Archive for September, 2008

risk aversion

18Sep08

Tweet This term is being bandied about a lot at the moment. It has a formal definition in the literature. But in extreme environments — and we are in one now, economically speaking — behaviours that speak of the big risk-taker may be misleading. I came across the following in Finance Director Europe by risk […]

Tweet OK, now that we have the demise of Lehman, Merrill and AIG, and with HBOS teetering on the brink (and remembering that we don’t do anniversaries here), let it be noted that it’s just over a year since Northern Rock collapsed, and it’s also a year to the day since I coined the phrase […]

I think I’ve gone on before about the emotional and physiological effects that exceptional, unexpected events can have on people: an icy-cold sinking feeling of eviscerated powerlessness, for starters.  Such feelings must be especially intense for those who exercise significant power and yet meet more than their match when a complex system turns against them.

Financial markets and wars represent the most severe tests for politicians, who can probably feel pretty satisfied with themselves on a day-to-day basis that some part of the world appears (at least) to dance to their tune. But today, on BBC Radio 4′s Broadcasting House programme, veteran political journalist Michael Cockerell, in partnership with presenter Paddy O’Connell, provided some long overdue insights into those limits of power by joining the dots between the current financial crisis surrounding the Brown government/Chancellor Alastair Darling and previous occasions when proud governments have been forced through the mincer.  There are some real insights here for fans of Gordonfreude.

Cockerell has interviewed eight British prime ministers, so is fairly unusual among current working journalists.  Today’s 15-minute segment (about 32 minutes into the programme found here on iPlayer: podcast version here) is definitely worth your while clicking through to. It’s also the first time I’ve seen news media challenge the orthodoxy (apparently accepted by most journalism) that the economic problems now facing the UK are mostly a function of external events.  Cockerell observes an historical pattern.

For a long time  it has been very convenient in Labour mythology to blame the international speculators, ‘the banker’s ramp’, as it was called.

But perhaps more interesting are the personal recollections of Labour Chancellors Jim Callaghan, Denis Healey, and Tory Norman Lamont of a collapse in the pound.  This following reflection is from John Major, the then Prime Minister, on Lamont’s demeanour the day sterling was ejected from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM):-

Norman Lamont came in and he was pretty white-faced and edgy, as well he might have been, and he said ‘It hasn’t worked’ by which he meant the intervention and the two-per-cent interest rise. ‘It hasn’t worked, and they’re still selling.’

The starkest warning for politicians about that experience comes though from Kenneth Clarke, the last Tory chancellor before the current Labour government, and a cabinet member on that Black Wednesday.

We were powerless in the face of events.  I think I had always believed theoretically in the power of markets but I’d never seen such a dramatic illustration–felt such a dramatic illustration–that the Prime Minster, the Chancellor, leading members of the government were utterly out of control of events and the markets were going to devalue the pound.”

For the diligent who care to listen to the end, there’s a good line about King Canute.

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Tweet If you’re in London and interested in decision making, decide to be free the evening of September 23rd. Gerd Gigerenzer, one of the world’s leading heuristics gurus and Director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, will be opening the season at the […]


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