Meet the most powerful woman in banking

Yellen is a distinguished academic, especially known for her work on unemployment. She has even written about out-of-wedlock child-rearing, gang behaviour and the brain drain; she cares about the real world and her work involves careful analysis of behavi

The nomination of Janet Yellen to be the next chair of the US Federal Reserve is an excellent one, especially with all the uncertainty over the US government shutdown and fears over breaching the debt ceiling. The US economy needs continuity in its monetary policy and Yellen, whom I supported for the job, guarantees a seamless transition from Ben Bernanke. Best of all, it’s one for the doves. She will have no trouble at all being confirmed by the US Senate, even though folks such as Rand Paul will vote against her because they don’t believe there should be a central bank. She needs only 60 out of 100 votes to be confirmed, and will be.

The appointment of Professor Yellen has been welcomed by economists no matter what their economic persuasion, Keynesian or monetarist, saltwater (Harvard) or freshwater (Chicago). There have been few if any dissenting voices. Her CV is second to none. She is definitely the number-one central banker in the world; Mark Carney was just the best central banker available in the banker draft when George Osborne chose him to lead the Bank of England.

Yellen, who is only five feet tall, obtained her PhD from Yale, where she was supervised by the Nobel economics laureate James Tobin. She taught at Harvard and the LSE before moving to the University of California, Berkeley. She first worked at “the Fed” as an economist in the 1970s and then returned as a governor from 1994-1997, when I met her as a feisty but “small lady with a large IQ”, as the New York Times has said. She was chair of Bill Clinton’s council of economic advisers from 1997-1999.

From 2004-2011 Yellen was the president and chief executive of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and, as the 12 bank presidents do, attended Fed rate-setting meetings. In 2010 she returned to the Fed as a governor and vice-chair. She is married to the Nobel economics laureate George Akerlof; they have a son who is an economist at the University of Warwick.

Yellen is a distinguished academic, especially known for her work on unemployment. She has even written about out-of-wedlock child-rearing, gang behaviour and the brain drain; she cares about the real world and her work involves careful analysis of behaviour.

The new Fed chief is especially concerned about long-duration unemployment and its consequences. Her view is that, for now, inflation can go on the back burner –which is music to my ears, given my recent work showing that a 1 percentage point increase in unemployment lowers well-being by over four times as much as an equivalent increase in inflation.

Yellen has been influential in developing the forward guidance on interest rates that the Bank of England has copied. There will be no rate rises any time soon on her watch unless something dramatic and good happens. I couldn’t ask for better than that.

Pint-sized engagement, going all the way to the top: Janet Yellen, the world's top central banker. Image: Getty

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.