Monday, August 13, 2012


When I started writing about my experiences here there were only two other foreigners writing blogs in Busan as far as I'm aware and so it enjoyed a level of mild popularity by virtue of absence of choice. This led to a few invitations to appear on Korean TV and radio shows, and I was also asked to write, but always for airline magazines - perhaps their editors had correctly surmised that I work best with a captive audience.

I always turned these offers down - even though I was invariably assured it would 'help promote my blog' - on the sound logic that I actually didn't want to promote my blog, and I have a face for radio and a voice for writing. Yes, perhaps with enough plastic surgery I too could look like one of those K-pop boy band members which women who are into the whole non-threatening-male-look would like, but it would represent the modern-day equivalent of The Six Million Dollar Man project, and cost about the same.

The other reason for turning down 'a great chance to be on TV/radio/write for people trapped on a plane' is that the offers invariably came in from bizarre addresses at Korea's equivalent of Hotmail such as 'ilikegoats', 'bananaman', 'pussy80' and 'bkmhbdmukkk' with subject lines such as 'This is Arirang TV' to make sure you know it's authentic. So you end up in a situation where Bananaman invites you to some part of the city to appear on a TV or radio programme. You could run a background check on Bananaman but it's time consuming.

It was once explained to me - and it's entirely logical - that since most people here share about seven surnames and most of them are in fact called Kim - it's almost impossible to get anything resembling a sensible email address from your employer because someone's already taken it. The problem is though, I don't think they're even trying. Take the Korea Times for example. It can't have more than a few hundred staff so it shouldn't be anywhere near as difficult to choose an email address, but someone still elects to be 'foolsdie' at their domain name, and that means sooner or later they end up writing a piece about a plane crash where pilot error is suspected and signing it 'foolsdie' at the bottom.

But mostly, Koreans seem to use their personal email addresses for work purposes - and this blurring of the lines extends to phones now, and chat systems such as Kakao Talk. This provides whole new opportunities for sexual innuendo because you can now not only expose your quirky textual inner thoughts but give the Freudians something much more graphic and substantial to sink their teeth into - such as the image below - the Kakao Talk avatar of a male bank employee who contacted my wife to tell her that her new credit card was ready:

Bank Employee's Avatar

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rogue Trader

When I worked as a financial trader, people used to ask me from time to time about the viability of trading in Korea, and I tried to offer some polite ad-hoc advice elsewhere but I never really brought it onto this blog. This is a pity because the most comprehensive piece I think I ever wrote on the subject was on a forum for foreigners in Korea I later was kicked out of for not posting frequently enough to. The moral of the story – aside from the obvious question of whether you should actually avoid other foreigners and their forums in Korea like the plague – is if you're going to write something useful, put it on your own site.

That said, I'm not promising to make this useful because the first and last thing I'm going to say about trading in Korea is don't, with one caveat – there's a distinction between longer-term investing over a period of years and shorter-term trading.

On a general matter, about half the people I've ever talked to about trading have an idea about the system they will employ to trade. They may even have read books. If you're one of these people and you think you have a system, well, you don't. Sorry to rain on your parade.

It's an oft-quoted statistic that 90% of traders lose money and I've actually read the original research paper - and the figures are as frightening as you might imagine. Worse in fact, because it doesn't follow that the remaining 10% are wildly profitable – some are just treading water. Of course, you can read plenty of books on how to be successful in the world of trading (the real answer is writing books about how to trade).

Anyway, for several years I consider myself to have been a successful trader insofar as I was very much within that 10% to the extent that I paid my bills and funded my lifestyle from trading profits but I wasn't good enough to breeze in and out of the market like one genuinely gifted trader I knew so it all came from very hard work – I put in minimum 57-hour weeks and this is not an exaggeration. You can certainly get yourself over to Birt's EA Review and set your imagination racing but if running forex bots were easy in the long run I think there'd be no need for a site like that in the first place, so if you find yourself beguiled by such things you should also recognise the paradox.

When I was doing my 'Open Mike' segment on Busan e-FM I discussed the issue of Financial Trading in Korea and if you have an interest in this subject you should link off and read the summary for this now.

What's relevant from that particular show is that obviously the first hurdle facing anyone interested in using a Korean broker/trading product provider is the language barrier. The second is that my impression of the Korean market is that it's like the Wild West with rampant ramping of stocks in a broadly long-only product-providing market. That's not to say that you can't make money from it, but you may as well visit a casino. This is just a subjective opinion – although I'm pretty sure I'm right – but what is not subjective is the issue of liquidity and namely the fact that the Korean market doesn't have nearly as much of it as London or New York. Yes, the newspapers here will sometimes claim otherwise and I admire their unceasing efforts at assisting Korea's attempts to continue performing public fallatio on itself, but you probably shouldn't watch or try this at home.

