What has the bubble done for us?

Past bubbles gave us the railway network and fibre-optic connectivity, says Merryn Somerset Webb. But all this bubble has produced is a new set of slums and a sense of financial entitlement among the rich.

Are bubbles always a bad thing? You can argue they're not. If an economy is to take great leaps forward it needs the occasional massive injection of capital. Take the railway bubble in the 1840s. Would a government ever have invested the money needed to crisscross the UK with tracks over 9,500 miles of them? Of course not.

And would private capital have paid for the tracks had its controllers been able realistically to gauge the potential returns (it is estimated that anyone who invested in the 1840s would have had to wait 50-odd years just to get their money back). Of course not.

But despite the utterly uneconomic nature of the building of the infrastructure it would be hard to find anyone these days prepared to argue that having lots of trains wasn't and isn't a good thing. Same goes for the internet bubble. How else would all that fibre-optic cable that has sent the cost of internet use tumbling and changed the way we work and live have been laid so fast?

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But what has our most recent bubble given us? I'm struggling here. One obvious answer might be that the huge amount of money that poured into the house-building industry has helped regenerate our regional city centres. But having just spent a week in Manchester, I'm not sure this will be any kind of sustainable legacy. Yes, there are endless new flats, but these are buy-to-let deserts, not the beginnings of new communities.

I spent some time staying in a two-bed, two-bath, new-build flat in Salford, with rooms all of a size the average person would see as totally unacceptable. There was nowhere to put anything and no chance of getting in any furniture beyond two beds and a (small) sofa.

You couldn't even look at yourself in the mirror no part of the flat allowed you to get far enough away from one to see more than one limb. And it wasn't as though you could leave the flat to give yourself a little more space. No shops, no restaurants, no community. Just lots more cheaply built, high-rise buildings full of unoccupied mini-flats.

On the first morning we walked round in circles for ages looking for somewhere to have coffee. When we saw a Starbucks in the distance, we nearly wept with relief. This isn't so much regeneration as modern slum creation.

New slum dwellings aside, as far as I can see the only other thing this bubble has created in Britain is a huge sense of financial entitlement among the rich and those who hang around them. As in most bubbles, this has resulted in fraud, not least from our politicians. After years of rubbing shoulders with the filthy rich, says Mark Steel in The Independent, "their heroes are Murdoch, Branson and Berlusconi. They inhabit a world of clean moats and mowed paddocks." Moats and paddocks they think we should pay for. Not much of a legacy is it?

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.