Matters of Belief

People are, and have always been, able to persuade themselves to believe the weirdest things. If a theory is not testable then it is either rejected or it becomes a matter of belief, which people can be readily persuaded to accept and even proclaim with varying degrees of conviction. Economic theory is by no means unique in this.

A hundred years ago, there being no tv, cinema or even radio, people tended to socialise mostly face to face with real people. And even in godless England, much of that interaction was within the context of the Christian church. Children attended Sunday school, went on Sunday school treats and outings, and in due course were confirmed as church members and regularly attended its services. That was where girls and boys very often met up. In the absence of mass hi-tech entertainments, they joined church youth clubs, played sports for church teams, contributed to church concert parties and drama societies, participating in, and being entertained by, their various amateur productions. As a consequence they were imbued with a set of values which were essentially benign and had some influence over how people behaved to each other. Fairness, honesty and generosity were at the core of those values and were publicly proclaimed, far beyond the church, as the acceptable way to behave. It didn’t mean people believed all the detail the churches promulgated. They didn’t have to. Christian doctrine was a matter for theologians. The mass of people were not overly exercised about the details of belief.

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The Real Rogue Traders

Kweku Adoboli lost some $2.3bn for his employer, Swiss bank UBS. A couple of years ago Jérôme Kerviel lost over $6.5bn for Société Générale, while a dozen years back, Nick Leeson cost Barings $1.3bn and their independent existence. In all, around $10bn of losses were accrued by these three nice young men who were no doubt the pride of their parents. $10bn may seem a lot, but it’s less than a billion a year – a small price to pay for the continued freedom from regulation which enables investment banks to continue their rogue trading, which is hugely profitable for them, even if it costs the rest of us an arm and a leg.

One of the recent articles on Adoboli’s exploits, suggested that banks had failed to learn lessons and had not controlled individual traders effectively. Another suggested that securities had grown in complexity making it difficult to assess the trading risks involved. The internal risk controls within UBS were said to be obviously inadequate. The same was said about Baring’s in its day. But UBS, Société Générale and Barings, seem pretty typical members of the investment banking community. UBS may have differed slightly in requiring its female employees to wear flesh coloured underwear, but otherwise they seem fairly normal. The lack of risk control in investment banking must be endemic.
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Neoclassical Endogenous Growth and a 50% Tax Rate

Former UK Chancellor Alistair Darling’s memoir describes Gordon Brown’s approach as ‘a shambles’. As illustration, the much quoted description of a speech by the former Prime Minister about “neoclassical endogenous growth theory”. Brown started before the speech was fully written, so that part way through delivery, “a hand appeared from behind a curtain and handed him the rest of the speech.” It may sound pretty shambolic, but much more important than that: what was Gordon Brown doing talking about neoclassical endogenous growth theory in the first place? He was shadow chancellor at the time, not some first year economics undergraduate. It’s an example of what Keynes described as the “madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

In this regard at least, Gordon Brown was far from unique. Politicians, bankers and business people tend to retain a residual belief in the academic ideology they learned at university and business school. When it’s relevant they seem likely to act according to its dictates, and to be eloquent in its defence, no matter how obviously stupid it appears to be. Thus the current debate about retention of the 50% tax rate for those earning over £150,000 pa.
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Ring-fencing or Separating Banking Activities

The Independent Commission on Banking (ICB) is expected, when it reports next Monday, to recommend ring-fencing investment banking (the speculative ‘casino’ activities) from the traditional bank role supporting the real economy. The aim of ring-fencing is said to be to ensure the government never again has to use tax payers’ money to bail out the banks when their speculations go wrong.

However, ring-fencing is a hugely ambiguous concept. No doubt the ICB will deliberate at length on its chosen interpretation. But why bother? If the aim is to insulate traditional banking from the high risk, high return speculation, why ring-fence? Why not separate the two completely, as they were prior to deregulation? Then, if the ‘casino’ banks create a bubble that bursts, they can be allowed to go to the wall with a more limited impact on the real economy. But the bankers wouldn’t like it.
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