Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Gillian Tett on the causes of the financial crisis

I took a detour from my usual intellectual pursuits at lunchtime yesterday and wandered over to my former workplace at CEPS, to hear the Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett talk about her book, Fool's Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe. I was CEPS' researcher on Balkan issues when I was there in 1999-2002, but its strongest area is on the economic side, and although I don't know the field I always suspected that Karel Lannoo, the chief executive, had carved out a commanding position in the world of intellectual analysis of how capital markets function and should be regulated.

Gillian Tett, given the task of summarising her 350-page book in 20 minutes, presented it as effectively an anthropological study of the small tribe of bankers at J.P. Morgan who invented the credit default swap, in the blind faith that the three deities of globalisation, innovation and market capitalism were infallible. (She mentioned her own much earlier anthropological field work in a village in Tadzkhikistan before she became a journalist.) The book is also an attempt to overcome what she described as the "information asymmetry" between the inside and the outside of the banking industry, where the technicalities of what was going on were too complex (or at least were presented as being too complex) for regulators, let alone politicians, to understand. This asymmetry happens within institutions as well; she feels that we should not describe banks as "too big to fail" but should ask if they are in fact "too big to manage".

I found myself very sympathetic to both of these general points. I have remarked before that although I work in politics, I find that it is anthropology, rather than political science, which gives me much better insights into what I am doing and more useful ideas about what to do next (see several books on Cyprus, also this one.) It seems to supply a set of analytical tools which are operationally more useful, some of which I was fortunate enough to absorb when doing my PhD in the Social Anthropology department at QUB (though my subject was rather different). I am also fascinated by what Tett calls "information asymmetry"; my job at the moment is effectively ensuring that sensitive information reaches the information-poor in time to affect sensitive political decisions, which is a fascinating process; the role of information poverty in political decision-making doesn't often get taken into account by IR analysts who assume that all actors have access to much the same set of facts. (The two sets of issues are more or less combined in the Haas concept of the epistemic community.)

The discussion afterwards was pretty high-powered - those who spoke included Ireland's Permanent Representative to the EU, the top official of the Commission's Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs, and the number two in the Internal Market and Services Directorate General - so I sat back and kept my mouth shut. At CEPS the discussion part of the meetings isusually off the record, but you won't be surprised that it was more about debating (and failing to agree on) policy solutions rather than challenging Tett's basic assumptions or intellectual framework.

It's an interesting subject, I also had an interest in attending in that the author and I were exact conteporaries at Clare College, from which we graduated twenty years ago last week. In our first year, she lived on the same staircase as three future CUSFS committee members, nickbarnes, deborah_c and myself. We have all changed in the meantime, but she did catch my eye when telling a Star Trek joke as part of her presentation...
Tags: anthropology, cantab
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