Interview: Richard Quest
February 9, a suite at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa, Dubai
ESQUIRE: You spend a lot of time in hotels. When it comes to good service, the devil is in the detail, right?
Richard Quest: Yes, I’ll give you an example. The desk and chair might look really nice but if you’re working you need an adjustable office chair, so it’s often the first thing I’ll ask for. They think you’re asking for something strange, but eventually you do get it. Also,
I travel on my own and there is nothing nicer than a cup of hot chocolate just before bed —
I bring my own — but many of the big hotels think they are too posh to have a kettle in the room and you have to call room service.
You’re from the north of England. Is that where your practical streak comes from?
I think it had a great effect. It got rid of most of the crap. I can spot bulls*** at a thousand yards when someone is trying to flatter me. And there are so many things that you see when you travel that you think, You’re charging me how much? People seem to think one is expected to suspend judgement on value when you travel. Not a bit of it! [Goes to fridge] Would you like something to drink? Still or sparkling water? I don’t drink alcohol so I had the chap showing me the room take it all out and put more cold water in.
I want to talk about your job. Did journalists do a good job covering the financial crash?
In terms of spotting the crises, we were particularly bad. One would like to be the pundit who said it is all going to go horribly wrong, but nobody was going to forecast that it was going be so big, so deep and so widespread. And here’s the point: if you had said to your editor, “In three or four years’ time we could be looking at the biggest financial crash the world has ever seen,” they would say you were barking mad. You do not notice these things, you are in the middle of the firestorm every day.
But there was evidence all around us.
Her Majesty her Queen put it most beautifully when she was visiting the Bank of England and simply asked why nobody saw it coming. Trust the Queen to put her finger on it perfectly. So now you go the other way, where everybody is looking at this very nasty situation with oil prices and asking if this is the start of another disaster. Last night on the programme, I asked [American economist and chess Grandmaster] Kenneth Rogoff if this is 2007/08 again, and he said it wasn’t.
What evidence did he give for this conclusion?
He gave a whole variety of reasons. Structurally, things are different and there are better fireguards in place. I think that he might be a little bit optimistic.
So we are still in a very precarious state?
Low oil prices are an example of disaster staring us in the face. You have economies that are heading down fast, and I am not talking about places that have buffers like the UAE; I am talking about Nigeria, Venezuela, Brazil. As a result they have currency crises. So then you get social instability, you get world trade going down. You get falling prices, which creates a lack of confidence, which sends prices even further down. That’s the situation we are in now.
How come no one predicted they would fall so far?
You can’t predict exogenous events. Iran is back in the market. Saudi Arabia decided not to cut supply. US oil producers are more productive. Remember, the goal of the Saudis was to squeeze the US out of the market and everybody thought you could do that at $60, but a lot hung on. What you end up with is a spider’s web of unintended consequences, and the only good side of all this, compared to 2008, is at least we don’t believe that there are hidden time bombs which we don’t really understand. These CDOs [structured financial products that pool together cash flow-generating assets — such as mortgages, bonds and loans — and repackage them as tranches that can be sold to investors] and default swaps.
No unknown unknowns?
Yes, exactly. We know what the Saudis will do, how much oil Iran is going to produce. But there is one unknown unknown and that is China. Ken Rogoff said to me that nobody really knows the true numbers and I suspect the Chinese don’t even know. It’s a huge economy that is not regulated in the way that Western countries are.
Economics is so vastly complicated. Do you ever think, Wow, I do not understand this?
Frequently! Do you think I had any knowledge of Quantitative Easing when it came along? Absolutely not. I had to get a book and study it. Another example: the Fed has raised interest rates from what has effectively been zero percent for the past eight years and nobody has any idea what the market dislocation is going to be because effectively they had been the market for the last three years. So there were huge technical papers written at the Fed, Bank of England and ECB. Huge! It was known as the Exit Strategy.
You just got back from Davos. What was that like?
Oh God! I have a love-hate relationship with Davos. Any organisation that bills itself as being committed to improving the state of the world is so up its own a*** that frankly you just wonder what it is all about. I think that the whole “Davosian language”, as Sir Martin Sorrell calls it, is just pompous and pretentious. Having said all that I fully applaud this concept that the decision-makers of the world, from all sides, come together and discuss the issues of the day. You get a big overview of where everybody stands on certain subjects. I’ve got to be careful what I say here… actually, no I don’t need to be careful at all! Where I think they have a real problem is that the moment you get away from all that, you’ve got the consultants, the big accountancy firms, the banks and too many people who are just there for schmoozing. Wait, I’m going to show you something [grabs his phone]. Here are some pictures of what happens in Davos. You’ve got normal shops that are taken over by banks and other institutions for just 48 hours. Practically the whole street. Oh and here’s a snowman.
You went to Davos and built a snowman?
We do it every year outside the studio. Geoff The Global Economic Snowman. He also happens to have the same name as our CEO, I am not sure he has quite worked that out. Anyway, look at what Facebook builds — this entire pop-up contraption.
What is the purpose?
I have no idea. It’s not like they need the exposure. But that is Davos’ biggest problem. This wall of corporate money detracts from what it is really all about… Sorry, scratch the Davos itch and you’ll get more than you bargained for!
