Never waste a good crisis

Simon Caulkin has an interesting column reflecting on an academic conference he’s been to in which people tried to extract the lessons of the financial crisis. One conclusion: the worship of “shareholder value” was one driver of the catastrophe.

Other workshop participants were quick to extend the diagnosis from the banks to publicly quoted companies in general. If – as it is now becoming permissible to suggest – shareholder value is indeed the problem, then, as Einstein said, “the significant problems that we face cannot be solved at the level of thinking we were at when we created them”. A wholesale recasting of today’s unfit-for-purpose corporate governance becomes another urgently necessary response. In short, we are a very long way from business as usual.

Of course some people argue that the situation is now so bad that preventing a future crisis takes a distant, second place to getting things moving again. One inhabitant of the real economy feared that the squeeze would suck so much life out of companies like his that we wouldn’t even care about the possibility of another bubble.

Assuming it doesn’t go that far, the dilemma is poignant. The softer the landing, the more the government will be tempted to shore up the crumbling orthodoxy, making another crisis certain. The worse the depression, the better the chances that Whitehall can be pressurised into a fundamental rethink. Neither prospect is a cheerful one. But as the Obama team keeps repeating: “Never waste a good crisis.”