’Tis the season when thoughts turn to gift buying, and this year, many of us will wrap up, and receive, presents designed to encourage self-care. We’ll be on the hunt for the perfect face mask, and ready to unwrap bottles of lotion or boxed-up aromatherapy candles.
It’s not just the holiday season, though. Since the 2016 election, there’s been an uptick in self-care. According to 2017 data, Americans may be spending more time and money on yoga (34 percent increase from the previous year), morning walks (19 percent increase), meditation (up 16 percent) and therapy (up 17 percent).
It makes sense that in the wake of the terrible, stolen victory by the narcissist-in-chief, we are looking for some self-soothing relief. And women like Gwyneth Paltrow, and other white women in the wellness industry, have been there to reap the benefits of this trend.
In the last decade, Paltrow has made a $250 million fortune selling wellness through her lifestyle company, Goop. Goop’s wellness section offers up a variety of dubious products and treatments from “Emotional Detox Bath Soak” to supplements and “clean” food, to vaginal eggs and vaginal steams.
In an interview last year, Jimmy Kimmel asked Paltrow about the practice of “earthing,” one of many self-care techniques recommended on Goop.
It makes sense that in the wake of the terrible, stolen victory by the narcissist-in-chief, we are looking for some self-soothing relief.
“So one of the things we like to do on Goop is find what the alternative world says about feeling good in the modern-day world,” she said. “ … I don’t actually know that much about earthing, and it came out of me not knowing anything about earthing but hearing about it. They say that we lost touch with sort of being barefoot in the earth, and there’s some sort of electromagnetic thing that we’re missing. It’s good to take your shoes off in the grass.”
Paltrow’s answer reveals the cultural appropriation at the heart of her enterprise, as well as her cluelessness. There is something gratifying about hearing Paltrow admit that she doesn’t know much about she’s hawking on Goop. More than that, her vague call for reconnecting to the land by “being barefoot on the earth” speaks to a kind of entitlement of the white lady settler who is at ease with “finding” what “the alternative world says” and using it for her own, electromagnetic, ends. The problem, though, is not simply the pseudoscience promulgated by her brand, or her own lack of awareness about her privilege, it is the whiteness of the wellness industry more broadly.
The editors at Self magazine recently proclaimed that “wellness has a race problem,” but it would be more accurate to say that wellness has a whiteness problem. Wellness is pitched to consumers through a constellation of luxuries that white women are more likely to enjoy, like spare time and disposable income. It’s often provided in facilities ― spas, gyms, retreats ― with aesthetics that are implicitly white, upper-middle-class and walled off from by any consciousness about their own place in American society’s racial landscape. One journalist who attended the “In Goop Health” Summit in California earlier this year described the scene in which there were “more blondes than one is accustomed to seeing in one place at one time.”
Wellness is pitched to consumers through a constellation of luxuries that white women are more likely to enjoy, like spare time and disposable income.
The problem with “wellness” isn’t that white women are the target market for these products, and gather in primarily white spaces to purchase and enjoy them, or that white women like Paltrow make gobs of money off of them.
No, the problem is that health magazines, self-care gurus, and “In Goop Health” summits all work to make a particular kind of white-hetero-lady-identity seem natural and in need of care. Once the discussion in those spaces turns to having your chakras realigned and anchoring your pelvic wall, what doesn’t get mentioned or, likely even noticed, is that there are only white women talking to other white women in those spaces. The combination of making the straight, white, upper-middle-class white woman’s identity seem both natural and in need of care, while never mentioning it as a specific racial and gender identity, or a class identity, is part of what gives whiteness a soothing power for those who have access to it.
The brands of “wellness” that Paltrow, and most of the other wellness gurus, are selling, ignore the things people actually need to be well, like ending poverty and systemic racism or providing access to free, reliable health care. Instead, these versions of “wellness” ignore the large, structural problems that affect everyone’s health, while they work hard to reflect back the special, precious individuality of each and every white woman who subscribes to their services. And, this sort of wellness drives home an entitlement to all the things from the “alternative worlds” that Goop and other purveyors of wellness are unearthing for their benefit.
