Sent by John Morris

The 9th annual international Critical Finance Studies conference will be held at the University of Leicester from the 3rd to 5th August 2017. The conference is part of an on-going project that seeks to engage with finance in critical and creative ways. Although critical attention is regularly devoted to finance, it usually takes the form of a call for transparency, regulation or restructuring. It also tends to centre on ‘high finance’ rather than processes of financialisation, a term coined by Randy Martin that has proven useful for past Critical Finance Studies discussions. Indeed in this conference we plan to honour Randy’s legacy, following his untimely death, by focusing our keynotes and panel discussions on consideration of the ongoing implications of his work.

Contributions that engage with the discourse of financialisation, perhaps in unexpected spheres or through historical examples, are especially welcome, as are new approaches to ‘high finance.’
We invite papers that critically discuss the workings of finance (for example: its material culture, labour practices, conceptual models, technologies, built environments, authorized or unauthorized forms, etc.) in novel ways. We are interested in engaging with the problematic divide between the way finance is simultaneously lauded as a wealth creator and idealised career path, but also critiqued by popular culture and protest movements. Especially welcome are papers that approach finance through avenues that have been so far underexplored such as: theology, philosophy, art, music, film, new media, television, literary aesthetics, and popular culture.

Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:

Financialisation of daily life
Finance and desire
Financial publics, financial social imaginaries
Finance and risk society
Financial media and advertising
Finance and exclusion
Visualizing finance
Gambling and finance
Financial technologies
Built environments of finance
Stereotypes in financial discourses
Finance and neoliberalism
Philanthropy and finance
Finance in popular culture
Finance and gender, race, or religion
Finance and discrimination
Financial history for the present
Banking: structures, procedures and cultures
Money, credit and derivatives
Finance and postsecularism
Rethinking finance and critical theory
Finance and utopia
The poetics of finance

Finance’s role in the somewhat surprising political events of 2016
Communicating critical finance

Confirmed keynote contributors are Dick Bryan, Joyce Goggin and Bob Meister.

Please send proposals for panels as well as individual contributions (i.e. abstracts of up to 250 words or full papers if wished) to the conference organisers, John Morris (john.morris@ucl.ac.uk) and Simon Lilley (s.lilley@le.ac.uk) by 31st March 2017. As in previous years, we envisage a conference fee of around £100.

By Daniel Fridman

Blog readers may be interested in this new work available from the Stanford University Press (in paperback, hardcover, and e-book) and from online booksellers. From the book’s jacket:

“In this era where dollar value signals moral worth, Daniel Fridman paints a vivid portrait of Americans and Argentinians trying to become worthy of millions. Following groups who practice the advice from financial success bestsellers, Fridman illustrates how the neoliberal emphasis on responsibility, individualism, and entrepreneurship binds people together with the ropes of aspiration.

Freedom from Work delves into a world of financial self-help in which books, seminars, and board games reject “get rich quick” formulas and instead suggest to participants that there is something fundamentally wrong with who they are, and that they must struggle to correct it. Fridman shows that the global economic transformations of the last few decades have been accompanied by popular resources that transform the people trying to survive—and even thrive.”

Daniel Fridman is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

An introductory excerpt is available from the publisher

Blog readers may be interested in this new work available from the Presses des Mines (both in paperback and PDF) and from online booksellers. From the book’s jacket:

What does it mean to turn something into capital? What does considering things as assets entail? What does the prevalence of an investor’s viewpoint require? What is this culture of valuation that asks that we capitalize on everything? How can we make sense of the traits, necessities and upshots of this pervasive cultural condition?

This book takes the reader to an ethnographic stroll down the trail of capitalization. Start-up companies, research centers, consulting firms, state enterprises, investment banks, public administrations: the territory can certainly prove strange and disorienting at first sight, with its blurred boundaries between private appropriation and public interest, economic sanity and moral breakdown, the literal and the metaphorical, the practical and the ideological. The traveler certainly requires a resolutely pragmatist attitude, and a taste for the meanders of signification. But in all the sites in which we set foot in this inquiry we recognize a recurring semiotic complex: a scenario of valuation in which things signify by virtue of their capacity to become assets in the eye of an imagined investor.

