DannyQuah

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Tag Archives: UK

A globalised renminbi can transform both China and London

[Reprinted with permission from the Financial Times 18 Oct 2013 (EnglishChinese)]

The Chinese will see how the lifting of controls is linked to economic success.

This week George Osborne announced steps to make London a global trading hub for China’s currency. If the internationalisation of the renminbi proceeds and the chancellor of the exchequer’s plan succeeds, London will – so it is hoped – again flourish as a leading financial centre. The nature of that flourishing could well differ from what we saw before 2008, but the prosperity will feel the same. Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? That depends on a number of considerations. Will it be a good thing? Almost surely.

via http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/City_of_London_at_night.jpg

City of London at night (via Wikimedia.org Commons)

Too often, when observers say renminbi internationalisation will never happen, what they mean is they cannot imagine the renminbi – with less than 3 per cent share of world official currency reserves – undermining the exorbitant privilege enjoyed by the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

But neither internationalisation of China’s currency nor London’s benefiting from it require that to happen. These are both relatively modest undertakings. They hinge on just one thing: the currency simply has to become a force in global currency markets.

True, this will require renminbi use in the financial markets to exceed single-digit shares. By how much? Well, to paraphrase singer Miley Cyrus, no one’s got that memo yet. But already the renminbi’s share is rising on pretty much all measures of world currency use. That is what matters.
To understand whether this will continue, we need to think about the risks and opportunities that arise from world markets accepting the renminbi more widely.

Even without full official convertibility, the currency is already significant. Full convertibility could occur overnight by fiat if the Chinese authorities thought the moment propitious.

Confidence and trust in China’s management of the renminbi are higher than in US management of the dollar or European Central Bank management of the euro. The supposed absence in China of market transparency, government flexibility and the rule of law have little bearing on acceptance of its currency. Only perceptions of risk and return matter – and government dysfunction in the US is doing everything possible to convince the world that dollar risk is significant.

China has a population about four times that of the US and an economy only half its size. It trades as much with the rest of the world as the US does. And the potential for continued economic growth remains strong. There are problems but also solutions. China invests more than many observers think reasonable but its western regions remain poorer than significant parts of Africa, and its capital stock and infrastructure per worker remain low. It no longer has a particularly young workforce – but its 340m elderly people quietly doing tai chi in the park will make for a more stable society than a similar number of young men with poor job prospects. Yes, there is a “middle-income trap” in the developing world, but all the countries that have found sensible ways to escape it had characteristics exactly like China has today.

Since 1980, the nation has steadily pulled the world’s economic centre from west of London to east of the Mediterranean. Through all this, the city’s position as a place worthy of confidence and trust, as an intellectual and cultural centre and a hub for learning and higher education, has remained constant. But, given the shift in global economic performance, it is an anomaly that the renminbi is not yet a significant force in world currency markets: the pressure for it to become one is strong.

Beijing knows it. It has warmed to the idea of making London a renminbi global trading hub. It has also established the Shanghai free-trade zone, where international finance is carried out under liberal global rules, which has the notable support of Premier Li Keqiang.

The Shanghai free-trade zone promises to do for China and global finance what the Shenzhen special economic zone did for China and the global manufacturing supply chain. The rest of the country will see how closely entwined are modern economic success and the lifting of controls on information flows, as well as currency flows – in Shanghai, in London. That will be significant, not just for London’s prosperity but also for pointing to how China itself will change.

[This was first published 18 October 2013 in the Financial Times (English, Chinese)].

UK austerity and growth: Winter is coming

Policy debate in the current recession is often portrayed to be an irreconcilable political battle, pitting those pushing austerity against those advocating growth.  Indeed, substantive real differences do separate groups having different views on what different policies can achieve.  But, equally, uncertainty on the state of the economy clouds judgment on what appropriate policies should be, especially so in times of economic crisis.  This article examines that uncertainty.  By studying one example — UK policy options at the beginning of 2010 — it argues we need to understand better the implications of different measurements on an economy.

“You’re for me or against me. Choose.”

No one wants to live in a stagnant economy. Even those who don’t believe higher incomes make people happier can’t bear to see their honest, hardworking neighbours unable to make monthly rent or mortgage payment, or having to choose uncomfortably between new clothes and shoes for the kids or food for the table.  No one wants to see masses of unemployed on the streets.  Everyone is for growth.

