For the last 18 months I’ve been a research fellow on a project about financial stability that’s run by a small consultancy firm. Since I was trained as a biologist and have done nearly all my academic work so far in ecology, and in universities, this has been both a steep learning curve and a great adventure. The story of how I came to make this transition, moving from university into a business environment, will be for another time. Here I want to share some reflections firstly on my move into a new discipline and secondly, briefly, on financial economics itself.
My qualification for this new post was being a quantitative ecologist, which, as I used to say, often feels more like being an applied statistician. I could also point out that ecology is an economics-rich branch of the biological sciences, and I’d already been taking some interest in economic arguments for nature conservation (the ecosystem services approach), and the ensuing policy debates. But in practice the mathematical background was the most relevant qualification – together, of course, with a fascination for knowing about other disciplines. This, I believe, has been fostered by my faith and Christian philosophical framework.
Moving into a new discipline has been an upheaval in some ways. There’s a whole literature to get to grips with, of course, and I’m attempting to immerse myself in it sufficiently to see where our project outputs fit. The project was initially motivated by the 2008 financial crisis and by developments in the world of finance, with which my boss is well acquainted, rather than by outstanding questions in the literature – so that adds both excitement and some headaches to the challenge. One the one hand, the volume of literature in any discipline is so great nowadays that even devoted scholars can barely keep up with more than a narrow specialism. Added to that, the more one reads the more one may suspect that everything worthwhile has been done already – so perhaps there’s something to be said for coming fresh to a new discipline and trying to work out a strategic, limited course of reading. On the other hand, there’s clearly no substitute for an authoritative induction into a discipline such as comes through degree courses. At this point, helpful colleagues can be a lifeline, if they see some mutual benefit emerging from the collaboration. The fundamental question about moving to a new discipline is whether one’s freshness of perspective can complement the depth of understanding held by established colleagues. And that calls for a great deal of trust and humility on all sides – ‘fellowship‘ might be a good word.
So what am I doing? The aim of our project is to suggest improvements to financial regulation for the benefit of market participants and society at large. There’s a clear ethical concern, which attracted me in the first place, and then there’s an expectation of drawing inspiration from mathematical ecology. In practice it turns out to be far from trivial to find cross-disciplinary insights that go beyond metaphors (e.g. the “ecosystem of investors”), and there are obvious reasons why ecosystems don’t provide complete models for finance (no analogue of money, for example). But fruitful metrics and models can certainly cross disciplinary boundaries from time to time.
Perhaps the thing that strikes me most from this foray into finance concerns the reality of institutional sin. The financial system we inhabit is so complex and powerful that no-one really knows how to model it, let alone manage it. That’s true of ecosystems too, but in the case of finance the agents driving the system are either highly intelligent humans or their algorithmic creations (so-called artificial intelligence), which adapt to, anticipate and exploit each other and the regulatory framework with zeal and, too often, impunity. I believe there is much goodness in the financial system and its agents, but egregious injustices arising from it seem to confront me daily. The Apostle Paul’s comments on “principalities and powers” have been interpreted by some to refer to institutional structures where sin is manifested beyond the level of individual persons, and I’m convinced that some aspects of our financial system are profoundly contrary to Christ’s kingdom. This is the unsettling side of this field of research, for me.
It will take a future post (and more wisdom than I currently have) to look at specific ideas about finance in God’s purposes, and the redemption of economic systems. Meanwhile, I maintain my passion for ecology alongside my intrigue about financial economics and hope, in God’s grace, to find further fruitful insights between the two.
 This phrase occurs (in the King James Version and some others) in Rom 8:37-39, Col 1:16; 2:15, Eph 3:10-11, 6:12 and Titus 3:1. Tom Wright has written about this theme, but I can particularly recommend Colossians Remixed by Walsh & Keesmaat.