Abridged Portfolio

This is a very small selection of some of Quentin’s writings in CapX, Biznews, Business Day, Financial Mail, Business Report and GQ South Africa.

What does good regulation really look like? © CapX 2019

Politicians pretend to hate red tape and bureaucracy. But they need it the way a country singer needs heartache and pain.

Without it, they cannot exist – after all regulation is one of the three options they have to exercise power over us. They give us money through spending (which we quite like), take our money through taxes (which we don’t), and tell us what to do through regulation (which we generally don’t like – until things go wrong, in which case we bemoan the fact that there isn’t enough of it).

Read more…

WORLDVIEW: Winning the war against fake news, one subscription at a time © Biznews 2017

Back in the earlyish nineties, when the internet was first becoming something more than just the means to distribute hard-core pornography and unlicensed pharmaceuticals, newspaper publishers made a catastrophic error of judgement. Their folly not only pushed their own industry close to the brink but also created the space for a new scourge called fake news.

There were some exceptions – Alec’s Moneyweb being a case in point – but generally publishers saw the internet as a technology rather than as a publishing platform and didn’t adapt business models accordingly. By going online without any real thought about a proper business plan, publishers broke a model that had worked for hundreds of years. And they had nothing to replace it with.

At heart, the media business is a very simple one: you sell news to readers and then you sell those readers to advertisers. You can only ignore this model if you are funded by philanthropists or have near-captive markets with high barriers to entry allowing you to compensate for the lack of circulation income with higher levels of advertising or vice versa.

When companies took their content online without paywalls, they broke the first leg. Readers started getting the same news they paid for in a newspaper for free. And when quality stuff and the crap costs the same, it becomes increasingly hard to differentiate between the two. Especially when newsrooms are shrinking and the quality stuff is no longer as good as it was.

Because barriers to entry for online competitors are so low – especially if they ignore boring things like balance, research, ethics, sub-editing and quality control – the second leg also got broken. Advertisers started getting audiences effectively for free as publishers accepted ever sliding pay-per-click rates on the basis that something is better than nothing.

For the past decade and a half I have been arguing that the standard digital news business model is unsustainable and must be fixed if journalism is to survive. The future of media is definitely online. But it is a bleak future indeed if we don’t change the trajectory. We cannot have an industry where social media (ie Facebook) and search (Google), which do none of the work and scoop up all the cash, leaving publishers fighting for scraps in a race to the bottom.

Now, finally, a fightback is underway. Ironically, it is being built by going back to the old way of doing things – charging audiences for quality content and selling advertising on the basis of positioning and association rather than clicks. As a result, the future of journalism is looking brighter than even a few short years ago.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic but it seems to me that traditional news values are regaining lost ground with signs that the war against fake news is being won.

Research released this month by Reuters found that when a news story breaks, three quarters of people verify the facts with a news brand they trust. Half of them compare multiple sources. Also, joy of joys, only one-in-10 now use social media as their primary news source. Trust in shared, or viral, news is down even when shared by friends, family and colleagues. And such “news” is increasingly being fact-checked before being shared further.

And what is good news all who earn our crust in this wonderful profession is nearly 90% of respondents to the survey think advertising on a news site associated with a fake news story damages the brand. Over half saying that they are more likely to notice an advertiser if it appears on a trusted news site. Some 57% agree that trustworthy content is the “number one factor” that makes online news brands appealing.

If nations are to hold the line against rapacious politicians, unscrupulous business people and the economically illiterate, it needs quality journalism. It’s by no means a cure-all but independent news is an essential element of any fight back against those who would rob us of our rights, dignity and opportunities for their own selfish ends.

And for this we should all be glad that we are now being asked to dip into our pockets to pay for something that we have all become far too used to getting for free.

WORLDVIEW: Geo-politics dominate so investors can reboot “developed country” premiums © Biznews 2017

When I was at university one of my digs-mates lost the whole house’s rent on a single card. There were 11 of us in the house at the time and this wasn’t an insignificant sum of money. Until the UK’s latest general election this had always ranked as the dumbest bet I’d seen first hand.

Of course, in both cases, if the bets had paid off – as they perhaps should have, based on the odds – I’d be talking about audacious perspicacity rather than stupidity. But that’s the way it goes, and, as they say, never bet what you cannot afford to lose.

Throwing away a working majority and a weakened opposition at war with itself in an election you didn’t need and nobody wanted in the hope that you’d wind up with a bigger majority and an opposition even more at war with itself was a bet Theresa May couldn’t afford to lose. Yet she took it and so, rather than talking about Brexit delivering the best deal for Britain we’re potentially looking at merely securing a least-worst outcome.

