The COVID Diaries: investor 6

The following interview is with an Australian-based fixed-income investor. It was conducted on 27 May 2020.

Does your business have a timeline for returning to office working – and are you looking forward to it?

We are a team of five people and we were working from home for around two months. We have just started to transition back to 1-2 days a week in the office, to break the monotony and create a sense of teambuilding.

We are not in a rush to go back to a full-time office setup. We have worked well remotely, at least insofar as the technology goes. It is more the social aspects and being able to share ideas about markets as a team.

Am I looking forward to returning? In general, no. I have found this time quite good. I am more productive, I have fewer distractions and can concentrate on what I need to do – and I don’t get interrupted unless I want to get interrupted. Also, I don’t waste time commuting.

I am sure that going forward we will continue to have some work-from-home time, even when we’re back to normal. Right now, it’s about striking a good balance.

It is commonly accepted at this stage that Australia and New Zealand have done relatively well in the phase of the crisis where public health was the number one priority. Is it now time – at the margin at least – to change the emphasis towards reopening the economy?

This depends on your political view. Clearly the leadership wants to reopen the economy as quickly as possible. I think we can be more aggressive within Australia. COVID-19 cases are largely under control, with only around 100 deaths so far and the curve very much flattened. I think it is perfectly reasonable to try to restart the economy as soon as possible, while at the same time trying to keep people safe and knowing there will be a background risk.

The policies here in Australia have been sensible: working from home if possible and social-distancing measures. However, we were lucky to have relatively few cases to start with, in addition to being proactive and getting ahead with preventative measures early.

The short answer is yes – at least for Australia and New Zealand – and I’d be surprised if many said otherwise, given the risks are largely under control. It becomes a question of how much can the economy really recover and what will the new normal look like – if and until we get a vaccine.

“Am I looking forward to returning? In general, no. I have found this time quite good. I am more productive, I have fewer distractions and can concentrate on what I need to do – and I don’t get interrupted unless I want to get interrupted.”

Are you more or less optimistic about the crisis than you were during the early acceleration period of moving to home working and adding social distancing measures?

For January, February and most of March we didn’t really know what to expect or how bad it was going to get. The testing wasn’t very aggressive, we were lacking healthcare equipment and there was a lot of talk of flattening the curve without much insight into what the curve would look like. Although there were clearly contagion risks, it seemed that they could be manageable with social distancing and staying at home.

I am certainly more optimistic now. We have quite a few months’ data from several countries and there is information sharing. This is probably the most globally coordinated search for a vaccine ever and I’m heartened about the fact that a lot of money and smart people are looking for the vaccine. Maybe we’ll get one and maybe we won’t – but a lot of attention is being placed on it.

Do you subscribe to the view that this crisis will radically reshape our society? What do you think will change and what areas that some might think will change will actually revert to previous norms?

One would hope that domestic travel will start to ramp up soon and we’ve heard talk of a travel bubble between here and New Zealand. The glaringly obvious thing open to change is international travel.

I expect this experience to change people’s behaviour in some way. Perhaps people shop from home more. I had the view before COVID-19 that a lot of money is wasted on unnecessary travel. I hope it causes some people to be more thoughtful about the environment. Maybe a couple of webinars or Zoom calls can replace some client meetings.

However, people have short memories. If we do get a vaccine five years from now this will all be in the rear-view mirror and perhaps people will go back to normal, or maybe to 90 per cent of how things used to be. People like going to restaurants and pubs, and so as soon as they feel safe I imagine they will go back to doing that. Socialising is a fundamental human characteristic that isn’t going to change.

Again what’s key to this is a vaccine. People want to stay safe and keep their parents and grandparents safe, so they will be sensible. But if we don’t get a vaccine and this remains a background risk for several years getting back to normal might take a while.

When do you think you will next get on a plane? Are you looking forward to or dreading travelling again, for business and leisure?

I don’t enjoy travel anyway. I only fly when I must, so personally I’m not in a hurry – other than seeing family, which of course would be good. There will be a lot of people who get back on a plane far more quickly than me.

In the second half of this year I can imagine flying domestically and maybe to New Zealand. Internationally it will almost certainly be some time next year, maybe in the second half.

What are you most looking forward to being able to do again as restrictions ease in the coming weeks and months?

The one thing we really miss is kids’ activities – sport and the like. It is nice as a family to get outside and for the kids to run around so I’m looking forward to those restrictions easing. I’m looking forward to socialising, getting back to my hobbies and out of the house – and to being able to do stuff without the worry of getting sick.

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