The Sketch: Four million reasons why they did not see it coming

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The Independent Online

Treasury select committee. Why we're in this mess, by wise men, an entrepreneur and Will Hutton. The message was: Beware experts. Beware leaders. Beware everyone. In that order.

Airy phrases such as "the mispricing of risk" have irritated me ever since the Prime Minister used it as an explanation of the crisis, the collapse, the coming cataclysm. "I know, so sorry, cock-up there, the risk was mispriced." A mistake anyone could make. A technical error.

But as Jon Danielsson told the committee, people went to enormous lengths to have the risk mispriced. "Complexity is profitable," he said. That's why bankers compiled a single collateralised debt obligation with four million pages of data backing it up. Who was going to read four million pages? But it was important nobody did.

Jon Molton made the point in arguing for "narrow banks" – institutions that just do basic banking. "Transparency doesn't cut it for me," he said. "There's not one person in this room that could read HSBC's accounts and understand them." That must have made a few wince.

I couldn't see the expression on Will Hutton's face. But the Prime Minister himself would have made a picture, with his affectation of omniscience.

"Complexity," Danielsson said, "makes people believe you understand it." Clarity, it turns out, is a branch of morality. That's remarkably good news for us ignorant generalists.

Did our leaders not see the problem, Jim Cousins asked, weren't they warned, or did they not have the guts to do anything? Professor Goodhart plumped for "lack of guts". All the international institutions were warning like billy-o. But in a boom, the financial sector captures all. No one dare act against it.

"Who wants to take away the punch bowl when the party is still running?" That would take character. Courage. Obviously Britain wasn't going to make it.

Goodhart said the regulators didn't have the instruments to cool things down. In New Britain that is amazing. The Government can specify that drivers should pull into a lay-by to change radio station – but can't prohibit 125 per cent mortgages for beneficiaries who self-certify to earning £100,000 a year.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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