The banner held aloft over so much self-care is Audre Lorde’s famous quote, rooted in her experience as a Black, radical, lesbian, warrior-poet. You’ve probably seen it on Instagram, accompanied by the hashtag #selfcare. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” Lorde wrote, “it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Feminist writer Sara Ahmed talks about self-care as a form of warfare for women of color surviving under late capitalism. Philosopher and activist Angela Davis said in a 2014 speech that “self-care has to be incorporated” into a “holistic approach to organizing.”
But, for the most part, self-care today is not part of any resistance to the current regime. Most self-care is not connected to political organizing, nor is it engaged in sustaining people as they conduct warfare against capitalism. Self-care is big business, and it’s white women who are the main audience and the biggest profiteers. What makes this even more destructive than the usual Columbusing of Black women’s culture for profit is that it feeds a kind of white narcissism, which is at the heart of the very culture that’s destroying us.
Most self-care is not connected to political organizing, nor is it engaged in sustaining people as they conduct warfare against capitalism. Self-care is big business.
Of course, there are Black women who are working to take the whiteness out of self-care. The Chicago-based Lauren Ash, for example, created Black Girl in Om, a space that encourages “self-care, self-love, and self-empowerment for communities of color.” What Ash is doing, ― situating self-care and self-love within communities of color ― is the key difference between her endeavor and the narcissism inherent in the whiteness of the dominant self-care culture.
Without connection, care and community, self-care is simply narcissism. And, without engagement in real, political efforts to change the racial and economic status quo, the ideology of self-care amounts to a radical reinvestment in the individual, in neoliberal capitalism, and in regimes of whiteness that reinforce the mythology of the primacy of the individual. Wellness without a radical, collective politics doesn’t offer resistance to regimes of power, but rather, a way to remain in them.
Jessie Daniels is a Professor at The City University Of New York, and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.
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An end to our enforced monasticism
Empty diaries suddenly fill from freedom day on June 21 and we are all fluttering around like Bridgerton matrons. There will be an orgiastic mingling of many, many households when England play the Czech Republic on June 22.
Some of us were wrongfooted, expecting restrictions to lift a little earlier. I have been working with a distinguished committee and a Scottish university on a science summit in May, entitled “The New Enlightenment”. I had respectfully noted that some of our most eminent scientists were of a vaccinated age — some could, indeed, take credit for developing vaccines. The setting was glorious. It was to have been McDavos. By the time the prime minister and the Scottish government had revealed their restrictions it was looking more likely to be a roadside picnic.
By Wednesday, we had got out our new save the dates, with a photograph of Braemar Castle and the art work letters of Martin Creed EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT.
You could say that my bet on the timeline of the virus was an act of hubris. Boris Johnson, of all people, has taken to reminding us to be humble before nature. I do not know if this is a deliberate nod to the lesson of monasticism, but we all have our interpretations of rules, or the Rule, as the Benedictines would have it.
The greatest lesson of monasticism is humility, which gets me off the hook if friends and colleagues ask about my new book The Interior Silence, based on visiting 10 monasteries round the world. There is, indeed, wisdom in the monasteries, but it would be absurd to suggest that it had rubbed off on me just by witnessing it.
I reply, truthfully, that I have a great deal more to learn. What I have acquired is an appreciation of silence. There is too much talking. It was the late columnist Frank Johnson in conversation with his friend and fellow columnist Alan Watkins who first used the term the “chattering classes”.
This was before social media increased the volume of opinion. Frank, Alan and the late Alexander Chancellor, a former editor of the Spectator, could talk and drink into the evening, as we all did in the latter years of last century. But their conversations tended towards conceits of political history. “What would have happened if Rab Butler had become prime minister?’’ and so on. There was no polemical battery in discussion.
Indeed, I remember Alan’s refusal, at a Cambridge dining club formed for the purpose of conversation, to express any opinion except on the quality of the butter. Undergraduates leaned forward excitedly waiting for him to pronounce on parliament, but he suddenly decided that politics was not a fit discussion for dinner. One of the undergraduates at the dining club, Kwasi Kwarteng, took matters into his own hands and went on to become an MP.
