Russell Jones (Class of 1977)
Russell Jones (class of 1977) has enjoyed a 35-year career as a macro-economist, working in senior roles for various investment banks and money managers in London, Tokyo, the Middle East, and Sydney, and in the process as an advisor to many government departments, including the UK Treasury. He is the new President of the John Carpenter Club.
Do economists know how the economy works?
Certainly not as well as we would like! Indeed, the older I got, the less I found I knew or, at least, the less certain I was about things.
Economics is a social science. It relates to people and how they behave. This differentiates it from a natural science. Given that the subject matter is humanity, to come to grips with economics is to achieve some understanding of people’s hopes, fears, aspirations, reasoning, plans, expectations, and actions, and how they all relate to one another.
Economic debates tend to be more extended – some at the core of the subject have rumbled on for centuries – and prove less conclusive than in the natural sciences. This reflects the fact that individuals often have different value judgements about what constitutes a free, a good, a just, or a well-ordered society, and they desire to establish an economic system that fits in with their particular vision of how humanity should be structured and behave.
In the process, they can easily ignore facts that conflict with their particular view. Economists may make claims of objectivity, but wishful thinking and predispositions all too easily creep into their judgements. Hence, their investigations rarely if ever approach the unanimity achieved say by physicists or chemists. Economists champion a wide range of points of view, and populate numerous schools of thought.
As economics relates to the activities of people, ethics dictate that large, controlled experiments, and certainly those of any scale, are rarely possible. Thus, economic analysis is by its nature less pure, and its conclusions necessarily more tentative and open to dispute, than is the case with the natural sciences.
The human subjects of economics have their own minds, which allow them to observe, to organise, to plan, and to avoid the unpleasant implications of certain circumstances and actions. On occasion, they do what they want, and when they want. And in the world of economics, the present depends not only on the past, but also on the future, or at least how people expect the future to play out. That really complicates things!
What’s one ongoing debate among economists?
Climate change. Some, mostly on the Right, take a view that it’s not that big a problem and it will be addressed by technological developments that will naturally come on line. Others say we are way behind the curve and we need to start imposing big taxes on carbon, heavily regulating businesses’ behaviour, and spending large sums on bolstering our resilience to the challenges ahead. I am very much in the second camp. And the longer we wait, the bigger and more disruptive the ultimate interventions will have to be.
When did you realise you wanted to go into this field?
I was very lucky – at City I was taught in the Sixth form by Frank Gregory and Jack Cook, two wonderful Economics masters. They gave me a love of the subject and a sound grounding in it, and I went on to study it at university. My career would not have happened without them.
They had such enthusiasm and they brought the subject down to a practical level, tying it into the political debates of the time: the UK had just joined the EEC, governments were struggling to get inflation down, there was a lot of industrial unrest and many industries and regions in rapid decline: we were given a lot of focus on all that. And it was fascinating to be at once learning about this new science but also about the current political debate.
The two of them came from different political perspectives too, so you were getting both sides of the argument. I owe them a huge amount.
Which other subjects and teachers inspired you?
I did an English A-Level really as an afterthought. But I found myself being taught by a man called Jonathan Keats who turned me on to a lot of English literature for which I have been eternally grateful. He and one of my university tutors – a former newspaper editor – really opened my eyes to the English language and how it should be written. Being able to write clearly and coherently has been vital throughout my career.
Can you recommend a book that opened your eyes?
Besides J.M. Keynes’ General Theory, which is the macroeconomist’s, or at least this macroeconomists, bible, Jane Austen’s Emma! I was a Jack the Lad 16 year old sportsman, doing English because I needed to do a third A level, and Jonathan Keats turned me on to the joy’s of Emma. I never looked back!
What were your main extra-curricular interests?
Sport, sport and sport, really. I always loved it. Captained the school football team for two years, played for the school rugby team, and the cricket team, too. I was always doing something sporty and that’s stayed with me throughout my life. I still run occasional marathons and half marathons. The knees are holding up.
How did you come to be at City?
Again, I was tremendously lucky. I was the first person in the family to go to public school or to university. My family is from Liverpool, and I was born there. My father left school at 14 and worked himself up in the hotel business from zero. I became a prime beneficiary of his sterling work ethic and thriftiness. My dad’s still around. He’s 95 now. But what a role model. He fought in the Pacific at the end of WW2, started off as a ‘tea-stirrer’s assistant’ in hotels but ended up as the General Manager of Claridge’s.