In just shy of two years the UK will no longer be a part of the European Union. And despite all the bravado of the hardcore band of Brexiteers who engineered the break from the world’s largest and most prosperous economic bloc, it is clear nobody has too much of a clue about what must be done.

This is not that surprising. For 40 years the UK was able to outsource its negotiations to a bunch of technocrats in Brussels and simply veto the outcomes they didn’t like. A bit like a toddler at the dinner table who can determinedly shut his mouth until presented with a food option that meets with his approval.

Negotiating is hard anyway, striking a deal that pleases everybody is impossible. Yet this is what an inexperienced group of trade negotiators must do or risk it falling at the first parliamentary hurdle. Walking away with no deal is now impossible because the Tories won’t be able to force it through the House.

In effect, what Theresa May and the Conservatives have done is turn the UK into a de facto emerging, rather than developed, economy. Investors use the phrase to mean a place where everything is skewed by the fact that politics trumps economics whereas in a traditional developed country, the role of politics is mitigated by institutions of state which can operate fairly independently of the antics of the politicians that surround them.

Developed countries, where certain things have been able to be taken as read by investors for decades, are now finding themselves held hostage by seismic ructions to their political bases, and their markets are starting to behave accordingly. Investors would be foolish to ignore this development.

The sky hasn’t fallen as the Remainers argued it would, and I think it is unlikely to, but increasingly the narrative, even in ardently pro-Leave publications such as The Spectator, is turning to how it is ok that sovereignty comes at a cost.

Perhaps they’re right, but this is a far cry from arguing that being free to negotiate our own deals will make us all richer. As is always the case, this cost will be borne by investors, businesses and households and not those who made the mistake in the first place.

Unlike my friend who lost the rent, the government cannot run to mom and dad to sort out its mess.

WORLDVIEW: Why I’ve been fighting everyone © Biznews 2017

Since Theresa May announced today’s snap election in April, I’ve been fighting with people. I’ve fought with the Right about the fact that an empowering social welfare net and the NHS are worth fighting for. I’ve fought with the Left about the fact that there are limits to what the fiscus can absorb before the economy falls over. And I’ve fought with the Middle about Brexit and why you can’t repeat referenda until you get the answer you want.

Thanks to one of the many weirdnesses of the UK political system, I get to vote today because I’m a Commonwealth citizen and I’m voting even though it doesn’t matter who I vote for. My constituency MP, the Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, won a 29,000 vote margin and a 60% majority back in 2015 and is set for another easy romp home.

But mine is an anomaly, and there are hundreds of seats up for grabs. In an era where debate has been superseded by fact-light memes, angry tweets and shouty social media updates, there can be no doubt that Labour have run the better campaign.

Accordingly, Jeremy Corbyn is now an unlikely but real contender for Number 10, where two short months ago he was being written off as a political lost cause. In the process he has managed to gloss over the undeniable reality that his 122 pages of promises appears, to paraphrase my favourite Dilbert cartoon, to be based on not parking where the comet is assumed to strike oil.

It will clearly be impossible for Corbyn to deliver on what he’s promised if he wins – a problem not faced by May who doesn’t seem to have promised anything new bar a few tired clichés and meaningless pay off lines.

Going in to today I’m conflicted. My brain dreads the idea of a Labour government but my heart dreads the Tories. But I’m very glad Corbyn has run such an effective campaign. I don’t think he’ll win but I don’t think he’ll lose so badly that Labour becomes an irrelevance. And that’s a good thing. Too many Tories were far too comfortable with the idea that the opposition was set to be gutted and left for dead.

They don’t seem to recognise the danger in a de facto one party state where the ruling party can effectively do what it wants. South African news sites are clearly not part of their media diet.

WORLDVIEW: A sensible Saffer approach to incredulous Brits asking about SA’s prospects © Biznews 2017

When Brits hear me murdering my vowels in the distinctive way we do, they ask me about South Africa’s prospects. This should be easy to answer. After all, the government, the Guptas and their assorted proxies in state-owned entities and quasi-revolutionary movements are doing their utmost to prove the expression “going to hell in a handbasket” was coined specifically for us.

We’re all reading the same news and unfortunately there are not many ways to interpret it. So it should be easy enough to answer the question. But because I don’t ever want to be one of “those” expats who run the country down at every opportunity, I tend to be uncharacteristically circumspect. Which is difficult because I also don’t want to look completely delusional.

