Jim O'Neill: The money man who coins a good phrase

The bank economist charts the rise of the emerging nations in a new BBC radio series. David Connett meets Jim O'Neill

David Connett
Sunday 05 January 2014 01:00 GMT

Jim O'Neill is fond of acronyms. When he coined Brics to describe the burgeoning economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China back in 2001, it added a turbo boost to what was an already stellar career. The highly respected and rewarded economist was one of the stars of Goldman Sachs, the US investment bank long regarded as one of the elite firms of international finance. The acronym was a simple way to help to describe the dynamic and transforming developments that were taking place in the world economy. Its simplicity helped even laymen and women to understand something of the complex changes that have become the dominant narrative of a generation.

That was then. Now he is back and coming to a radio near you if you tune in to Radio 4 this week. And he has a new acronym. Mint. As in making a packet rather than the herb or confectionary. Mint is the catchy description to describe the next big economies to impact upon the world – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey. He admits it was nearly Mist but they replaced South Korea for Nigeria after a BBC producer said that most people already thought South Korea was a world economic player. Nor is it completely new. The Minted nations have emerged from the Next 11, or N11, that his Goldman team came up with after Brics.

The BBC project is his most high-profile role since leaving Goldman Sachs last year. "To be fair, the Beeb first asked years ago to do a piece about the Bric nations, but I was so busy I thought to myself there is no way I can do that."

After retirement, the 57-year-old resisted the hundreds of job offers he had and made a conscious decision to do nothing at all. "After I called it a day I was concerned whether I could cope with not working. My life had been looking at a Reuters screen from when I got up at 6am in the morning until 9pm at night. Before I would go to bed I would predict what the dollar rate would be in the morning. If it was more than one-quarter away from the figure I had predicted, I knew there was something going on in the world that I didn't understand and I needed to find out why," he says.

"I spent the whole of the spring and summer doing nothing. I consciously made an effort to do nothing. I had spent 32 years in finance and I had had lots of offers to do something in conventional finance, but I had one of the best jobs in finance so it was going to be hard to better that."

When the BBC came along at the end of the summer and asked again, this time he said yes. "I thought it would be fun," he admits, and was also attracted by the fact that making the programmes would "take me so far out of my comfort zone it would be challenging". In the finished result he travels around the four countries examining exactly why they are thriving economically. Nigeria was a particular highlight – he wins a penalty shootout against the governor of Lagos state.

It certainly proved fun – even when it was bad such as the interminable wait for an internal flight from Port Harcourt, the centre of the Nigerian oil boom, to Lagos. "The departure lounge was a tent and we sat there for hour after hour waiting for a flight, any flight, to arrive and take us. When it arrived, there were no ticketed seats and there was a huge scrum. Onboard the seat next to me was simply the metal frame – there was no cushion – so you can see I was so far out of my comfort zone."

Visiting Mexico provided him with an opportunity to see an oil rig for the first time, despite the fact that his early career was spent analysing oil prices and predicting their movement. The visit to Jakarta in Indonesia had him climbing to the top of a massive crane employed to erect the nation's first Ikea store as well as experience some of the worst traffic jams he had ever witnessed.

Despite his professed idleness he hasn't been kicking his heels. As well as the BBC, he said yes to a non-executive style role at the Department for Education. O'Neill is as passionate about education as he is about globalisation. He says it is the first time he has engaged with a bureaucracy of this kind, and he frankly admits to finding it a frustration that some government departments seem to exist on a political timetable. "I don't think the Department for Education should operate like that. Some decisions are far too important to be limited in that way," he believes.

During his Goldman days, he became a board member at the Bruegel Institute, a European economic think-tank, but has since stepped down to enable him to do more hands-on research at the same organisation. "I flirted with doing some consultancy work but thought: why do I want the trouble of getting staff and having them do research when it is something I can and love doing myself?" He has also accepted the chair of a Royal Society of Arts special committee which is looking at ways of rejuvenating the UK's major urban areas outside of London. O'Neill is keen for them to thrive again without, he adds, returning to the ways of state intervention or doing so at the expense of London.

He acknowledges the UK's manufacturing performance has to improve, but doesn't believe a weak currency is anywhere near the answer. Nor does he believe it should be at the expense of the City and financial services. O'Neill is a bank economist to his core and remains unashamedly one. "I am completely opposed to trying to crucify the City. It is a really dumb thing to do," he says.

He continues to decline lots of offers – one of the most recent was travelling with the Prime Minister on a trade mission to China – but is obviously fully occupied intellectually speaking. His current interests? "My theme," he says, "if you want, is that we are going through a change in global wealth distribution. How we react to this change is key."

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