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Lessons from commodity trading



One of the most important lessons that I learned as a commodity trader was that we aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are. Fifteen years in the business taught me that whereas we might know on an intellectual level that low prices will rise and high prices will fall, somehow that information doesn’t translate into behaviour because knowledge on an intellectual level isn’t the same as living and feeling it.

Take holiday packing for example. It’s really difficult to pack successfully in one climate for an excursion to another. If it’s hot where you are, even knowing without doubt that you are travelling to another region that is in the midst of a freezing winter, it’s impossible to really picture just what that will feel like. Even if we know it intellectually.

I have even noticed that with my children. If after lunch, when their tummies are full and they are satiated, my wife asks them what they want for supper, they will answer that they are “full” and she needn’t worry about that.

Experience has taught her that they aren’t so much as lying, but are just unable to imagine a time when they won’t be feeling as they are. It’s not impressive, but we are hardly any different.

Which brings me to the COVID-19 situation. South Africa has done remarkably well. Although there was a time when hospitals were full, people were very ill, and many were dying, we still managed to get through it brilliantly.

For the most part, people were compliant and tried where they could to adhere to the rules that had been set. Even more impressive was that although some of the regulations were irrational and made little sense, there seemed to be an understanding that this was something that needed adhering to.

The situation over the past few weeks has been positive. Until last week, new cases were falling, and the government was able to announce the implementation of a level 1 lockdown.

But like commodity prices, we also know that it’s unlikely that it will remain as it is. Lessons out of Israel and the United Kingdom very clearly show that second surges are to be expected. And that they are more difficult to contain.

Whether it’s because of compliance fatigue, economic pressure, or the need for human connection, not only can they be deadly, but also very difficult to manage. Much like packing a suitcase for another climate, it’s hard to imagine what it will be like, but we need to accept that we had better make sure that we are prepared.

I’m not fearmongering. The point is not for us to bolt our doors and spray Doom in our coffee. It’s not for us to live in perpetual anxiety and to stop living a life that we need to live. It’s simply to be aware that even if we have eaten lunch and we feel content, dinner time will come when we will be hungry. Also, we must be cognisant of the fact that climates change, and that even if commodity prices are low today, it doesn’t mean that they won’t rise tomorrow.

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