Debt: Eight Reasons This Time is Different

In today’s world, we have a huge amount of debt outstanding. Academic researchers Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have become famous for their book This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly and their earlier paper This Time is Different: A Panoramic View of Eight Centuries of Financial Crises. Their point, of course, is that the same thing happens over and over again. We can learn from past crises to solve our current problems.

Part of their story is of course correct. Governments have gotten themselves into problems with debt, time after time. This is happening again now. In fact, the same two authors recently prepared a working paper for the International Monetary Fund called Financial and Sovereign Debt Crises: Some Lessons Learned and Some Lessons Forgotten, talking about ideas such as governments inflating their way out of debt problems and pushing problems off to insurance companies and pension funds, through regulations requiring investment in certain securities.

Many seem to believe that if we worked our way out of debt problems in the past, we can do the same thing again. The same assets may have new owners, but everything will work together in the long run. Businesses will continue operating, and people will continue to have jobs. We may have to adjust monetary policy, or perhaps regulation of financial institutions, but that is about all.

I think this is where the story goes wrong. The situation we have now is very different, and far worse, than what happened in the past. We live in a much more tightly networked economy. This time, our problems are tied to the need for cheap, high quality energy products. The comfort we get from everything eventually working out in the past is false comfort.

If we look closely at the past, we see that in some cases the outcomes are not benign. There are situations where much of the population in an area died off. This die-off did not occur directly because of debt defaults. Instead, the same issues that gave rise to debt defaults, primarily diminishing returns with respect to food and other types of production, also led to die off. We are not necessarily exempt from these same kinds of problems in the future.

Why the Current Interest in Debt Levels and Interest Rates

The reason I bring up these issues is because the problem of too much world debt is now coming to the forefront. The Bank for International Settlements, which is the central bank for central banks, issued a report a week ago in which they said world debt levels are too high, and that continuing the current low interest rate policy has too many bad effects. Something needs to be done to normalize monetary policy.

Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Chair, and Christine Lagarde, managing director or the International Monetary Fund, have also been making statements about the issue of how to fix our current economic problems (News Report; Video). There is the additional rather bizarre point that back in January, Lagarde used numerology to suggest that a major change in policy might be announced in 2014 (on July 20?), with the hope that the past “seven miserable years” can be followed by “seven strong years.” The IMF has talked in the past about using its special drawing rights (SDRs) as a sort of international currency. In this role, the SDRs could act as the world’s reserve currency, be used for issuing bonds, and be used for setting the prices of commodities such as gold and oil. Perhaps a variation on SDRs is what Lagarde has in mind.

So with this background, let’s get back to the main point of the post. How is this debt crisis, and the likely outcome, different from previous crises?

1. We live in a globalized economy. Any slip-up of a major economy would very much affect all of the other major economies. Continue reading