But, at the same time, even the most diehard pro-growth proponents must acknowledge that government efforts to further  increase growth cannot always be appropriate.  If an economy were already close to full employment or were in any other way overheated, then it is right for fiscal and monetary stimulus to withdraw.  Raising tax revenues and lowering government spending — putting the government’s finances to order and restoring to health the nation’s balance sheets — all have a place in sensible, responsible policy-making.

Standing for growth does not mean constant and unwavering support for always high government spending and expansionary monetary policy.  By the same token, backing policies to lower debt and deficits does not mean wanting economic life to be wretched.  Even when the final goal is the same — to have a healthy, prosperous, inclusive economy — depending on circumstances there is a time and place for different approaches to government policy.

A debate on UK growth versus austerity is on one level a debate about what policy transmission mechanisms are most effective for bringing about long-run sustainable economic growth:  People disagree about what works.  But equally important the debate is one about the current state of the economy. Only after the fact will it become obvious what the right policy actions should have been.  Moreover, because of lags in their effectiveness, policy actions need to anticipate:  Will expansionary effects kick in only after the bottom of the economic cycle has already passed, and thus overheat an already healthy economy?

Many observers have firm views, conditioned by sound economic analysis, on the first of these issues, what appropriate growth and austerity policies are.  It strikes me, however, that the second matters much more in extraordinary situations: in those circumstances, knowledge of the current state of the economy necessarily carries far greater uncertainty.  Generally, the range of economic statistics to look at is broad and constantly changing.  External circumstances in a shifting world economy will confound historical regularities.  Economics education in every institution makes students understand mechanisms of how policies affect an economy, but hardly anywhere is there training on how to assess rigorously the state of an economy.  That latter is merely “monitoring”.  Perhaps accurately judging the state of the economy is impossible — but that doesn’t mean zero understanding is where one should stay.

Policy recommendations in a shifting world economy

That this is important is usefully emphasised by looking over a recent turn of events.  In February 2010 twenty economists signed a letter to London’s  Sunday Times supporting a plan to lower steadily the UK structural budget deficit, starting as early as the 2010/11 fiscal year.  (For transparency, I should say here I was one of those 20.)  The letter suggested that failure to do so could, among other things, raise interest rates and undermine UK recovery, given how the economy had entered the recession with a large structural budget deficit.  Not unexpectedly, this proposal was not uniformly accepted, and many distinguished economists suggested instead that such a policy was potentially risky and that the first priority had to be to restore robust growth.  But to bring about growth was never a point of dispute.  So, it might be useful now to look back and assess the balance of risks then extant.

On the one hand, for some observers, there has never been any doubt: “the UK had a depressed economy then, and it still does now.”  (Indeed, that particular writer upon reading that in August 2012 some of the original group of twenty had changed their minds expressed disappointment “to see so many of the prodigal economists asserting that they were responding to changed circumstances rather than admitting that they simply got it wrong.  For circumstances really haven’t changed [...].”  (Again, for transparency, I was one of those reported to have changed my mind, and indeed I was reported to have emphasized changed circumstances.)

Did circumstances really remain fixed, and were they really so transparent? Complicating the picture:  Statistics on recessions become available only with a fixed delay — to be in recession, an economy has to have had negative GDP growth over two successive quarters.   So, to be in a double dip recession, well, it’s not enough just to announce one’s beliefs, the data have to come out just so.

What did the world look like in early 2010?

Things look really bad: Major recession

In September 2008, Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy.  In January 2009 the IMF had predicted world growth would fall to 0.5% for the year ahead, only three months later to revise the figure significantly downwards to -1.3%.  The World Bank had forecast in March that the world economy would contract by an even larger  1.7% in 2009:  This would be the first decline in world GDP since the Second World War.  The International Labour Organization estimated that 51mn jobs would be destroyed in 2009, raising world unemployment to 7.1%.  Growth in China had fallen from 9% in 2008 to an annual rate of 6.1% in the first quarter of 2009, the lowest recorded figure since 1992.  Between July 2007 and November 2008 world stock markets had lost US$26.4 trillion in value, more than half of world annual GDP.  In April 2009, Olivier Blanchard, the IMF’s Chief Economist, had written “the crisis appears to be entering yet a new phase, in which a drop in confidence is leading to a drop in demand, and a major recession.”  The UK had been officially in recession mid-2008, with the last two quarters of 2008 suffering declines in GDP.