A ground-breaking anthropological investigation on the culture of contemporary capitalism, this work directs attention to the largely unexplored problem of capitalization and offers a critical resource for current debates on neoliberalism and financialization.

The authorial collective is composed of Fabian Muniesa, Liliana Doganova, Horacio Ortiz, Álvaro Pina-Stranger, Florence Paterson, Alaric Bourgoin, Véra Ehrenstein, Pierre-André Juven, David Pontille, Başak Saraç-Lesavre and Guillaume Yon, contributing research carried out at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation (CSI) of the École des Mines de Paris.

An introductory excerpt is available from the publisher.

By Katherine Chen

Forty years ago, as the most recent wave of economic collectives and cooperatives emerged, they advocated a model of egalitarian organization so contrary to bureaucracy that they were widely called “alternative institutions” (Rothschild 1979). Today, the practices of cooperative organizations appear in many movement organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and even “sharing” firms. Cooperative practices are more relevant than ever, especially as recent political changes in the US and Europe threaten to crush rather than cultivate economic opportunities.

Cooperative groups engage in more “just” economic relations, defined as relations that are more equal, communalistic, or mutually supportive.  The oldest collectives – utopian communes, worker co-operatives, free schools, and feminist groups – sought authentic relations otherwise suppressed in a hierarchical, capitalist system.  Similar practices shape newer forms: co-housing, communities and companies promoting the “sharing economy,” giving circles, self-help groups, and artistic and social movement groups including Burning Man and OCCUPY. While some cooperatives enact transformative values such as ethically responsible consumerism and collective ownership, other groups’ practices reproduce an increasingly stratified society marked by precarity. Submitted papers might analyze the reasons for such differences, or they might examine conditions that encourage the development of more egalitarian forms of organization.

Submitted papers could also cover, but are not limited, to exploring:

  • What is the nature of “relational work” (cf. Zelizer 2012) conducted in these groups, and how it differs – or is similar to – from relational work undertaken in conventional capitalist systems?
  • How do collectivities that engage in alternative economic relations confront challenges that threaten – or buttress – their existence? These challenges include recruiting and retaining members, making decisions, and managing relations with the state and other organizations. Moreover, how do these groups construct distinct identities and practices, beyond defining what they are not?
  • How are various firms attempting to incorporate alternative values without fully applying them? For instance, how are companies that claim to advance the sharing economy – Uber, airbnb, and the like – borrowing the ideology and practices of alternative economic relations for profit rather than authentic empowerment? What are the implications of this co-optation for people, organizations, and society at large?
  • How do new organizations, especially high tech firms, address or elide inequality issues? How do organizing practices and values affect recognition and action on such issues?
  • What can we learn from 19th century historical examples of communes and cooperatives that can shed insight on their keys to successful operation today? Similarly, how might new cooperatives emerge as egalitarian and collective responses to on-going immigration issues or economic crisis generated by policies favoring the already wealthy?
  • Are collectives, cooperatives and/or firms that require creativity, such as artists’ cooperatives or high tech firms, most effective when they are organized along more egalitarian principles? How do aspects of these new modes of economic organization make them more supportive of individual and group creativity?

Bibliography

Graeber, David.   2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography.   Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Rothschild, Joyce. 1979. “The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models.” American Sociological Review44(4): 509-527.

Rothschild, Joyce and J. Allen Whitt. 1986. The Cooperative Workplace: Potentials and Dilemmas of Organizational Democracy and Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zelizer, Vivianna A. 2012. “How I Became a Relational Economic Sociologist and What Does That Mean?” Politics & Society 40(2): 145-174.

Questions about the above cfp may be directed to Joyce and myself.