It is fitting that a book on monastic lessons should be published without fanfare — the bookshops are all closed — and right that any celebration is held in self-isolation. The lessons of monasticism, apart from humility, are patience, fortitude and compassion, which are all needed in a pandemic. (My favourite saying remains that of Nancy Mitford’s nanny, to her charges: “Nobody is looking at you.”)
My aim is to study. Monks believed in perpetual education, copying out the books that existed with exquisite calligraphy. There is so much to find out and even the masters are never finished. I was talking to Paul Nurse, the head of the Francis Crick Institute, about a lecture he was planning for the postponed science summit. He asked me if it sounded as if it was on the right lines. “I am just an amateur,” he added. Sir Paul is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. His refusal to rest on his laurels is truly monastic; although, post-Enlightenment, he may prefer a different word for it.
Perhaps the pandemic has made us more sympathetic to the principle of monasticism, which is consideration of others, despite physical separation. Withdrawal from society takes self-discipline. Living in a self-contained community or household demands reserves of civility and kindness.
I noticed that some newspapers accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of skiving when he announced that he would be going on spiritual retreat later this year. Friends of mine have confused restorative monasticism with mindfulness. Especially since the monasteries that I visited were in beautiful places.
The difference is that mindfulness is about nurturing yourself and monasticism is a loss of self. A few of my media friends say they have been unable to read during lockdown. Constant video calls have made them jittery; they are looking at and listening to themselves all day. The monastic remedy is concentrated thought — or prayer — labour, austerity, silence.
There is a monastic version of Martin Creed’s Everything Will Be Alright. It is Julian of Norwich: All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
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Daft Punk and the virtues of mystery
I so wanted to write that “Nothing in their career became them like the leaving of it”. Daft Punk, the electronic music pair, retired this week with a message that was, comme d’habitude, wordless, faceless and sumptuous. But their career became them quite enough, thanks. Over three decades, the Parisians took a problem — how to infuse synthetic sound with feeling — and solved it to the tune of six Grammys and legion sales. When Emmanuel Macron hosted Donald Trump for Bastille Day, the army band struck up a medley of their hits.
Lasting success is rare enough. It is the retention of mystique all the while that distinguished Daft Punk as precious beings in a chatty age. Headgear — first masks, then chrome helmets — meant their “public appearances” fulfilled neither word in that phrase. Naked-faced, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo can ride the metro undisturbed in their own town. (Imagine Adele on the Northern Line.) There is likely no one more famous who enjoys more privacy. Given their less than Stakhanovite output — nine years without a gig — silence was a risk. Their punishment: matchless credibility.
Daft Punk showed the world the advantages of reticence. The world babbles on regardless. It is there in the verbose smarm of corporate “engagement”, both with customers and staff. It is there in the abasement of the governing class through sheer availability. I lived through the shift in Britain from cold politicians to please-like-me merchants with a studied knack for the demotic. Tell me, has it disarmed the public or increased their mistrust? Have attitudes to business softened or hardened since corporate PR became so vast in scale and simpering in style? In both realms, the best that can be ventured is that things would have been worse without the charm (how telling a word) offensive.
What Daft Punk fathomed, I think, is that some chamber of the human brain does not just tolerate but actively favours aloofness. A measure of distance piques curiosity as much as resentment. It avoids the air of desperation that is as emetic in a vote-seeker or product-seller as in a lover. It may even skew our estimation of the substance itself. With four studio albums in 28 years, one of which flopped, would Daft Punk be retiring to such praise (“The most influential pop musicians of the 21st century”) had they been grinningly accessible? Or was it that who seemed most kingly were kings?
A band is not a company, but it is a commercial proposition. It is not a political party, but it does have an image to curate. For all public-facing entities, Daft Punk, the best-managed brand in pop, were a lesson in the uses of remoteness.
