Thursday, May 6, 2010

Krugman reviews “This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly”

Krugman and Wells review of Rogoff and Reinhart’s new book This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Excerpts from the review below:


[…] From an economist’s point of view, there are two striking aspects of This Time Is Different. The first is the sheer range of evidence brought to bear. Reading Reinhart and Rogoff is a reminder of how often economists take the easy road—how much they tend to focus their efforts on times and places for which numbers are readily available, which basically means the recent history of the United States and a few other wealthy nations. When it comes to crises, that means acting like the proverbial drunk who searches for his keys under the lamppost, even though that’s not where he dropped them, because the light is better there: the quarter-century or so preceding the current crisis was an era of relative calm, at least among advanced economies, so to understand what’s happening to us one must reach further back and farther afield. This Time Is Different ventures into the back alleys of economic data, accepting imperfect or fragmentary numbers as the price of looking at a wide range of experience.

[…]So what is the message of This Time Is Different? In a nutshell, it is that too much debt is always dangerous. It’s dangerous when a government borrows heavily from foreigners—but it’s equally dangerous when a government borrows heavily from its own citizens. It’s dangerous, too,when the private sector borrows heavily, whether from foreigners or from itself—for banks are basically institutions that borrow from their depositors, then make loans to others, and banking crises are among the most devastating shocks an economy can face.

[…]One odd omission by Reinhart and Rogoff, by the way, is their failure to mention the late Hyman Minsky, a heterodox economic thinker who made a similar argument and is now experiencing a renaissance in influence.

[…]The Depression looks much more like the product of excessive private-sector debt than like the government failure of monetarist legend.

[…]Financial crises are typically followed by deep recessions, and these recessions are followed by slow, disappointing recoveries.

(John Maynard Keynes, right, with US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. at the Bretton Woods conference on postwar reconstruction, July 1944)

[…]It wasn’t until John Maynard Keynes offered a theoretical explanation of how it is that economies come to be persistently depressed—an explanation that was informed by historical experience but went far beyond a simple description of past patterns—that economists could offer useful advice to policymakers about how to fight a slump.

[…]The truth is that the historical record on the consequences of government debt is sufficiently ambiguous to admit of different interpretations. We read the evidence as supporting a policy of stimulate now, pay later: spend strongly to promote employment in the crisis, but take measures to curb spending and raise revenue once the crisis has passed. Others will see it differently. The main thing to notice, perhaps, is that there is no safe path: debt has long-term risks, but so does failing to engineer a solid recovery. The IMF’s research suggests that the long-term cost of financial crises is less when countries respond with strong stimulus policies, which means that failing to do so risks damage not just this year but for years to come.

[…]What the data show is a dramatic drop in the frequency of crises of all kinds after World War II, then an irregularly rising trend after about 1980, with a series of regional crises in Latin America, Europe, and Asia, finally culminating in the global crisis of 2008–2009. What changed after World War II, and what changed it back? The obvious answer is regulation.

[…]Why didn’t more people see this coming? One answer, of course, lies in Reinhart and Rogoff’s title. There were superficial differences between debt now and debt three generations ago: more elaborate financial instruments, seemingly more sophisticated techniques of assessment, an apparent wider spreading of risks (which turned out to have been an illusion). So financial executives, policymakers, and many economists convinced themselves that the old rules didn’t apply.

[…]Now that the multiple bubbles have burst, there’s obviously a strong case for a return to much stricter regulation. It’s by no means clear, however, whether this will actually happen. For one thing, the ideology used to justify the dismantling of regulation has proved remarkably resilient. It’s now an article of faith on the right, impervious to contrary evidence, that the crisis was caused not by private-sector excesses but by liberal politicians who forced banks to make loans to the undeserving poor. Less partisan leaders nonetheless fret over the possibility that regulation might crimp financial innovation, even though it’s very hard to find examples of such innovation that were clearly beneficial (ATMs don’t count).