The Failure of Free-Market Finance

LONDON – Five years after the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers, the world has still not addressed the fundamental cause of the subsequent financial crisis – an excess of debt. And that is why economic recovery has progressed much more slowly than anyone expected (in some countries, it has not come at all).

Most economists, central bankers, and regulators not only failed to foresee the crisis, but also believed that financial stability was assured so long as inflation was low and stable. And, once the immediate crisis had been contained, we failed to foresee how painful its consequences would be.

Official forecasts in the spring of 2009 anticipated neither a slow recovery nor that the initial crisis, which was essentially confined to the United States and the United Kingdom, would soon fuel a knock-on crisis in the eurozone. And market forces did not come close to predicting near-zero interest rates for five years (and counting).

One reason for this lack of foresight was uncritical admiration of financial innovation; another was the inherently flawed structure of the eurozone. But the fundamental reason was the failure to understand that high debt burdens, relentlessly rising for several decades – in the private sector even more than in the public sector – were a major threat to economic stability.