MERVYN KING: All the financial crises of the past have stemmed from excess leverage. Why do we think we are so much wiser than the financers of the past?
I've never really understood what was the basis of the claim that there was some new theory of how monetary policy worked. And I think that's just false.
If you'd said to anyone in October 2008, we are going to do extraordinary things to save the banking system and the world economy, we'll cut rates to zero, we'll do QE, no one at those meetings I can promise you would have believed you.
LARRY MCDONALD: I'm Larry McDonald with the Bear Traps Report. We're really looking forward to bring you Mervyn King, former head of the Bank of England. He's going to give you a behind the scenes look at modern central banking, MMT and all the political controversies that surround it.
Mervyn King, I should say, Lord King, what a pleasure it is to have you with the Real Vision audience. Your career has been such an inspiration to so many people in the world, what you live through and the leadership that you went through in 2008. Those long nights, cold sweats in the middle of the night. I really am looking forward to sitting down and talking to you in the sense of you looking back at your career and I want to get into the financial crisis, just a touch and what you learn from that and looking forward.
But from your career, take us back to Harvard. Take us back to your education. What inspired you? Did you see yourself as one day is to become the head of the Bank of England?
MERVYN KING: No, I never thought that and indeed, I never even imagined a career in the Bank of England until the time when I was offered the job of chief economist. So, I've gone halfway through my career, exactly halfway through before the Bank of England job came up. So, I think luck matters a great deal in one's career. And I was very lucky. But the most important piece of luck I think, was I belonged to the luckiest generation. I was born in 1948. I was too young to serve in the Second World War, or in the immediate conflicts in the post-war period, but I was too old to have to pay for any aspect of my education.
So, I had a completely free education at the state grammar school. My father was a schoolteacher and he did an enormous amount to ensure that we lived in an area where I could be in the catchment area for a good school and wonderful teachers at a time when some of the best and brightest of the generation went into teaching. And then later did they go into the private sector and say the city. I then went to university, I paid nothing at all for my college education. My local authority paid for all the fees, and indeed gave me a living allowance to pay for the accommodation and living expenses.
LARRY MCDONALD: So, in that era, people, actually- even people from the private sector felt they need to contribute first in the educational.
MERVYN KING: So, I think no, the big difference was that in my cohort, only 8% of us went to university and college, and the rest didn't. So, we were a very privileged group. And it was therefore possible for the rest of society to make us- enable us to go free. And then I went to King's College at Cambridge, which was an extraordinary experience. And I think they were looking to widen the groups of people from which they were selecting students. So, that benefited me enormously.
And I did well there and then got a Kennedy scholarship to go to the United States. Scholarship in- its Britain's national memorial to President Kennedy. And I was in one of the early cohorts and later became the first person who had been a scholar, who then became a trustee of the of the trust and went to Harvard for graduate studies there.
LARRY MCDONALD: So, from the scholar side to the trustee side?
MERVYN KING: Yes.
LARRY MCDONALD: Fascinating. How did you make that jump?
MERVYN KING: Yeah. And it was a great experience. And I was very fortunate to have all these opportunities. And I think that the Kennedy scholarship to Harvard in particular was very important because my success in the area of economics stems in large part- not just from the education I received there, but from the contacts, the people I met. And I have so many friends in the United States now. And today, I spend six weeks or more teaching at New York University. And America has been a big part of my life. I went back later and taught at both MIT and Harvard as a professor. So, I have long connections with US. And it all stemmed from having that opportunity as a Kennedy scholar to which I contributed not a cent.
LARRY MCDONALD: And at what point in your life did you think, okay, I could actually be head of the Bank of England? At what point did you see that transition?
MERVYN KING: Finally, after I'd only joined the Bank of England. So, I suppose it would have been was 42 and teaching at the London School of Economics and I'd created along with Charles Goodhart, the financial markets group- it was a big research group there. And I got the invitation to be a non-executive director of the Bank of England, which just meant going for one morning a week. But canes have been a non-executive director and only one other economist that held that position.
It didn't formulate policy, it was just an oversight body, nothing very special to do, but it meant that the then Governor Robin Lea Pemberton, saw me play tennis and cricket at the annual family sports day for the Bank of England. And I hit the ball harder on the tennis court than I'd ever hit it before or since, for that matter. So, when a few months later, he had to find a new chief economist, he I think was rather reluctant to think he had to have one.
