Thursday, May 02, 2013

Don't worry, be happy

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski had a message for Poles on a rainy rather cold May 2, aka Flag Day. Don't worry, be happy, the recently de-mustachioed Polish president said.

Don't worry, be happy. I couldn't agree more, Mr. Prezydent. 

The president told Polish public radio in an interview Thursday evening that he understood Polish holidays could be sombre affairs considering the country's blood-soaked history. The president might have given the example of May 3. 

Constitution Day commemorates the May 3, 1791, passing by Poland's parliament of one of the western world's first democratic constitutions. The very same Poles so often associated with the horrors of Nazi occupation and the near half-decade of communism were actually democratic frontrunners…at least until the Germans and Russians decided in 1795 that Poland shouldn't exist at all. Poof, Poland was gone, and not for the last time due to the Germans and Russians. 

Komorowski understands all this, he said, but in the end "you have to party hard on the holidays" [my translation].

Bronek, I fully agree...and fully plan to "party hard" as I take a short break to make my woman honest, vacation a little in one of the world's great cities, and build up a lot of energy for a summer of blogging beauty. 

Wish you were here....

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Babies, babies, babies

Politicians love babies. People love babies. Everyone loves babies. I suppose that's why Prime Minister Donald Tusk has followed up a rough political patch with a couple of major pushes to produce and encourage more babies. In demographic terms, this is probably smart. In political terms, this could be too.

The first step came Monday night when Tusk's government passed a previously promised move to give families more options to take longer child-care leave. Mothers' main maternity leave will remain at 20 weeks but the extra maternity will be extended to 6 weeks from the current 4 weeks. 

But the centrepiece plan sees the government offer a so-called "family-care" leave to mothers or fathers that will last 26 weeks. This leave can also be combined with part-time work. One goal is to explicitly help fathers do more. 

Those taking 6 months will get 100% of pay with the option to later add another 6 months at 60%. Families can also choose right away the full 12 months available at 80% of pay. None too shabby, I might say. 

The next step came Tuesday when the government decided to transfer just over 200 million zlotys from an EU program to help subsidise pre-schools. This is in addition to the 500 million zlotys the government has already pledged to help lower pre-school costs. 

Some 2,300 pre-schools will be financed at a total cost of 1.5 to 1.7 billion zlotys in 2007 to 2013. Get 'em while their young has always been good strategy. 

Demographically, the baby-boosting measures are likely to prove too little. According to the latest data, Poland's fertility rate was just 1.3 (2011). That is well below the replacement level of 2.1. No matter how you slice it, some type of immigration is likely needed to offset societal ageing in Poland. 

But in political terms, Tusk is clearly looking to play the long game. The extra funds to promote babies, whether born or unborn, will probably not hit with a bang, but they could indeed help undershore wobbly support for Tusk's senior ruling Civic Platform (PO) going forward. 

Happy May Day.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Today the entire Polish nation rallied around a single sporting star, everyone feeling collectively like they were from the greatest footballing nation on earth. 

The mood was triggered by Robert Lewandowski bashing four goals past the famed Real Madrid in a Champions League semi-final to put his squad, Borussia Dortmund, a heartbeat away from the final.

Needless to say, Twitter exploded with commentary while Lewandowski was working his magic. The newspapers blared it loud and far on their frontpages. The many 24-hour news channels constantly reported on it, seemingly interviewing anyone who had any connection to the striker. 

But in all this revelling, one can actually discover who is a true Pole and who is not.

If your response to Lewandowski's herculean effort was, "awesome" or "way to go" or "he'll be even better next time" or "we are all Robert Lewandowski now," you are not a real Pole. 

If, instead, your response to the goal barrage was "why isn't he this good when he plays for the national team" or "he was just lucky" or "he'll never do it again," congratulations, you are a real Pole. 

Being Canadian, you might have put me in the former camp. But having been in Poland for so long, I found myself constantly thinking the latter. 

Woe be unto me, I've become Polish. 