America’s least-trusted institutions — Congress, television news and big business, says Gallup — are remorselessly heard-from. The most trusted are the military (a closed box to most citizens) and small business (too poor to advertise at scale). I don’t suggest that executives or politicians emulate Homem-Christo, a man who communicates in large part through the medium of pout. But I wonder what there is to show for the Uriah Heep strategy. The feeling of your pain, the stakeholder-flattery: ingratiation has been the way of public and private elites during the exact era that trust in them has dropped. With exquisite circularity, the answer to the cynicism is to try all the harder to “connect”. It is a double folly. What they forfeit in grandeur, they do not make up for in affection.
For such outward modernists, Daft Punk were in at least two senses men of the past. One was their zeal for old, shunned music. (For the de-stigmatisation of disco, the Bee Gees owe them a piece of their restored reputation.) The other was their rejection of the connectedness of modern life. Just as humans acquired the means to be in constant contact with each other, the band chose withdrawal. No act of their size and longevity has so well avoided contempt through familiarity. To pull this off in an era geared for disclosure and omnipresence is a technical feat as well as a moral choice. In not trying hard to be adored, they were. The opposite trick is on show all around us.
Email Janan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Vaccine passports are a technical and ethical minefield
The writer directs the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at Nuffield College, Oxford university
I remember the evening a co-worker arrived at our door waving a phone, beaming “I’ve got it!” His Android mobile was the only way to use the UK government app that let EU citizens apply for UK settled status after Brexit. After some unsettling jokes about uploading my private biometric data on his device, we completed the deed and he disappeared into the night. As governments around the world ponder digital vaccine passports, that evening remains in my mind.
Vaccine passports are essentially certificates that link proof of vaccination to the identity of the holder, a potential silver bullet to return to our pre-Covid-19 lives. Before the pandemic, the EU was working on plans for cross-border electronic certificates to replace the paper booklets that many travellers carry. At this week’s EU summit some leaders pressed for further steps towards coronavirus passports.
A recent Royal Society report that I led came up with 12 different criteria that would need to be satisfied to make such passports feasible. This is a complex ecosystem that requires an understanding of everything from immunity and infection to technology, ethics and behavioural factors. But the underlying question must be: what would a vaccine passport be used for?
The head of Heathrow airport has called for digital health certificates to reboot international travel. Estonia and Iceland already link e-vaccination certificates to travel and exclusion from quarantine. Greece is pressing the EU to move quickly. There are precedents such as the airline industry group Iata’s travel pass initiative. But would these certificates only be required for international travel or could they be needed for getting a job, attending a football match, or buying some milk?
Israel recently introduced a green pass heralded as “the first step back to an almost normal life”. It opens entry to gyms, cinemas, hotels and meets some our technical criteria such as verifiable credentials, portability, (attempts at) security for personal data and interoperability. It is valid for six months after a second dose and for “those who have recovered from coronavirus”.
But this could be problematic. Current vaccines protect against severe disease, but we do not yet know whether they stop transmission, how quickly immunity wanes or if they are compromised by emerging variants. Whether someone who has “recovered” meets immunity criteria remains a question. In addition to an expiry date, we would need the ability to revoke a vaccine passport. Israel’s warning of severe punishment for forgery is another reminder of what could go wrong.
There is also the question of mission creep. Recall the UK’s early digital contact tracing app, which raised concerns about privacy, government surveillance and private sector data sharing. Or consider the technical problems with the Tawakkalna app, introduced in Saudi Arabia, which is used for entry into many places but recently froze.
All vaccine passports have the potential to block people from essential goods and services and exclude those who lack identification or do not own or cannot afford a smartphone.
The RS criteria for a workable vaccine passport included equity, ethics and non-discrimination. That means we must ask who would we exclude? There is higher vaccine hesitancy among ethnic minorities and the jabs are being rolled out by age. Plus some people are excluded entirely: children, pregnant women and those with allergies.
