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Return to the Abyss

A practical definition of a financial crisis is an event that forces policy officials to spend a long weekend trying desperately to announce a new bailout package in order to avoid national and global panic before the markets open on Monday. By that standard, the global crisis is far from over; On the contrary, we have now reached its most dangerous stage.

NEW YORK – One interpretation of financial crises is that they are, in Nassim Taleb’s phrase, “black swan” events – unplanned and unpredictable occurrences that change the course of history. But, in my new book on financial crises, Crisis Economics – which covers not only the recent crisis, but also dozens of others throughout history and across both advanced economies and emerging markets – I show that financial crises are, instead, predictable “white swan” events. What is happening now – the second stage of the global financial crisis – was no less predictable.

Crises are the inevitable result of a build-up of macroeconomic, financial, and policy risks and vulnerabilities: assets bubbles, excessive risk-taking and leverage, credit booms, loose money, lack of proper supervision and regulation of the financial system, greed, and risky investments by banks and other financial institutions.

History also suggests that financial crises tend to morph over time. Crises like those we have recently endured were initially driven by excessive debt and leverage among private-sector agents – households, banks and financial institutions, corporate firms. This eventually led to a re-leveraging of the public sector as fiscal stimulus and socialization of private losses – bail-out programs – caused a dangerous rise in budget deficits and the stock of public debt.

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