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New beginnings, the fragility of finance and postmodernism

As 2015 draws to a close, I am more than usually excited about the coming  year. This is because, after nine years with BPP, I am moving on to a new and very different job. It is never easy to move when you have spent that long with an employer, and anyone who has read previous blog posts will know that they have been absorbing years where I have learned a lot, and developed a strong interest in technology and its implications for education. I am proud of many things achieved at BPP, and there are many colleagues whom I will miss greatly.
However, an opportunity has arisen that seems almost too good to be true. We moved to Shrewsbury four and a half years ago because we fell in love with the town. At that time, my job was to write material for accounting courses, and do some teaching and project work. I could mostly work from home and teach in Birmingham. Then an innovative project brought me into BPP Business School and the world of higher education, continued homeworking and more travel. Also, although I did not know it at the time, plans were being drawn up for Shrewsbury to get its own university, initially a campus of Chester University. Skipping a few stages to get to the present, last summer I was offered a job as Senior Lecturer in Accounting & Finance at the University Centre Shrewsbury. The first undergraduates started in September and I will start work there in mid-January.
This is a different venture at many levels, and one of the exciting aspects of working at a brand new and growing institution is that things are sure to change quite fast. It is also a condition of my appointment that I gain a doctorate, so I will be enrolling on this next September (about 25 years after I first contemplated a doctorate, as it happens – these things come around eventually). After so many years in finance, management and education I have many ideas about what to study. I am also a firm believer in open scholarship, so in that spirit I will share my current thoughts on the research here with anyone who is interested.
At BPP I led the development of a programme called the MSc Financial Leadership, which is for qualified accountants and explicitly based on the idea of social constructionism. This is the perspective that much of our world does not have objective existence but is created by societies through language, law and custom. For example, a company does not physically “exist” and can only act through its agents. Other “legal fictions” include marriage, government and, importantly for accountants, money. Money only has value because the law says it does and we all believe it. The MSc programme is aimed at raising awareness in accountants that virtually everything they deal with in their work does not have objective “existence” – it is socially created, therefore historically conditioned and subject to change.
Where this idea gets really interesting is in the industry where, one way or another, I spent much of my practitioner career – banking. Because banking takes social constructs and legal fictions to a whole new level. We often like to think of our bank balance a bit like the scene in Harry Potter novels where he goes to Gringotts Bank and can see the vault with his treasure in it. Somewhere, we feel, there is a little pile of money on the bank’s vaults with our name on it. This is nonsense, of course. All we have is an entry in the bank’s ledger to say that they owe us money, and a belief that, if we need the money, they will pay it to us. But if any more than a small fraction of depositors want their money back at any one time, then the game is up, the bank will fold and our balances will be exposed as fictional. This is a lesson we all saw played out with Northern Rock in 2007.
When explaining this to students, I like to say it is literally a confidence trick. It all works fine as long as we believe in it. But if we stop believing, it is finished. The whole financial system is held together by pure belief. That is why the Northern Rock crisis was resolved by the government underwriting them. We all believe the government, at least for the time being.
If this doesn’t scare you, at least a little bit, you aren’t paying attention.
There is something very postmodern about this situation, as John Lanchester and others have pointed out. Our bank balances are symbols which refer only to other symbols, and are ultimately guaranteed by another symbol, but one that is potent enough that we all trust it. This situation is not discussed very much because it is too scary and all those with a vested interest in the situation (which is in fact most of us) do not want there to be too much questioning and doubt. Even most of those who work in banking are unaware of its insubstantial structure and accept assurances about how “sound” and “solid” the institutions are.
We could leave it there, but I suspect that at some point we will realise how insubstantial the financial system is and it will collapse, causing a lot of pain in the process. Is there another way forward? I have come across a couple of prescriptions, including a shift to electronic currencies and replacing banking with a range of specialist services, and these probably have their part to play, but as an educator my instinct is to look at the way finance professionals and bankers are trained and developed. Do they realise how insubstantial the system is and its implications? I think not – accountants are trained in a body of knowledge that is dated and treated with excessive reverence. Bankers are generally trained less than accountants and any training they do get tends to have a narrow, technical focus. Navigating and changing a fragile, postmodern system requires a breed of professionals who can take critical thinking and reflection to a new level. So what would their education look like?
At present, this is where I would like to take my doctorate. In the spirit of open scholarship, I would love anyone who is interested to add their comments or contact me direct and let me know what you think.
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