My answer is always the same. I say I’m bullish in the long term but bearish in the short. It’s obviously easier to use the data to defend the latter position than the former, but I genuinely believe that historians who get to write our story will look at the 2017 as an inflection point. We are witnessing the slow reversal of an inexorable slide into full-scale kleptocracy. Or at least we’re watching it become less inexorable. Caveats obviously apply: it is just as easy to see how it could all get even worse. But we won’t go there because, as I said, we don’t want to be “those” people.

Watching the Zupta narrative evolve over the past several months has shown a mettle across the country that has transcended race and class in a way that nothing has since the 2010 World Cup. The arms deal came and went and while there was an almighty row in the media and one or two high-profile scalps, the ANC pretty much carried on regardless. But this smells different. After years of us waiting for people to get properly gatvolwith what is being done in their name, they are. It’s happening. Sure, it’s taken far too long, but it’s finally happening.

We have yet to see anybody jailed for being complicit in the latest bout of industrial-scale malfeasance and, even with all the mounting evidence, I am doubtful that there will be any more than a few token prosecutions. But that matters far less to me than the fact that it is also only a matter of time before a different faction of the ANC takes over and, if that doesn’t sort things out, a non-ANC government does so.

Change is coming and I am confident it’s going to be good. If I’m wrong I’m going to have to reclaim my Zimbabwean identity and have no view on the matter whatsoever. I’m still not going to become one of those guys

Africa’s bourse’s a long way behind  © Business Day 2014

LONDON — Shares worth more than $832m were traded across the stock exchanges of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Botswana last year, 29% higher than the previous year. While the number pales in comparison to those traded on the JSE, Africa’s biggest stock market, it does show that outside the borders of South Africa there’s a burgeoning market. Read More …

NEWS ANALYSIS: Employers need to give army of unemployed youth a fair go © Business Day 2013

THE story of South Africa’s past and present failures, and the seeds of its future conflicts, are contained in a single declarative sentence on page 13 of the lates t Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS). “Approximately 3.3-million of the 10.4-million youth aged 15-24 years were not in employment, education or training in the third quarter of 2013.” This means nearly a third of those most in need of guidance, support and opportunities are being systematically let down.

And as these young people grow older, their futures look increasingly bleaker. Read More …

Absolute figures paint better picture of equity in SA © Business Day 2013

THE Employment Equity Act has been in force for 15 years, having been promulgated to great fanfare two years after South Africa’s constitution was adopted. It was written with the express purpose of fulfilling the state’s constitutional mandate of undoing the damage done to black people by hundreds of years of racial oppression. However, apart from one bungled prosecution and two minor judgments, has the act achieved anything near what it was meant to?

The popular narrative in government, labour and black business circles would indicate not. Read More …

IN THE MARKETS: Wealth and freedom go together, for the most part © Business Day 2013

IN THESE trying times of market turmoil, high unemployment and great inequality, economic freedom is touted as the panacea for all the world’s wrongs by outfits such as South Africa’s Free Market Foundation (FMF) and the US’s Heritage Foundation.

They argue – and I largely agree – that if you leave people to their own devices and allow them to make the most of their talents and abilities and free them, as far as possible, from the encumbrances of red tape, they will do well individually. Society will then, as a whole, be better off economically.

But is this hypothesis borne out by the data? Read More …

IN THE MARKETS: Just doing our part to inform, irritate … and depress © Business Day 2013

A FORMER editor of mine, who I will not name here because he became a government spokesman and is now reaping the consequences of his words, used to say that a newspaper’s job was to “inform, irritate and entertain”.

He argued, and I agree, that after reading the paper, readers must know more than they did, must have engaged (to use that hideous and overused word) critically with the content, and must have enjoyed the experience.

Unless your newspaper’s selection of stories, cartoons and images did all three, you were doing your readers a grave disservice and risked, over time, losing readers to other media. Read More …

The anti-nanny state rant: leave us be please. © Business Report 2009

Sometimes I think I spend far too much time reading newspapers. It has some advantages. I can sit on my verandah in my pyjamas, having a nice cup of tea, reading the papers and calling it work.

But it has some disadvantages too. After so many years of immersing myself in the vast array of other people’s ideas and opinions, I find I have lost the ability to believe anything at all bar a few, to me at least, self-evident truths.

I can no longer treat any ideological position as gospel or bring myself to trust that any lobbyist or politician is telling the truth. It’s got to the point where I find earnest people and true believers either scary or hypocritical. Atheists, creationists, environmentalists, climate change denialists, capitalists, communists, conservatives, liberals: it doesn’t matter.

The moment anyone takes a firm position on anything they care a lot about and start evangelising, only those ideas and facts that suit their arguments get through. Those that don’t are ignored.

