Monday, November 29, 2010

When the Last Sword Is Drawn

You can be free. You can live and work anywhere in the world. You can be independent from routine and not answer to anybody. This is the life of a successful trader. - Alexander Elder - Trading for a Living

I don't write about my job very much; it's usually not relevant to my Korean experiences I document here. Occasionally though, the two worlds do become intertwined.

I've worked for myself as a derivatives trader for the last six years. An oft-repeated statistic is that 90% of financial traders lose money, which makes me one of of the remaining 10%. By that measure you might say I'm good at what I do, but the hours are long, and I'm not so good that I've made enough to retire. Traders often have to work hard to perfect their art, but there comes a time when you have to accept that you might be doing well enough by a lot of people's standards, but 70-hour weeks are not conducive to having much of a life outside work, and for me, those extra hours cut into time that could - and increasingly should - be studying Korean.

So three months ago I finally decided to try and make a transition into something called automated trading – where instead of actually trading I'll code my trading rules into a program called a 'bot' (from 'robot'), and then it will trade for me. Then I free up around 8 hours of my typical 11-hour work day to do other things – such as studying. At least, that's the theory.

Trading is about choosing your weapons as much as it is about yourself - and trading with 'bots' requires a different sword - specialised tools such as MetaTrader and specialised accounts, so you can only do this if companies in America and Europe will do business with people in Korea and the problem is that a lot won't.

For example, one of the world's largest retail forex brokers who I suppose I shouldn't name – it's FXCM – refuses point blank to do business with anyone living in South Korea. Others notionally allow it but make opening an account from here so tortuous that you know they really aren't keen on the idea. Fortunately one of FXCM's large rivals - Alpari - has no such policy and a relatively streamlined (though still far from straightforward) account opening process [edit: see my footnote]. But while this good news, potentially it gives me only one sword to choose from rather than many, and it may not be the sharpest blade. So while it's all very well for Mr. Elder to think you can be free and work anywhere in the world as a trader, clearly he didn't have to put up with trying to be a trader in the modern world outside the US, and certainly not in Korea.

The Korea location problem doesn't just effect trading - try ordering some vitamins from outside Korea and see what an odyssey that can turn into (that blog entry will turn up eventually). And beyond the worlds of trading and vitamin supplements – two areas which I can tell you from personal experience are inextricably linked - lies the pedestrian world of longer-term investments. Just before I moved to Korea I transferred a large portion of my investment holdings from one broker who wouldn't let me be a customer in Korea to HSBC, that said that I could, and two months later HSBC wrote to me in Korea to tell me that after all, they couldn't hold my investments while I lived in Korea – leaving me scrambling to find a broker to move back to – the situation was so dire for a while I thought I might have to completely liquidate my portfolio which would have caused all kinds of tax complications.

Statistically it's unlikely that my foray into the world of automated trading will be successful, but the potential reward justifies the risk and that's what trading is all about. So right now I'm trying to open trading accounts with specialised foreign exchange – or 'forex'/FX – brokers, and because I'm living in Korea I'm hitting the same identity problems here that I have before - I needed my passport and a bank statement stamped and witnessed. The passport may not be a huge problem but my prospective forex broker has no use for a bank statement in Korean – of course it has to be in English with my Korean address on it, which is more of a challenge.

It seems inevitable that I will continue to work at the tenuous sufferance of brokers who treat their support of international customers as a seasonal activity. But to be fair I'm sure the Korean Government don't make it easy for them, because for all their lofty notions of being an 'Asian Financial Hub', the psychological scars from the Asian Financial Crisis mean that they aren't terribly keen on the idea of the free flow of capital, which is a bit of a problem given that - whether you like it or not - it's quite an important aspect of modern global capitalism, especially if you want to be some kind of global financial centre.

So it's true to say, that one way or another, Korea constantly gets in the way of me doing my job. Every day I go out there and do battle on the global financial markets with some of the brightest and dumbest minds this Earth has ever created. Which one am I? Victor or victim? I control my own destiny, financially I live by the sword and die by the sword that are the tools that I use and the way that I wield them. In Korea, that's a fight which I undertake with one arm tied behind my back and the only sword they'll give me. That's the life of a financial trader here.

