Dr. El-Erian is an Egyptian-American academic economist, corporate manager, government consultant, and also the President of Queens' College, Cambridge. Queens' College, Cambridge

I once went to a talk by an investment banker who said that capitalism is like the weather. He was right, I think, but not quite in the way he meant. He presumably intended to say that capitalism is immutable, something we simply have to accept and work with, or under. But in the age of climate crisis, capitalism is like the weather in another way: people are influencing it, and generally for the worse.

How does Mohamed El-Erian fit into this analogy? Weather forecaster, as chair of Obama’s Global Development Council? Rain god, as joint head of PIMCO? Whatever his role in the past, he has come to Cambridge as an umbrella maker, equipping individuals to live under current conditions as best they can, even to thrive, as he has thrived.

His career so far is hard to sum up. The only common denominator between his roles is towering distinction. His Wikipedia page (the most thoroughly-referenced I’ve ever seen, with sixty footnotes, as if trying to live up to its subject’s expertise) describes him as a ‘businessman’, but this does not capture the breadth of his work as an academic economist, corporate manager and government consultant. After studying at both Cambridge and Oxford, he rose through the ranks to become deputy director of the International Monetary Fund in Washington D.C., then went into finance, ultimately becoming CEO of PIMCO (a title that sounds incongruously jaunty when you say it out loud), an American bond management firm.

“...he replied that [academic economics] needs radical change, having ‘been dominated by the quest for ever more refined and complicated models that assume away too many realities of our world’.”

Even now El-Erian is able to occupy various positions at the same time. Having worked for various governments, private companies and charities, it is hard to figure out whether he represents the establishment or challenges it. When I asked him, via email, what he thought about the current state of academic economics, he replied that it needs radical change, having ‘been dominated by the quest for ever more refined and complicated models that assume away too many realities of our world’. This has made it unable to respond to sudden shocks, such as the 2008 financial crisis and the current pandemic. But El-Erian was also keen to emphasise that this change has already begun, and began his critique by quoting the most establishment figure imaginable, Queen Elizabeth, who asked a gathering of economists in 2008 why they had failed to predict the crisis.

El-Erian’s tendency towards balance, seeing an issue from all sides simultaneously, extends to his transatlantic accent and spelling: in his email, he writes ‘defense’ in American English and ‘behavioural’ in British English. Sometimes this balance can be frustrating. During the Union event, when the interviewer, Keir Bradwell, asked whether he felt communal decision-making from the college fellows was a good way to run an organisation, he said, with an air of finality, that for an academic institution it’s a good system. Whether this was simply diplomatic is hard to say.

“When I asked him what he wanted to change about Queens’, his answer emphasised continuity: building on strengths, enhancing, deepening.”

Similarly, when I asked him what he wanted to change about Queens’, his answer (surprisingly abstract given his reputation in the financial world for lucid and disarmingly straight-talking commentary) emphasised continuity: building on strengths, enhancing, deepening. He wants ultimately to move ‘from defense to offense’, from minimising damage to furthering excellence. His metaphor seems more likely drawn from American football than cricket, and this model of progress is hard to map onto a Cambridge college, where the mock-battlements of the college walls seem purely defensive, and change is slow.


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Queens’ will surely be a change of pace from Wall Street. Going from CEO of a finance firm to president of a Cambridge college must be like a fighter jet pilot flying a hot air balloon. In the 1990s and early 2000s, PIMCO controlled more bond money than any other organisation. Here El-Erian worked alongside Bill Gross, known as ‘the Bond King’. In his talk to the Cambridge Union, El-Erian mentions Gross, but only fleetingly. It is rumoured that El-Erian’s departure from PIMCO in 2014 was caused by a falling-out with Gross, though El-Erian’s post on LinkedIn referred instead to the important events in his daughter’s life he had missed, and his desire not to miss any more.

El-Erian is humble about his role at Queens’, telling the Union that ‘the president is just a facilitator in terms of chairing the meetings’. Sometimes college presidency looks and sounds like a pleasant semi-retirement in quaint surroundings, sometimes like being ostensible head of a business whose real senior management are the dead, dominated as the college is by buildings and traditions laid down centuries before. El-Erian is, in so many ways, perfect for the job. Perhaps he is too perfect: too well-qualified, too innovative, for a role that is more that of custodian than commander-in-chief. But he is still confident he will be able to lead, or at least facilitate, a capable offense, and he might well be right.