Here is info about the mini-conference format:

Each mini-conference will consist of 3 to 6 panels, which will be featured as a separate stream in the program. Each panel will have a discussant, meaning that selected participants must submit a completed paper in advance, by 1 June 2017. Submissions for panels will be open to all scholars on the basis of an extended abstract. If a paper proposal cannot be accommodated within a mini-conference, organizers will forward it to the most appropriate research network as a regular submission.

More info about mini-conferences here.

The 2017 SASE conference in Lyon, France, hosted by the University of Lyon I from 29 June to 1 July 2017, will welcome contributions that explore new forms of economy, their particularities, their impact, their potential development, and their regulation.

More info about the SASE conference theme, a critical perspective on the sharing economy, is available at “What’s Next? Disruptive/Collaborative Economy or Business as Usual?

Joyce and I look forward to reading your submissions!

By Christian Borch

It has been common for economic sociology to insist that economists tend to suffer from a rather narrow view of economic phenomena – and that sociologists (and other non-economists) consequently have much to offer in terms of advancing more empirically adequate analyses. But of course, there are certainly some economists who have produced sophisticated, empirically rich studies of economic phenomena. And there are also economists who appreciate sociological findings and try to integrate these into their work. This synergy applies especially to the field of behavioural economics as well as its subfield of behavioural finance. Both these behavioural traditions share the view of sociological critics of orthodox economics; namely, that economics falls short of providing adequate accounts of empirical economic phenomena, in large part because orthodox economic frameworks rely on unrealistic homo economicus models. Against this narrowmindedness, behavioural approaches present themselves as an important analytical improvement that – by mobilizing inspiration from psychology and sociology – provides more accurate analyses of economic behaviour, including of real actors’ actual modes of action.

All of this is well known. What has received considerably less attention is how psychological and sociological insights are utilized in the hands of e.g. behavioural finance scholars. How precisely do psychological and sociological findings find their way into behavioural finance and how do these findings improve behavioural finance studies? What claims about finance are made on the basis of particular psychological or sociological insights? In our article entitled ‘Market Sociality: Mirowski, Shiller and the Tension between Mimetic and Anti-mimetic Market Features’, recently published in Cambridge Journal of Economics, Ann-Christina Lange and I seek answers to these questions. We do so by examining the socio-psychological and sociological elements that lie behind Robert J. Shiller’s behavioural finance theory.

Shiller, a Yale economist, is a leading scholar within behavioural finance. In 2013, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his central contributions to the field. In particular, Shiller has spent years critiquing the notion of efficient markets as advanced by e.g. Eugene Fama, a co-recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize. Shiller’s alternative to Fama has two dimensions. One is empirical, in that Shiller has argued that stock prices, to take one example, do not conform to efficient market expectations. Another dimension of Shiller’s work is theoretical: he has drawn considerably on particular psychological and sociological traditions when developing a behavioural alternative to the efficient market hypothesis. Indeed, in Shiller’s view, behavioural finance may be defined as ‘finance from a broader social science perspective, including psychology and sociology’ (2003: 83), and explicit inspiration from scholars such as Emile Durkheim, Robert K. Merton, and Max Weber can be identified in many of his writings.

The use of psychological and sociological findings is particularly visible in Shiller’s seminal article from 1984: ‘Stock Prices and Social Dynamics’ (Shiller, 1984), which is that part of his work which has received the most attention from the Committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in their motivation for the 2013 prize. In the 1984 article, Shiller puts forward his theoretical programme in its most elaborate form. Specifically, he argues that financial markets should be seen as deeply embedded in mass-psychological dynamics: ‘mass psychology may well be the prominent cause of movements in the price of the aggregate stock market’, he asserts (1984: 459). In our discussion of Shiller, we focus particularly on the ways in which he substantiates this assertion. We demonstrate, firstly, that Shiller is inspired by the sociological tradition of crowd and mass psychology, including an interest in the notion of suggestion (prominent in late-nineteenth-century sociology and psychology). Moreover, we also show that Shiller harks back to particular experiments from social psychology that, seemingly unwittingly, create tensions vis-à-vis the crowd and mass sociological inspirations he evokes.

