Guest blog from Economics Editor Peter Coy
When you’ve studied “eight centuries of financial folly,” as international economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have, patterns begin to emerge. The most striking pattern they’ve found is that people never learn. We gullible humans make the same mistake time after time, which is believing that the laws of financial physics have been repealed for us.
Thus, Americans proclaim confidently that there’s no chance the U.S. will get caught in Japanese-style stagnation. Sure, deflation became entrenched in Japan starting after the stock-market crash that began in 1990. But this time is different, right?
Don’t be so sure. Reinhart says Americans seem to be unwittingly repeating the mistakes of the Japanese, including propping up “zombie” banks that aren’t healthy enough to make new loans and get the economy growing again. Americans kid themselves, she says, by saying, “These are not zombie loans. They’re just non-performing.”
Summarizes Reinhart: “We’re speaking Japanese without knowing it.”
(I love that quote.)
Reinhart and Rogoff spoke at a lunch for economics reporters at the Princeton Club in New York, where they discussed their comprehensive new book, “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.”
To me, one of the most important findings of the book is that generations of economists, right up to the present, have misunderstood the causes of sovereign defaults (i.e., when a country fails to make payments on its foreign debt). It turns out, they say, that a country is much more likely to default on its foreign debt if it’s carrying a lot of domestic debt. No wonder: A country will try repaying its own citizens (who vote) before it worries too much about foreign creditors (who don’t vote and, in any case, tend to be stupidly forgiving).
OK, the importance of domestic debt may not sound too surprising. What’s surprising, rather, is that this factor was completely neglected in most economists’ work. One reason: Governments have not made data about the quantities of their domestic debt available to researchers. Reinhart and Rogoff compiled it and are planning to make it available to other scholars.
One footnote: The U.S. does not have foreign debt, in the way that Reinhart and Rogoff use the term. Instead, it has lots of domestic debt (like Treasuries) that happened to be owned by foreigners. To them, foreign debt is debt that is issued in a foreign jurisdiction, usually in that foreign nation’s currency.
The U.S. can still stick it to foreign creditors by inflating the dollar so much that foreign-held Treasury bonds become close to worthless. That is exactly what the Chinese are worried about lately.