Brain Drain

Oversized financial sectors can suck in talent and skills from other parts of the economy, from government, or from civil society, harming them all. One of the best descriptions of this comes from the Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane:

“Returns to banking rose to their highest levels since the roaring ‘20s. Those designing and selling these new financial gadgets saw their salaries sky rocket. In 1980, an investment banker was paid roughly the same as a similarly-skilled professional in any other industry. By 2007, they were earning nearly four times as much.

These widening discrepancies within banks compounded the widening discrepancies between banking and other industries. Banks, especially the top of banks, became first among unequals. With returns sky-high, there was then a great sucking sound as both people and monies were drawn into banking, in particular the high-risk/high return, sharp-suited parts such as investment banking. A generation of scientists’ and mathematicians’ heads were turned towards finance. Funds flowed into the bank money machine, with balance sheets rising fivefold in less than 20 years, much of it to support short-term trading activities rather than long-term investment.  

Yet even while it was still inflating, this bubble was already having silent costs – costs to the economy and indeed costs to other parts of banking. Many of the best people and the best financial resources were drawn away from other sectors, including the retail banking sector. Industries outside of finance were starved of sunlight. 

The costs of this great sucking sound are only now being properly understood. Recent research by the Bank for International Settlements suggests that, once bank assets exceed annual GDP in size, they begin to act as a drag on growth 

Why? Because human and financial resources are drained from elsewhere in the economy. The sectors hardest-hit by this financial vacuum-cleaner effect are R&D-intensive businesses (who might otherwise have attracted the scarce, skilled labour that flowed into finance) and businesses reliant on external funds (whose financial cake was instead being eaten by the banking system). These are the very businesses that today we are seeking to re-nurture. 

At the same time, the ballooning of trading activities was starving basic banking of resources. In consequence, the offering to bank customers became a rather different one. The humble, regional loan officer was pensioned-off, replaced by a centralised credit risk model which neither answered back nor required a pension. Branches were closed in an effort to contain costs. Banking became a transactional business, underpinned by a sales-driven, commission-focussed culture.”