The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – Albert Einstein
History is rarely studied and poorly understood by most. Economic history is even more obscure, studied only by the most arcane academics and….Managing Directors of consulting firms.
The study of economics over the last few decades has been pathetically conformist. In one way or another, the vast majority of economists have subscribed to the idea that the economy can be manipulated to obtain a desired result.
This idea comes in two flavors. Let’s call them Keynesian and Monetarist. Don’t be fooled by the fact we are discussing two approaches with two different names, for the goal of both is the same, i.e. the planning of the economy.
The Keynesian approach, beloved of the political left, uses fiscal policy to attempt to stimulate demand. In short the government spends stupendous amounts of money in order to attempt to “prime the pump” of consumer demand to get the economy moving again. This approach usually causes a speculative bubble in whatever the government is spending money on, say ethanol.
The Monetarist approach, beloved of the political right, uses monetary policy to attempt to stimulate demand. In short, the central bank holds interest rates artificially low in order to entice consumers and businesses to borrow and spend. This approach usually causes a speculative bubble in certain asset classes, say real estate.
Essentially what both approaches try to do is to get people to act against their own self interest. They try to convince consumers to spend when they should be saving and businesses to invest when they should be cutting capacity. Of course, all parties are encouraged to take on more and more debt.
In a refreshing departure from the usual economic dogma, Harvard University Professor Kenneth Rogoff and University of Maryland Professor Carmen Reinhardt have taken a look at economic history to see if these ideas ever work.
Their book is called, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. In the book, Reinhart and Rogoff detail approximately 250 financial crises in 66 countries over 800 years and then analyze them for differences and similarities.
There are many great lessons in the book on how financial crises start and especially about how they end. We present below excerpts from the conclusion of the book which effectively summarizes the authors’ thesis. We have added the emphasis.
“The lesson of history, then, is that even as institutions and policy makers improve, there will always be a temptation to stretch the limits. Just as an individual can go bankrupt no matter how rich she starts out, a financial system can collapse under the pressure of greed, politics, and profits no matter how well regulated it seems to be.
“Yet the ability of governments and investors to delude themselves, giving rise to periodic bouts of euphoria that usually end in tears, seems to have remained a constant. No careful reader of Friedman and Schwartz will be surprised by this lesson about the ability of governments to mismanage financial markets, a key theme of their analysis.
“As for financial markets, we have come full circle to the concept of financial fragility in economies with massive indebtedness. All too often, periods of heavy borrowing can take place in a bubble and last for a surprisingly long time. But highly leveraged economies, particularly those in which continual rollover of short-term debt is sustained only by confidence in relatively illiquid underlying assets, seldom survive forever, particularly if leverage continues to grow unchecked.
“This time may seem different, but all too often a deeper look shows it is not. Encouragingly, history does point to warning signs that policy makers can look at to assess risk – if only they do not become too drunk with their credit bubble – fueled success and say, as their predecessors have for centuries, “This time is different.”
There must be something about the human experience that makes people say, “Not me.” Kids that smoke cigarettes believe they will never get hooked, alcoholics believe they don’t have a problem and mothers are sure that they are never overprotective.
Our leaders are no different. We continually hear from our them that everything is going to be fine, move along folks, nothing to see here, and yes, the banking system is just fine, etc.
So the question begs, if these ideas never work then why do humans continually try them? We don’t know for sure. Perhaps it’s because humans are never good at facing up to their shortcomings or perhaps, as the authors suggest, people really do believe that “this time it will work.”
Keynesian stimulus, Monetarist easy credit, séances, incantations, people will come up with anything to avoid the consequences of their decisions.
So what should be done then? How do we get out of this economic mess? Well, take heart my friends there is a third way. It is a path not taken by many, for the path of righteousness is narrow indeed.
We need to cleanse the system of bloat by allowing those who cannot afford the debt they incurred to default and those who lent the money to write it off. That’s right; there are only two ways to make debt disappear. Either pay it off or default on it. Anything else just shifts the burden to others; usually the innocent.
Why should those that bought a house at the top of the market, using a mortgage they could never afford, feel entitled to have others shoulder the burden of their mistakes through Keynesian stimulus programs?
Why should those that lent them the money, be allowed to borrow from the Fed at 0% through Monetarist easy credit, to cover the fact that they will not be paid back?
We hope that someone is reading the Rogoff and Reinhardt book, for we left the most interesting point for last.
One of their more interesting findings was the relationship between debt, GDP and exports. The Professors show that when external debt passes 73% of GDP or 239% of exports, the result is national default, hyperinflation, or both.
Where is the US today?
External debt at 96% of GDP and 748% of exports.
Geez, economic history is soooo boring!
Until next time,
Michael Bechara, CPA
Granite Consulting Group Inc.