A word on Shiller’s use of social-psychology experiments is pertinent here. Much of the behavioural finance literature, and especially Shiller, deploys very particular sociological and psychological findings to make rather grand statements. In our article, we discuss this point with reference to famous experiments carried out by Solomon Asch and utilized by Shiller. Here allow me to make the same point through another experimental grounding to which Shiller refers, namely the work of Muzafer Sherif.

The particular experiment Shiller references is a study by Sherif on autokinetic movement (Sherif, 1937). Placed in a dark room, a group of people are asked to measure the distance that a point of light moves, when in fact it remains stationary. The subjects are placed in the room in groups of two. One of the pair is the experimental subject. The other is, without the experimental subject’s knowledge, an experiment confederate. The objective of the experiment is to assess the degree to which the experimental subject’s estimate of the movement of light is influenced by the confederate’s judgments, i.e. whether some form of group pressure can be detected. The study concludes that experimental subjects are prone to conform to (experimentally induced) group norms, i.e. they are inclined to adjust their own judgments to the views of others (the confederate), without really acknowledging this afterwards.

Sherif’s experiment, which is reported in a nine-page article (Sherif, 1937), is used by Shiller to substantiate his claim that ‘mass psychology may well be the prominent cause of movements in the price of the aggregate stock market’. What Sherif shows, according to Shiller, is that people are subject to what he calls ‘social movements’: they are suggestible and can be influenced through group pressure; and they are also victim to fads and fashions of all sorts. Put differently, people are essentially mimetically constituted, and this characteristic, argues Shiller, also applies to financial markets, in which investors could mimic the behaviours and assessments of others.

From a sociology of knowledge perspective the interesting point here is not so much whether Shiller is correct about according mass psychology a prominent role in financial markets, including the fads and fashions that allegedly characterize these (although I think his intuition is largely right). The more important point is to note that Shiller is making such claims on the basis of studies like that of Sherif, although it is not at all clear how a study of autokinetic effect and possible group pressure in an experiment with just two persons can reasonably justify a sweeping claim about the very nature of financial markets as constituted by mass psychology and fads and fashions. Yet this is precisely how the social-psychological experiments function in the work of Shiller.

The Shiller case demonstrates a more general point: as sociologists, we should certainly welcome economists’ attempts to make productive use of sociological insights. However, we should also critically assess whether sociological (and psychological) findings are appropriately mobilized by economists, not least because such findings may often be evoked in a pick-and-choose fashion with little or no attention to any of the limitations they might have.

References

Sherif, M. (1937) ‘An Experimental Approach to the Study of Attitudes’, Sociometry 1(1/2): 90–98.

Shiller, R. J. (1984) ‘Stock Prices and Social Dynamics’, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2: 457–510.

Shiller, R. J. (2003) ‘From Efficient Markets Theory to Behavioral Finance’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 17(1): 83–104.

Some readers of this blog may be interested in the subtheme “Financialization and its societal implications” that we are convening as part of the 2017 colloquium of the European Group of Organization Studies (EGOS) in Copenhagen (July 6-8, 2017).
 
This subtheme creates a space to discuss the societal implications of a financialized economy. We suggest that organization scholars can make a distinct contribution to our understanding of financialization by (1) analyzing the rise of a financialized approach to corporate governance and (2) exploring how different types of shareholders influence corporations.
 
The deadline for the submission of short papers (3,000 words) is January 9, 2017. Please find the full call for papers here: http://www.egosnet.org/jart/prj3/egos/main.jart?rel=de&reserve-mode=active&content-id=1442567999321&subtheme_id=1442568045037
 
Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.
 