[edit: I take what I said about Alpari back. After I'd gone through all the document verifications I finally reached the point where I was ready to fund my account. And that's when I found out this wasn't possible electronically because I was in Korea, even though my credit card and bank were in the UK. Alpari hadn't mentioned this small but really quite crucial fact during my emails and phone conversations about opening an account while residing in South Korea, and this would have been bad enough in itself, had they not managed to notch up a first in my many years of trading with many other companies - one of their staff sent me an impolitely worded email. Why it is that Alpari staff think they can vent their frustrations on the company's customers this way is unclear, but I don't have to take that sort of behaviour, and that was the end of my plans with them].

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's More Expensive to Do Nothing

I'm not writing this to offer any insightful analysis about the attack on South Korea today, this is just an account of how I spent my afternoon and evening.

When my wife came into our office and said something terrible had happened while scrambling to put the news on the TV, a heavy sense of deja vu was already descending on me as she explained that Yeonpyeong Island was being shelled by the North Koreans. It wasn't a surprise; it's long been a potential target and was thought to be under threat recently due to the transition of power in North Korea and in the run-up to the G-20 meeting.

So it was the Cheonan all over again, except this time the attack was immediately more photogenic, and because of the proximity to North Korea's previous attack the thought briefly entered my head that this time, yes - maybe this time - the politicians in Seoul would respond militarily, and hit back against their attackers. Our attackers in fact, because I live here too.

If the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan taught me one thing, it's that you can't rely on the media or the military here to give you accurate information at times like these. And it isn't about media restrictions or secrecy - but rather it's speculation - sometimes wild speculation - dressed up as authoritative fact, seemingly for its own sake. And the media slips into it's Wag the Dog rolling file footage of ships firing their guns and soldiers running around purposefully. You can almost believe you're watching the war live, if a war was really going on.

This time we were told that South Korea had responded militarily, but later this was said to be with the firing of a singular 'K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzer', and the official announcing this declined to say whether North Korean territory had been hit. Which left me rather suspecting that they'd deliberately missed for fear of escalating the situation. Indeed, while the attack was apparently still under-way, President Lee Myung-bak was - truly or falsely - said to be desperately trying to calm the situation.

In the midst of such gravity, the situation tips into apparent farce. The South Korean government have responded to the ongoing attack... with a telegram. And before long the MBC network reported - with a deadly straight face - a South Korean military source complaining "Even though we sent a telegram, they are still firing." Meanwhile we watch South Korean houses burn on TV.

So if you were hoping the still active North Korean artillery positions were going to be targeted, this is the point at which your heart sinks - because you know the script from here on. The South Korean government vow 'stern retaliation' for any further provocations, but South Korea is like a man in a pub who is knocked to the floor by a bully, and gets up waving his finger saying, 'next time you hit me, I'm really going to get mad'. Punch - 'next time' - punch - 'next time' - punch... and so on. The depressing cycle of a country without any idea of what to do about a neighbour that sinks its ships and shells its civilians. Well, not that I do either.

There will be bluster and harsh words spoken by the government in Seoul but just like post-Cheonan they will never amount to much, and the North Koreans will spend tonight laughing at the weakness of their victims. Then they'll blame South Korea for starting it or claim it was an accident. And some in South Korea will even believe them. It's incredibly frustrating to watch, and even more frustrating to live here watching it all unfold.

South Korea is playing a long game, heads-in-the-sand hoping for a North Korean collapse to take the problem away from them. The old-Korea hands brush it off and say they've seen it all before but I believe they're wrong; this is no longer a conventional stand-off, but a nuclear one where only one side has the bombs. South Korea nestles under the U.S. nuclear shield, but if the day comes when North Korean nuclear missiles can reach American cities, or Tea-Party isolationists control Washington, how far can South Korea really rely on its old ally?

The Government in Seoul will try to brush this under the carpet and move on in the name of diplomacy or absurdity. But for tonight at least, the mood in Korea is sombre - and it's enforced - they've cancelled all the light entertainment shows.

And then there's me, and the butterfly effect from North Korea's attack today. I think radio programmes are like sausages. You might like them, but you never want to know how they are made. So you don't want to know how much work I put into preparing for a 10-minute slot I do on Busan e-FM every Wednesday. An hour ago I took a call telling me that tomorrow's topic - which was about festivals - was now predictably inappropriate, leaving me to prepare something entirely new at quite short notice. And it musn't be funny, which makes the task that much harder. So I'll probably talk about Korean apartments, because in my experience, they aren't something to laugh about. But it pains me to go on the air aiming to deliver a bland performance about a subject I will have to make as humourless as possible while not tackling the elephant in the room of what it's like for me to live as a foreigner in Korea at times like these. But I suppose we don't want to depress the listeners either.