Things looked grim.

The return to growth?

By the beginning of 2010, the UK recession was already 18 months in train.  In this modern era, advanced economies (like the US) have only had short sharp downturns: the 11 US recessions since 1945 averaged only 11 months in duration, with the four recessions between 1980 and 2001 lasting 6, 16, and then 8 months twice, respectively.  By 2007, the UK had gone 15 years since the end of its last recession, one that lasted just 15 months.  Of course, with hindsight, we now know it is well possible for slumps anywhere in the world to drag on, but set against both the UK’s own experience and against a broader history (that of advanced economies, like the US, towards which the UK had progressively become more similar), it was not unreasonable to think by early 2010 that the UK was about ready to grow again.

No one would have reckoned in early 2010 that the global economy had regained robust health.  But, equally, was it apparent the international situation was dismal?  By the first quarter of 2009, Brazil was reported to be no longer in recession, having grown 2% after the two previous quarters of GDP declines.  The OECD forecast the Eurozone and the US would show positive growth in the last six months of 2009.

Back on track:  Asia’s recovery by mid 2009

Back on track: By mid 2009 Asia’s industrial producation had recovered not just to pre-crisis levels but to its pre-2008 growth trend.

Early 2010 was six months past when incomes in China and the rest of emerging Asia had already recovered.  Industrial production was not just back to pre-2008 heights, but to its extrapolated pre-2008 growth trend.  The second quarter of 2009 saw a string of astounding figures from across Asia: all at annual rates, the South Korean economy grew by 2.3%, its fastest expansion in over five years; the Chinese economy grew 7.9%; the Malaysian economy expanded by 4.8%; the Thai economy grew 2.3%; both Japan and Hong Kong were showing rising incomes again, after four successive quarters of GDP declines.  Singapore announced its emergence from recession, big-time, with annualized GDP growth of 20% that quarter.

Sure, China’s government had announced in November 2008 a US$600bn (CNY4,000bn) fiscal stimulus package: that by itself was impressive enough, but also most observers at the time believed growth in export-oriented China and Asia occurred primarily from Western demand. The East was growing again.  Surely the West must be demanding.  It was natural to think that, somewhere somehow, the West must have recovered.

Stimulus is an aircraft carrier

That “somewhere, somehow” was not unreasonable to hypothesize in the slew of policy actions undertaken in all the world’s major economies between late 2007 and early 2010.  In September 2008 the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of Canada, and the Swiss National Bank, in concert, added US$180bn of liquidity to international money money markets.  By November 2008, in the space of just four months, the US Federal Reserve had pumped US$592bn into the US$ monetary base, increasing that monetary base by 70%.  In October 2008, US lawmakers approved a US$700bn rescue package to purchase bad debt from US banks; the UK government unveiled a reform package. amounting to £400bn (i.e., again US$700bn) to provide funds to UK financial institutions; the Japanese government announced a US$270bn fiscal stimulus package targeted at families and small businesses.  The following month saw China’s fiscal stimulus of US$600bn (already-mentioned) and the European Commission’s US$260bn recovery plan.  Further add into the mix Japan’s April 2009 stimulus package of US$98.5bn or 2% of that country’s GDP, and we’re talking significant fiscal stimulus in all the world’s major economies.

It wasn’t all just fiscal expansion either.  From a value of 6.25% in early August 2007, the US Federal Reserve discount rate was reduced to 5.75% later that month, to 4.75% the month after, and then again to 4.5% the month after that.  In January 2008 the Fed cut interest rates by 0.75 percentage points, the largest single reduction in over a quarter of a century.  In October 2008, just one month after their concerted action on international money market liquidity, six of the world’s most important central banks coordinated a simultaneous interest rate reduction of 0.5 percentage points.  By the end of October, the US Federal Reserve had again slashed interest rates, this time down to 1%, the lowest level since 2004.  The following month, the European Central Bank cut interest rates by 0.75 percentage points, its largest ever single reduction; Sweden’s Riksbank, by a record 1.75 percentage points; the Bank of Korea by a record 1 percentage point; the Bank of Canada lowered its benchmark rate to 1.5%, the lowest since 1958.  In December, the US Federal Reserve’s discount rate had gotten down to between 0 and 0.25%; Japan’s, 0.1%; China cut interest rates for the fifth time in four months.  The following month, January 2009, the Bank of England reduced its interest rate to 1.5%, the lowest setting in over 300 years of the Bank’s operation.