As a CNN employee, to what extent do you bring your opinions to the table?
It has changed a lot. As John Mortimer wrote in Rumpole of the Bailey, you’re supposed to leave your opinions at the door along with your hat and coat. When I started out, that’s what you were trained to do. That has changed with social media. Where I still think it holds is that nobody is paying me for my opinion. I am not a pundit, I am not a politician. What you are paying me for is my assessment of the situation. Now there is a difference between an assessment versus a judgment and an opinion. I think too many younger journalists confuse the two. But there is a very fine line.
Has the media got better or worse?
I will not be some miserable old fogey who says it was better in my day. It is just different and you have to adapt. When I started, you never said anything other than, “analysts say…” or “ministers believe…”. The idea that you would somehow have an assessment yourself was unthinkable.
Is your job more enjoyable now?
Again, it’s just different. But it is harder. There are so many more barriers to getting to the story. For example, you used to go to the press conference and get an interview, but now you don’t. CEOs don’t feel they don’t need to do interviews anymore. Twitter has become an unofficial news agency. I use it to keep in touch with followers when I am travelling for a bit of light gossip on flight socks, which is funny, because I was tweeting about that recently.
I saw that post.
There’s a rhythm to it. Before the door has even closed, the passengers have taken their shoes off and put their socks on over their other socks. I look at them and think, Why did you just do that? Firstly, when did you last go to bed wearing two pairs of socks? Secondly, the plane hasn’t even taken off. What are you going to do if there is an accident on the runway and you have to evacuate. You are going to be running over burning oil and molten steel in those little furry socks. I leave my shoes on until the wheels leave the ground. If anything happens after that, you have bigger problems than socks.
What’s your favourite plane?
The Boeing 747-400 is just beautiful. I’ve re-routed myself just to travel on it. But I also love the Airbus A380. I call it ‘the whale’. These are my two favourites — apart from Concorde, of course.
I heard it was noisy and cramped.
Oh please! You were on Concorde! It was wonderful. I had a grin from ear-to-ear every time I flew on it. A stewardess told me there was no such thing as “no” on Concorde. I asked her, “What would you do if my button fell off my jacket?” She replied, “Sew it back on, of course!”
How do you deal with jetlag?
People are always asking me for the cure and I say, Don’t travel. Jetlag is a natural phenomenon you will not be able to avoid. The big thing
I tell people is if you are tired when you get there, sleep! But oh no! God forbid if today’s road warrior is seen as being less than manly. I’ve no time for business travellers who are their own worst enemies. So last night I finished work at 4am and I’m seeing you now at 9.30am. I’m chairing a panel this afternoon with HH Sheikh Ahmed [Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman and chief executive of Emirates Airline] at the government summit. I will have another hour’s sleep and I’m not ashamed to say it, because I need to be sparkling for this panel.
You need to be on form to debate with HH Sheikh Ahmed…
Gosh, is he bright? I first met him 12 or 13 years ago and I thought, “Oh, who is this?” And you can tell he is engaged because you go to the Paris Air Show and he is there buying the planes. He knows everything about the subject. One of the reasons I think Dubai has been so successful is that they have put the right people in place and let them get on with the job.
[Laughs] No way I am touching that question!
You naïve fool! My favourite airline is the one that gives consistency. I don’t want an amazing flight on a Monday and terrible one on Tuesday. Which of the airlines have I flown the most? Out of the US, it’s United because it goes to the most places that I go to. Because of that, I tend to do more Star Alliance trips. I’m a mileage whore!
I take it you enjoyed Up in the Air?
Ah yes, I recognise myself in that film.
It has to be New York and London. I travel once or twice a month between the two; in economy, before anybody asks.
You still do economy?
Of course! Especially when business class to London is $4,000. I’m slightly claustrophobic, so I don’t like the middle seats, but aside from that I’m fine. In fact, next month we’ll be going around the world on low-cost carriers. We are literally going London to London.
Do people recognise you at the back of the plane?
Yes, and they always joke, “What are you doing back here? Is CNN having a difficult time?”
In London it is the Savoy. I stay in a little place in LA called La Parc Suite Hotel. It’s not particularly expensive, but is has a great pool and every room is a suite. If I could go anywhere for a month, it would be Huka Lodge in New Zealand. It is one of the few places where the Queen has been back twice. I like the InterContinental in Hong Kong because it is has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Victoria harbour. In general I’m not a fan of ultra-expensive hotels. All I want is a clean room and not having to pay an offensive amount to have my laundry done.
You’ve made a study of this?
Oh yes! Last year I was in Greece for three weeks for the financial crisis and it was eight euros to wash socks. At an H&M round the corner I could get three new pairs for 12 euros, so I bought them thinking I was saving the company dozens of euros. I got back to be told it was not permitted as the IRS would consider it to be a taxable benefit. What sort of world have we come to when it is cheaper to buy socks than to wash them in the laundry?
I get the feeling you still love the magic of travel.
The best words to my ears are, “Cabin crew, doors automatic” because it means we’re on our way!
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Quest Means Business is on CNN Monday to Friday, 9pm BST. He also hosts the monthly CNN Business Traveller and CNN Marketplace Europe.