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I don't like Mondays

As ex-Treasury Minister Mikolaj Budzanowski picked up the honorary pen given to all ministers and his replacement was sworn in, another minister moved into right into Prime Minister Donald Tusk's firing line with a bang. The controversial statements in question are pretty stunning. The justice minister -- let that sink in -- apparently said that "German scientists are carrying out experiments on Polish embryos" and that thousands might have been killed.

Lol. Fun times.

Needless to say, the mainstream voter of the Civic Platform (PO) from which Justice Minister Jaroslaw Gowin hails (nominally) are outraged. The comment is seen not only as expressing a deeply conservative contentious view, but also displaying a very anti-German strain that is far more reminiscent of the radical right Law and Justice (PiS).
Gowin has a history. This is not the first time he has tested PM Tusk's patience. Tusk has so far been reluctant to fire Gowin because the latter represents a conservative wing of the PO and the PM's afraid of creating a potential political rival if Gowin and his allies were to angrily storm off. One must remember that the governing coalition's majority in parliament is paper thin. 

But even Tusk has limits. The prime minister said Wednesday he was "irritated," there was a "problem" and that he was considering dismissing Gowin. Tusk said he will make a final decision on Monday after meeting the justice minister.

The last time Gowin pissed Tusk off, the pair also met on a Monday. Ahead of a decision that had been expected to see him fired, Gowin commented that "I don't like Mondays." In that case, he survived.

For this case, Gowin said his comments were taken out of context and then made a lot out of by the Polish media. O-kay. I wonder what context made Gowin indicate that 'German scientists were experimenting on Polish embryos.' Perhaps they were chatting about World War II?

At any rate, surely the justice minister has gone too far this time. Surely he should be fired and sent back to the dark ages. Failing that, he could just join PiS. But I imagine he's trying to avoid that fate since it is much better, and more politically propitious, to be the single conservative crank than to be lost in a sea of them.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

TV killed the TV star

Warsaw. April 22. 23:45 CET. Game of Thrones, watched. Mad Men, watched. I wonder how the Boston Marathon bomber investigation is going. Let's check CNN…hmmm, that's weird. It used to be here…hmm, oh it changed channels. Wait, it says I don't have access to CNN anymore. Wtf?

That pretty much sums up the 'success' of the merger of Polish digital TV providers Cyfra+ and N, which launched their new joint platform nc+ on the first day of spring. 

Cyfra+ was second with 1.5 million customers and N was third with 1 million. Since mergers always 'reap synergies,' the companies' owners decided in 2012 to bed together to try to topple the market leader, Polsat Cyfrowy, which has some 3.6 million customers. Considering the recent launch and the fact the stage for the merger was set long ago, I might have imagined work on the actual merger would have made more progress. But I would have been wrong. 

On March 21, the first day of a spring that resembled rather the dead of winter (symbolic, I agree), nc+ launched to . . . outrage. Absolute freaking insane outrage. The new packages were widely deemed to be worse than either of the individual packages offered by the constituent companies. Better, the packages were more expensive. My calculations showed that if I wanted broadly the same channels as I had with just Cyfra+, I would have had to pay 62% more. 

The company also began unilaterally changing the contracts of some users and setting deadlines for transfer to the new merged network. Some of these customers sued the company at Poland's competition regulator and won.

Needless to say, the ranks of the pissed off mounted. One such launched his own Facebook page: Anty nc+, which to date has collected 94,405 likes. That is a lot of disgruntlement. 

Nc+'s managers were not immune to the fact they oversaw the worst TV launch in Poland's history. They quickly cut prices, offered promotions, and published apologies online and in the Polish press. 

But as you can see with the unilateral decision to drop CNN, everything is not kosher. Other channels I want are also not offered though they are advertised as being offered. I got a customer service response today that they don't guarantee the availability of any channel. Great. 

So, I started looking around at the competition. UPC Polska is one such provider. Let's see, how's there offer . . . wait, what? This isn't real competition? UPC Polska owns a 17% stake in nc+. So much for free market competition. 