But he was persuaded. Yes, the bank does need a chief economist. He thought, well, I better have one who can play tennis and cricket. So, I was offered the job and went as chief economist with a view to staying only two years and taking leave of absence from the London School of Economics where I was teaching. And then the plan was to go back. And each time I thought of going back, something completely unexpected happened, which made it impossible to go back.
So, the first thing that happened was that we left the Exchange Rate Mechanism in Europe and the Sterling was forced out of it in September 1992. We had to come up with a new monetary policy framework. And I argued for the inflation target. And both the civil servants and politicians like the idea. So, we embraced the inflation target. And then we had to create an inflation report, which was the first time at the beginning of 1993, when the Bank of England had its own independent view of the economy, widely published.
Before that, the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin, as it was called, was simply a document which the Treasury could edit and censor if they didn't like what the bank wanted to say. With the inflation report, that all stopped. And we then had a period of another four years, until 1997. And I remember saying to Eddie George, I think the time is really now for me to go back to academic life. And at that point, the general election took place on the first of May 1997.
And on the following Monday, which was a bank holiday, I was at home, Eddie George telephoned me at home and said I want you to come in straight away to the bank. I had no idea what the problem was. And he came in and the two of us sat alone in his office. And he was- George was the governor at the time. And he said, we're going to be independent. Gordon Brown will announce it tomorrow. You can't leave now.
So, I stayed on, and then was ready to leave again with my period of five years as deputy governor was due to come to an end in 2003. And then I was asked to stay on as governor. And then there were 10 years as governor, basically divided into four years or so of calm period, when I was able to do a fair amount of restructuring of the Bank of England itself, making appointments to senior positions in the bank, restructure the administration of it. And then we had the financial crisis, which for us began in September- August, September 2007.
And then there was a obviously difficult period in which a lot of things which no one had expected happened and we had to try and react and cope with it in just the same way as the Federal Reserve had to in the US. There were good times and bad times, but it was a tremendous experience. And I had fantastic support from my colleagues in the bank, particularly the younger ones around me. And I stayed then until 2008, when I'd serve the maximum possible term of 10 years as governor. And then left with a wonderful family sporting day, this time not playing in order to get a job but playing in order to leave.
And it was the very last day of my term of office, it was a Sunday which we had the family sports day on. And we had the England cricket captain who came and captained my team. I played for it, went on and played for a bit. And it was a dream come true to have all these tremendous players and I was out there playing and at the end of it, I came off and all the bank staff gathered around and gave us a sendoff as we literally, literally drove into the sunset. And on the first of July 2013, I started a new life.
LARRY MCDONALD: I think back to the summer of 2008. And I will look back and then look forward. You're sitting in the UK in the summer of 2008, say summer 2007. We had the Northern Rock problem here, over here in the UK. We're in London now. And then in the US, we had the subprime, New Century started to blow up then Bear Stearns had those two hedge funds in the summer. Central bankers, at least in the US, allowed Lehman to be 40 times leveraged. And Fannie and Freddie was 60 times leveraged.
And I look back over the last 150 years of finance, maybe longer. And what I think is every financial crisis, there's a different serpent, there's a different beast, there's a metamorphosis into another serpent. Clearly, leverage in the United States and the banking system and the global banking system was the problem. Central bankers looked the other way. What was the thought process around, was the banks themselves wanted to turn that leverage and why were so many central bankers, especially US, so complacent around leverage?
MERVYN KING: Well, I think there are two answers to that. One is that the firms themselves didn't want to have lower leverage than their partner firms because they felt well, we'll lose out. Our equity returns will be lower if we cut back on leverage. So, there was a competitive pressure on them all to go further in that direction. But I think I'll give you the example of Northern Rock which is a stunning example.
In the spring of 2007, Northern Rock had its annual general meeting. And at the annual general meeting, it said the UK is the first country to introduce Basel 2. So, we have calculated our capital requirements under the new Basel 2 internationally agreed regime. And under that regime, we in Northern Rock are the best capitalized bank in the United Kingdom. True, absolutely true.
And so, we're going to return, over the next few years, some capital to our shareholders. Their simple leverage ratio was at 80- 8-0 to one. That shows you everything you need to know about what was wrong with the regulatory system. So, different countries have different frameworks. The Bank of England was not a regulator at the time. So, the regulators had come up with this regime, which central banks have been involved in designing. But nevertheless, under that regime, it was actually quite difficult to argue that banks should issue more equity capital, because they met all their criteria laid down in the international regime.