America Goes from Teacher to Student

Cambridge -- As the United States’ epic financial crisis continues to unfold, one can only wish that US policymakers were half as good at listening to advice from developing countries as they are at giving it. Americans don’t seem to realize that their “sub-prime” mortgage meltdown has all too much in common with many previous post-1945 banking crises throughout the world.

The silver lining is that there are many highly distinguished current and former policymakers out there, particularly from emerging market countries, who have seen this movie before. If US policymakers would only listen, they might get an idea or two about how to deal with financial crises from experts who have lived through them and come out safely on the other side.

Unfortunately, the parallel between today’s US crisis and previous financial crises is not mere hyperbole. The qualitative parallels are obvious: banks using off-balance loans to finance highly risky ventures, exotic new financial instruments, and excessive exuberance over the promise of new markets.

But there are strong quantitative parallels as well. Professor Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland and I systematically compared the run-up to the US sub-prime crisis with the run-up to the 19 worst financial crises in the industrialized world over the past 60 years. These include epic crises in the Scandinavian countries, Spain, and Japan, along with lesser events such as the US savings and loan crises of the 1980’s.