It's all pretty funny in fact. If I were an MBA hack, I'd write a report entitled, "How TV Killed the TV Star." The main takeaway would be: why should I have my channel selection dictated to me by a company that really does not have my best viewing interests in mind or even know what these are? Why should I not be able to trade, say, 50 useless Italian and French channels (for me) for CNN? Why not indeed? 

In the end, the entire nc+ disaster could thus kill themselves. I know that I, for one, can't wait for the day when I can choose exactly what channels I want, pay a likely lower rate and get rid of the middleman altogether.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Austerity schemerity?

I will pay thousands of zloty more tax this year because of a fiscal reform measure put in place last year that in the end sharply increases the tax on journalists, actors, musicians, professors and others deemed to have copyright. I understand the need for fiscal consolidation. I just have to do my bit, right? We all just have to do our bit. 
Despite lots of bit doing, Poland's government missed its general government deficit target by a full percentage point in 2012, according to a Monday announcement from the European Union's statistics office. The Finance Ministry originally expected a deficit equal to 2.9% of gross domestic product, or economic output. It actually hit 3.9%. 
In my books, that's a pretty big miss. Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski blamed the overshoot on the slowdown in the wider EU and weak external demand, which has a knock-on effect on the Polish economy. He also blamed the Monetary Policy Council as if Polish interest rate cuts have some massive impact on economic growth (but that's the subject of another post). 
Rostowski said more fiscal austerity would be put in place in 2013 in order to cut the deficit to levels allowing Poland to be removed from the excessive deficit procedure (EDP), the EU's club for fiscal bad boys. Right now 20 of the EU's 27 countries are part of the club, making it not the most exclusive of clubs. 
Cue European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who said Monday that EU-wide austerity is reaching the limit, both in terms of effectiveness and public support. Barroso's viewpoint is not the exception. More and more EU officials have in fact said or signaled that the focus on austerity has been overdone and attention must be paid to growth.
But then why should I pay more tax? Why should anyone? Why should the common person suffer austerity if it is overdone, no one supports it and it does not seem to be working? 
My point is not that hunting for prudent public finances is bad. I believe the opposite in fact. Rather, I reckon it is hard to ask people to bear pain if they constantly hear their leaders second-guessing the very effectiveness of that pain. Moreover, why would global markets believe Europe has turned some corner if it seems everyone doubts the road taken so far and the way ahead as well.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Be careful what you wish for, Polish edition

Who really won? Piechocinski or Pawlak.
Politics is a dangerous game that I imagine is extremely exhilarating when you win, especially if you vanquish a hated rival at the same time as having a long trying period as an outsider vindicated in a shock result that shakes up the political scene. The challenge has been met with a master-stroke. You are the better man. But what happens when that victory makes you deputy prime minister, economy minister and leader of the junior ruling coalition partner in a mid-sized European state?

I think Janusz Piechocinski, holder of these three crowns, definitely has a new appreciation of the adage used to title this post -- be careful what you wish for. 

Janusz, if I may call him that, was the perennial outsider in the Polish Peasants' Party (PSL), the junior ruling coalition party, but managed to slowly but steadily build support. The man he ousted, Waldemar "Waldek" Pawlak, a hero of this blog once or twice, was the PSL insider par excellence who could just look at a ministry or government institution and out would fall jobs for PSL members across Poland. 

Ahead of a leadership wrangle last November, Pawlak was the calm, cool, collected, maybe too arrogant incumbent who laughed off the challenge by a Piechocinski who in turn gave off more than a whiff of a fanatic soon to be fended off. Then came the vote . . . and Piechocinski won by 17 votes. Fanatic no more. Victor now. What a finish!

Pawlak, for all his sins as PSL leader, manned up and went off into the sunset. Piechocinski parachuted into his positions as the new man in town. 

