The Uses and Abuses of Economic Ideology

LONDON – John Maynard Keynes famously wrote that “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than commonly understood. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

But I suspect that a greater danger lies elsewhere, with the practical men and women employed in the policymaking functions of central banks, regulatory agencies, governments, and financial institutions’ risk-management departments tending to gravitate to simplified versions of the dominant beliefs of economists who are, in fact, very much alive.

Indeed, at least in the arena of financial economics, a vulgar version of equilibrium theory rose to dominance in the years before the financial crisis, portraying market completion as the cure to all problems, and mathematical sophistication decoupled from philosophical understanding as the key to effective risk management. Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, in its Global Financial Stability Reviews (GFSR), set out a confident story of a self-equilibrating system.

Thus, only 18 months before the crisis erupted, the April 2006 GFSR approvingly recorded “a growing recognition that the dispersion of credit risks to a broader and more diverse group of investors… has helped make the banking and wider financial system more resilient. The improved resilience may be seen in fewer bank failures and more consistent credit provision.” Market completion, in other words, was the key to a safer system.