Monetary stimulus had by then become not just a matter of reducing interest rates.  After all, interest rates were already effectively zero.  In November 2008, the US Federal Reserve injected US$800bn into the economy, buying US$600bn of mortgage-backed securities and applying the remainder to unclog consumer credit channels.  The Bank of England similarly engaged in quantitative easing, buying securities with newly-printed money (£75bn in March 2008, and then £50bn in May and then again in August 2009) to reach a total outlay of £175bn (US$294bn) by the end of 2009.  The European Central Bank, in June 2009, pumped US$628bn in one-year loans into the Eurozone’s banking system.

In the current Eurozone crisis, one hears talk of the troika (the European Central Bank, the European Union, and the IMF) taking a bazooka to the sovereign debt problem.  If so, the collection of 2008-2009 policy actions might seem more akin to sending in an entire aircraft carrier.

The second quarter of 2009 recorded the official end of recessions not just in the East, as described earlier, but also in the two largest Eurozone economies France and Germany, both seeing positive growth again after four consecutive quarters of GDP declines.  Financial institutions reported profits:  notably Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase (profits up 36% from the previous year), Deutsche Bank (up 67% over the same period in 2008), Barclays, RBS, Italy’s largest bank UniCredito, and the Dutch financial services group ING.  By September 2009, the FTSE 100 had again breached the 5,000-point threshold, recovering completely all losses since October 2008.

Time to get ahead of the curve

Arrayed against this monetary and fiscal stimulus worldwide and the evidence of the world economy already growing again (admittedly most strongly in the East), one might conclude that policy-makers ought now cast a cautious eye on government balance sheets.

But that choice for the UK still remained in delicate balance.  In September 2009 the OECD had forecast the UK would be the only G7 economy still to be in recession by year-end, with both the US and the Eurozone predicted to show two quarters of consecutive growth.  Three months earlier, the OECD had suggested the pace of decline among its members was slowing and that the world economy had nearly reached the bottom of its worst post-War recession, but that the UK would continue to show zero growth in 2010. In July 2009 NIESR predicted that UK GDP per capita would not recover pre-recession levels until early 2014.

Effects of policies often only emerge with a lag.  And, generally, government policy-making errs too often by not getting ahead of the curve.  On top of all that, the UK is a small open economy, and its debt and output markets are strongly influenced by international developments.  Was 2010 the right time to start restoring the UK government’s balance sheet?

2010 EU Debts and Deficits

The UK’s debt/GDP ratio was in line with the largest Eurozone economies and therefore larger than Spain’s; its deficit/GDP ratio was worse than all except Ireland’s.

By July 2009, UK government debt had risen to 57% of GDP, the highest ratio since 1974.  That month, the UK’s public sector net borrowing showed its first July deficit in 13 years.  Earlier in the year, Spain had become the first AAA-rated sovereign nation to have its credit rating downgraded since Japan in 2001.  In December 2009, Greece acknowledged sovereign debt exceeding €300bn (US$423bn), the highest in modern history, resulting in a debt/GDP ratio of 113%, nearly double the Eurozone limit.  The chart shows the UK in 2010 right among the pack of the largest European economies (the size of each ball indicates total GDP) in its debt/GDP ratio, i.e., larger than Spain’s, but with a worse deficit/GDP position than all except Ireland.

In February 2010, it didn’t take a lot of imagination to see how, all else equal, UK government borrowing could easily have become just as expensive and as difficult as in the most stressed Eurozone economies.

Backing off from austerity

In retrospect, of course, we know the austerity policy did not work in the UK.  A reversal might well be warranted, because circumstances had changed, not because things were the same.

After the first couple months of 2010, the Eurozone economy went into free fall much faster and much further than one might have expected. This had two effects on the UK fiscal position:  on the one hand, UK debt turned out looking, well, not so bad after all relative to comparable advanced TransAtlantic economies. The fear that UK borrowing would become overly costly had become much less relevant.

Germany trades East

Germany has kept growing exports through a shift in their direction of motion.