That new man in town seems to have burned up his welcome mat in just five months. The daily Gazeta Wyborcza reports Thursday that unidentified members of the senior ruling Civic Platform (PO) and even his own PSL are disappointed. The new PSL leader is accused of not knowing how to run his ministry, which is said to be in a mess. During a recent gas pipeline deal/controversy in which Prime Minister Donald Tusk was caught off-guard (a rarity these days), Piechocinski's lack of action or attention seems to have played a major role. The PSL leader is also accused of being too media hungry (what politician isn't, though?). 

But worst is that under his watch two PSL members of parliament recently voted against a government minister in a vote of no confidence. This is in fact serious. The PO-PSL's majority is only four. If two vote against, then one can start seeing an upset as possible and with that the government's vaunted stability vanishes like a bottle of vodka at a Samoobrona leadership convention.

The dismay has reportedly become so stark that a politician close to Prime Minister Donald Tusk had this to say: "We have even begun to pray: Come back Waldek! Pawlak was a difficult partner but during his time no one from the PSL ever voted against a government colleague." 

When you are from the PO and praying that Waldemar Pawlak comes back, you know Piechocinski has a problem. Time to pull up the bootstraps, Janusz, or Waldek could soon find himself resurrected much faster than anyone thought.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How private pension systems screw over youngsters anyway

[Ahh, Vasyloo, so nice to see you at your best. Enjoy this guest post and put your hands together for a return of one of Poland X's founders.]

There is a lot of debate in Poland over its pension system. The local incarnation of CNBC asks non-stop financiers and businesspeople why they hate the public pension system. The most common criticism is that it is not "trustworthy" or "these are not real savings." The overreaching agreement is that the public pension system screws over young people, who will have to suffer higher taxes in order to dish out cash for those bastard "pensioners."

By the way, I love that term. Pensioners just has such a vile ring to it. Not mothers, fathers, grandma or grandpa. Pensioners. It just sounds...evil.

One of the main arguments against the state pension system is "the state will have to raise future taxes to compensate for demographics." Alternatively, we should obviously go private. What these people don't say is the fact that the private systems screws over young people just the same, only through different mechanisms and different groups.

But...but...Well, it is quite simple. What pro-private pension proponents forget is the little tiny fact that both wealth and the lack thereof is transferred between generations. What this means is that if old people spend their savings, their descendants don't get a dime, just as in the public pension system where the government collects the taxes and then pays out the pensions.

Once a pensioner spends all his or her savings, they will tap other available assets, and then start depleting (or taxing) the wealth of descendants (it's often called family). The fewer the descendants, the higher the tax since the same cost of living must be spread out over a smaller number of people. (Notice any similarities?)

Ok, ok, but what if these people are thrown out by family, are single and ate away everything they created? Well, social security will step in. But higher spending for social security is financed by...yup, you guessed it. 

Ok, so let's scrap social security -- make the bastards die in the streets! Well, if there is no social security, two things would happen. Those who are able to work would start seeking their old jobs back (they would actually never leave them). Higher demand for work means lower salaries and higher unemployment, mostly for the inexperienced, for entry-level positions held 
by...aha, you get the picture now?

The bottom line is that no matter whether it is the public or private pension system the young generation will be stuck with the bill. The real difference is who benefits and makes the money on the issue.

Obviously, the private pension system is good for the finance industry -- fees, fees, fees, feees, feeeeeees forever. Indirectly, it is also good for businesses who get cash from the finance sector. On the other hand, state pensions are good for bureaucracy, the government, etc. 

Last but not least, the private pension system is better off for wealthier people because in the case of the private system poverty is inherited. Poor people are more likely to be a drain on their direct descendants than people who are better off. In the public system, these are more averaged out by taxes. If you think this is BS, look at the wealth disparity in the US. 

I guess in the end it's damned if you don't, damned if you do.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Palikot Movement wins hands down with 56% support

The Palikot Movement (RP) has seized the polling lead and garnered a whopping 56% backing from Poles. The Civic Platform (PO) and Law and Justice (PiS), who tend to place one-two in normal one-might-say boring opinion polls, have thus been swept aside. At least that is the conclusion of Poland X's first Facebook-like opinion poll.

