Ajit Singh: The man from Cambridge

He was struck by Parkinson’s disease in 1982 but did not let that slow him down and went on working at his research and teaching till the very end.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Updated: July 16, 2015 12:24 am
Ajit Singh, Ajit Singh death, Ajit Singh Cambridge, Ajit Singh economist, Indian express Ajit Singh demolished the idea that markets punish the inefficient and discipline firms. He showed that de-industrialisation began in the UK before Thatcher.

Ajit Singh, who has died at the age of 74, was a Cambridge economist and a Cambridge man in every sense of the word through his entire academic life, which spanned 50 years. He was born in Lahore in pre-Partition India. His father’s name was Sardar and his mother Pushpa was descended from the family of the third guru, Guru Amar Das, of the Sikh pantheon. He graduated from Panjab University, where one of his teachers was Manmohan Singh, with whom he developed a lifelong association. He then went on to Howard University, the famous university for black Americans in Washington DC and an unusual choice for an Indian student, for his masters. (Howard University inducted him into its hall of fame in 2008, after his retirement from Cambridge.) He later went to the University of California, Berkeley, where I first met him in 1963, for his PhD. In 1964, he moved to Cambridge for a research appointment and then stayed there for the rest of his life. He was successively lecturer (1965), reader (1991) and professor (1995) at Cambridge. He was also director of studies at Queens’ College (1972-95), where he was a fellow.

Ajit Singh’s work was mainly in the field of corporate structures, growth of firms and the economics of mergers and takeovers. He was able to demonstrate with copious empirical work that mergers were, by and large, not helpful for the shareholders of companies but attractive to managers, whose emoluments multiplied as a result of mergers and takeovers. The idea that markets punish the inefficient and discipline firms could be said to have been demolished by his work.

Ajit Singh’s most innovative finding was that the UK economy had begun to de-industrialise as early as the mid-1970s in his 1977 article, “UK industry and the world economy: a case of de-industrialisation?”. His idea was that the manufacturing industry should be of a sufficient size to be able to finance the imports from the exports it generates. The UK manufacturing industry lost that ability soon after the oil shock of 1973. In popular discussion, “Thatcherism” is often blamed for the decline of the manufacturing industry. Ajit Singh had shown that the process began before 1979.

Ajit Singh also took a keen interest in the economics of developing countries, writing and consulting extensively. He acted as a consultant for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Group of 77 on many occasions on issues of globalisation, development and trade. In 2005, he was involved in a tripartite project for the UNCTAD, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the ministry of commerce of the government of India on issues of globalisation, trade and poverty. Many students from developing countries, especially the Indian subcontinent, remember him fondly for his rigorous teaching as well as his generous nature and the time and care he devoted to them. He was appointed to the prestigious Tun Ismail Ali Chair in Monetary and Financial Economics at the University of Malaya in 2011 and was made a life fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge.

Ajit Singh’s politics was always firmly and strongly on the left. This was as true the day I met him in Berkeley, California, in 1963 as in his final years. He was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. His academic work had a socialist perspective but also knew the value of rapid growth as long as it was inclusive.

He was struck by Parkinson’s disease in 1982 but did not let that slow him down and went on working at his research and teaching till the very end. He was married to Jo Bradley till their divorce in 2012. He then married Ann Zammit, who survives him.

The writer, emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics, is a Labour peer.

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  1. S
    Jul 16, 2015 at 10:09 pm
    I arrived in Washington, DC, in 1961 to attend The George Washington University Law Center. Quite a number of my Indian friends at that time were attending cles at Howard University, chiefly I guess, because it was more affordable. I'm trying to recall if I ever met Mr Ajit Singh. Although the name rings a bell, the picture above does not jog my memory. Too bad. My loss. I wish we had met up. At my stage in life, old memories become as real and enjoyable as anything of today. Ajit Singh lived an illustrious life. My condolences to his family. Arun Kumar Chhabra, Esq, Washington, DC, USA