Our Giant Banking Crisis—What to Expect

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John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at an EU summit in Brussels, where Greece’s debt crisis dominated discussions about broader economic reform, February 11, 2010

Lately, the big concern roiling financial markets has been fear of Greek default. The risks seem obvious: Greek government debt is at levels that have historically signaled deep trouble for middle-income nations, and debt is still rising rapidly thanks to a large deficit. Meanwhile, Greece is suffering a severe recession in large part because costs have gotten far out of line with the rest of Europe. And one more thing: Greece has a long history of default—in fact, the nation has been in arrears on its debt for half its modern history.

Yet as recently as last September, nobody seemed worried. Credit default swaps on Greek debt—insurance against a possible default—were fairly cheap; Greece was able to borrow at only modestly higher interest rates than that paragon of fiscal rectitude, Germany. Why were investors so complacent? The answer was that almost everyone believed that historical precedents were irrelevant. Greece was now part of Europe, and even more important, since 2001 part of the eurozone—sharing a currency with its more affluent neighbors. And that changed everything. Except that it didn’t.

The Greek crisis came after the publication of This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, by Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff and the University of Maryland’s Carmen Reinhart, but it was a dramatic illustration of the point they make with their sarcastic title: the more things change in the financial world, the more they stay the same. The Greek debt crisis of 2010 bears a strong resemblance to the Mexican debt crisis of 1827; inflation in Zimbabwe is just the latest episode in a history of currency debasement that goes back to ancient Greek city-states; and last but not least, the US subprime crisis of 2008 followed the script of scores of banking crises past, going back at least as far as eighteenth-century Scotland.

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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…


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