Poland X has crunched the Facebook like numbers for the main political parties and are ready to call the election. Yes, the Palikot Movement took just over 87,000 of the 156,000 likes to crush all others. PM Donald Tusk's PO was second with 17%, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski's PiS placed third with 11%. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the RP's main-rival-cum-main-potential-ally, was next with 9%, and the Polish Peasants' Party (PSL), everyone's favourite junior coalition party, brought up the rear with 6% support.

To compare, the PO led with 28% in one of the latest "boring" polls, PiS got 24%, the SLD was next with 7%, and the RP and the PSL tied for last with 6% (TNS Polska).

It's impossible to conceive of Facebook being wrong on popularity. Why else would companies pay millions and millions to have prominent roles on everyone's favourite social engineering networking website? So how can Palikot's political baby do so poorly in normal polls but so well among Facebookians (or is that Facebookers)?

The RP's FB lead probably rests on the fact your average RP fan is young, urban and internet-connected, if not internet-dependent. There's a reason the Palikot Movement is often known as Samoobrona for urbanites. Its FB lead is thus not so surprising. Knowing Palikot, one could easily see some cash splashed around to rig the system as well.

More surprising perhaps is the PO's poor showing. The PO's electorate should also all be internet addicted. Maybe the failure to like shows some essential weakness? Could this be the proverbial canary in the coalmine ahead of the election-heavy years of 2014 and 2015? Could Poles finally be sick of the PO?

One can't say so yet. If any of the main opposition parties were well placed enough to jump into a clear polling lead, they would have done so. The PO has had to rule through the worst economic crisis to hit Poland since WWII, it had a president actively blocking it for the first three years of its rule, and it has been in place since 2007 (and 2006 in some local governments), pumping up the fatigue factor. That it can still boast of the polling lead is impressive.

Can this last? I think the answer to that questions relies on whether Poles can be scared shitless of Jaroslaw Kaczynski again? If so, the PO's road to more election wins is clear.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Kwach TAK

Ex-President Aleksander Kwasniewski is the saviour of the left. That, anyway, is the hope for many Polish leftists and rightists alike as Kwasniewski prepares to lead a new leftist group Europa Plus. The left sees him as the incarnation of the pro-EU, Western urbane social democrat who can finally propel the left back into the centre of Polish politics. He did it before. Why not again?

But even some on the right seem to want him back. Who better to knock down than the true embodiment of socially liberal, spiritually barren ex-Communists. Kwasniewski is the gift to rightists like Jaroslaw Kaczynski that keeps on giving.

As for me, I'm sceptical. I see way too much baggage.

Kwasniewski's run was notable. For years, he was Poland's political Midas. He was able to transmute collaboration with the Communists into success as a social democrat in the early days of transformation. He went on to beat the very symbol of the Polish political opposition, Lech Walesa, in the closely contested 1995 presidential election. He then handily won re-election in 2000.

While political king, Kwasniewski managed to shrug off scandal, incessant rightist attack and internal leftist revolts all. He vetoed a number of key bills (a flat tax), pushed through a new constitution, and helped steer Poland into NATO and then the EU.

Everything seemed set for him to leverage his very successful Polish political career into international crown. NATO secretary general? Why not. The head of the UN? Yes, please.

But then the very conjuncture of his political past got in the way. The thing about political transformation is that it was messy. After being unhooked from the veneer of communism, many on the left found their footing in the murkiness of opportunistic capitalism. Fortunes were made, fortunes were lost, and everyone borrowed everywhere.

Kwasniewski was able to dodge most accusations throughout his career, at least until the scandal-prone days that closed the 2001-05 reign of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) Kwasniewski helped found in the early 1990s. Poland's Teflon prince of the left suddenly found himself unable to avoid the sticky stink of corruption.

