In Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Demand for Gold and Dollars Soars
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In Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Demand for Gold and Dollars Soars

Turks are pouring money into foreign currency, jewellery and other assets as the lira weakens

By JARED MALSIN
Mon, Aug 7, 2023 8:37amGrey Clock 3 min

ISTANBUL—Deep in the stone warren of Istanbul’s 560-year-old Grand Bazaar, a cluster of traders selling gold and dollars pace the alleyway, murmuring into phones and smoking. The tension rises as demand grows. A shout comes from the crowd: “I’ve got it ready!”

Turks are pouring money into foreign currency, gold, cryptocurrency, jewellery and other assets that they see as a safer bet than the Turkish lira, which has lost more than 80% of its value in the past five years.

“There’s an atmosphere of panic,” said Mustafa Demiray, 39, a currency trader standing on the edge of the crowd and clutching two phones. “People think the price [for dollars] will go up, so there’s a higher demand right now.”

The collapse of the lira is the result of an era of economic mismanagement by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, economists say. The Turkish leader in recent years has pressured the central bank into cutting interest rates despite the country’s high rate of inflation—the opposite of what central banks would usually do.

Erdogan has attempted to adjust course since winning a close election in May in which his opponents attacked him over Turks’ purchasing power, with many people cutting back on meat, fish and even vegetables.

The country’s newly appointed central-bank governor, Hafize Gaye Erkan, and Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek have raised interest rates, but too slowly to get inflation under control, analysts say.

The Turkish lira continued to slide after the central bank’s July meeting, in which officials decided to raise interest rates by a mere 2.5 percentage points, a move that slowed the pace of the rate increases and put the lira under further pressure. The decision disappointed some economists and investors who hoped Simsek and Erkan would be more aggressive about tackling inflation.

Erkan on July 27 raised the bank’s year-end inflation forecast to 58% from 22.3%, while predicting that price increases would slow next year. Analysts said the upward revision was an acknowledgment that the bank’s current stance was unlikely to tame inflation, which is running at 38%.

Erkan said the bank would lift rates further, and would adopt a holistic approach to tackling inflation, including using other policy instruments such as quantitative tightening.

Investors and analysts are concerned that Erkan and Simsek don’t have a genuine mandate from Erdogan to do what is needed to stabilize the Turkish economy. Erkan pushed back on those questions on July 27.

“The central bank of the Republic of Turkey is an independent institution,” she said. “We will continue the increases in interest rates alongside the quantitative tightening alongside the selective credit tightening because that’s what the current situation demands.”

Turkey’s economic turmoil has put pressure on the traders at the Bazaar, who have played a central role in the economy since the vast covered marketplace was built during the days of the Ottoman Empire, more than five centuries ago. The small and midsize shops in the Bazaar are part of a sprawling global network of businesses and banks dealing in gold and currency.

Mehmet Akif Turker, a 44-year-old gold trader, sat in his office at the Bazaar on a recent morning, his phone and two slabs of gold on the desk in front of him. The high demand for gold should be good for his business, he explained, but the turmoil in the Turkish economy isn’t.

Turks and other traders must contend with a complex web of rules imposed by the government in recent years to scare up foreign currency and keep the country from tipping into insolvency. Those include a rule that forces businesses like Turker’s to convert 40% of their foreign-currency earnings into lira, traders say.

“In general, in our line of work, crisis makes money,” Turker said. “But when the dollar fluctuates so much and the market is so unstable, it can bring us profit or it can bring us losses. We are exhausted.”

Despite the government’s efforts to bring gold and other assets out from “under the mattresses” of the country’s citizens and into the financial system, Turks continue to pour money into precious metals, traders say. Industry groups estimate that between $200 billion and $300 billion worth of gold is in Turkish citizens’ private possession.

“We are a country that loves gold as a financial instrument,” said Ercan Doner, 39, who owns a shop selling gold coins and jewellery. “In order to stop their money from melting away in case of inflation, people are trying to make use of their gold investments by continuously buying and selling.”

Volatility in the economy isn’t the only driver of gold sales, vendors say. The pandemic also increased business, said Metin Kocatepe, 54, a salesman from another jewellery shop.

“After corona, people’s mentality changed. They’re more relaxed in their shopping. They say ‘maybe tomorrow I’m gonna die, I’ll buy something nice.’”



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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