Finance and Economics
Buttonwood: When the cycle turns
The next financial crisis may be triggered by central banks.
As with London buses, don't worry if you miss a financial crisis; another will be along shortly.
The latest study on long-term asset returns from Deutsche Bank shows that crises in developed markets have become much more common in recent decades.
That does not bode well.
Deutsche defines a crisis as a period when a country suffers one of the following: a 15% annual decline in equities; a 10% fall in its currency or its government bonds; a default on its national debt; or a period of double-digit inflation.
During the 19th century, only occasionally did more than half of countries for which there are data suffer such a shock in a single year.
But since the 1980s, in numerous years more than half of them have been in a financial crisis of some kind.
The main reason for this, argues Deutsche, is the monetary system.
Under the gold standard and its successor, the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, the amount of credit creation was limited.
A country that expanded its money supply too quickly would suffer a trade deficit and pressure on its currency's exchange rate; the government would react by slamming on the monetary brakes.
The result was that it was harder for financial bubbles to inflate.
But since the early 1970s more countries have moved to a floating exchange-rate system.
This gives governments the flexibility to deal with an economic crisis, and means they do not have to subordinate other policy goals to maintaining a currency peg.
It has also created a trend towards greater trade imbalances, which no longer constrain policymakers—the currency is often allowed to take the strain.
Similarly, government debt has risen steadily as a proportion of GDP since the mid-1970s.
There has been little pressure from the markets to balance the budget; Japan has had a deficit every year since 1966, and France since 1993.
Italy has managed just one year of surplus since 1950.
In the developed world, consumers and companies have also taken on more debt.
The result has been a cycle of credit expansion and collapse.