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Falk, Oswald Toynbeelocked

(1879–1972)
  • Judy Slinn

Falk, Oswald Toynbee (1879–1972), stockbroker and economist, was born on 25 May 1879 at 23 Greenhays Road, Toxteth Park, West Derby, Liverpool, the son of Hermann John Falk, then a law student, and his wife, Rachel Russell Everard Toynbee. Falk's grandfather Herman Eugene Falk (1820–1898) had emigrated from Danzig in Poland about 1839 and become a leader in the important Cheshire salt trade, but left only a modest fortune of £17,000. His maternal grandfather was the distinguished aural surgeon Joseph Toynbee (1815–1866).

Falk—known to his friends as Foxy—was educated at Rugby School and at Balliol College, Oxford, where his uncle, the social philosopher and economist Arnold Toynbee, had taught. After Oxford, in a decade he likened to the experience of a 'delicious novel by Henry James' (Skidelsky, 2.423), Falk worked as an actuary for the National Mutual Life Assurance Society and became a fellow of the Institute of Actuaries. He married Florence Ethel, daughter of John Michael Hanglar, on 29 March 1906; but nothing else is known about this relationship. In 1914, having left the actuarial profession, he was admitted a member of the London stock exchange; by 1918 he was a partner in the prominent stockbrokers Buckmaster and Moore. Falk soon developed a reputation for intellectual brilliance combined with an 'explosive personality' (Davenport, 44).

Falk first made his mark in 1917 when J. M. Keynes invited him to join his division of the Treasury. He worked there with impressive intellectuals—Geoffrey Fry and Dudley Ward among them—and proved himself a gifted ‘practical economist’ interested in currency and exchange. In 1919 he joined the Treasury team, under Keynes's leadership, at the Paris peace conference, and in 1920 he was created CBE. By 1924 Falk was married to Diana Guendolen Edith Cecil, daughter of Captain Gerald Stracey; and they had two sons.

At Buckmasters, Falk became senior partner. An early proponent of 'active investment', in 1923 he counselled investors to give advisers 'the widest possible discretion' and not 'to tie their hands by rules of investment which may have worked tolerably well in the comparative calm of the Victorian age but which are utterly useless in the typhoons of this generation' (The Times, 15 March 1923). The consequence, according to a later commentator, was that 'the poor victim either made a killing in the market or was wiped out completely' (Davenport, 44). Falk's rules were specialization within portfolios on particular assets—currency and commodities as well as securities—and frequent if not daily switching between them as guided by the predictions of economic analysis. He achieved spectacular gains but also heavy losses, as in mid-1929 when he led his clients into US securities (having eschewed them a year before). His own losses forced him to sell his country home at Codford St Mary, Wiltshire.

In February 1932 Falk resigned from Buckmasters and from the stock exchange, along with four of his partners, including Sir Maurice Bonham Carter, to form O. T. Falk & Partners, investment bankers, initially operating out of Buckmasters' offices. Here Falk employed bright young men such as the economist Thomas Balogh and the physicist Lancelot Law Whyte. The latter recognized the potential of Whittle's jet engine and the firm developed it via a special company, Power Jets Ltd, which was later compulsorily acquired by the wartime government. Despite his natural impatience, Falk had infinite forbearance with the young men he employed, encouraging them to think courageously and to act with intellectual integrity. His relationship with Bonham Carter and his wife, Violet (née Asquith), was especially close; he was rumoured to have had an affair with Violet Bonham Carter, but the exact nature of their relationship is unclear.

Falk was exceptionally close to Keynes, acting as his broker and co-speculator, introducing him to the City, active investment, and the 'psychology of businessmen' (Skidelsky, 694), and sharing with him a love of ballet and pictures. They worked together on the boards of businesses involved in investment, notably the National Mutual Life Assurance Society, and the Independent Investment Trust Ltd, which they promoted in 1924. Their pursuit of active investment had mixed results, most notably the losses incurred by the trust in 1929–30. Falk, who was always 'sharp in his personal relations' (Davenport, 45), had refused to speak to his friend Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank of England, after the return to the gold standard in 1925. Then in 1930 Keynes disagreed with Falk that British industry was finished and that investors should sell their shares and buy into American industry instead. These and other issues resulted in a 'flaming quarrel' (Davenport, 51) between them, after which their friendship waned. Falk was nevertheless the originator of many ideas developed by Keynes. The latter, who reckoned Falk one of 'nature's economists' (Harrod, 220), owed to him 'his superb understanding of the unruly financial mechanism of capitalism—something which distinguishes his work from that of other economists of his age' (Skidelsky, 2.25).

In 1917 Falk had first brought together practical economists interested in finance and currency issues, and in the 1920s he developed the group into the prestigious Tuesday Club, where influential politicians and economists debated over dinner at the Café Royal in an atmosphere of 'intellectual ferment' (Harrod, 220). There he attacked the Treasury view on debt, arguing that borrowing was 'the instrument of progress. … Better a decade of inflation than a cycle of decay' (Davenport, 193).

Falk was 'tall … with a fine head, aquilous features and broad shoulders … prodigiously gifted intellectually, his faults were hauteur and impetuosity' (Skidelsky, 2.25). The financial journalist Nicholas Davenport thought him 'quick, rude and decisive' and referred to his 'intellectual violence' (Davenport, 44). He held extreme views, often on the right, and expressed them forcibly, for example dismissing the Beveridge report as 'the road to the moral ruin of the nation … it is the way tending to weaken still further the spirit of initiative and adventure, the stimulus of competition, courage and self reliance' (The Times, 5 Dec 1941).

Falk's unconventional brilliance won him many friends, and he was widely if not universally respected in the City of London. A champion golfer, he lamented the passing of the traditional game, which he regarded as the victim of the 'modern mechanical game with its battery of irons and extravagant expenditure' (The Times, 1 Dec 1934). Fond of the arts, he was at ease in that circle and was rumoured to have been Pavlova's lover. He had a notable collection of post-Impressionist pictures and wrote about twentieth-century art with authority.

In retirement Falk lived at Tall Trees, Boars Hill, near Oxford, and he died on 12 November 1972 at Wardington House Nursing Home, Wardington, Oxfordshire.

Sources

  • The Times (20 Nov 1972)
  • The Times (22 Nov 1972)
  • R. J. A. Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, 2 (1992)
  • N. Davenport, Memoirs of a City radical (1974)
  • R. Boothby, Recollections of a rebel (1978)
  • W. L. Fraser, All to the good (1963)
  • L. E. Jones, Georgian afternoon (1958)
  • D. E. Moggridge, ‘Keynes, John Maynard’, DBB
  • D. Iredale, ‘Falk, Herman Eugene’, DBB
  • R. F. Harrod, The life of John Maynard Keynes (1951)
  • E. Street, The history of the National Mutual Life Assurance Society, 1830–1980 (1980)
  • M. Keynes, Essays on John Maynard Keynes (1975)
  • O. M. Westall, The Provincial Insurance Company, 1903–38: family, markets, and competitive growth (1992)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • The Times (15 March 1923)
  • The Times (5 Dec 1941)
  • The Times (1 Dec 1934)

Archives

  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Margot Asquith

Wealth at Death

£20,748: probate, 24 Jan 1973, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1920–)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]