Saturday, September 3, 2011

Is this time different?

When the Queen asked economists why so few of them had foreseen the global financial crisis, our professor Geoff Harcourt and some other academics petitioned her to say, among other things, that one reason was their profession's loss of interest in economic history.

That sad truth was demonstrated convincingly by two American professors, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, in a book which has since become a modern classic, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. It's just out in paperback, published by Princeton University Press.

In their landmark study of hundreds of financial crises in 66 countries over 800 years, Reinhart and Rogoff find oft-repeated patterns that ought to alert economists when trouble is on the way. One thing stops them waking up in time: their perpetual belief that ''this time is different''.

But, as we're witnessing at present, even when economists and financial market players have been hit over the head by reality, their ignorance of history stops them understanding what happens next. Wall Street and Europe fondly imagined the Great Recession was behind them, only to discover it's still rolling on.

Reinhart and Rogoff could have told them - did tell them - financial crises of this nature aren't so easily escaped. The Great Recession was so called to signify that another depression had been averted.

The authors say a more accurate name would be the Second Great Contraction. ''The aftermath of systemic banking crises involves a protracted and pronounced contraction in economic activity and puts significant strains on government resources,'' they say.

They show that, in the run-up to America's subprime crisis, standard indicators such as asset price inflation, rising leverage (debt relative to the value of assets), large sustained current account deficits on the balance of payments and a slowing trajectory of economic growth exhibited virtually all the signs of a country on the verge of a severe financial crisis.

So why did so few economists recognise the signs? Everyone thought this time was different.

''Our basic message is simple,'' the authors say, ''we have been here before. No matter how different the latest financial frenzy or crisis always appears, there are usually remarkable similarities with past experience from other countries and from history.

''Recognising these analogies and precedents is an essential step towards improving our global financial system, both to reduce the risk of future crisis and to better handle catastrophes when they happen.''

When looking for the root cause of the global financial crisis, a lot of people put it down to human greed. That's true enough, but it doesn't give us much to work on.

The authors' studies lead them to a different culprit: debt. Credit is crucial to all economies, ancient and modern. Progress would be a lot slower without it. So the point is not that credit is bad, but that it's dangerous stuff.

''Balancing the risks and opportunities of debt is always a challenge, a challenge policymakers, investors and ordinary citizens must never forget,'' the authors say.

But ''if there is one common theme to the vast range of crises we consider in this book, it is that excessive debt accumulation, whether it be by government, banks, corporations or consumers, often poses greater systemic risks than it seems during a boom.

''Infusions of cash can make a government look like it is providing greater growth to its economy than it really is. Private sector borrowing binges can inflate housing and stock prices far beyond their long-run sustainable levels, and make banks seem more stable and profitable than they really are.''

Such large-scale debt build-ups pose risks because they make an economy vulnerable to crises of confidence, particularly when debt is short-term and needs to be constantly


Again and again, countries, banks, individuals and firms take on excessive debt in good times without enough awareness of the risks that will follow when the inevitable recession hits. Many players in the financial system often dig a debt hole far larger than they can reasonably expect to escape from, most obviously in the US in the late 2000s.

''Government and government-guaranteed debt ? is certainly the most problematic, for it can accumulate massively and for long periods without being put in check by markets ? Although private debt certainly plays a key role in many crises, government debt is far more often the unifying problem across the wide range of financial crises we examined.''

Financial crises are nothing new. They've been around since the development of money and financial markets. And they follow a rhythm of boom and bust through the ages. ''Countries, institutions and financial instruments may change across time, but human nature does not,'' they say.

Human nature brings us to the Achilles heel of debt: confidence. ''Perhaps more than anything else, failure to recognise the precariousness and fickleness of confidence - especially in cases in which large short-term debts need to be rolled over continuously - is the key factor that gives rise to the this-time-is-different syndrome.

''Highly indebted governments, banks or corporations can seem to be merrily rolling along for an extended period, when bang! - confidence collapses, lenders disappear and a crisis hits.''

We've come to believe sovereign debt defaults are unthinkable and extremely rare. This may be partly because ''a large fraction of the academic and policy literature on debt and default draws conclusions based on data collected since 1980''.

The book focuses on two particular forms of financial crises: sovereign debt crises and banking crises. The present global crisis began with failing banks and has now proceeded to the threat of sovereign debt default.

Which, having looked at more than a mere 30 years of data, we now discover is quite common. Had economists been researching the question with the diligence of Reinhart and Rogoff - who put most of their effort into assembling a massive database covering 66 countries for up to 800 years - they may have come up with a little statistic it would have been handy to know a bit earlier.

On average, government debt rises by 86 per cent during the three years following a banking crisis. And that's not the cost of the bank bailouts. It's mainly because banking crises ''almost invariably lead to sharp declines in tax revenues as well as significant increases in government spending''.

Had we known our history, it wouldn't have surprised us that, when you start with heavily indebted governments, a banking crisis soon leads to a sovereign debt crisis.