Minds get closed to alternative theories and orthodoxies are born which decree any disagreement heresy.

If you don’t believe me think back to any of the myriad debates on global warming, affirmative action, Iraq, Julius Malema and evolution in our daily papers.

I won’t go into the impact this blanket of disbelief has had on my conversations with friends and family about matters religious, social and economic, save to say that my wife, who is infinitely wiser than I, has taken to banning me from arguing with our guests at dinner parties.

Apparently saying things that even you find indefensible just because you like seeing people get spotty with rage isn’t something that nice people do.

Apart from the blight it has placed on my social interactions, one of the by-products of all this exposure to various media is that I have developed a strong distaste for anything that smacks of a nanny state.

The notion that I must be forced to outsource my life choices to bureaucrats, zealots and theologians offends me deeply.

Nannyist tendencies are everywhere, not just in government. Take, for example, reports that Pick n Pay has been put under pressure into not selling toy guns this Christmas. What do the do-gooders think? That little boys who don’t get a toy gun won’t make one out of a broomstick if they want to play shoot ’em up games?

And what about the notion that fast food joints and alcohol companies should not be allowed to advertise?

Does anybody in their right mind think that the sight of a beer ad on the highway will turn me into a raging drunk where I would have otherwise have gone home and crocheted myself a beanie?

Why should it not be up to me to resist my thirst or my children’s pleas for Mickey D’s? How else can we teach them the lesson that you can’t always get what you want and that sometimes what you want is bad for you?

How can we expect the young to make good life choices if we do not expose them to temptation and show them the consequences and how to resist it?

We should be worrying more about teaching people how to do the right thing and arming them with correct information than about restricting access to potentially harmful ideas.

Toy guns do not turn people into murderers any more than booze ads turn people into alcoholics or fast food billboards make kids fat. The allure of easy options and a lack of self-restraint do this.

And this is something that can’t be wished away through tighter legislation.

Some simple truths make for a rare breath of optimism. © Business Report 2010

I have been told that my columns are unnecessarily gloomy, that I spread despondency and panic instead of light and joy and that, generally, I’m the kind of guy you bring out when everyone is having too much of a good time.

All that may be true, but as I sit to write this I am feeling quite confident, almost bullish, about the future. It’s a strange feeling, and one that I haven’t felt for a very long time.

I think the underlying reason behind this uncharacteristic surge of optimism is a book launch I attended last week.

Peter Harris, who wrote the stunning In a Different Time, released his second book, Birth, which covers how close we came to everything going pear-shaped in 1994.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read Birth yet – two children under the age of two mess up a man’s reading schedule – but I read the reviews and, knowing Peter, it is going to be awesome. So part of my good mood comes from the fact that I have something sitting on my bedside table that I’m very excited about reading.

The rest of it, I think, comes from the fact that South Africa seems to be waking up from its collective somnambulism and is starting to realise that the time has come for all of us who care about this democracy to wake up – there are real threats to it that can, and must, be defeated.

When respected people such as Peter Harris, Jay Naidoo and others who gave up so much to get us to a point where everybody’s voice counted, start telling us that the baby birthed amid suffering and pain in 1994 is not in line to win Miss Teen 2010 but is, instead, a recalcitrant and spotty teenager in need of our guidance and help, then we have taken an important step.

We are again moving towards winning back what a minority in this country is trying to take away from us.

And that is what I have come to realise: that the threats to our collective future come from a relatively small cohort of corrupt, lazy and venal politicians, bureaucrats and, yes, business people.

The rest of us – be we black or white, rich or poor, male or female – just want the freedom to make the most of whatever talents and opportunities we have been given.

What this means, to me at least, is that those who want to sacrifice the public good for private and often ill-gotten gain must not be allowed to win.

What stands in our favour is that world history shows that a minority cannot control a majority without its express consent. South African history shows that South Africans are really not that keen on being pushed around.

I don’t know why I lost sight of these seemingly simple truths, but I did. My usual pessimism may return in the next few weeks, in fact it probably will, but that doesn’t matter too much right now.

And if Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus cuts interest rates this week – as she may well do in the face of falling (and already low) inflation, weak demand, strong rand, and a sluggish global recovery – then I’ll have even more reason to smile. As will my kids, whose Christmas presents may just get a little bit of an upgrade.

SA needs to show its clean underwear when schmoozing upmarket toffs. © Business Report 2003

A stripper named Honey, who works out of a well-known Jo’burg venue, once told me that she spent about R8 000 a month keeping herself “looking like a lady”.