Others worry of a slippery slope towards digital health or ID cards. We are already partway there, as I discovered, with Apple’s link with healthcare institutions which allows me to download my immunisation and medical records on to my iPhone. This technology could mean greater efficiency in the health system and better outcomes. But there would be serious ethical concerns if a vaccine QR code that tracks movement is linked to other data — say housing and immigration status — without our knowledge, or if it increases surveillance of already disadvantaged groups.
Credit cards and social media data hold a wealth of behavioural and location data, that companies regularly mine. With vaccine passports, it will come down to trust in government and that can only be won through transparency. There is a risk that the government expends time and money to create a passport system only to have the public recoil in horror.
We also shouldn’t forget we are globally interconnected. When travel resumes, visitors and workers will cross borders and need global standards such the WHO’s Smart Vaccination Certificate. This could be a legal minefield of issues. Human rights and data protection need to be weighed against a duty of care and commercial freedom to act. Governments may make vaccine passports mandatory on economic grounds or to protect public health. Or they may decide to dodge that bullet, but allow businesses to require them instead.
There is also the question of whether a domestic vaccine passport is worth the investment. That depends, of course, on vaccine rollout, virus mutation and other factors. To work, a substantial proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated with universal access, which in most countries is months away. In the meantime, let’s put the pieces of this puzzle together and carefully judge if we like the picture that emerges.
Narendra Modi’s stadium monument is not quite cricket
What use is personal branding after you are dead? This, at least, seems to be Narendra Modi’s view. The Indian prime minister has just agreed to the renaming of the nation’s, and the world’s, largest cricket stadium — after himself.
The arena in Ahmedabad in his home state of Gujarat had previously carried the name of Sardar Patel, a leader of the Indian independence movement and the nation’s first deputy premier. Patel had been glorified in a colossal, 597-foot statue — another Modi project — which cleared the way for the stadium to take a new name. Modi’s party knew just the man.
Donald Trump must be fuming at the limits of his own imagination in this respect. A few hotels and golf clubs bearing his name are small potatoes. Had Modi’s example been available to the former US president, he might not have stopped at airports or sports arenas. Whole towns might have been renamed; states even. Around half of America’s presidents have at least a county named after them. There are 30 Washington Counties and 22 Jefferson Counties. But these honours tend to be bestowed posthumously, or at least after leaving office.
Such tactics are, of course, long established in feudal and dictatorial regimes. Monarchs — or their flattering courtiers — were terribly keen on the principle. Just two years ago, Kazakhstan renamed its capital Nur-Sultan after its still living ex-president (and “Leader for Life”) Nursultan Nazarbayev.
But, in general, democratic nations have tended to wait if not for death then at least for retirement before handing out such honours. This can even smooth the way for transition in nations with free elections, where the outcome is, shall we say, less certain. A birthplace may jump the gun on naming itself after a great local hero, but generally the judgment of history is considered useful before rushing to rename. A Richard Nixon stadium might have seemed a defensible idea in 1972. A couple of years later a committee to rebrand would probably have been hastily assembled.
And as the example of Stalingrad, now Volgograd, formerly Tsaritsyn, shows, the problem with such personal branding before the history is settled can lead to some rapid lurches in nomenclature. The use of a river is a safer bet for long-term stability.
Where personal memorialisation of a living leader does occur it is best left as organic. The so-called “Boris bikes” dotted around London were not so named by Johnson himself though Britain’s premier is patently happy with the nickname (even more so since the plan actually originated with his predecessor as city mayor).
Societies are used to corporate sponsorship of buildings, events and stadiums but this is understood to be directly related to investment, and the names rarely stick beyond the cash flow. The home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team may officially be Oracle Park, but in the last 20 years it has also been Pacific Bell Park, SBC Park and AT&T Park.
Modi’s act of vanity is part of a wider effort to rewrite the country’s history and sense of self. And if you are building a cult of personality why not link it to the country’s sporting obsession? But the move might also be added to the growing list of warning lights that are already flashing about the state of Indian democracy.
For there is one other reason why political leaders start naming places after themselves while they are still in power. It is that they are not confident their nation will be quite so keen to honour them once they have gone.