Best regards,

Nathan Coombs

After the announcement that the Royal Bank of Scotland failed the Bank of England’s latest stress test, the UK’s Channel 4 News reported the story by showing RBS’s logo crumbling under the weight of a pile of concrete bricks. The image is appropriate. Since coming into public ownership eight years ago, there have been persistent concerns that RBS might not prove resilient to a further economic shock. The recent stress test showed that these fears are perhaps well-founded.

The test showed that in the event of a particularly severe synchronised UK and global recession (as well as shocks to financial markets and bank misconduct losses) RBS would barely scrape past its 6.6% capital ratio pass rate. Worse still, RBS failed to meet the minimum leverage ratio of 3%. The bank would have to raise an extra £2 billion to satisfy the regulators.

Barclays and Standard Chartered also fared poorly. While Barclays’s capital and leverage ratios passed the test, it missed its ‘systemic reference point’ before additional tier 1 instruments converted (bonds that turn into common equity if a bank’s capital falls below a certain point). Standard Chartered did better, but it was let down by its tier 1 capital ratio coming up short (a ratio that factors in other instruments in addition to common equity and retained earnings).

These are the headline figures the media focused on. Their meaning is difficult to interpret in an absolute sense, but they give an indicator of the relative resilience of the different UK banks and their specific points of fragility. Take a look at what the report has to say about the UK’s banking sector as a whole, however, and its most critical remarks are reserved for its ‘qualitative review’. Couched in the careful language of the financial policy world, the report states that although progress has been made across the sector the Bank is ‘disappointed that the rate of improvement has been slower and more uneven than expected’.

What does this refer to? The qualitative aspects of stress testing have received less attention than they probably deserve to. In a recent speech, a governor of the US Federal Reserve, Daniel Tarullo, even complained that they are ‘frequently overlooked’, despite both banks who failed the Fed’s 2016 exercise (Deutsche Bank and Santander) doing so on qualitative grounds.

The qualitative aspects of stress testing vary across jurisdictions, but in the UK they focus on how banks derive their figures. Just like in a maths exam, it’s nowadays not enough for banks to arrive at the right number; regulators want explanations of their assumptions and justifications for their choice of models. Additional qualitative reporting obligations include the need for a detailed narrative about banks’ risk governance, capital planning processes and how they ‘review and challenge’ their models.

These qualitative reports might seem like inconsequential back-office documentation. But they are increasingly at the heart of what the stress tests are trying to achieve. The popular image of stress testing is that of the heroic technocratic venture lionised in Timothy Geithner’s 2014 memoir, Stress Test. Through the collection of vast amounts of data and the application of sophisticated quantitative tools, the regulator pierces through the epistemic fog and gets to the ‘true’ state of a bank’s balance sheet.

While that might describe the tests conducted by central banks during the financial crisis, in the years since the tests have served the additional, more subtle, purpose of attempting to change financial culture. As Gillian Tett writes in her latest book, The Silo Effect, one important cause for the financial crisis was excessive organizational complexity and a lack of joined-up thinking. Risks that should have been spotted by banks were obscured by divisional ‘silos’ impeding the free-flow of knowledge. The people who should have been talking to one another weren’t.

For this reason, the additional information the Bank of England’s report provides on their forthcoming ‘exploratory’ scenario in 2017 is noteworthy. This new biennial test will run alongside the standard test next year and has been the subject of much speculation since it was first announced in 2015. In the financial community it was widely expected to involve a historically-unprecedented or exceptionally severe scenario that would push banks modelling practices – and capital reserves – to their limit.

The report has confounded those expectations. Emphasising that the data collected from the banks will be ‘significantly less detailed’ than that in the regular stress test, the 2017 exploratory scenario will take place over an extended seven year time horizon and will test banks’ business models in light of expected competitive pressures from ‘smaller banks and non-bank businesses’. Already, the stress testing managers of UK banks are probably scratching their heads and consulting with colleagues about how they’re supposed to model that. That’s the point.