July 2020 Newsletter - Peter Sinclair
10 Jul 2020
Peter Sinclair, who has died at the age of 73 of Covid-19, was an inspirational figure, to all his colleagues, but above all to generations of students.
This is not just a figure of speech. He shaped whole cohorts of academic and professional economists in the UK and elsewhere for more than 40 years. Peter poured boundless energy into turning students’ flickers of interest or insight into a vocation for economics and its potential to contribute to the world.
Many of his former students have reminisced about tutorials over breakfast in Oxford’s covered market, about the extra reading he would always recommend, or about his ability and eagerness to speak to them in their native language. Peter also stayed in touch with many of us for years or decades, whether from Oxford, Birmingham, the RES Summer School for doctoral students, or the Centre for Central Banking Studies.
Peter James Niven Sinclair was born in Hertfordshire in September 1946, the son of Walter and Marian; he attended Gresham’s School, Corpus Christi College, Oxford (reading classics) and then Nuffield College. From 1974 to 1994 he was economics tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford (alongside Tony Courakis), before becoming a Professor in the Economics Department at Birmingham. From 2000-2008 he also ran the Bank of England’s Centre for Central Banking Studies.
Anybody who met Peter could not fail to be struck by his warmth and kindness. No student was ever mocked for making an error — even if you said supply curves sloped down, he would explain when supply curves can bend backward, before correcting the rookie error. John Davies recalled the International Economics course in the Oxford M Phil: ‘I have often told the story of his going through some mathematical model, writing down various terms and then turning to his group of students and asking:
Peter: “..and so the exchange rate goes…?”
Student (hesitantly): “Down?”
Peter (nodding enthusiastically): “Nearly! Nearly! Up!”’
There was also steely disapproval alongside this profound kindness. It was reserved for intellectual dishonesty, and for those who showed a lack of respect towards others. He was, as a committed internationalist more than as an economist, an ardent opponent of Brexit.
Peter’s fields were macroeconomics and international economics, always combining theory with a profound engagement with policy and practice. This insistence on the need for relevance was something he put into practice himself through his long association with the Bank of England and the realities of monetary policy. Theory was essential but theory alone was never enough. As he wrote in a paper co-authored with the Bank’s Bill Allen, ‘Monetary policy needs to be guided by principles, above all the principle that Hippocrates’ oath nearly stated — “do no harm”.’1
Joe Stiglitz comments: ‘He was one of the (then young) economists who welcomed me to Oxford when I arrived in 1976, with his good-natured ebullience, his inquisitive mind, and unquenchable curiosity. Especially with Brasenose being so near All Souls, we saw much of each other. He was also a breath of fresh air in macroeconomics and monetary theory — a bulwark against the new classical economics that was raging at the time. I just reread one of his early articles about unemployment in the early 80s.2 So sensible. And reflecting his humanity. And based on such deep theoretical understandings — the ‘imperfections’ in the economy (including those associated with information) that made the new classical model (and its latter-day descendants in DSGE models) so irrelevant, and policies based on those models so dangerous.’
Peter was also extraordinarily well-read and knowledgeable. He seemed to have read everything, and could always recommend what to read about no matter what aspect of economics. Peter’s first wife was the economist Shelagh Heffernan, whom he met in Oxford. She died in 2010 after a long illness. Peter was devastated by the loss, but later found great joy with his second wife, the artist Jayne Ivimey. Jayne reports that before his illness and death, ‘Peter’s bedtime readings were typically Peter. Welsh, Finnish, and Estonian dictionaries. He was planning to write a book on his theory of the origin of the English language.’ This indeed fits with someone who seemed to know at least a few words of every language and to be conversant in an astonishing number of them.
Jayne also found in the belongings returned to her from hospital a few scribbled notes. Before he lost consciousness, Peter seemed to have been thinking about how the economy could recover from the shock of the pandemic and the stresses on international integration. We will have to recover without him.
Diane Coyle, University of Cambridge
1. Sinclair P and Allen W A (2017), ‘Monetary policy normals, future and past’, National Institute Economic Review, 241(1), R5-R12.
2. ‘The Assessment: The Unemployment Problem in the 1980s’, Derek Morris and Peter Sinclair, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Volume 1, Issue 2, Summer 1985, Pages 1-19, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxrep/1.2.1-a
Many reminiscences about Peter can be found in the comments on Diane’s blog post: