When I sit down to write to you I always want the end product to be great, insightful and valuable. I set out to produce something as sexy, fun, and smooth as Cameron Diaz. But sometimes what I get is something that comes out all craggy and lumpy like Rosie O’Donnell.

When I sat down to write to you today it was all Rosie, with no sign of Cameron. Perhaps it’s this hideous ear infection that crept up on me and has made me feel like my head’s at the bottom of a toilet bowl.

Government Data
Image source: justgrimes – Flickr
Government Data

In any event, while trying to beat Rosie into Cameron, I scanned the long list of questions (lack of response due to volume, not bad manners) which I get sent. Sitting in the midst of them was the following:

“Chris

Really loving your site, it’s hands down the best on the net. I do have a question which if you have the time maybe you could answer. As a young analyst working for an emerging markets asset management firm I’m curious what you’d look for in markets where the government data is unreliable. Is there anything that “traditional” guys like us might be missing?”

It made me recall something I wrote waaaay back. I searched and found it.

Six years ago I wrote the following, which I think goes some way to answering this question and I dare say it’s likely more valuable than Rosie O’Diaz, which is unworthy of your fine tastes.


Make Voyeurism Your Friend

Voyeurism is a strange thing. We bipeds like to watch other people, and we seem to be totally addicted to it no matter what our race or nationality. Ask yourself this: What do most people do with their spare time?

Heck, what do you do with your spare time?

Do you watch TV? Do you go to sports events, rock concerts, the theatre? How about Youtube? When you go to the beach, do you find yourself watching people? Ok, sure the pretty girls or the ripped guys get more looks than others but what is certain is that we like people watching. Watch the excellent movie “Middle Men” to get to the root of human motivation. Porn – the ultimate in voyeurism – is the most searched topic on the Net for a good reason.

What I’d like to propose is putting your people watching skills to use. When traveling to a new country, instead of letting your mind wander aimlessly or spending your time head-bowed staring at your phone, ask yourself some questions as you people watch.

There are certain mannerisms people take on and certain ways they will act and react depending on their social status, their attitude toward those around them, their fears, and their desires. In fact, most people’s “sense” of the world is captured in their actions and words.

Example – Scenario 1

Consider this scene… A mother carrying full shopping bags, wearing the latest fashions, walks aimlessly down a sidewalk with a small child in tow. They window shop casually as they walk by a toy store, and as she passes an ice cream vendor she pulls out cash to purchase a cone for her child while chatting on her phone. A few meters later she steps into a sidewalk café and nonchalantly orders a latte while her child enjoys the ice cream. When she leaves, she tips the server.

Example – Scenario 2

Now consider the same scenario, but with a different set of behaviours. The mother hurries her child past the toy shop windows. She is wearing scuffed shoes and carries a half-empty bag. She too buys her child an ice cream cone, but conceals her purse and guardedly pays the vendor before quickly pushing the purse deep into her jacket. She glances at the cafe, but only for a minute before walking on.

What to Watch For

You’ll find both scenarios in New York, London, Tokyo, and everything in between. What we are watching for is the prevalence of one over the other in a given country, or the increase in sightings of one sort of behavior over another during successive visits to a country. This can help tell you what is happening in a country’s economy and even its political environment. Watch to see what sorts of goods people are buying in the shops. Is it the high-quality higher-priced goods, or is it basic and/or lower quality goods?

Watch to see whether they are paying with credit cards or with cash stuffed in their bras. The use of credit cards is ubiquitous with the middle class, while cash is more prevalent in a populace living hand-to-mouth.

When you see small children playing in the park are they attended by big brother, big sister or are there parents or caregivers nearby? Where disposable income is high you’ll find a caregiver or parent nearby. Where both parents are working and don’t have the disposable income available it’s up to big brother, big sister, auntie, grandma, or friends to fill that role.

In countries where tipping is practiced ask the waiter or waitress what the tips are like.

Do the hotels routinely offer complimentary breakfast and if so how is the quality? Watch how the hotelier talks to others, what sort of toilet paper is being used, and whether the air conditioning or heating is only on when you rent a room or is it run continuously? When business is good turnover will be high and vacancy rates low enough to mean that running the air conditioning or heating all the time is warranted.

Are the shops in hot countries routinely air conditioned and in cold countries heated, or are they turning down the air conditioning and heating to save money? Does the inventory look “dusty” and old sitting on the shelves?

When you hire a taxi, take notice whether your driver overcharges you for the trip. Does he run his taxi on just over empty and fill up when you hire him? This is a clear sign that margins are thin and business is tough. There is little to no working capital. If there is no working capital there is little chance of sufficiently large amounts of savings and capital that can be used to grow business. It goes without saying that a large pool of capital is a prerequisite for an economy to grow.

Another thing that needs to be considered are social norms. For example, in the West it has become increasingly “normal” for wealthy businessman to wear more casual clothing. Suits are no longer necessarily consistent with wealth. I, for one, refuse to wear a suit and I don’t even own a tie.  One need only look at Silicon Valley as an example. Understanding these cultural nuances before coming to any conclusion in a foreign country is important.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

It’s not unusual to find a taxi driver in Lusaka grinning from ear to ear, telling you life is great while all indications are that he’s living hand-to-mouth in a country that stifles investment and suffers from a crumbling infrastructure, government interference, and violence. Life might be great because his wife just had a child that week, or more frighteningly, he may have just downed a couple of

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