It's nobody's fault that these media upheavals happen at times like these (well, apart from North Korea), and my problems are trivial in the scheme of things. Two men are dead, many more people are injured, people have lost their homes, and we can add them to the list of all the other victims of North Korea's unprovoked attacks. We can pretend their deaths will one day be avenged, but they won't. We'll agonise over our collective ineffectiveness for a few days and move on.


A few weeks ago I ran into problems registering my son's name with the local district office, and I said it wasn't likely to be the last time having a multicultural child was going to cause problems in Korea. Well I didn't have to wait long for the next issue to raise its head – our son's health insurance bills have arrived and because his Irish surname takes up four Korean character spaces (it's four Western syllables), there was only one character space for his first name rather than two – so he's lost the last syllable of his name. I should have seen this coming because – with my middle name - only the first syllable of my surname appears on my health registration – and this is how I get called out in the hospitals.

This can't be good because when it comes to dealing with officialdom in any country – and I know Korea isn't different – it's quite important to maintain a consistent identity across systems otherwise computers and bureaucrats start to insist that you are not the same person. And when computers start thinking you are different people, the complications can just multiply. Since my son is more Korean than I am – and he'll have to grow up here - I see how it could be a particularly irritating problem for him.

My wife was not confident of our ability to get them to add the extra syllable to his first name, and neither was I because I kind of knew deep down – speaking as an ex-software designer myself - that some incompetent Korean software designer (I'm beginning to wonder if there is really any other kind) decided there was going to be a five-character limit in the database. Because, you know, Koreans don't have such long names and who else would ever be registered in the Korean health system except people with Korean names? Right? (For more on the Korean IT mentality - read this).

I found my wife's initial reaction very telling - “I feel bad now about giving him a strange name”. And that is the wrong answer. Your first reaction is supposed to be righteous indignation, otherwise you've fallen into their trap.

Korea keeps saying it welcomes a multicultural society so I think it would be better if they started planning for it rather than mysteriously thinking that Korea's future multicultural society will consist of people from lots of different countries all pretending they are Korean. Or does Korea really think all the foreigners are going to change their surnames to Kim? Don't answer that – they probably do.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Voice in the Wall

Apparently today was 'no car day'. We heard it in an announcement yesterday evening over the Orwellian-style speaker that can't be turned off which is fixed into our apartment wall.

I don't really understand much of what's said by Big Brother, or at least his local representative - the security guards/janitors who skulk in an office in the basement of the building. But sometimes the rambling and slurred delivery leaves little doubt to how some ajeoshis get through their working day. And as jobs go, I'd rather people like this be working as security guards than bus or taxi drivers, although from the quality of the driving of the aforementioned types of vehicles, I'm rather afraid they actually do both.

It's also not clear who designated today 'no car day'. Of course, you'd like to think it was the local council, but then if I worked as a apartment building security guard I imagine I might have great fun making false announcements. Sunglasses day, no bike day, bike day, wear red day and 5am day would all be my ideas. After all, there's only so much pleasure to be had watching people on security cameras, telling them off for incorrect recycling bin allocations, and reminding them every ten minutes that there's a package waiting to be collected from their office until they come to get it. There's a package waiting for you. I still have your package. You should come and collect your package. Package. Package. Package.

I gather that a growing number of Koreans are seeking help from psychiatrists to relieve stress.

Package. Waiting. For You.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no discernible lessening of the traffic volume on the road outside this morning. And if, disappointingly, this is some kind of Busan-wide political campaign rather than just being the security guard's late evening solution to boredom, I have to wonder what exactly the politicians expect compliant citizens to do? Is everyone who foregoes the use of their car just expected to pile into the rush hour's (or in Busan, should that be rush hours?) already tightly-packed buses and subway carriages?

Recently I became radio active and started travelling to Busan e-FM every week during the busy commuting period, and they certainly don't call it the '지옥철' - jiogcheol - for nothing (a Korean play on words, 'jihacheol' - 지하철 - means subway, jiog - 지옥 - means hell). Trains come every five minutes and you can't really fault the Busan 'Humetro' Authority, but there are just two many people living here all trying to get to the same places at the same times. No wonder people drive in Busan despite the high risk of death involved.