On the other hand, the continued inability of both sides of the Atlantic to resume economic growth meant a further dramatic drag on UK economic performance. Unlike, say, Germany, the UK has historically consistently exported mostly to the slowest-growing advanced economies, and so this TransAtlantic slowdown has considerably depressed the UK exports and thus the UK economy. [Germany, by contrast, today exports more to Developing Asia than it does to the US.]

So, the international environment has shifted in such a way that the urgency for UK rapid debt reduction has lessened.

The other large factor is how market perception on the stance of UK monetary policy too has shifted. For most observers now, the Bank of England has made clear how it is willing to put even more resources into monetary easing.

Conclusion

What can one conclude from this?  First, policy-making needs to be sensitive to circumstances, and today in the UK, that means international circumstances especially.  Monitoring and assessing the state of the world economy is needed.  Second, expansionary policies need to be more sharply designed.  While austerity might not, under the current circumstances, any longer command the support it once did, pro-growth proponents need to explain things better. Just throwing money at the problem plainly does not work. Obviously, the world’s expansionary policies over 2008-2009 succeeded out East, but they did nothing to revive the UK economy.  Why will they do so now? How will this time be different?

(Also at Global Policy | Roubini Global Economics EconoMonitor | Blog Sina)

Clash at ERC: The UK and the Eurozone in the Shifting Global Economy

The UK’s Economic Research Council invited me to represent LSE in a panel discussion on near-term prospects for the UK economy. Lord Norman Lamont, 1990-1993 Chancellor of the Exchequer, chaired. The other panelists were Prof John Muellbauer from Oxford and Prof Hashem Pesaran from Cambridge. The venue? The Royal Institution of Great Britain’s Faraday Lecture Theatre, where in 1825 the first of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures were delivered.

I argued the following.

First, the economic difficulties in the UK or the Eurozone cannot be usefully analysed without looking at these economies’ positions in the world. Second, the UK and the Eurozone have an immediate problem with debt and an ongoing problem with productivity. It is unlikely that Keynesian aggregate demand management alone will lead to long-run sustained growth.

What are the facts on the UK and the Eurozone in the global economy? Time was, the night-time sky was lit up pretty much just by the Transatlantic Axis.

The Transatlantic axis in the night time sky (via NASA)

The Transatlantic axis in the night time sky (via NASA)

But that was 30 years ago, and the global economy has moved on. By 2010 the world’s economic centre had shifted 5,000 km — three-quarters of the Earth’s radius — from the rise of the east, notably India and China.

World's Economic Centre of Gravity, 1980-2050

The Great Shift East

As a consequence, hundreds of millions of Asians have been lifted out of grinding poverty; soon these people will be the world’s middle income class.

That figure of the Great Shift East takes in grubby calculations with thousands of datapoints. But its point can be appreciated in many different ways, some more vivid than others (e.g., view from the US).

To be clear, not all Europe needs help in the same way. By the summer of 2011, a distinguished US economist had related to me how he and colleagues were surprised by German economic growth out of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis since, while keeping its traditional high-savings habits, Germany had its export markets — the US, the rest of the EU — mired in ongoing recession. Here, however, might be part of how Germany did it:

Evolution of Germany’s export markets

Evolution of Germany’s export markets

The great bulk of German trade remains, naturally, with the rest of the European Union. But the EU is now deep in recession and likely to remain so for some time. Outside the EU? Germany today exports more to Developing Asia than it does to the US. And that gap continues to rise. Exports to China alone already appear as large as those to the US. Part of this obviously stems from US imports sharply falling right after 2008 — but that is exactly my point. China and Developing Asia continued to grow, continued to import from Germany (and elsewhere), and thus continued to keep parts of the global economy afloat throughout both the global financial and European sovereign debt crises.

The Euro-sterling exchange rate

The Euro-sterling exchange rate

This is not just because Germany enjoyed a cheap currency. Despite the weakness of pound sterling against the Euro, the UK has not re-oriented its exports anywhere as successfully as has Germany:

Evolution of UK’s export markets

Evolution of UK’s export markets

What the UK exports to the US remains double UK exports to Developing Asia, and four times UK exports to China. The UK has simply ended up with most of its exports to economies showing no significant demand growth.