Bond turmoil heralds end of the standard portfolio
Bonds are supposed to be boring. When they are not, you should pay attention. That makes this week a good time to do just that. Bond yields are on the up: on Thursday the 10-year US Treasury yield hit 1.6 per cent.
That might not sound like much — and it is very low by historical standards — but it has tripled since the summer, with much of the action happening in the last few days.
It’s also not the direction we are used to bond yields moving in: for the past 40 years they have mostly gone down. And perhaps more pertinently, they have almost always gone down — and hence bond prices have gone up — when equities have been struggling — think 1998, 2001 and 2008.
They are now rising sharply, yet equities are falling — the S&P 500 was down 2.45 per cent on Thursday alone. This matters for all sorts of reasons. But for the ordinary investor it should be taken as a hint that a major change is on the way, one that should change the core assumption at the heart of almost all portfolio construction for the past 40 years — the idea that the perfectly balanced portfolio is made up of 60 per cent equities and 40 per cent bonds.
The story goes like this. You know equities are the best asset to be in over the long term. But you also know that equities are prone to regular episodes of boom and bust. You can’t know in advance which type of episode the market will be in when you need your money back — so unless you plan to invest for perpetuity, you need something to steady your ship. So you add in government bonds. These give you a nice feeling of security — you will almost certainly get your money back — and an income too.
You might chop and change your proportions a bit based on your age — more equities for the young, more bonds for the old. But all in all, ask any old-fashioned independent financial adviser how to allocate your money and the odds are that he or she will pop you right into the industry default — the “balanced” 60/40 portfolio.
They’d have been right to do so. Bonds have not only mostly done well in themselves — due to falling interest rates and low inflation — but have also offered protection when equities have been tricky. Between 1970 and now, the standard deviation of a pure equity portfolio has been significantly higher than that of a 60/40 portfolio, meaning that it’s been much more volatile. Yet sitting through the trauma of the ups and downs only in equities would have brought little extra in the way of returns over a 60/40 portfolio.
This is why the Vanguard LifeStrategy 60 per cent Equity Fund has a full £9.6bn under management and why anyone concentrating on their pension will find they have something similar — and why their provider will be shifting their portfolio more into bonds as they age. History tells us it is the best way to invest. Or at least that it once was.
Here’s the problem: given what we are seeing this week, can we be sure that bonds are still a good way to protect our portfolios in times of stress? Are they still “anti fragile”? Look at the past year and you will see this is not the first time they have let anyone in a 60/40 down.
Bonds rallied as equities started to fall in February, but then last March, as equity markets collapsed, bonds did too — and while equities then bounced the returns from bonds did not. The problem here is a simple one: the protection you get from bonds comes from yields falling (and hence prices rising) in the bad times. But yields can only fall so far. If they are already close to zero or negative they don’t have far to fall — and hence don’t not much ability to protect you.
Investors are used to seeing one of two happy things happen in their bond portfolios, says Henry Maxey, chief investment officer at Ruffer, an asset manager. Either they make a nice return on the interest rate or they make that return and more as rates drop and the capital value of their bond portfolio rises. Today’s low rates “challenge the whole thing”: any rise in rates could lose you a lot of money, but at the same time there is very little capacity for them to fall and make you any.
It’s also worth looking beyond recent history as a reminder that we can get false ideas stuck in our heads about the long-term characteristics of various asset classes. In the inflation-plagued 1970s, bonds were more known for “return-free risk” than anything else and of course between 1970 and 1975 a 60/40 portfolio would have lost you 60 per cent of the real value of your money. You might have got your money back on bonds held to maturity but what use is that when its real value has collapsed? More fragile than anti-fragile.
The 60/40 portfolio is not quite dead yet. The moves of the past few days could easily be reversed as monetary authorities, wary of allowing market upsets to derail recovery, intervene to bring rates back down — and bond prices back up. Société Générale’s global strategist Albert Edwards notes that the Reserve Bank of Australia has “already run up the white flag” and is buying more bonds. But even if the great bond bull market is not completely over, the simple reality is that it has to be near its end. Ten-year yields are more than 1.5 per cent in the US, 0.8 per cent in the UK and -0.25 per cent in the eurozone. By any historical standard those rates are rock bottom.