Oh, did I mention there's a package waiting for you in the janitor's office? Right now. Please.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Battle of Tsushima

Korean Mother went on a two day trip to the Japanese island of Tsushima – which is called Daemado in Korea. You shouldn't read too much into the different naming – it doesn't necessarily make it another Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks situation.

However... in March 2005 the local council in Korean city of Masan designated June 19 as Daemado Day, claiming that this was the date in 1419 the island was annexed by the Korean Joseon Dynasty. Therefore, Daemado is Korean territory. But this isn't necessarily just some Tea Party-style fringe movement; in 2008 50 members of the Korean parliament stated their support for the territorial claim over Tsushima, and an opinion poll at the time showed 50.6% support amongst Koreans for the claim. Read on for a little more plot thickening.

So Korean Mother went to Tsushima – or Daemado - and it was meant as a short holiday, not the advanced recon party for a future invasion. Apparently Korean trips to Tsushima are quite popular. I once read that back in the 1980s the best slogan the Korean tourist authorities could come up with for a Japanese campaign was the rather weak but technically correct “Korea – the closest country to Japan” - which is practically apologetic in its lacking of ideas regarding what was attractive about Korea at the time. Now the roles are reversed, because – to paraphrase - Tsushima is the closest part of Japan to Korea.

Unfortunately Tsushima rather projects the image of being the Japanese version of Namhae. Rural and, what the tourism brochures might describe as 'contemplative'. Perhaps Tsushima isn't like that, but if not, the official Korean tour did little to sell it. The tour itinerary included – and I'm not making this up – a primary school and two banks, in addition to two very small temples. At least the latter is more fitting with a trip to another country, I'm not so sure what a 'cultural visit' to a bank really gives the tourist.

Then there's the Japanese hotel experience. It had no toilet paper or anything else which couldn't be screwed down (to be fair I've stayed in a Japanese hotel and it wasn't like this – but then I wasn't on Tsushima). And the meals were apparently minimalistic – even by the minimalist standards of the Japanese. Hunger became the Koreans' constant travelling companion. It made me wonder whether, given the festering animosity the Korean territorial claims have created on Tsushima, these two facts were entirely disconnected.

So when Korean Mother got back, the first place she and her friends visited was a Korean restaurant near the ferry terminal. The manager saw the terrible hunger writ large across their faces and said “You've just come back from Daemado haven't you?”

Oh, and that plot thickening I promised? While they were being shown around Tsushima the Korean tour guide told the assembled visitors... “Daemado was Korean territory you know, but now Japan claims it is theirs, so we have to get it back...”

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Hornet's Nest

Apparently Namhae has killer bees. Or something like that.

Korean Father was out very early in the morning on top of an isolated mountain mowing the grass around his mother's grave, during the last days of the summer's heat. It has to be done otherwise it would become unkempt and that would be disrespectful, and since graveyards in Korea are generally small and don't employ anyone to maintain them, it's a family responsibility. The graves of those with no nearby or surviving relatives can often easily be spotted as isolated patches of chaos in an otherwise ordered scene.

This particular morning Korean Father was stung three times by large hornets. It seems that this is OK as long as they don't get you in the head. Then you die. Really. In fact I understand that earlier this year a forty-two year old farmer died in Namhae after this happened to him, and there have been other deaths and incidents. The fourth sting caught Korean Father right between the eyes. His right eye began to lose focus, his lips numbed, he started to lose movement in his jaw, and his arms and legs weakened. He called a friend who's the head of a health clinic, and he phoned for an ambulance, which had to negotiate its way to the top of the mountain Korean Father had walked up. Fortunately there is a road, of sorts, although it's one of those Korean ones you really don't want to look down over the side of.

Fortunately with rapid treatment Korean Father quickly recovered, unlike some other unfortunate victims, although his face was still swollen days later.

Before city dwellers lull themselves into a false sense of security, according to the JoongAng Daily the Busan Fire Department had to administer first aid to 145 people this year, so clearly it's not an issue just confined to the countryside. And while we have a lot of bees and wasps (hornets) where I'm from, they pale in comparison to the Asian Giant Hornet, which grows up to two inches (50mm) in length, and injects a venom so strong it can dissolve human tissue.

So it seems like this is an important safety tip, beware of Korea's killer hornets...