Wednesday 24 August 2016

Just who is Morgan Kelly?

Published 14/11/2010 | 05:00

Economics is "the dismal science", and in that once small but self-important profession Professor Morgan Kelly is Dr Doom.

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The author of the cryptically titled academic paper On the Likely Extent of Falls in Irish House Prices in 2006 is now the sage of Ireland's economic Armageddon.

It's an unlikely position for the suburban professor, who earns over €113,000 a year and, as he told a reporter when accosted near his home in a leafy Dublin suburb while going to collect his children from the local schools with his Golden Labrador, "I don't like to be in the public eye."

Well, Professor Morgan, one of 27 well-paid academics at the University College Dublin School of Economics, is now firmly in the eye of the storm as his latest pronouncement in the Irish Times last Monday plunged its readers and anyone who talks to them even further into a national depression.

Coming from the professor who prophesised the property collapse, it was for the most part a well-argued diatribe which let itself down by its failure to throw the public service into the stew of all our ills.

Could this be because Professor Morgan Kelly is himself part of the problem, a highly-paid public servant in an overpaid university sector who teaches for a few hours a week and enjoys long holidays and a gilded lifestyle. Interestingly, the next day's Irish Times followed the lead of the Sunday Independent by peering into the corridors of academia, where salaries range from €263,602 (No 1) to €112,610 (No 100).

While Morgan Kelly's writings are highly entertaining octane- fuelled rants, his academic research output since his seminal piece on the property bubble in 2006 does not have the same influence.

Although some of his more bitchy colleagues say that he hasn't really produced much by way of academic "papers", saving himself for the newspaper, he did manage to write two papers in 2010 on The Little Ice Age and Living Standards and Mortality Since the Middle Ages, both with his colleague Cormac O'Grada.

He was described by the Herald Tribune as "a specialist in medieval demographics"... "whose eyes burn with the passionate intensity of his prophesy".

Much of his academic work, as opposed to his journalism, is historically based.

"He's a great guy," says his collaborator Professor O'Grada, who has an office near Kelly in the Newman Building in UCD. "He likes to keep to himself and doesn't court publicity".

Asked if he's a guy you could have a pint or go to a football match with, he quickly rules out football or sport, but not the pint.

"He very widely read on economics, history, literature and culture -- we are doing some stuff now on pre-Industrial England and France that has nothing to do with what is happening now."

Economist Jim Power says, "His message does not suit the establishment, but woe betide the person who takes him on."

Power knows from personal experience.

"I was negative (about Kelly's prediction) and I went on Prime Time, and it is one of the biggest embarrassments of my life. I went up against him and he was right and I was wrong," he says.

"What he's telling us is not a message we want to hear, but it must be taken seriously. He has a good track record -- if somebody has form, you don't ignore them. If I had one criticism of him, it is his use of language. If he had used the sort of language the rest of us use, he would be listened to more."

The Kelly vocabulary includes "Biffo", "Inda", and describing Nama's acquisitions as "cash for thrash".

Another academic says that Kelly is "a bit odd" and slightly eccentric, and that quite often his predictions are wrong.

"He wouldn't be brimming with social skills," he says, but it might just be that Kelly has no intention of becoming a David McWilliams or an Eddie Hobbs.

Morgan Kelly grew up in Dublin, went to Templeogue College (past alumni include Diarmuid Gavin), and now lives in Templeogue and shares a house with Nuala Brady.

Unlike others in the Department of Economics he does not list an academic profile, but as far as we know he went to Trinity College and did a PhD in Yale in the USA.

He stayed largely under the radar until he spotted what should have been the bleeding obvious -- that the housing boom was mad.

His prediction of a 50 per cent collapse in property prices back in 2007 robbed the middle classes of their millionaire status and provoked Bertie Ahern's much-quoted comment: "I don't know how people engaged in that don't commit suicide, because frankly the only thing that motivates me is being able to actively change something."

There are still those who like to portray Kelly as being on the lunatic fringes of economics and think he just got lucky with the property prediction.

There is a graphic description of the battle between Kelly and Ulster Bank economist Pat McArdle at an otherwise dull Economic Forum for eggheads in Kenmare.

According to observers, Kelly "danced around the platform waving his arms wildly" and, when McArdle questioned why he was allowed on the platform with his doom-laden predictions, he went into overdrive. Observers report that, typically colourfully, he opened his reply rhetorically with: "Who the XXXX am I to express a point of view on property and banking?"

There are many who hark back for the great days of the Doheny & Nesbitt school of economics, where a few bearded ones could (and did) fit into the snug in the Baggot Street pub and solve the problems of the nation over a few pints of Guinness. Last week, they were disheartened by Professor Kelly's long-awaited answer to this sad little country's economic problems.

"You have read enough articles by economists by now to know that it is customary at this stage for me to propose, in 30 words or fewer, a simple policy that will solve all our problems. Unfortunately, this is where I have to hold up my hands and confess that I have no solution, simple or otherwise," said Kelly.

Maybe in 100 years, another well-paid economist out in UCD will tell us what really happened in Ireland in 2010, but in the meantime us poor zombies will just have to heed Professor Kelly's exhortation and "rely on the kindness of strangers".

Sunday Independent

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