The next problem is that because Korea's laws are fairly hostile to international financial institutions (it only recently allowed hedge funds to operate in Korea) and because international financial providers have a hundred internal and regulatory rules of their own to comply with, it's actually quite hard in my experience to even find reputable forex providers prepared to accept foreign customers based in Korea. After a considerable effort which involved notarised forms of identification (try pulling off that trick with Korean notaries who can't understand English), I eventually opened up an account and discovered it wasn't possible to transfer money into it from Korea. The conclusion is it's better to open accounts while you're living somewhere else and then operate a don't-ask-don't-tell policy with them regarding your location.

But let's assume you have a broker and can trade from Korea. Your next hurdle is the time-zone. Actively trading U.S. stocks is out because New York is open when you are in bed. I suppose you could play fire-and-forget with some trades and set a few limit orders to buy and sell but it's a risky business and inefficient (for which you can read 'unprofessional'). European opening hours are more Asia-friendly up to a point, although London's 1.30am finishes in winter are still endurance-testing.

Of course, forex offers a 24-hour market five days a week but what they don't tell you is that the best liquidity is still during London-New York hours, and strange and mysterious things often happen during the Asian trading hours. If you're looking at a trading bot with form it may well not account for these shenanigans and if you're rolling your own your backtesting will probably represent an ideal you'll probably never attain (I could give you chapter-and-verse on trying to build accurate backtesting results using MetaTrader but the executive summary is forget it).

From what I can tell, shorting is not a tool generally available to Koreans so most people trade the kind of dubious "theme stocks" that are so Wild West they might even put London's AIM market – which actually has been described as a casino – to shame. Many Koreans have traded Equity Linked Warrants (ELWs) but the Financial Services Commission wants to ban short-term trading in them. It may be just as well though because warrants with maturity dates (assuming the ELWs do) generally benefit from a knowledge of the Black-Scholes model and where offered to small investors they are – in my opinion – usually 'designed' (cough) to transfer money from said small investors to the issuers of the warrants (cough cough order book manipulation cough cough). I really must see a doctor. It also seems the market in Korea is imploding because it was more directly manipulated.

And even if I could understand Korea perfectly and had the tools at my disposal to trade Korean stocks, the conclusion I've drawn from my extensive reading of Korean news and personal experience of dealing with people here professionally is Korean business and political life is permeated by a intriguing kind of 'moral pragmatism' which would discourage me from wanting to invest in them.

For what it's worth 'Financial Hub Korea' – which is inexplicably marketed under the obfuscated title 'Fn Hub Korea', is pressing on in its tireless mission "to promote Korea as an international finance market" (or perhaps that should be "an international fn market") so perhaps one day things will get better and I sincerely hope they do, but in my limited experience Korea is hostile to the international movement of capital, I'm convinced from my reading of the news that it's hostile to foreign companies (to be fair like America and Canada also are), and it's hostile to domestic financial speculation of all kinds including the evil 'property speculators' that had the temerity to buy property in Pyeongchang before it won its Winter Olympic bid. How very dare they. (And they still aren't very keen on foreigners owning property – a long personal story for another time).

Ironically due to the hypocrisy around which so much of political life in Korea revolves, property speculation is such an important national pastime here that I'm sure they would actually make it an Olympic event in time for Pyeongchang if they could. Korea might not win gold but they might at least be in with a chance - the earnings-to-price index of salaries to property is eye-watering compared to my own country, where it is considered high.

It's a shame about all this regulation and sniffyness because the idea of Korea being a 'Fn Hub' in this region of the world isn't perhaps quite as utterly absurd as it first seems – nobody really trusts the Chinese financial markets and Japan evidently can't run a stock exchange to save their lives.

So my personal conclusion is – and I did say I'd end on this – is don't trade Korean financial markets.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Under Siege: Dirty and Smelly and Fusion Babies

"I'm not just saying this because you’re related to me, but I used to think that all foreigners were dirty and smelly... but you're not." - a close relative who I am not permitted to name by title until the statute of limitations expires.

Does this mean I've pushed down the barriers of prejudice in Korea by just a little? Perhaps not, because this close relative went on to expand on that thought by adding "When I pass them in the street, I can smell their bad smell, they look unkempt and their clothes look years old. But you always look neat."

And apparently I don't smell that bad either. If only foreigners could smell as wonderful as Koreans.

Filed under 'accidental truths close Korean relatives tell you when they finally let their guard down after five years'.

The observant among my two remaining readers will have noticed that I don't often write this blog any more. This is a function of many things such as my work as a writer elsewhere, aching fingers, a bad keyboard, my hatred of the updated Blogger interface that often no longer lets me post comments on my own blog, and the increasing amount of time I spend with the underground railroad here in Busan.

It is also - as I have previously mentioned - in no small part connected with the extra work and frequent interruptions that come with having a 22-month-old child, who is, shall we say, high maintenance. For example, this morning the wireless landline phone handset in our apartment was nowhere to be found until I finally spotted it in our aquarium, which led to a couple of hours of disassembling, drying, cleaning and re-soldering (it was not disassembly-friendly). This is the tip of the iceberg.

All small children can be a challenge I'm sure, but one of our close relatives evidently arrived at the conclusion that my son represented significantly more of a challenge than any Korean child they had previously experienced, prompting them to pose the following philosophical question:

"Do you think his temperament is the way it is because he has mixed blood?