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Nerds and bank lock-ins: things I’ll miss about the numbers game

As I depart this pleasant berth to cover politics for the Guardian, after almost 15 years writing about the twists and turns of the global economy, there are plenty of things I will leave behind lightly – not least a dusty pile of unread books – but, if you will excuse the self-indulgence, dear readers, here are a few things I’m missing already:

Call them what you like: wonks, number-crunchers, analysts, every field has its experts; but economists are in a class of their own. With their baffled insouciance about anyone who fails to share their interpretation of the facts – and on occasion, blind fury about the stubborn irrationality of politicians, regulators, and most of all their rival economists, they are an extraordinary tribe.

Special mention must go to Danny Blanchflower and Andrew Sentance, a pair of likable former Bank of England rate-setters, who have turned a perfectly legitimate disagreement about the course of monetary policy into a grumpy Twitter spat that has so far lasted several years.

Charted waters
Politics has its fair share of charts too – psephologists like nothing better – but economists’ penchant for telling a story in a few grabby graphics is hard to beat. Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, must be particularly commended: one recent speech alone included charts of labour productivity since 1750; the average real wage of unskilled construction workers since 1270; and the likelihood that different classes of worker are at risk of being replaced by robots.

Jobsworths, Bank of England style
Spending a couple of hours locked (literally) in the basement of the Bank of England’s elegant building on Threadneedle Street, thumbing through a hefty pile of policy documents, in case any of their arcane contents leaked out in advance, was not fun at the time.

Yet I’m already starting to feel nostalgic about being hustled downstairs, past the whiff of musty old books in the Bank’s archives, and waiting in a hushed cellar for the speaking clock to declare that it’s twelve noon and the ladies and gentlemen of the press can reveal to the world that –gasp! – interest rates will remain unchanged for the umpteenth month. And they gave us tea and biscuits.

Bankers unbound
It may not be good news for the prospects of rebuilding Britain’s recession-scarred economy to a radical new blueprint, but there’s something almost reassuring about the implacable swagger of the well-upholstered denizens of the City and Canary Wharf. Libor-fixing, PPI mis-selling, aiding and abetting tax evasion – the sector’s list of misdemeanours is no less appalling for being oft-rehearsed.

Yet last week’s decision by supine watchdog the Financial Conduct Authority to drop its review of the culture inside Britain’s financial firms felt a bit like the final, decisive slamming shut of a window of possibility that opened when Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers collapsed, during which it appeared to be a genuine possibility that the power of high finance over public life would be decisively curtailed.

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We could weep at the failure of the establishment to rein in the financial sector, but new year is a time for looking on the bright side, so let’s salute the swashbuckling resilience of Britain’s bankers — perhaps with a glass of something bubbly.

Sweet potatoes in, satnavs out
For fashionistas, catwalk shows determine which hemlines and fabrics are the must-haves. For economists, it’s the consumer price inflation basket. Once a year, the Office for National Statistics reshuffles the list of goods it uses to work out if prices are going up, down or sideways. It won’t tell you what you’ll be wearing next year, but in 2015 we learned, among other things, that sweet potatoes and protein powder are essential. Yoghurt drinks and satnavs, not so much.

The price of everything
Oil, companies, government debts, cocoa futures: financial markets put an instant price on everything, moment by moment. They are reckless, irrational and inconsistent; they can only focus on one thing at a time (right now, mostly what Janet Yellen does next); and they can urge us on to hubris, like the giant ticker of Enron’s share price that scrolls relentlessly across the stage in Lucy Prebble’s play retelling the rise and fall of the Texas energy trader.

Yet for all their faults, the ups and downs of the markets are the closest thing we have to the heart-rate trace of financialised global capitalism and, try as you might, they’re relentlessly compelling.

The great eurozone soap opera
With the dastardly Wolfgang Schäuble, the heroic-but-flawed Yanis Varoufakis, and the dashing Mario Draghi, the eurozone’s near-collapse has been the story that just keeps on giving over the past five years. It has everything: human drama, high politics – and ultimately, a clash of economic theories. Perhaps the uneasy calm with which 2015 drew to a close will continue throughout the next 12 months; but with Greece continuing to suffer eye-watering unemployment and deep public spending cuts, there’s scant hope of that.

Scrambling for synonyms
You say quantitative easing; I say recession-busting bond-buying spree. You say like-for-like retail sales declined; I say Britain’s cash-strapped consumers tightened their belts.

Economics news is often in dire need of being rendered less dry and more accessible. We don’t always succeed, but it’s great fun trying. Over and out.


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