this time is differen
Carmen Reinhart

I found this great article by Carmen Reinhart author of the excellent bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly which I previously reviewed. I am reprinting here with permission from the original source.

This column, first posted 19 April 2008, argues that sovereign debt crises have historically followed financial crises. Although data covering only the last thirty years might have given few hints about Greece’s current problems, the Reinhart-Rogoff database spanning eight centuries reveals that today’s event are very much in line with historical experience.

History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. – Edward Gibbon

The economics profession has an unfortunate tendency to view recent experience in the narrow window provided by standard datasets. With a few notable exceptions, cross-country empirical studies of financial crises typically begin in 1980 and are limited in other important respects Yet an event that is rare in a three-decade span may not be all that rare when placed in a broader context.

In a recent paper co-authored with Kenneth Rogoff, we introduce a comprehensive new historical database for studying debt and banking crises, inflation, currency crashes and debasements. The database covers sixty-six countries across all regions. The range of variables encompasses external and domestic debt, trade, GNP, inflation, exchange rates, interest rates, and commodity prices. The coverage spans eight centuries, going back to the date of independence or well into the colonial period for some countries.

In what follows, I sketch some of the highlights of the dataset, with special reference to the current conjuncture. We note that policymakers should not be overly cheered by the absence of major external defaults from 2003 to 2007, after the wave of defaults in the preceding two decades. Serial default remains the norm; major default episodes are typically spaced some years (or decades) apart, creating an illusion that “this time is different” among policymakers and investors. We also find that high inflation, currency crashes, and debasements often go hand-in-hand with default. Last, but not least, we find that historically, significant waves of increased capital mobility are often followed by a string of domestic banking crises.

The big picture

What are some basic insights one gains from this panoramic view of the history of financial crises? We begin by discussing sovereign default on external debt.

Default cycles

For the world as a whole (or at least the more than 90 percent of global GDP represented by our dataset), the current period can be seen as a typical lull that follows large global financial crises. Figure 1 plots for the years 1800 to 2006 the percentage of all independent countries in a state of default or restructuring during any given year. Aside from the current lull, one element that jumps out from the figure is the long periods where a high percentage of all countries are in a state of default or restructuring. Indeed, there are five pronounced peaks or default cycles in the figure. The first is during the Napoleonic War while the most recent cycle encompasses the emerging market debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s.

Figure 1.

Source: Reinhart and Rogoff (2008a).

Serial default on external debt—that is, repeated sovereign default—is the norm throughout nearly every region in the world, including Asia and Europe.

Our dataset also confirms the prevailing view among economists that global economic factors, including commodity prices and centre country interest rates, play a major role in precipitating sovereign debt crises.

During the past few years, emerging markets have benefited from low international interest rates, buoyant world commodity prices and solid growth in the United States and elsewhere. If things can’t get better, the odds are that they will get worse. US interest rates are likely to remain low, which helps debtor countries enormously.

Weaker growth in the US and other advanced economies soften growth prospects for export-dependent emerging Asia and elsewhere; inflation is on the rise. Is this cycle different?

Financial liberalization, capital inflows and financial crises

Another regularity found in the literature on modern financial crises is that countries experiencing large capital inflows are at high risk of having a debt crisis. Default is likely to be accompanied by a currency crash and a spurt of inflation. The evidence here suggests the same to be true over a much broader sweep of history, with surges in capital inflows often preceding external debt crises at the country, regional, and global level since 1800, if not before.

Also consonant with the modern theory of crises is the striking correlation between freer capital mobility and the incidence of banking crises, as shown in Figure 2. Periods of high international capital mobility have repeatedly produced international banking crises, not only famously as they did in the 1990s, but historically.The figure plots a three-year moving average of the share of all countries experiencing banking crises on the right scale. On the left scale, we employ our favored index of capital mobility, due to Obstfeld and Taylor (2004),5 updated and backcast using their same design principle, to cover our full sample period; while the index may have its limitations, it nevertheless provides a summary of de facto capital mobility based on actual flows.

Figure 2.

Sources: Reinhart and Rogoff (2008a), Obstfeld and Taylor (2004).

Domestic debt and the “this time it’s different” syndrome

As noted, our database includes long time series on domestic public debt.Because historical data on domestic debt is so difficult to come by, it has been ignored in many empirical studies on debt and inflation. Indeed, many generally knowledgeable observers have argued that the recent shift by many emerging market governments from external to domestic bond issues is revolutionary and unprecedented. Nothing could be further from the truth, which has implications for today’s markets and for historical analyses of debt and inflation.

The topic of domestic debt is so important, and the implications for existing empirical studies on inflation and external default are so profound, that we have broken out our data analysis into an independent companion piece. Here, we focus on a few major points. The first is that contrary to much contemporary opinion, domestic debt constituted an important part of government debt in most countries, including emerging markets, over most of their existence. Figure 3 plots domestic debt as a share of total public debt over 1900 to 2006. For our entire sample, domestically issued debt averages more than 50 percent of total debt for most of the period. Even for Latin America, the domestic debt share is typically over 30 percent and has been at times over 50 percent.

Furthermore, contrary to the received wisdom, these data reveal that a very important share of domestic debt – even in emerging markets – was long-term maturity.

Figure 3.

The inflation-default cycles

Figure 4 on inflation and external default (1900 to 2006) illustrates the striking correlation between the share of countries in default on debt at one point and the number of countries experiencing high inflation (which we define to be inflation over 20 percent per annum). Thus, there is a tight correlation between the expropriation of residents and foreigners.

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