What should economists and policy makers learn from the financial crisis?

Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King, Larry Summers, Olivier Blanchard and Axel A. Weber talk at the LSE about the lessons of the crash.

They packed us in like late boarders on a budget flight. I shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder down the narrow passage between the rows of folding chairs in the LSE’s Old Theatre, where in an hour’s time Mervyn King would take the stage with Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, Olivier Blanchard and Axel A. Weber to discuss the financial crisis.

A returns queue stretched out the door and back into the main lobby where students camped with blankets. I took my seat beside a young man clutching the syllabus of his development economics course while another, to my left, texted Chinese characters. Mobile phones and open laptops flickered like moths in the lamplight as the audience waited.

Anticipation hung in the air and it wasn’t surprising. Since the UK Budget and the crisis in Cyprus it seems that “policy makers” have grown complacent to inflicting pain and, when faced with protests, comfortable with popping in their earplugs. Although the US has embraced stimulus, the country has accrued debt in exchange for small boosts in growth, while some figures point towards the bank bailout (over which Bernanke presided) costing the country 20 times as much as it did in the UK.

Would the outgoing governor of the Bank of England (King), the Chairman of the Federal Reserve (Bernanke), the chief economist of the IMF (Blanchard) a foremost central banker (Weber) and a former US Treasurer (Summers) offer optimism to a jilted audience?  It was hardly Question Time, but there was a sense that we deserved some answers.

The esteemed panel didn’t offer much in the way of revolutionary talk, but humility and an openness to change both arrived as common themes. Each offered filial praise to King, who will step down as BOE governor in June. (Summers credited him with both the industry's most formidable intellect and elegant accent).

For Ben Bernanke, who spoke first, this financial crisis was “a classic” but also “novel” in the complexity of its aftermath. Bernanke’s pet project is the Great Depression and he drew insight from looking back to the other American-born crisis that left the world reeling, and the subsequent currency fluctuations associated with the dropping of the gold standard, which Britain abandoned in 1931. As head of the Fed during the Wall Street crash, Bernanke has been criticised for buying up the troubled assets of AIG and Merrill Lynch. While a lesson in economic histories is fascinating, I couldn’t help feeling he’d shirked the more riveting contemporary account many were hoping for.

The closest he came to outlining an actionable “policy” was an encouragement of “domestic objectives” achieved through “domestic tools”, discouraging emerging markets which rely too heavily on exports.  Fair point: as we’ve seen, demand is less an abundant meadow so much as a grassy cliff on the other side of which lies a self-sufficiency void. It’s wise to be sceptical of heavy capital investment in export processing zones, inherently vulnerable to demand bubbles, but is that really possible in a globalised world? It’s hard to imagine corporations pulling back from cheap labour, or the governments of sweatshop nations turning them away. Export-based economies are often touted as the cure-all investment for third world poverty (think of Bangladesh and post-quake Haiti) and foolish as that may be, until economists put forward a real alternative it seems unlikely to change.

Olivier Blanchard, speaking next, managed to charm with his five take-away lessons to be learned from the crisis: 1. Humility (economists got it wrong); 2. The importance of detail (the minutia of financial systems matter); 3. Interconnectedness (the world is one big economic family); 4. Macroprudential reform (better risk management) 5. The re-examination of central banking (how free should they be to set their own rates?).

Such decent and technical points will surely keep the generation of future economists filling the seats beside me busy – but the most important sting was the first. Blanchard spoke eloquently on the myth of progress (some people already knew) and the myriad problems associated with a rhetoric of upward ascension. It is true and terrifying that economists often forget we aren’t just getting better and better at doing things – and that history often repeats itself.

General conclusions drawn by all were that the crisis will force a reconstruction of macroeconomics and redefine the role of central banks. Though none seemed keen to embrace the policies of frugality (and implicitly backed a Keynesian approached to recovery), the evening lacked the damning tone towards austerity which would have pleased many listeners.

It was left to a nasal Larry Summers to do most of the plain talking; speaking in lofty, maple syrup-coated sentences. While the panel debated how they would each reconstruct macroeconomics, Summers chipped in:

I think there’s a central question: do we define macroeconomics as being about... cyclical fluctuations around something that was determined someplace else, where the goal – if you were successful – was to reduce their amplitude, or as tragic accidents where millions more are unemployed at costs of trillions of dollars that are avoidable with more satisfactory economic arrangements?

Until we adopt the second vision I think we are missing our principal opportunity to achieve human betterment. And as long as this question is conceptualised as ‘what new friction should we insert into the existing model’ I don’t think we’re gonna get to the kind of perspective that I’m advocating.

Economics is perhaps the eeriest of sciences: a lingering, omnipresent force without big bangs or supernovas or medical breakthroughs, but rather a complex and continually shifting clockwork that occasional implodes and shakes the world to its foundation.

