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The City of London is a huge drag on the UK’s real economy. But we can – and must – lift the ‘Finance Curse’.

Image: City of London skyline. Credit: David Iliff, CC 3.0

In the decade since the financial crisis something has gone badly and
obviously wrong with the UK’s political economy. Stagnating wages, low
productivity and rising living costs have marked Britain out as an outlier in the
developed world. Yet its globalised financial sector continues to generate
lavish fees and windfall gains for a brilliant few. Now however, some sense of
the downside of hosting an overactive financial sector is becoming clearer. The
vigour of finance derives precisely from its ability to capture resources from
the rest of the economy. Even as the host sickens, the City of London glows
with unearthly health. The proposition that Britain suffers from a financial
curse needs to be taken seriously.

Over the next two years in a series
of short articles addressing the theme of Lifting the Finance Curse, we
will investigate in more detail the costs of accommodating an oversized,
rent-seeking financial sector. We will also set out how to alleviate and reduce
this drag on the economy. We begin by setting out what we mean by a finance
curse, and how to take the first steps to tackle it, by framing it as a problem
of political economy. In other words, a problem of the way that politics and
economics in Britain combine to promote the interests of favoured insiders.

The finance curse is a set of
processes that take root in countries that become over dependent on finance.
This is a financial version of the resource curse, which
blights some developing countries, with the role of the dominant mineral sector
taken by global, or offshore financial centres and oversized, over-prioritised
financial sectors.

It involves the crowding out of
other sectors, damaged economic diversity and macroeconomic performance, and geographical
patterns of over- and under-development. These all spill over to entrench
social division and skew policy orientation and political power. Nick Shaxson’s
recent book, The Finance Curse: How Global Finance is Making Us All Poorer
is the first attempt to describe this process in a systematic way for general
readers. This series looks to build out from Nick’s work; to develop proposals
for reform in the UK context, and to look at how this would be politically
workable, in terms of the constituencies and coalitions it would appeal to.

In our recent analysis
at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute
, we set out to
calculate the macroeconomic costs of lost growth potential resulting from the
UK’s oversized financial sector, by constructing counterfactual growth
pathways, based on growth performance without the 2008 financial crisis, but
also from regression formulas derived from a literature known as ‘too much
. This literature shows that once credit goes beyond 100% of GDP
it starts to impede growth performance. When two of the co-authors of that
research conducted a similar calculation for the United
, the biggest contribution to the overall price tag was the
calculation for the cost of the 2008 crisis. For the UK however, almost 60% of
the figure was accounted for by a category known in the literature as
‘misallocation’, or more precisely, how big and overly dominant finance acts to
crowd out and harm other sectors.

Our headline figure of £4.5
trillion, indicating the UK economy is cumulatively 14% smaller than it could
have been over the period 1995 to 2015, has drawn a lot of attention. In truth,
this is an estimation or a guide which focuses attention and minds on the fact
that something dysfunctional is at work in the UK economy. What really matters is
the story behind these numbers. It is this that we intend to document and cover
more fully over the coming months.

The finance curse provides a
framework for exploring and understanding a range of symptoms and processes,
and can therefore inform what policy makers should look for and remain vigilant
of, and where they should target remedial and preventative action. Seven
finance curse symptoms warrant further consideration.

1) A financial version of Dutch disease.

inflows inflate the exchange rate and create other local price distortions
(property) so that alternative export sectors find it harder to compete
internationally. A range of influential commentators from Paul
to Mervyn King and Ashoka
(formerly of the IMF) have identified this as being prevalent
in the UK.

Financial sector
rewards and compensation packages draw talents and skills away from higher
productivity sectors.

We have seen
above how relatively low amounts of finance in the UK go to corporate and
export sectors. Risk models often favour high collateral, low productivity
such as property and other financial assets. When
financial firms take positions in predominantly non-financial firms they can
demand high short-term returns and restructuring that can damage long-term
productivity (rent extraction). Having a large financial sector with a vast
range of advisors, brokers and assets and can also as a magnetic attraction to
pools of investable funds.

4) Systemic risk, volatility and financial crisis.

Research shows
that a high credit to GDP ratio
increases the risk of financial crisis, which ordinarily are much more
in terms of the resulting recessions than usual business
cycles are, and this is explicitly recognised in Basel III.

5) Geographical distortions.

Large financial
centres and clusters can suck human and financial capital, creating over-development,
property and housing distortions, space limitations, overcrowding and infrastructure
pressures, while other areas suffer from underdevelopment.

6) Rising inequality and social segregation.

A reliance on a
big financial sector brings vast rewards for some, but low paid, low skilled,
causal work for others, leading to a reliance on credit to support living
standards, further diminishing disposable income, restricted access to home
ownership. and fluctuations in demand. Communities and living spaces can
effectively become segregated and gated.

7) Concentrations of political power and a narrowing of political agendas.

The lobbying
of the City of London and its
informal linkages to elements of the British state
is well
documented. Public debates around finance narrow, so that more is always
presumed to be better and integral
to the national interest
, even in the face of contrary evidence.
Does a country’s political culture and processes support vigilant scrutiny and
oversight of financial sector activities, or is there a political silence on
the potential downsides of a large financial sector, and is a country’s
development trajectory being designed around the needs of the financial sector?
How does the existence of vast financial sector shape the mentality of
politicians and public officials?

Obviously, these
symptoms and their salience in the UK will vary across time. Some will be more
pronounced than others, and some may be barely evident at all. But as a frame,
this range of interconnected factors gives us a sense of what we need
legislators and regulators to be wary of. It can also help to transform the
public debate and the collective mindset about finance and its social purpose.
By collecting evidence on all of these features, we can start to build a
picture of what a programme of action to lift the finance curse might look
like. That evidence and the related programme of action will be laid out in a
forthcoming series of Open Democracy articles.


[1] ....[2]The Natural Resource Curse: A Survey ....[3]New SPERI report: The UK’s Finance Curse? Costs and Processes | SPERI ....[4] ....[5] ....[6]Overcharged: The High Cost of High Finance - Roosevelt Institute ....[7]Financial Times ....[8]Notes on Brexit and the Pound - The New York Times ....[9] ....[10] ....[11] ....[12] ....[13]Countercyclical capital buffer (CCyB) ....[14]interest ecology of financial regulation: interest group plurality in the design of financial regulatory policies | Socio-Economic Review | Oxford Academic ....[15] ....[16]Simon Johnson: The Quiet Coup - The Atlantic ....[17] ....