Unpack the numbers further by breaking out the UK’s 50 largest trading partners in 2009: the UK had 56% of its exports go to the 10 slowest-growing economies in that group (growth measured 2000-2008). Across these 50, the correlation between exports and growth was -0.32: the UK systematically exported more to those trading partners growing slower.

The problems faced by the UK, or more broadly, by member states across the entire EU, while different in concentration, are no different in character from those in the 2008 Global Financial Crisis: Large entities owe large amounts of debt and are likely unable to pay it all back. Previously, the entities were financial institutions; now they are sovereign states. Quick fixes that seek to get around repaying this debt will undermine institutions of trust and responsibility, those same institutions the West tells emerging economies they must build if they too want to become developed economies.

When the first round of Quantitative Easing (QE1) happened in the US, output there rose — and to a smaller extent elsewhere in the world as well. With QE2, IMF estimates show the impact multipliers everywhere had diminished sharply.

Now? There are those who hope a rescue will come when the ECB unleashes its own QE on Eurozone sovereign debt. Or some optimistically-ingenious scheme involving different-coloured centrally issued Eurobonds, or where the discrimination occurs across member states using some other indicator might work. With luck perhaps. Longer term, some observers look to a fuller-fledged fiscal union, with Germany transferring likely more than 5% of its GDP to the Eurozone’s lesser-performing periphery member states (link: Gavyn Davies, FT, 06 November 2011 ).

But the connection between this re-organization and member states’ fiscal positions cannot be ignored. While all attention now focuses on deficit/debt figures compared to those originally given in the Maastricht Treaty, pretty much totally neglected is the nearly-contemporaneous Copenhagen criteria for EU accession. That list includes — after requiring member states be democracies that obey the rule of law, respect human rights, and protect minorities — the statement that candidate member states need to be market economies able to deal with “competitive pressure and market forces within the Union”.

I’m sorry but I don’t think receiving a perpetual 5% German GDP transfer strong evidence for that capability. (And this is just for EU accession, not even for Eurozone membership.)

Monetary or other financial rescues are short-term; we need them the same way we need to kickstart an engine. But if that engine is worn out or is leaking fuel or in need of a complete overhaul, I don’t see how we are going to get very far with that machine. We can’t mistake a short-term boom fueled by exigent government actions for sustained long-term growth. Again, isn’t this what the West tells emerging economies?

How would I propose to change matters? My suggestions at the event were general and therefore impractical. But here they are again:

  1. Reboot the UK economy: Take the pain and turn around to engage fully with the emerging economies; do business with them as economic partner — no more, no less. The emerging economies are now the world’s engine of growth: Deal with it.
  2. Unleash our universities and other thoughtful, creative industries. This is NOT to raise government spending, but just to free up extant restrictions on their operations. UK higher education is hugely in demand by the emerging economies. If there’s anything that’s going to help re-balance the global economy, this is it.
  3. Throw out long-standing aesthetics and principles – they’re also called prejudices. Become enamoured of what works — whether it’s guided capitalism under a bit of state control or anything else we previously thought completely nuts (i.e., outside the Washington Consensus). Celebrate the virtues of working hard, raising productivity, saving for the future — not revile them as many do today for Germany or used to do most obviously recently only for China (and yet might come back to doing so again soon).

Also:

  1. “Our exports now go mostly to the slow-growing economies”, British Politics and Policy, 13 December 2011
  2. “The UK and the Eurozone in the shifting global economy”, China.org.cn, 19 December 2011
  3. “The UK and the Eurozone in the shifting global economy”, The Edge Malaysia, 19 December 2011
  4. “The UK and the Eurozone in the shifting global economy”, EconoMonitor, 21 December 2011
  5. “The UK and the Eurozone in the shifting global economy”, The Guardian Newspaper, 13 January 2012
  6. 英国与欧元区:其在变动的世界经济中的位置”, 15 January 2012

The LSE Big Questions Lecture 2011: Organized Common Sense

In June 2011, I was lucky enough to deliver the inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture. I chose to lecture on whether the East was taking over the world. I felt these changes in the world matter to everyone, and they are developments with important economic ideas surrounding them. The LSE Big Questions Lecture is targeted at 14 year-old school children in a number of London’s schools — hundreds showed up on the day. The lecture itself was televised for subsequent broadcast. The runup to this lecture involved months working with a production team at LSE: these were months of planning and rehearsing, writing and rewriting, arguing and disagreeing — on analytical content and ideas, on what 14 year-olds might find useful and understandable and memorable, on the best ways to communicate different ideas in economics and facts about the world.

