John Maynard Keynes (June 5, 1883 in Cambridge - April 21, 1946 in Sussex) was an English economist, whose radical ideas had a major impact on modern economic and political thought. He was the son of John Nevile Keynes (pronounced "Canes"), a lecturer at Cambridge University and Florence Ada Brown, a successful author and a social reformist. He is particularly remembered for advocating interventionist government policy, by which the government would use fiscal and monetary measures to aim to mitigate the adverse effects of economic recessions and booms. His ideas have been further developed by the school of Keynesian economics.

Life and works

His father, John Neville Keynes, was an economist. Keynes graduated in mathematics from Cambridge University, and afterwards increasingly turned his attention to economics. An advisor to the British government during World War I, he first came to public prominence with the publication of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published after the end of the war in 1919. This argued that the reparations which Germany was forced to pay to the victors in the war were too large and would lead to the ruin of the German economy. These predictions were arguably borne out when the German economy collapsed in the Hyperinflation of 1923, with only a small amount of reparations ever being paid.

Keynes also published his Treatise on Probability in 1920, a notable contribution to the philosophical and mathematical underpinnings of probability theory.

His seminal book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was first published in 1936. In this book Keynes put forward a theory based upon the notion of aggregate demand to explain variations in the overall level of economic activity, such as were observed in the Great Depression. The book advocated activist economic policy by government to stimulate demand in times of unemployment, for example by spending on public works. The book is often viewed as the foundation of modern macroeconomics.

During World War II, Keynes argued in How to pay for the war that the war effort should be largely financed by higher taxation, rather than deficit spending, in order to avoid Inflation.

Keynes wrote "Essays in Biography" and "Essays in Persuasion", the former giving portraits of economists and notables, whilst the latter presents some of Keynes' attempts to influence decision-makers during the Great Depression.

Following the war, Keynes argued in favour of a radical system for the management of currencies, involving a central bank for the world and a common unit of currency, the "Bancor".

Private life

Arguably homosexual in earlier life, in mid-life Keynes enjoyed a happy marriage with the famous ballerina Lydia Lopokova. Keynes was a prominent member of the Bloomsbury group. He was ultimately a successful investor building up a substantial private fortune. He enjoyed collecting books and for example collected and protected during his lifetime many of Isaac Newton's papers. Keynes died of cardiac infarction, his heart problems being aggravated by the strain of working on post-war international financial problems.

Keynes the Investment Wizard

Keynes' brilliant record as an investor is demonstrated by the publicly available data of a fund he managed on behalf of King's College at Cambridge.

From 1928 to 1945, despite taking a massive hit during the Crash of 1929, Keynes' fund produced a very strong average increase of 13.2% compared with the general market in the United Kingdom declining by an average 0.5% per annum.

The approach generally adopted by Keynes with his investments he summarised accordingly:

"1. A careful selection of a few investments having regard to their cheapness in relation to their probable actual and potential intrinsic value over a period of years ahead and in relation to alternative investments at the time;

2. A steadfast holding of these fairly large units through thick and thin, perhaps for several years, until either they have fulfilled their promise or it is evident that they were purchases on a mistake, and;

3. A balanced investment position, i.e. a variety of risks in spite of individual holdings being large, and if possible opposed risks (e.g. a holding of gold shares amongst other equities, since they are likely to move in opposite directions when there are general fluctuations)."

In an approach reminiscent of one of his followers billionaire investor Warren Buffett today, Keynes argued that "It is a mistake to think one limits one's risks by spreading too much between enterprises about which one knows little and has no reason for special confidence... One's knowledge and experience are definitely limited and there are seldom more than two or three enterprises at any given time in which I personally feel myself to put full confidence."

Keynes' advice on speculation some might say is timeless and ought to have been heeded by day-traders trying to prove themselves smarter than everyone else:

"(Investment is) intolerably boring and over-exacting to any one who is entirely exempt from the gambling instinct; whilst he who has it must pay to this propensity the appropriate toll."

Keynes when reviewing an important early work on equities investments argued that "Well-managed industrial companies do not, as a rule, distribute to the shareholders the whole of their earned profits. In good years, if not in all years, they retain a part of their profits and put them back in the business. Thus there is an element of compound interest operating in favor of a sound industrial investment."

Buffett seized upon this analysis in his own investment thinking. It is the reason he argued why equities in the long run out-perform bonds because the some of the "interest" is retained by the company and that produces more "interest." It therefore compounds. These simple philosophies helped build a fortune for Keynes and a vast investment empire for Buffett.

Recommended reading

  • Essays on John Maynard Keynes, Milo Keynes (Editor), Cambridge University Press, 1975, ISBN 0-521-20534-4
  • John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883-1920, Robert Skidelsky, Papermac, 1992, ISBN 033357379X (US Edition: ISBN 014023554X)
  • John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Saviour 1920-1937, Robert Skidelsky, Papermac, 1994, ISBN 0333584996 (US Edition: ISBN 0140238069)
  • John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Britain 1937-1946 (published in the United States as Fighting for Freedom), Robert Skidelsky, Papermac, 2001, ISBN 0333779711 (US Edition: ISBN 0142001678)