How the idea of strategically globalising finance backfired (THE TIMES-ASIA)

     Financial globalisation has generated more crises since its emergence in the 1980s than in the whole of the last century. The global system has become an echo chamber which amplifies and propagates the spill-over effects of economic and financial imbalances. 

     What has emerged from the combination of economic liberalisation, market globalisa­tion and technology revolution is ‘Hyperfi­nance’, with its two-fold emancipation of the economic sphere from the political sphere, and, more recently, of the financial system from the economic system. Increasingly, “free wheel” Hyperfinance flutters indepen­dently from the underlying production of goods and services in the real economy. Its rationality is profit and stockholder value maximisation.A number of scholars have raised doubts regarding an analytical framework where ideology takes precedence over scientific consistency. Nevertheless, in the classroom, the same hypotheses, the same econometric models, and the same short-termism con tinue to prevail. Textbooks and lectures still rely on the efficient capital market hypothesis that states that asset prices are equal to their fundamental value. Markets are to behave like deus ex machina which instantaneously allocates resources efficiently. Why such a dis­regard for the real world? 

     The economics profession has failed once again to forecast the inevitable consequenc­es of years of deregulation, financial liber­alisation and greedy speculation within a globalised financial system. The simple reason is its focus on abstract economic agents at the expense of the social dimen­sion of the real economy which aggregates the behavior of households, workers, inves­tors, employers, and retirees. Teaching still holds that markets and economies are in­herently stable even though the combina­tion of herd instincts and speculation has proved deeply disruptive. Each individual, clearly, has access to a wide range of infor­mation sources, and uses ratings and rank­ings as well as sophisticated technology. All this firepower provides an illusion of control and convincing nonsense. In­formation is not econom­ic intelligence unless it is processed into careful analysis and strategy de­cisions. 

     An intellectual and aca­demic myopia has thus prevailed in both univer­sities and business schools. In the former, professors did not bother to read the 2007 BIS An­nual Report which rang warnings of mounting fi­nancial risks and clear signs of eroding credit standards. In the latter, prominent industry lumi­naries and practitioners boast first-hand market experience but they often lack a critical view of their own technical skills. Academic finance curri­cula claim that “Coming out of such top notch training, you can hit the ground running.” More practically, the trader might get laid off abrupt­ly when the next crisis hits and he will end up selling hamburgers. 
Observing a number of “plain vanilla” Master programmes in finance gives a feeling of suspended time. Quantitative pavlovian finance is still well promoted and teaching is rooted in financial engineering including techni­cal analysis and chartism, derivatives and structured prod­ucts, econometric modeling, stochastic calculus, Algo trad­ing and the like. Little time is devoted to giving students some background in the history of economic thought and of financial crises so that they see where finance fits in and what its social functions should be. 

     All in all, promoting sustainable finance depends as much on an academic revolution as on radical policy decisions made in G20 meetings. What is needed is a delicate rebal­ancing between techni­cal tools and grasping the institutional and structural dimensions of the financial markets. This requires putting a new emphasis on compli­ance and regulation, law, financial crisis analysis, economic intelligence, psychology, and ethics. These fields will give rise to tomorrow’s jobs. Meanwhile, banks have announced thousands of job cuts in the summer of 2011 as they seek to reshape their businesses in the face of a slump in investment banking profits. It is somewhat ironic that this welcome shift is being supported by a Goldman Sachs Ex­ecutive Director who notes: “The focus on more prudent invest­ment strategy has never been greater. The com­pliance teams are there to ensure banks work in line with the regulations imposed in the country in which they’re operat­ing.” Market finance would also benefit from a gender rebalancing as good financial analysts need more neurons than testosterone. Male risk managers tend to focus on fast, short-term abstractions, while the feminine mentality is more concerned with the importance of social relations on the ground - a more concrete, slower and usually more ethical dimension. 

     All in all, universities and business schools should be at the forefront of in-depth rethinking of academic pro­grammes in finance. Their commitment is not only to load the job market with young professionals, but rath­er to provide students with the intellectual tools to bring social value to a field that is saturated with “val­ue at risk”.

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