According to Gittins, the authors of the book studied financial crisis going back more than 800 years and found many that history seems to repeat:
In their landmark study of hundreds of financial crises in 66 countries over 800 years, Reinhart and Rogoff find oft-repeated patterns that ought to alert economists when trouble is on the way. One thing stops them waking up in time: their perpetual belief that ''this time is different''.So the current problem with sovereign debt was eminently predictable if people had been familiar with similar crisis of the past.
But, as we're witnessing at present, even when economists and financial market players have been hit over the head by reality, their ignorance of history stops them understanding what happens next. Wall Street and Europe fondly imagined the Great Recession was behind them, only to discover it's still rolling on.
The authors say a more accurate name would be the Second Great Contraction. ''The aftermath of systemic banking crises involves a protracted and pronounced contraction in economic activity and puts significant strains on government resources,'' they say.Gittins then points out that the culprit is not just greed but excessive debt.
They show that, in the run-up to America's subprime crisis, standard indicators such as asset price inflation, rising leverage (debt relative to the value of assets), large sustained current account deficits on the balance of payments and a slowing trajectory of economic growth exhibited virtually all the signs of a country on the verge of a severe financial crisis.
The authors' studies lead them to a different culprit: debt. Credit is crucial to all economies, ancient and modern. Progress would be a lot slower without it. So the point is not that credit is bad, but that it's dangerous stuff.It seems that sovereign debt defaults aren't as unusual as we think.
''Balancing the risks and opportunities of debt is always a challenge, a challenge policymakers, investors and ordinary citizens must never forget,'' the authors say.
But ''if there is one common theme to the vast range of crises we consider in this book, it is that excessive debt accumulation, whether it be by government, banks, corporations or consumers, often poses greater systemic risks than it seems during a boom.
''Infusions of cash can make a government look like it is providing greater growth to its economy than it really is. Private sector borrowing binges can inflate housing and stock prices far beyond their long-run sustainable levels, and make banks seem more stable and profitable than they really are.''
We've come to believe sovereign debt defaults are unthinkable and extremely rare. This may be partly because ''a large fraction of the academic and policy literature on debt and default draws conclusions based on data collected since 1980''.Gittins concludes that:
The book focuses on two particular forms of financial crises: sovereign debt crises and banking crises. The present global crisis began with failing banks and has now proceeded to the threat of sovereign debt default.
Which, having looked at more than a mere 30 years of data, we now discover is quite common. Had economists been researching the question with the diligence of Reinhart and Rogoff - who put most of their effort into assembling a massive database covering 66 countries for up to 800 years - they may have come up with a little statistic it would have been handy to know a bit earlier.
On average, government debt rises by 86 per cent during the three years following a banking crisis. And that's not the cost of the bank bailouts. It's mainly because banking crises ''almost invariably lead to sharp declines in tax revenues as well as significant increases in government spending''.
Had we known our history, it wouldn't have surprised us that, when you start with heavily indebted governments, a banking crisis soon leads to a sovereign debt crisis.I guess debt is like explosives. If used well it can allow you to accomplish far more, but if handled carelessly it can destroy everything you've built.