We lived in hotels throughout my early years and it was a very strange childhood! A lot of people in my family went into the hospitality business, but it never really took my fancy.
How did the culture at City compare to other schools?
I loved it at City. For the time, I think it was remarkably enlightened, and I am so pleased it has retained and enhanced that reputation. In the 70s it was something of an exception among London public schools in terms of the diversity of its intake. There was also less formality. It just seemed to be more broad minded than other schools. It was great to meet kids from different backgrounds, but to realise we are all really the same. My own daughters went to international schools when we lived in Japan. I think what they got from meeting children from all over the world was so valuable to them and I feel I got something similar from being at City.
It was, and is, a shining light.
Do you remember your first day at City?
I was scared stiff! I remember being led into the Great Hall and the massive pipe organ, being positioned against the wall watching all these big, confident, kids, thinking ‘What have I got myself into?. How can I survive here?’ But that feeling worse off quite quickly.
And your last day?
I climbed up behind the organ in the Great Hall and scrawled my name in chalk all over the wall. I recall that we then went to the pub.
What was your first experience of work?
I used to go back to Liverpool to work in my uncle’s café, selling ice cream. A bit of cultural shift from public school life in London.
Which visiting speakers do you remember from your time at City?
Diana Rigg. She came to talk to us a couple of years after being in a James Bond film… she was absolutely spellbinding – physically, the way she spoke, in every way. That’s the one that really sticks in my mind.
What are the personal qualities that a 14-year-old would need to follow in your footsteps?
You have to work hard – it’s stating the obvious, I know – but you need to put a shift in. It’s also important to find something that you really want to do. I used to enjoy every day of my work, no matter how difficult it was. As a professional macro economist, every day the world would throw up something new, something different, something fascinating.
So, ‘Find something you love’ is the advice I try to give my own kids. But you have to work at it. I had loads of setbacks at various points in my career…
Life is pretty random, so you need to be agile in thought and action. As the boxer Mike Tyson said: ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ And it’s true! A lot of the good stuff that will happen to you – as well as some bad stuff – will come out of left field. Stuff happens. Try to be ready to deal with it!
The great piece of luck for me was to have the opportunity to go and work in Tokyo, to see a whole new world. I couldn’t believe it when the opportunity came up. I thought it was well beyond my pay grade, but I also thought it could be interesting and maybe great fun. It was. I got it and made the most of it. So, have a positive attitude. Grasp opportunities.
Your career has involved a lot of travel…
I worked in Japan for most of a decade, and I also had a spell of three years in Australia, and about the same time in the Middle East – but then within those roles, I had to do a lot of business travel. I’ve been everywhere from Iceland to the Pacific Islands over the years.
My job was to give advice to governments, pensions funds, hedge funds, and insurance companies, based all over the world, and they would like their counterparties to give that advice in person. Sometimes, my schedule was ridiculous. Once, I flew to Wellington from London for a one-hour meeting with the New Zealand Post Office! I had the meeting and went back to the airport. My carbon footprint has been massive…
Was the work culture different in the different countries you worked in or is the finance sector the same everywhere?
I don’t think you can divorce the culture of where you work from where you live. Tokyo could sometimes seem like another planet. The Middle East, too, on occasion. But it was a great education to be out of your comfort zone, and indeed be part of an ethnic minority. I like to think that it gave me some insight into what it must be like to be an ethnic minority in the UK.
Japan was the most fascinating experience of all. It could seem so alien. There were so many layers of etiquette. So many cultural differences. So many things that you didn’t expect, or weren’t familiar with. My wife and I used to say that, every day something would make you laugh and something would make you cry. But that said, I think that we Brits found it easier to assimilate than did American ex-pats. The Americans would often seem like fish out of water and a lot of them left as soon as they could.
Who did you most like working with?
I used to love advising governments and central banks more than anything else. They were the most polite and knowledgeable clients you could have. They gave you time and you felt that perhaps something you said might influence policy and have a positive effect on people’s lives.
Now, you are the new president of the John Carpenter Club. Have you been in touch with the School over the years?
I hadn’t been in touch for 30-odd years since I played sport for the old boys back in the 80s. But I went to a reunion a couple of years ago and got chatting with someone involved with the club, and they asked me help put together a strategy for the club’s future. That went reasonably well, and then I was asked if I would like to be president.
It’s a great opportunity to give something back to a school that I have very fond memories of, and to maybe do something for the alumni who came after me. I have some spare time these days, and I can throw myself into it. I am very chuffed by the opportunity, and hopefully I can make a success of it.