Shaking the Invisible Hand

Shaking the Invisible Hand

Mini Teaser: The chances of another cycle of optimism, overconfidence, hubris, panic and a long period of pessimism are high.

by Author(s): Liaquat Ahamed

John Cassidy, How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 400 pp., $28.00.

J. Bradford DeLong and Stephen S. Cohen , The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 176 pp., $22.00.

Richard A. Posner, The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 408 pp., $25.95.

Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 496 pp., $35.00.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 361 pp., $27.95.

 

THOUGH IN some sense all financial crashes are by definition unexpected, in retrospect, perhaps the oddest thing about the recent economic calamity was that it should have taken so many people by surprise. Different this time was not that disaster came out of the blue, but that in the lead-up to it so many people thought it simply could not happen. A financial crisis of this magnitude in an advanced economy was a thing of the past, a disease like smallpox-still found in poorer countries, but essentially eradicated from the developed markets of the West.

True, there were a few Cassandras predicting trouble ahead. But most of them looked in the wrong direction for the oncoming storm. They were all focused eastward, eyeing the growing current-account imbalances between the United States and Asia and predicting that disaster, when it came, would occur in the form of a currency crisis as China dumped its dollars. No one anticipated, let alone imagined, that instead the shake-up would originate at home and that, as a consequence, we would experience a gigantic run on the Western banking system that would bring it to the brink of collapse.

Oddly, this did not seem like complacency. There were seemingly good reasons to be confident. Changes in technology and the impact of globalization had led to an apparent dampening of the business cycle. And central bankers persuaded themselves that they had finally figured out the secret to conducting monetary policy in a stabilizing way, pointing to their success in having kept the economy on track after that series of jolts in the 1990s-the Asian crisis, the Russian default, the collapse of Long Term Capital Management and the pricking of the tech bubble.

Lurking in the background there was the disquieting example of Japan, an advanced economy that had experienced a bubble, a crash and a banking crisis followed by a lost decade of deflation and zero growth. But most economists brushed this off, arguing that Tokyo had always been sui generis, a hybrid economy hobbled by too much government intervention, not a real market economy like the United States or Great Britain.

Everyone really did think that this time was different, that a new era had begun. In the wake of the recent crisis, all that happy talk has been jettisoned.

Now comes the great rethink.

 

[amazon 0691142165 full] FINANCIAL CRISES are nothing new. Investors seem to have a way of making the same mistakes over and over and over again. Long before the alphabet soup of CDSs (credit-defaults swaps), CDOs (collateralized-debt obligations) and SPVs (special-purpose investment vehicles) had ever been invented, investors and bankers were taken in by such varied temptations as English county banks, South American mines, British canals and U.S. railroads, Florida real estate, radio stocks and multinational conglomerates. For those who want to relearn the forgotten lessons of the past, This Time is Different , by economics professors Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, is an excellent place to start. The authors attempt to give our long history of hope and disillusionment some order by identifying systematic regularities in the way the cycle of booms and busts has played itself out. These are lessons worth learning. While financial debacles may come in all sizes and shapes-Reinhart and Rogoff identify seven different generic types-they can all ultimately be reduced to too much borrowing.

This Time is Different broadly tells two different stories. The first is the history of governments borrowing too much and then finding themselves unable, or more accurately unwilling, to bear the political costs of paying their creditors. Until the end of the eighteenth century, such sovereign defaults were the most common source of financial turmoil. But since the Great Depression, no major government with an advanced economy has reneged on its debts. Sovereign defaults have largely become a problem of the developing world.

The second story sees the banks as the protagonists, the other main culprits behind financial chaos. It is a rich narrative because banking crises are a form of monetary neuralgia for which even advanced economies have yet to find a cure. In fact, the wealthier the country, the more frequent and bigger its banking problems. Since 1800, the greatest number of these crises have been seen in France (fifteen), the United States (thirteen) and the UK (twelve).

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