because you know what he is doing and you know he won’t mess up your car even more? 

You can do the math! Also with respect to the emerging fintech companies that are not emerging so fast as you perhaps expected, you can do that!