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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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