King of Threadneedle Street: How Mervyn King Reshaped the Bank of England

By Coyle, Diane | The International Economy, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

King of Threadneedle Street: How Mervyn King Reshaped the Bank of England


Coyle, Diane, The International Economy


There can scarcely ever have been an appointment to high office less controversial than the choice of Mervyn King as governor of the Bank of England. This is not to say he is without critics--more on this later. Nevertheless, he is profoundly respected as one of the key individuals who transformed British monetary policy after the humiliation of the pound's ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in September 1992.

To call the subsequent changes a transformation is no exaggeration. The Bank of England now heads the international league tables in terms of central banking theory and practice. The structure of its formal independence (put in place in May 1997 by the incoming Labour chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown) and its successful implementation of inflation targeting are widely admired. For the Bank's success can be enumerated precisely: 43 consecutive quarters of GDP growth, at a year-on-year rate close to trend, and with inflation an average of just 0.1 percentage point away from the 2.5 percent target since 1997. All this in a country that previously had the highest inflation and most volatile growth rate in the G7.

Before Mervyn King's promotion from deputy governor to the top job was announced last November there wax some press speculation about rival candidates. His well-known hesitation about taking Britain into European Monetary Union was thought to be an obstacle for the Prime Minister, Tony Blair--for like all those who were at the heart of economic policy in 1992, King was scarred by the ERM experience.

But with hindsight, it would have been bizarre for the government to choose anybody else. Why force out one of the architects of the United Kingdom's remarkable economic success in recent years by appointing someone else over his head? And with the other of the two deputy governors leaving at the same time that would have meant newcomers filling all three of the Bank's top jobs; why risk such instability? Continuity triumphed.

Yet King is not at all typical as governors of the Bank of England go. He grew up in the ugly and unfashionable Midlands city of Wolverhampton, and still avidly supports the local soccer team, Aston Villa. He has never worked in the financial markets and wasn't previously a grandee of the City of London establishment. Unlike his predecessor Sir Edward George, he wasn't a life-long Bank of England man either, joining from the London School of Economics only in 1991.

It is his glittering academic career that got King where he is today. He earned a first-class honors degree from Cambridge University followed by a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard University. He taught at Cambridge, Birmingham University, and the LSE as well as holding visiting posts at Harvard and MIT. He has to this day the true academic attitude, being inspired by what David Hume described as "the spirit of accuracy" in seeking to understand--and change--the world around him. Before he knew he would be appointed governor, and even after being offered the post, he seriously considered returning to a life of research and writing. This was more tempting to him than the other plum jobs he was offered from time to time. After all, senior central bankers lack the time to read and ponder, and he has felt that lack.

While those of us who are professional economists welcome the fact that a fellow economist is in a position of such power, others have been critical of what they see as the narrow view from the ivory tower. There is much in this carping of the conventional British distrust of anybody who reads books for fun rather than, say, chases foxes across the countryside or drinks many pints of beer in the pub. A typical Mervyn King speech will be laced with apt quotations from obscure old texts, and they'll flaunt an awareness of history, music, and literature as well as soccer. And this rich intellectual hinterland does inform his day-to-day work--which goes clear against the grain of our culture of preferring practical know-how and hands-on experience. …

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