The finance curse: how the outsized power of the City of London makes Britain poorer

In the 1990s, I was a correspondent for Reuters and the Financial Times in Angola, a country rich with oil and diamonds that was being torn apart by a murderous civil war. Every western visitor asked me a version of the same question: how could the citizens of a country with vast mineral wealth be so shockingly destitute?

One answer was corruption: a lobster-eating, champagne-drinking elite was getting very rich in the capital while their impoverished compatriots slaughtered each other out in the dusty provinces. Another answer was that the oil and diamond industries were financing the war. But neither of these facts told the whole story.

There was something else going on. Around this same time, economists were beginning to put together a new theory about what was troubling countries like Angola. They called it the resource curse.

Academics had worked out that many countries with abundant natural resources seemed to suffer from slower economic growth, more corruption, more conflict, more authoritarian politics and more poverty than their peers with fewer resources. (Some mineral-rich countries, including Norway, admittedly seem to have escaped the curse.) Crucially, this poor performance wasn’t only because powerful crooks stole the money and stashed it offshore, though that was also true. The startling idea was that all this money flowing from natural resources could make their people even worse off than if the riches had never been discovered. More money can make you poorer: that is why the resource curse is also sometimes known as the Paradox of Poverty from Plenty.

Back in the 1990s, John Christensen was the official economic adviser to the British tax haven of Jersey. While I was writing about the resource curse in Angola, he was reading about it, and noticing more and more parallels with what he was seeing in Jersey. A massive financial sector on the tiny island was making a visible minority filthy rich, while many Jerseyfolk were suffering extreme hardship. But he could see an even more powerful parallel: the same thing was happening in Britain. Christensen left Jersey and helped set up the Tax Justice Network, an organisation that fights against tax havens. In 2007, he contacted me, and we began to study what we called the finance curse.

It may seem bizarre to compare wartorn Angola with contemporary Britain, but it turned out that the finance curse had more parallels with the resource curse than we had first imagined. For one thing, in both cases the dominant sector sucks the best-educated people out of other economic sectors, government, civil society and the media, and into high-salaried oil or finance jobs. “Finance literally bids rocket scientists away from the satellite industry,” in the words of a landmark academic study of how finance can damage growth. “People who might have become scientists, who in another age dreamt of curing cancer or flying people to Mars, today dream of becoming hedge-fund managers.”

In Angola, the cascading inflows of oil wealth raised the local price levels of goods and services, from housing to haircuts. This high-price environment caused another wave of destruction to local industry and agriculture, which found it ever harder to compete with imported goods. Likewise, inflows of money into the City of London (and money created in the City of London) have had a similar effect on house prices and on local price levels, making it harder for British exporters to compete with foreign competitors.

Oil booms and busts also had a disastrous effect in Angola. Cranes would festoon the Luanda skyline in good times, then would leave a residue of half-finished concrete hulks when the bust came. Massive borrowing in the good times and a buildup of debt arrears in the bad times magnified the problem. In Britain’s case, the booms and busts of finance are differently timed and mostly caused by different things. But just as with oil booms, in good times the dominant sector damages alternative economic sectors, but when the bust comes, the destroyed sectors are not easily rebuilt.

Of course, the City proudly trumpets its contribution to Britain’s economy: 360,000 banking jobs, £31bn in direct tax revenues last year and a £60bn financial services trade surplus to boot. Official data in 2017 showed that the average Londoner paid £3,070 more in tax than they received in public spending, while in the country’s poorer hinterlands, it was the other way around. In fact, if London was a nation state, explained Chris Giles in the Financial Times, it would have a budget surplus of 7% of gross domestic product, better than Norway. “London is the UK’s cash cow,” he said. “Endanger its economy and it damages UK public finances.”

To argue that the City hurts Britain’s economy might seem crazy. But research increasingly shows that all the money swirling around our oversized financial sector may actually be making us collectively poorer. As Britain’s economy has steadily become re-engineered towards serving finance, other parts of the economy have struggled to survive in its shadow, like seedlings starved of light and water under the canopy of a giant, deep-rooted and invasive tree. Generations of leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair to Theresa May have believed that the City is the goose that lays Britain’s golden eggs, to be prioritised, pampered and protected. But the finance curse analysis shows an oversized City to be a different bird: a cuckoo in the nest, crowding out other sectors.

We all need finance. We need it to pay our bills, to help us save for retirement, to redirect our savings to businesses so they can invest, to insure us against unforeseen calamities, and also sometimes for speculators to sniff out new investment opportunities in our economy. We need finance – but this tells us nothing about how big our financial centre should be or what roles it should serve.

