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2018

Beyond the usual suspects: A global analysis of global finance

Book review of: Hall S. 2017. Global Finance: Places, Spaces and People. London, Sage.
Gary Robinson
Bibliographical reference

Hall S. 2017. Global Finance: Places, Spaces and People. London, Sage.

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1The financial crisis of 2007-08 prompted a profusion of writing across various disciplines and approaches exploring the sometimes arcane and opaque ‘black box’ of finance. Although largely originating in the subprime mortgage market of the US, the crisis quickly spread, becoming known as the global financial crisis. The self-appointed ‘masters of the universe’ of Wall Street fell from grace live on television but after a short period of penance, the largest financial firms in the international financial centres of New York and London have since returned to profitability, bigger than before having taken over ailing competitors following state bailouts. So it appeared it was back to business as usual, with the ‘real’ economy still in thrall to and disconnected from global finance.

2Ten years after the crisis, Sarah Hall takes us from the decade leading up to it and the changes in financial firms’ business models, products and labour markets during this time, through to the post-crisis financial landscape. The book views the spectrum of places, spaces and people which constitute and reproduce the global financial system through the prism of cultural economy, emphasising the inseparability of the economic, social and cultural in co-constituting finance through the activities of various actors. Taking issue with the labelling of the financial crisis as global, Hall highlights that the sources of the crisis were highly localised and its effects geographically varied. In addressing criticism of extant research as glamorising the world of high finance, and of being overly focused on Western Europe and North America, Hall’s case studies move beyond the “usual suspects” to examine international financial centres (IFCs) in Asia and to look at the role of everyday financial actors, as well as elites. She further also highlights finance’s connection with the ‘real’ economy and the problematic onshore/offshore finance dichotomy. In doing, she argues persuasively for a greater focus on the places, spaces and people comprising the international financial system in order to highlight its power relations. International financial markets are shaped in and by those locations where the financial system is produced, and the networked relations between them, composed of the actions of households and elites.

3The introduction takes us from the Bretton Woods agreement and its collapse to today’s finance-led, globally-interconnected capitalism and its contradictions, crises, and challenges. Following the introduction, the book’s thesis is developed in three sections, each containing two chapters, and the afterword. At the beginning of each chapter the themes and sub-themes contained therein are listed with bullet points, making it easy for readers, students in particular, to know what to expect in the chapter. The book’s utility is further enhanced by the addition at the end of each chapter of a list of two or three additional key information sources, with a one-line summary of each. As well as being well written and easy to navigate, the selection of serif and sans serif fonts chosen works well together while the cover features a smart design.

4Section I is entitled “Placing Global Finance: The Changing Role of International Financial Centres” and it examines the changing natures of IFCs. Chapter 2 begins with an overview of how the international financial system has evolved, particularly since Bretton Woods. Hall highlights the paradox of a global system being coordinated though small districts in a few large cities, with other cities around the world now competing to become financial centres. Through an examination of regulatory change and the working practices of individuals in London from the 1970s until today, she shows how IFCs adapt and reinvent themselves to retain their position of power. Chapter 3 moves further afield to explore finance and financial centres outside Europe and North America, beginning with an overview of research on Islamic finance. It then moves onto an examination of how the Chinese financial system has changed and the growth in importance of Beijing and Shanghai. Covering the internationalisation of the RMB and rise of offshore RMB centres, the chapter then returns to London and its regulatory changes allowing Chinese banks to open branches, while becoming the main western RMB centre. The chapter finishes by highlighting the importance of culture in Chinese banks’ efforts to expand in London and convincingly argues for expanding the study of finance beyond Europe and North America, while also illustrating the importance of politics and power, as state authorities can both help and hinder market entry and operations of financial firms.

5The second section, called “Spaces of Finance and the ‘Real’ Economy”, focuses on the spaces and networks which make financial markets. In chapter 4, Hall takes issue with the real and financial economy dichotomy by instead accentuating the myriad networks of connections between finance and ordinary economic activities in order to emphasise new actors and develop a more power-focused analysis. She does so by highlighting two strands of literature. The economic geography literature on global production and financial networks emphasises the key role of advanced producer services (APS) firms operating in world cities, while some financialisation approaches show the increasing dependence of households on financial networks. However, she also points out a need for this literature to better explore the spatialities of financialisation. The chapter closes with an account of the intersection between infrastructure and finance. The focus of chapter 5 is on the world of offshore financial centres (OFCs), which has been the subject of increased attention since the financial crisis. It questions the neat separation between on- and offshore activities and examines the rise of midshore centres in order to enhance understandings of the evolution of offshore space and centres. It does so using case studies of firms and places in the increasingly salient Asia Pacific region, rather than the old heartlands of North America and Europe, and by focusing on private rather than corporate wealth flows. This demonstrates how midshore financial centres combine characteristics of on- and offshore centres and shows that these realms need to be understood in relation to each other.

6The final section is entitled “Global Finance and Financial Subjects” and it examines the role of people in making and shaping markets. In chapter 6, we look at the changing nature of financial elites in the City of London since the end of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’. The rise of quantitative finance in the 2000s supposedly ended elite recruitment through the ‘old boy’s network’ of those educated in a small number of fee-paying schools and universities, in favour of more meritocratic elite admission. However, despite this, Hall shows that education still plays a leading role in manufacturing elite subjects, albeit via a somewhat wider set of universities but also via specialist business education and those who can afford to live in London while completing internships. She also examines discursive and ethnographic work which lays bare the gendered nature of finance with its multiple masculinities. Highlighting the ways in which everyday life is increasingly bound to financial markets, chapter 7 points to the changed relationship between the state and individuals under neoliberalism. Ordinary people are made more responsible for their own economic security rather than relying on the welfare state, particularly since the financial crisis and decreased public spending as part of austerity policies in several advanced economies, such as the UK. Student loans, mortgages, and the replacement of defined-benefit with defined-contribution pensions all manufacture financial subjects as active investors. The chapter closes by discussing the uneven ways in which individuals are involved with the financial system, with financial exclusion having varied causes and geographies. The practices of redlining and sub-prime lending in the US neatly end the discussion by connecting back to the financial crisis.

7In the book’s afterword, the importance of political economy research in initially identifying the financial and monetary systems as crucial objects of economic analysis is recognised, which set the stage for research into the social and cultural relations underlying financial practices. While commending this cultural economy research, the chapter summarises how the book has responded to criticisms that cultural economy neglects areas outside the heartlands of Western Europe and North America and that it glamorises its object of study. It identifies two areas for future study, namely the intersections of finance and technology, or fintech, and finance and the environment.

8Sarah Hall has skilfully managed to cover a remarkably wide array of the most salient themes in global finance research, also touching upon some current themes, namely fintech and the environment. The geographically-varied case studies on offer broaden the book’s appeal and show the need to look beyond the financial heartlands to investigate other places which are rapidly growing in influence and importance. Chapters 3 and 5 in particular do so by examining ways in which China is becoming more involved in the global financial system and mention some longer established Asian IFCs, while there is also mention of Islamic finance and ties between the Gulf region and global finance. However, the other chapters return mostly to Western financial centres, rather than also demonstrating how the topics in question play out in other contexts. Chapter 6 examines elites in London, chapter 7 focuses on the cases of the UK and the US to demonstrate the increased entanglement of individuals and everyday finance with the financial system, and chapter 4’s discussion of financialisation mainly also looks at these locations. While the bulk of the literature examines the US and UK as the most financialised economies, it would perhaps be of value to mention the contingency of financialisation as it may follow a different trajectory in other contexts (e.g. Robinson, 2017). Hall notes various ways in which the application of financialisation could be further developed and in this vein, the book could arguably also have made more explicit the shareholder value aspect of financialisation, which would be beneficial to readers unfamiliar with critical approaches.

9The book capably covers a variety of interdisciplinary concepts and literature, including from sociology, anthropology, politics and economic geography, although an omission with regard to the latter is the application of global production networks (GPN) to specific IFCs and sectors of finance to show the complexity and specificity of functions performed in different locations (e.g. Dörry, 2015). Hall’s book addresses the relative lack of finance-specific content in some of the larger economic geography books (e.g. Clark, et al., 2001; Coe et al., 2007; Leyshon et al., 2009) and as such complements these. Recent works dedicate more space to addressing some of the same issues as this book (Clark et al., 2018), however, this is the first dedicated financial geography course book and it provides a robust and far-reaching introduction to the field for new students. As such, the above criticisms are quibbling, given that the book amply shows the utility of analysing new places, spaces and people in the global financial system. The jacket states that the book is intended to have far-reaching use across the social sciences in a variety of upper level courses for undergraduates. In light of recent initiatives espousing more diverse approaches to the teaching of economics, its relative brevity yet impressive breadth of content means it would also serve as an excellent and accessible introduction to heterodox approaches for students of finance, business, and economics.

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Bibliography

Clark GL, Feldman MP, Gertler MS (eds.). 2001. The Oxford Handbook of Economic Geography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Clark GL, Feldman MP, Gertler MS, Wójcik D (eds.). 2018. The New Oxford Handbook of Economic Geography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Coe NM, Kelly P, Yeung HWC. 2007. Economic Geography: A Contemporary Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Dörry S. 2015. Strategic nodes in investment fund global production networks: The example of the financial centre Luxembourg. Journal of Economic Geography 15(4): 797-814.

Leyshon A, Lee R, McDowell L, Sunley P (eds.). 2009. The SAGE Handbook of Economic Geography. Los Angeles, SAGE.

Robinson G. 2017. Pragmatic financialisation: the role of the Japanese post office. New Political Economy 22(1): 61-75.

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References

Electronic reference

Gary Robinson, « Beyond the usual suspects: A global analysis of global finance », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2018, Online since 25 June 2018, connection on 24 September 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/3545

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About the author

Gary Robinson

Gary Robinson is a PhD Researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) working on the FINWEBS project (INTER/FWO/16/11312037/FinWebs), which investigates the role of agency in interconnecting international financial centres. He has a Masters in Global Political Economy from the University of Sussex, UK, and he is interested in finance, institutions, the state, and East Asia. His PhD examines the governance of technological change in financial market infrastructure. Email: gary.robinson@liser.lu

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Copyright

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