Cometh the hour, cometh the man

 

THE EDUCATION PROFILE: BRIAN LUCEY, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF FINANCE AT TCD:Brian Lucey, TCD’s finance professor, has caught the spirit of the moment with his easy-to-digest robust criticism of the banking sector, the unions and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan. Lucey has taken some flak for his opinions, but he’s willing to put up rather than shut up

In the last year, the voices of economists have become as familiar to Irish listeners as the weather team at Met Éireann. Alan Ahearne’s dry tone, Colm McCarthy’s arch Dublinese and Morgan Kelly’s descending scold have become part of the media soundscape.

The Kerry lilt of Brian Lucey is lending a new cadence to the tune. Lucey’s star has risen with the downfall of the banks, as producers and editors leap on his applied, forthright approach to punditry. It may be a subtle point to the average listener, but this associate professor of finance at the TCD School of Business is not an economist. He stands alone as a public expert on business and finance. The banking crisis has, according to colleagues, brought him out of his shell.

“Brian has a rare mix of education and experience that has made him the right man for this media moment,” says one press observer. “His primary degree was pure economics, he worked for a time in the Central Bank, and he lectures in finance. The last six months have seen the media grappling for experts who can talk about banking, and Brian has stepped up to the plate.”

As an employee of a business department, Lucey occupies a different intellectual sphere from the economists. Business schools broke away from economics departments in the 1960s – to the relief of many economists, who regarded businessmen as tradespeople, not academics. Business schools have risen in stature since, and the applied punditry of a scholar such as Lucey makes satisfying listening for a nation suddenly craving economic literacy.

“At 44, Lucey is young by comparison with some of the gurus out there, so he has a lot of media traction,” says one press observer. “He’s seen as a man of the future, someone whose status will continue to rise over the coming years. Because his research interests are in business and finance, rather than economics, he is seen as more interesting than some of his peers.”

But Lucey is interesting for more than just his research agenda. He’s prepared to get his hands dirty by antagonising the unions, savaging the banks and reserving his most withering commentary for Minister Brian Lenihan. He has made himself a very public servant in recent months, calling for a cut in his own salary as well as those of the academics he works with.

To create an air of objectivity, many university commentators posit themselves in an imaginary dimension where none of the advice they hand out applies to them. They are neither candidate nor electorate, private nor public. Lucey regularly uses the pronoun “we” when discussing the public sector. He constantly and self-consciously throws himself into the melee.

His position has drawn heat, but he’s holding the line. In a recent blog spat on maman.poulet.com, Lucey proved himself willing to put his money where his mouth is. A blogger suggested that Lucey had the luxury of offsetting any public sector pay cut with his media earnings.

“I imagine it might be a bit frosty in [TCD] Senior Common Room tomorrow as he takes his coffee. Some of the more lowly academics might point to media appearance fees and column remittances that Dr Lucey earns, as a result of the bank crisis, that make it OK for him to take a cut.”

Lucey’ retort was swift. “€320 in total last year from all media activities. Paid for the Xmas dinner for the family, after tax. So not a lot. I try to talk on things pertinent to finance (aka professing my discipline) and would do it for nout. I have no agenda and represent nobody bar the voices in my head.”

The voices in Lucey’s head are clamorous, say colleagues. Terms such as “polymath” and “oracle” swirl around him, and close friends wonder when he sleeps. Lucey’s pigeonhole is stuffed with sci-fi novels, he’s an expert on world war history, and can deliver a fluid treatise on anything from Greek and Roman civilisation to the Third Reich.

He is associate editor of the Journal of Multinational Financial Management, The Financial Review and the Journal of Applied Finance. He is academic director of the TCD MSc in Finance and the Midwest Finance Association in the US.

His networking skills, say colleagues, are considerable. Lucey has a long list of peer-reviewed publications on a broad range of subjects from the psychology of economics to behavioural finance. His press cuttings are piling up by the week – despite his dizzying teaching and researching schedule, Lucey is making time for the media.

It’s a new development. “A year ago Brian would not have been the obvious candidate for a career in media,” says one observer. However, the radical change in media discourse of the past 12 months has created a slot that only Lucey, with his accessible language, ready opinions, easy humour and broad expertise, could fit.

Not everyone welcomes Lucey’s lengthening media shadow. Some analysts accuse him of straying into areas where he has thin expertise. Even those who admire him say that Lucey is inclined to have an opinion on everything, whether he can back it up or not. “Journalists ask questions about the economy and he’s inclined to have a stab at answering them, even if his expertise lies elsewhere,” says one.

Another observer suggests that Lucey’s calls for the nationalisation of the banks and the creation of toxic banks may be motivated, at least in part, by a intellectual fascination with financial experiment. Lucey is an impatient character who likes to get things done – his public frustration with the finance minister’s “paralysis” makes him an unlikely candidate for a policy advice role in Brian Lenihan’s Department of Finance any time soon.

Lucey is not trying to make friends, however, and that’s why the media loves him. His recent comments about the unions have been scalding. University employees will not thank him for asking for a pay cut. He’s even happy to take a little swipe at other pundits, as he did in the Sunday Tribune when he took David McWilliams to task for remarks about Ireland leaving the Eurozone.

Lucey warned McWilliams about the danger of irresponsible punditry, using a Keynesian quote: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Lucey is neither defunct nor an economist. His rapidly rising public profile suggests that the media and public are not splitting hairs. To the surprise of those who once regarded him as bookish and retiring, Lucey is blossoming into a media force to be reckoned with. He may make more than €320 in 2009.

Putting his money where his mouth is: Brian Lucey on the economic crisis

"Our policymakers' attention has been focused on debt and recapitalisation of the banking sector.
Meanwhile, the other elephant in the room waits to be noticed. The absence of a policy response regarding non- financial institutions is a serious impediment to current and future economic growth and a potential source for social instability."

The Irish Times, February 2009

"To date, swift action has not been a hallmark of this Government"

The Irish Times, February 2009

"In the face of a generational challenge - one that, if not tackled correctly, will mean the economic death of a generation - the ICTU is planning a national strike. If it weren't so serious it would be laughable. The ICTU is engaging in tantrum politics"

Sunday Tribune, March 2009

"It's clear that the unions dearly miss the cosy embrace of power without responsibility that was given them by social partnership . . . Unless it calls off this lunatic action on March 30th, ICTU will be seen to stand for Incredibly, Contemptibly, Totally Unrealistic."

Sunday Tribune, March 2009

"No banking system in any other country had underperformed as much as the Irish one, and every bank director has failed in their fiduciary duty and should resign immediately."

Sunday Independent, February 2009

"No one is capable of leading. Social partnership has become an anaesthetising drug that acts to keep the small pains away but at the cost of ignoring the long-term damage being done by the underlying pathology."

Sunday Tribune, March 2009

"I made it clear that those of us at the top can and should take the pain and the initiative.

A discourse of fear is totally appropriate here - it's scary and getting worse, with nobody's hand on the tiller!" www.mamanpoulet. com