November 20, 2014

The Big Apple's barometer

My wife lives in New York, and, over the years, I have got to know the city well. It is a useful barometer to judge the health of the world and of the American mood and economy. A visit in the winter of 2008-09, over the New Year and just weeks after the Lehman Brothers crash, is still in my memory. It had been only a few months since my previous visit, but the financial crisis had taken its toll. It was as if I were walking through another country. New Yorkers had lost that spring in their step.

I was in New York for a week this October and spent a lot of time thinking about the 2008-09 visit. The buzz and the atmosphere was quite a contrast to those times. It told me the US economy was recovering, that spring was back in the step—but there were some caveats.

In the US, everything is a marketing opportunity, even an economic crisis. In early 2009, I began to notice signs outside restaurants offering 'Recession Lunch', a discounted meal aimed at attracting customers who were staying away. At least two of five restaurants made such offers. Today, the 'Recession Lunch' signs have vanished. Normalcy is returning to the eating-out industry.

Five years ago, my wife's house help, a Colombian lady, began to bring her husband to the apartment on her weekly cleaning mission. He used to work for a moving and packing firm, but it had more or less shut down. There was no business. Bored and desolate, he accompanied his wife to keep himself occupied. We do not see the husband anymore. He is back at work with the same moving and packing company; the US economy is moving again, literally.

In 2008, I had spent long hours consoling a close friend who had lost his job at Lehman Brothers. He was distraught, middle-aged and out of job, with no sign of recovery. In the next 15 months, he changed four jobs. Today, he is settled into another job with a leading investment bank. The stability is back, so is the pay-cheque and the bonuses, even if these are not as generous as in the old days. Nevertheless, my friend works very long hours; he is out of the house from 7am to 9pm. He tells me the fear of losing another job and of another collapse gives him nightmares.

In 2008-09, I used to see too many 'For Sale' signs outside houses and properties. The housing market had plummeted. There was panic in the mortgage industry and distress sales were very common. Today, there are far fewer such signs. The number of distress sales has fallen as people are regaining control of their lives.

Ironically, they may not actually be buying homes. Anecdotal evidence in New York would suggest that even those people who can afford to put down a decent mortgage are preferring caution and staying on rent. There is apprehension of committing to a large mortgage and being sucked into another debt trap.

I am no economist. These are stray observations and pieces of information picked up during conversations. As such, my view is decidedly limited. Yet, a recovery is definitely on course in America. But, that sense of anxiety has still not gone away. For an entire generation of Americans, the survivors of September 2008, it may never.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

November 12, 2014

FDI in Insurance Bill? No, not so easy.

Few noticed but a remarkable and potentially far-reaching event happened late on Tuesday evening. A crucial meeting of the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Insurance Bill, scheduled for Wednesday, November 12, suddenly got called off. Somewhere, at some point, the government lost its nerve.

The Insurance Bill has an interesting history for the BJP. It sought to bulldoze it through Parliament in the Budget Session so that the prime minister had a lollypop to carry to America. The opposition, primarily the Trinamool Congress, the CPI(M), which have been consistent critics of the Insurance Bill, and the Congress and JDU, succeeded in checking the advance of the Bill, arresting the BJP’s unseemly hurry and taking the Bill to a select committee.

The government’s orders to BJP members of the select committee were to rush through with proceedings and get the Bill ready for the Winter Session, which begins on November 24. I’m a member of the select committee. We’ve already done about 10 meetings and there was an important one coming up on Wednesday. I can’t say more as I am not at liberty to reveal the workings of the select committee.

Meanwhile, jumping the gun and seeking to anticipate the recommendations of the select committee, members of this government have addressed economic conclaves and given assurances that the Insurance Bill will be passed in the Winter Session of Parliament.

But will it? The clue lies in the reason the meeting was cancelled. The BJP had three members in the 15-MP select committee: the chairperson, Chandan Mitra, and J.P. Naddaand Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. The chairperson can vote only in case of a tie.

On Sunday, Nadda and Naqvi were made members of the Union ministry. With this they ceased to be members of the select committee. Hence the panicky cancellation of Wednesday’s meeting.

Two new members of the select committee will need to be appointed by the Rajya Sabha. This can only happen sometime after the House meets on November 24. Then the two new members will join the 13 previous members in debating and discussing the Insurance Bill. It is very unlikely this will conclude before Parliament ends the Winter Session on the eve of Christmas.

What then becomes of the government’s resolve to pass the Insurance Bill? My guess: Parliament will not be voting on the Insurance Bill this year. As for 2015, that’s another year and another battle. We’ll fight it when it comes.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

November 03, 2014

Brand Equity Quiz being put to bed

Those were the days of telephone operators. So Binny Kapur, the charming lady with the husky voice and the loud lipstick, my colleague for many years at Ogilvy, Kolkata, put the call through. It was Jug Suraiya, journalist, friend and spouse of my former boss, who had recently moved to Delhi. Jug had figured The Statesman was a ship rapidly sinking into the Hooghly and had opted to board the cruise liner docked in Delhi, The Times of India.

He came straight to the issue. “Derek, these TOI folks, actually The Economic Times team in Bangalore, have asked me to put together an advertising and marketing quiz for ad agencies in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai,” Jug deadpanned on the trunk call. “Bunny [Jug’s wife] and I told them point blank: Not me. Get in touch with this chap, my friend, Derek O’Brien in Kolkata. He’s your man… Oh and by the way, not free…  Charge the blighters your full fee.” That last bit was added almost in glee.

A few weeks, a couple of letters and half a dozen phone calls later we were all set to do the “Ad and Marketing Quiz” in the three southern cities. Dates were frozen: Chennai, okay. Hyderabad, okay… Oops. The date for the preliminary round in Bangalore clashed with the North Star Quiz (remember it?) I was committed to doing in another city.

Not a problem. The ET folks were comfortable with my father, Neil O’Brien, handling the opening day in Bangalore. The fees were fixed too: Rs 5,000 per show. (No, that’s not a typo. Those were my rates for a quiz show back in 1991!) As seasoned quizzers and a generation of corporate executives would have guessed by now, this is how the Brand Equity Quiz started.

Life has changed enormously in these past 23 years. Three years ago, I took a conscious decision to move away from live quiz shows. I had simply too much on my plate. So while I’m very involved in strategising, question setting, show design and backroom operations, the 2,400 live shows Derek O’Brien & Associates does every year are conducted by my able colleagues. The one quiz event for which I made an exception was the Brand Equity Quiz. This was special, it was very dear to my heart.

Now, close to its 25th birthday, the Brand Equity Quiz is being put to bed. It’s the company’s decision and I respect it. I can’t do the Brand Equity Quiz without Economic Times and Economic Times has promised it will not attempt to revive it without me. So maybe one day we’ll be back. For the moment, it’s time to say goodbye – and thank you for the memories.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress