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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.