A growing body of economic research confirms that once a financial sector grows above an optimal size and beyond its useful roles, it begins to harm the country that hosts it. The most obvious source of damage comes in the form of financial crises – including the one we are still recovering from a decade after the fact. But the problem is in fact older, and bigger. Long ago, our oversized financial sector began turning away from supporting the creation of wealth, and towards extracting it from other parts of the economy. To achieve this, it shapes laws, rules, thinktanks and even our culture so that they support it. The outcomes include lower economic growth, steeper inequality, distorted markets, spreading crime, deeper corruption, the hollowing-out of alternative economic sectors and more.

Newly published research makes a first attempt to assess the scale of the damage to Britain. According to a new paper by Andrew Baker of the University of Sheffield, Gerald Epstein of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Juan Montecino of Columbia University, an oversized City of London has inflicted a cumulative £4.5tn hit on the British economy from 1995-2015. That is worth around two-and-a-half years’ economic output, or £170,000 per British household. The City’s claims of jobs and tax benefits are washed away by much, much bigger harms.

Finance curse House of cards tower WEB
 ‘The competitiveness agenda is an intellectual house of cards, ready to fall.’ Illustration: Katie Edwards

This estimate is the sum of two figures. First, £1.8tn in lost economic output caused by the global financial crisis since 2007 (a figure quite compatible with a range suggested by the Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane a few years ago). And second, £2.7tn in “misallocation costs” – what happens when a powerful finance sector is diverted away from useful roles (such as converting our savings into business investment) toward activities that distort the rest of the economy and siphon wealth from it. The calculation of these costs is based on established international research showing that a typical finance sector tends to reach its optimal size when credit to the private sector is equivalent to 90-100% of gross domestic product, then starts to curb growth as finance grows. Britain passed its optimal point long ago, averaging around 160% on the relevant measure of credit to GDP from 1995-2016.

This £2.7tn is added to the £1.8tn, checking carefully for overlap or double-counting, to make £4.5tn. This is a first rough approximation for how much additional GDP Britons might have enjoyed if the City had been smaller, and serving its traditional useful roles. (A third, £700bn category of “excess profits” and “excess remuneration” accruing to financial players has been excluded, to be conservative.)

But what exactly are these “misallocation costs?” There are many. For instance, you might expect the growth in our giant financial sector to provide a fountain of investment for other sectors in our economy, but the exact opposite has happened. A century or more ago, 80% of bank lending went to businesses for genuine investment. Now, less than 4% of financial institutions’ business lending goes to manufacturing – instead, financial institutions are lending mostly to each other, and into housing and commercial real estate.

Investment rates in the UK’s non-financial economy since 1997 have been the lowest in the OECD, a club that includes Mexico, Chile and Turkey. And in Britain’s supposedly “competitive” low-tax, high-finance economy, labour productivity is 20-25% lower than that of higher-tax Germany or France. Resources are being misallocated as finance has become an end in itself: unmoored, disconnected from the real economy and from the people and real businesses it ought to serve. Imagine if telephone companies suddenly became insanely profitable, and telephony grew to dwarf every other economic sector – but our phone calls were still crackly, expensive and unreliable. We would soon see that our oversized telephone sector was a burden, not a benefit to the economy, and that all those phone billionaires reflected economic sickness, not dynamism. But with everyone dazzled by our high-society, world-conquering financial centre, this glaring problem with the City seems to have been overlooked.

Half a century ago, corporations were not only supposed to make profits, but also to serve employees, communities and society. Overall taxes were high (top income tax rates were more than 90% for many years during and after the second world war) and financial flows across borders were tightly constrained, under the understanding that while trade was generally a good thing, speculative cross-border finance was dangerous. The economist John Maynard Keynes, who helped construct the global financial system known as Bretton Woods, which kept cross-border finance tightly constrained, knew this was necessary if governments were to act in their citizens’ interest. “Let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible,” he famously said. “Above all, let finance be primarily national.” The fastest economic growth in world history came in the roughly quarter of a century after the Second World War, when finance was savagely suppressed.

From the 1970s onwards, finance broke decisively free of these controls, taxes were slashed and swathes of our economies were privatised. And our businesses began to undergo a dramatic transformation: their core purposes were whittled down, through ideological shifts and changes in laws and rules, to little more than a single-minded focus on maximising the wealth of shareholders, the owners of those companies. Managers often found that the best way to maximise the owners’ wealth was not to make better widgets and sprockets or to find new cures for malaria, but to indulge in the sugar rush of financial engineering, to tease out more profits from businesses that are already doing well. Social purpose be damned. As all this happened, inequality rose, financial crises became more common and economic growth fell, as managers started focusing their attentions in all the wrong places. This was misallocation, again, but the more precise term for this transformation of business and the rise of finance is “financialisation”.

The best-known definition of the term comes from the American economist Gerald Epstein, a co-author of the new study cited above: financialisation is “the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies”. In other words, it is not just that financial institutions and credit have puffed up spectacularly in size since the 1970s, but also that more normal companies such as beermakers, media groups or online rail ticket services, are being “financialised”, to extract maximum wealth for their owners.