Her reasoning for spending significantly more on make-up, facials, gym contracts, hair care (a staggering R1 000 to R1 500 each month), dresses shoes and underwear than many South Africans earn was that it was important that her punters’ expectations were met.

This way, she said, they spent a lot more money at each visit and kept coming back for more – a fundamental part of any sensible business strategy and one that is applied globally in casinos, restaurants and clothing stores.

Not being the youngest woman working out of that particular night spot, Honey felt – rightly or wrongly, I don’t know – that if her customers were going to spend a couple of hundred rand just to gaze at her undeniable beauty, they would not want to be left with the impression that she was a scruffy bit of rough.

While she did not tell me how much money she made each month, fearing perhaps that I was working undercover for the SA Revenue Services, she neither confirmed nor denied the urban legend that exotic dancers earn between R30 000 and R50 000 a month.

Honey’s choice of career may strike some as odd and others as immoral, and there are all sorts of arguments about why strip clubs are bad places and should be banned.

But what struck me most was that Honey clearly understood the need to be what her market wanted her to be if she was to continue making a good living and living a life full of all the trappings.

This is a lesson South Africa would do well to learn.

We need to figure out that in the brutal competition for fixed investment – where we cannot compete on market size, labour costs, proximity to major markets or any of the things that many of our rivals can depend on – we have to be something special.

To take the stripper analogy a lot further than many of my colleagues would probably like, for us to compete we have to make sure that our national underwear is clean and that our shoes are not scuffed at the toes.

All countries have problems with corruption and graft and politicians everywhere get up to as much as they think they will get away with.

Angola may be able to attract huge wads of foreign direct investment despite its patent flaws, but that’s because it has oil and diamonds, and Nigeria may get away with the odd bit of nastiness, but that’s because it has both oil and a huge population.

We are a small, open, developing economy, just about as far away from anywhere useful as it is possible to be and we have to stand out from the herd.

This is why the way the unseemly and ongoing spat between deputy president Jacob Zuma and director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka is so worrying.

The merits of Zuma’s case still need to be decided either through his answering of the questions put to him by the Scorpions or – should it ever get that far – in court.

I quite like the guy and don’t want to use this space to add my 5c worth to the debate, except to say that, like the president, I want the whole thing dealt wit as expeditiously as possible.

Should he be completely innocent of wrongdoing, as he has claimed, then he must be left to get on with his political career.

But, if he is guilty of malfeasance, it is essential that an example is made of him and that he gets removed from public office.

There must be no ruling-party shilly-shallying where his comrades get into a laager around him to protect him from the consequences of his actions.

We’ve already had too much wrist-slapping: Tony Yengeni’s Mercedes-Benz, Mosiuoa Lekota’s undisclosed business interests and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s widely publicised shenanigans did not seem to do them any harm in the corridors of power.

It may have cost some of them positions in the short term, but even though the courts and other processes ran (or are running) their course, I can’t help feeling that it will be only a matter of time before everything is forgotten by everyone except a small group of opposition politicians (to whom nobody pays very much attention anyway).

This is wrong – anything that smacks of being soft on political wrongdoing is clearly bad for South Africa’s reputation and, therefore, for the country as a whole. It creates exactly the wrong impression about what kind of place South Africa is.

And, by being soft on our politicians, we run the risk of being left to perform in some dingy joint in the bad part of the global village rather than being allowed to entertain the toffs in an exclusive upmarket club.

ANC should not let sulky Cosatu sway sound policy. © Business Report 2010

Trade union federation Cosatu is behaving like a spoiled brat. It wanted inflation targeting scrapped and the state purse opened wide because, in its reality-free world view, high inflation and overindebtedness are a fair price to pay for a temporary – and by no means certain – boost in competitiveness and jobs.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan did not oblige. Read More …

Change Happens. © GQ South Africa 2012

When I was assigned to write this column, the editor’s brief was clear – ‘Write about personal finance, help people make money… You know, the usual.’ There were other bits about deadlines, word counts and word rates; and I have to say I really tried to stick to the brief, but the guys at GQ should have known better. As a breed, we journalists are not that good at doing what we’re told.

In my case, there was a good reason not to stick to the brief. You see, you can’t tout individual stocks, or even broad sectors, when months pass between the time of writing and that of publication. Imagine predicting a steady growth in markets in August 1987 only to have Black Monday, 19 October, make an idiot of you as shares around the world lost a fifth of their value. Or raving about the great future of tech stocks in January 2000, for publication in March, only to have your words laugh at you following the bursting of the dot-com bubble.

So, a personal finance column in a monthly publication is inevitably going to be tricky. Read More …