For all but the economically adroit (I include myself with the amateurs), a lecture such as this haemorrhages hope like a picked scab. The distance between the policy makers and the people, from their academic language to their casual in-jokes and lack of clear solutions, is troubling. Should it have been a grave affair? Perhaps not, but it would be nice to see someone look a little scared. Down here in the audience, things don’t feel so relaxed.

To hear a podcast or to watch a video of this lecture click here.

US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaking at the LSE on 25 March, 2013. (Photo: Getty Images)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Young voters lost the referendum but they still deserve a future

It's time to stop sneering at "crap towns" and turn them into places young people want to stay. 

What a horror show. A land-slide 75 per cent of young people voted in favour of Europe. The greater numbers of the over 65s met that force with 61 per cent against. Possibly the greatest divide in our country turned out to be not gender, not race, not even party politics, but age. The old and the young faced off about how to run our country, and the young lost. 
 
What have we done to our future? Well, whatever happens now, leadership is required. We can’t afford to have the terms of the debate dictated by Brexiters who looked as shocked at the mess they have made as Stronger-Inners are distraught. We can’t afford to wallow either. Young people across this country today are feeling worried and let down – failed by all of us - because when their future was on the line, we were unable to secure it. We – those who believe we achieve more by our common endeavour - all feel that deep worry, and all share in that shame.

How we should all rue the choice not to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote. And quickly re-ignite the campaign for votes at 16.

But young people don’t need our worry or our pity or our shame. They need a better chance and we need to give them one. I believe passionately that the future for this country was as a leader in Europe, but that does not mean we give up on our future now. For Labour, the challenge now is to work out how we can build a better future for all our people and communities. The sky has not fallen. The UK is still a rich country.

Beat recession with better housing

Let’s start with housing and development. It is no longer good enough to simply set targets with no possibility of meeting them. The housing crunch has killed off the chance of owning a home for many young people, and left thousands at the mercy of cripplingly expensive rent.  The housing market is broken and we need to build much faster in high growth areas like London and Manchester at the same time investing in restoring low quality housing in our northern towns, in Scotland, Wales and in Northern Ireland. 

In policy terms, we should be asking the Local Government Association, the Infrastructure Commission, and the construction industry itself, to collaborate on a counter-Brexit house building plan with a focus on areas where there is a clear market failure. We could get a champion of industry and construction such as my old Network Rail boss, Sir John Armitt, to be in charge, and lead a national mission to build and rebuild homes.

In the last parliament, Osborne first tried the "tighten our belts" approach to speeding up growth. He failed, and then tried plan B: investment for growth. Now we have the possibility of another recession on the cards and may well need to use investment to stop our economy grinding to a halt. Now - or possibly sooner - would be an excellent time for a national building project like this housing plan.

Stop sneering at "crap towns"

On economic development, it is clear that Labour needs a strategy for giving our northern towns an economic future and linking them up with the modern economy. When cities grow, and towns fall behind, those towns are a breeding ground for frustration. This is not just about cuts, it is about the uneven distribution of the benefits of globalisation. The Brexit vote was centred around areas that justifiably feel they have lost from the last decades. We need to make sure they win from the years ahead.

For far too long, there has been a sneering "crap towns" attitude. These places can offer good housing, community, and a decent life. But the problem there is work. In many of our towns, there is too little to do that can offer a young person a career tomorrow as well as a shift today.

Because, as it happens, the biggest driver of low pay tends to be skill level, not immigration. 

Teach the skills we need

Of course we should stop exploitation of migrant workers who undercut others. Let's tell firms that use exploitative agencies they can't work for the Government. But you can’t raise wages without changing the structure of the labour market. It’s not just about replacing one set of workers with another - you have to raise the level of wages that those workers can command. Because the truth about work in too many places is that most of the jobs available are either those with the low status of care work (though it may be highly-skilled work), or industries with a high volume of low-skilled work such as retail and hospitality. But from there, there’s nothing to move on to. The brain drain to cities has consequences.

Leaving Europe will shut off economic opportunity across the country to many young people.  Frankly, we owe it to them to work like demons to offer them something better closer to home.

We need a social partnership for skills and work. The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress working together to deliver an urgent plan for training and career progression in the towns with stagnant labour markets and low skills. We need to find a way to stop the brain drain that sucks the talent out of the places that need it the most, using the experience of programmes like Teach First. When the best people feel they have no reason to return to where they grow up, it is both a sign of a deep problem and also demoralising evidence of decline for those left behind.

And our new metro-mayors must pay as much attention to the towns in their region as well as the city centre. No one left out, no one’s local shops lying empty whilst a city down the road flourishes. And no schools failing, either.

It is undeniable that people voted for change in the referendum. The problem is that the change they voted for will do little to solve the problems they face. Labour’s role is not just to point this out, but to offer a vision of real meaningful change. 

Not easy, perhaps. But one thing is for certain, mouthing platitudes about "hearing concerns"and offering only symbolic gestures has been tested to destruction. People deserve better and we need to offer it to them.

Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.