Booze has helped tarnish his image. The first really bad drunken scandal occurred in Charkow. But his post-presidential drunken escapades were somehow more damaging. His media appearances were fewer, making the bad examples more memorable. The internet-based cesspool of blogging triggered cascade effects as well as depraved bloggers (ha!) linked to videos of the best of the events to ensure they were fixed firmly in the collective memory. Here's a few highlights: here, here and more recently here.

In the end, I can't say for sure that Kwasniewski's seemingly imminent return to the Polish political limelight won't be a success. People are tiring of the Civic Platform. Few alternatives exist. Kwasniewski was not either of the Lechs when president and many cherish him for that.

But I can say that he is not the saviour of the Polish left. The left does not need a dinosaur undermined by the sins of the past 20 or so years of post-transformation leftist politics. It does not need a politician who loves to combine booze with political discourse.

It needs a person or party that can challenge the right represented near the centre by the Civic Platform and near the fringe by Law and Justice. To do so, one cannot be a former communist. In fact, no former communists can be in the party at all. It needs, above all, to find backers that don't feel somehow slimy supporting it.

Until a day when a person or party like that can be found, the left will remain the bronze medallist of Polish politics and the right will remain ascendant.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Moody's blues

The rating agency Moody's lead Polish analyst Jaime Reusche hit Polish markets with a doozy early Friday, telling Reuters news agency that if the Polish government nationalises any of the assets saved in the pension system's so-called second pillar managed by private pension funds, then Poland's credit rating could be cut. For those who don't know a credit rating from a cabbage patch, this is bad, real bad, bigos gone bad bad.

But, wait, Mr. Reusche seemingly had a sudden change of heart in the afternoon, when he told Poland's state news agency PAP that the Finance Ministry's proposals would be neutral for Poland's credit rating. Whew, what a relief. Things are okay then.

What is going on?

Recent weeks have seen Poland's business media frothing with claim, counterclaim, speculation, denigration and -- as this is Poland -- mad gesticulating about the retirement system, which wouldn't normally seem the fount for such passion. But the debate over the pension system has definitely left the confines of the economic policy wonk and stepped into the realm of symbolism.

Proponents see the privately managed part of the pension system as a symbol of reform itself and of the ascendancy of the free market. Any diminution of the role of the second pillar is a betrayal of belief in free markets. Nay, any reduction of the pillar's importance is heresy.

The government, however, says it must pay for this symbolism, and pay dearly. Poles' total pension contributions don't cover the amount that needs to be paid out as current pensions. So, for the chunk of pension contributions that go to these second pillar funds, the government must issue bonds. This of course increases public debt and has all sorts of negative effects.

The problem is that the privately managed pension funds have been investing a lot of money into government bonds themselves. This begs the question of why the government is issuing bonds that are then bought by the very pension funds for which they are being issued. Or, if the private pension funds are so great at managing assets, then shouldn't they be seeking yield elsewhere. This, at least, is the government's broad position and it thus wants to reduce the role of the second pillar.

Yet, the entire recent pension fund debate mostly avoids the real issue. The real reform in 1999 was not the creation of the privately managed pillar. Rather, it was moving from a defined benefit pension system to a defined contribution one. This is basically the difference between the government guaranteeing your retirement pension will be yay much no matter how much in contributions you put in and linking your pension precisely to how much you pay in.

This is a fundamental difference that doesn't really depend on whether some of the assets are privately managed or publicly managed. The individual accounts exist. You can argue that private is good no matter what or, alternately, that public is better. But no matter what side of the fence you fall on, your pension will be tied to how much you save. That, my friends, is the real message of Poland's pension reform.

As for Moody's Mr. Reusche, my humble advice -- not that it was solicited -- is that it would probably be best if all the rating agencies wait for the government's final pension reform proposals, which are expected in May or June.

In the meantime, here's me hoping Jaime enjoys a few cool ones after a rocky Polish media Friday and hoping you all welcome Poland X back after an extended sojourn.