And they are particularly low given the massive fiscal stimulus from governments around the world, the huge gross domestic product growth expected this year (investment bank Jefferies has just upgraded its 2021 forecast for the US this year to an emerging-markets style figure of 6.9 per cent) and the commitments from central banks to ignore inflation in favour of employment targets.
Inflation isn’t great for equities — although over time good companies should be able to raise their prices to match the generalised price rise. However, it is genuinely horrible for bonds — what’s the point in holding something that guarantees you won’t get your money back in inflation-adjusted terms? The upshot is that it is hard to see the thing that has worked so well for the past 40 years working well for the next 40. Anyone still tied to old-fashioned defaults should perhaps be looking for new forms of protection. A little gold, more cash than usual and an equity portfolio shifted towards value are all good places to start.
The post-pandemic world is WeWork’s time to shine
Office politics are hotting up. Some managers are pushing staff to return; others are committing to remote working forever; delirious finance directors are slashing property bills by amounts they could only dream of pre-pandemic.
In the first camp, Goldman Sachs’ chief executive David Solomon this week expressed regret that office staffing had subsided from a modest autumn peak of 25 per cent of pre-Covid levels in New York and London, 35 per cent in continental Europe and more than 50 per cent in Asia.
Solomon is convinced that Goldman’s “innovative collaborative apprenticeship culture” cannot thrive when staff are working from home. “This is not ideal for us,” he told a conference. “And it’s not a new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible.”
Equally decisive — in the opposite direction — is Coinbase, which has opted to become a “decentralised company”. Since dumping its San Francisco headquarters, the cryptocurrency company has seen 29 per cent of staff based in the city leave for cheaper or more pleasant locations.
In contrast to Solomon, Coinbase’s chief executive Brian Armstrong reckons an office is not at all necessary for a vibrant corporate culture. “Overall we’ve seen high engagement, belonging, learning, and creativity happen in a remote-first environment,” he wrote in a blog this week.
Even companies far stuffier than Coinbase sense an opportunity. HSBC said this week that it plans to reduce its office footprint by a gargantuan 40 per cent over time.
What does this mean for purveyors of flexible office space? If everyone either works at home or goes back to their 2019 routine, it is bad news. But in any sort of middle ground, there will be a need for spaces that are not head offices or home offices. The model has something to offer everyone: whether you follow the philosophy of Goldman, Coinbase or HSBC.
Mark Dixon, chief executive of flexible office space company IWG, says he has just enjoyed a record week, signing big new clients, including Cisco and Staples. At the same time, existing customers have started to drift back to IWG’s sites. “There has been a marked turn this week,” he says.
That does not mean a return to normal. “My prediction would be that in five years, certainly 10 years’ time you would have to explain to your kids what commuting was,” says Dixon. “Commuting is just this totally stupid thing that people have been forced to do.” He notes that office towers contain thousands of people, most of whom “don’t really work together” and the ones who do “communicated with text, Teams or Zoom in the office”.
People will still want to meet but, Dixon argues, that might not be your office in Canary Wharf or midtown Manhattan but a local spot that is most convenient for the participants. “You’ll pick an appropriate place on an Uber-like app.”
There is, of course, another well-known company in this sector, which shares a lead shareholder with Uber. WeWork, which imploded in 2019 after investors balked at its business model, self-dealing management and eye-watering valuation, is in talks to go public once again, this time via a $10bn transaction with a special purpose acquisition company.
WeWork has problems that IWG does not, a hangover from its breakneck expansion: it is still losing money and it is encumbered with lots of glitzy city centre sites that are unlikely to be fully occupied for the foreseeable future. The challenge of its model — short-term leases for customers and longer-term leases for itself — persists.
But it has name recognition, deep-pocketed backers and a proven ability to burn billions of dollars and survive. Given endless liquidity to reposition its portfolio, it could be a real business in tomorrow’s world. All it took was a devastating global pandemic and a historically stupid bubble.
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