Why did we do this?

As an academic economist, I study growth and distribution. I write about the shifting global economy and the rise of the East. I try to make large things visible to the human eye. I want to be considered a valuable REF contributor to my department and to the LSE.

But I also believe that these are times where economic literacy matters hugely, not least in societies that continue to hold to the ideals of liberal democracies. And there are intriguing large-scale parallels between important events now and those some time ago in history.

In 1825 Michael Faraday — perhaps the world’s greatest ever experimental scientist — initiated (but did not himself give) the first of the Royal Institution of Great Britain’s Christmas Lectures. Faraday went on to deliver 19 series altogether of these annual Lectures, his last in 1860, presenting and explaining to the British public ongoing discoveries in chemistry and electricity and magnetism.

1855 Michael Faraday - Royal Institution Christmas Lecture

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have continued to the present, interrupted only by World War 2. They are delivered to a general audience, notably including young people, with the aim to inform and entertain. From their beginning, these lectures proved highly popular despite the limited nature to early 19th century organised education. Since 1966 the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been televised. For many British households, the Christmas Lectures constitute a highlight of annual holiday family viewing. The energy and the ingenuity that go into the lectures are impressive, not least when, say, someone like Marcus du Sautoy, in his 2006 lectures, explains abstract number theory to a teenage audience.

These Royal Institution Christmas lectures provide the strongest counter-example I know to the conceit that research ideas are too difficult to explain to and too abstruse to excite the general public. Most of us just don’t work hard enough at it. So getting to deliver something the LSE Big Questions Lecture would be a challenge. But there was more.

In 1825, London had just become the world’s leading city by overtaking Beijing — vividly demonstrating the steady ongoing shift then of the world’s economic centre east to west. That year, the first modern economic crisis in history occurred — modern in the sense of not having been caused by a war. The stock market crash of 1825 took out in England alone six London banks and sixty country banks, with the badly-overextended Bank of England having to be rescued by an injection of gold from France. For students of central banking, this event became enshrined afterwards in Walter Bagehot’s Lombard Street principles for the lender-of-last-resort role in central banking.

In 1825, Faraday’s scientific discoveries were not centre-stage for the Industrial Revolution swirling about him at the time. That first Industrial Revolution — perhaps the most important event in the history of humanity — was driven by iron-making, mechanisation, and steam power, more than by electrification and chemical processing. But chemistry and electricity and magnetism — where Faraday’s contributions were manifold and central — pointed to the then-future. These would go on to provide the more enduring engine of growth for modern economic progress, not least down to what today still powers all digital technologies, significant among them cellphones and the Internet.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures matter in British science for providing the public knowledge into the most important exciting intellectual developments of the time. They gave the British public insight into what was new. Historians who study why a 14th-century Chinese Industrial Revolution did not occur, despite China’s more advanced science centuries prior to that in 1780 Britain, point to how science in England had always immediately connected to commercial application and public interest. This is exactly the same kind of connection that the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures make. By contrast, in China, science and technology were tightly controlled by a scholarly elite, who saw no reason to disseminate their discoveries. During the 18th-century Industrial Revolution, James Watt and Matthew Boulton had announced the English public “steam-mad”, whereas in Sung Dynasty China, time itself was considered the sole property of the Emperor.

Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture

The Inaugural LSE Big Questions Lecture begins

I am under no mad illusion that what I do as an academic is even remotely comparable to the achievements by these giants of scientific and technical progress from 1825. But I don’t think I’m half-bad as a lecturer. I don’t shuffle my lecture notes and lose my place in them [I don't use lecture notes]. I don’t mumble into my beard so that the audience has no idea what I just said [I'm ethnic Chinese and we don't grow beards easily]. I don’t put up Powerpoint slides crammed full with text and then just read them out word-for-word [almost all my slides are just colourful pictures].

I believe, as first told to me by my PhD advisor, economics is just “organized common sense”. I’m passionate about explaining ideas in economic policy to any audience that might remotely be able to influence our national and global conversations on improving the state of the world.

So, when asked, I gave the LSE Big Questions Lecture a go.

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