Reinhart and Rogoff's book provides a quantitative history of financial crises derived from over 600 years and 66 nations. The basic message from all their data is that there are remarkable similarities in today's financial crises with experience from other countries and nations. The common theme is that excessive debt accumulation by government, banks, corporations, or consumers often brings great risk. It makes government look like it is providing greater growth than it is, inflates housing and stock prices beyond sustainable levels, and makes banks seem more stable and profitable than they really are. Large-scale debt buildups make an economy vulnerable to crises of confidence - especially when the debt is short-term and needs to be refinanced (the usual case).
Reinhart and Rogoff go on to conclude that most of these booms end badly. Outcomes include sovereign defaults (government fails to meet payments on its debt), banking crises (heavy investment losses, banking panics), exchange rate crises (Asia, Europe, Latin America in the 1990s), high inflation (a de facto default), and combinations of the preceding (1930s, today).
What did the authors learn from their data digging? Severe financial crises share three characteristics: 1)Declines in real housing prices average 35%, stretched out over six years, while equity prices fall an average 56% over 3.5 years. 2)The unemployment rate rises an average of 7 percentage points during the down phase (average length = four years). Output falls more than 9% over a two-year period. 3)Government debt tends to explode, an average 86% in real terms. The biggest driver of this debt explosion is the collapse in tax revenues; counter-cyclical fiscal policy efforts also contribute, as well as spiking interest rates.
Reinhart and Rogoff also identify what they find to be the best and worst (pronouncements from the Federal Reserve, U.S. Treasury heads, and more than a few 'successful' academics and stock-pickers) early warning indicators of crises. Finally, the authors warn that premature self-congratulations on early successes in correcting a banking crisis may lead to complacency and an even worse state of affairs.
The 'good news' is that Reinhart and Rogoff have provided a detailed and credible accounting of past experiences. The 'bad news' is that despite the authors' scholarly and intense efforts, "This Time is Different" is not likely to sway many minds for two reasons. 1)The book is too much of a scholarly tome to become widely read, and there are too many self-serving 'think-tanks' offering contrarian opinions. Others, more data-driven, will point out that most of "This Time Is Different" is drawn from earlier days and non-U.S. nations, and thus of limited applicability to the U.S. today. 2)Despite recent disproof of claims that government has mastered the economic cycle via Federal Reserve fine-tuning and counter-cyclical government spending, and that 'the old rules of valuation no longer apply,' we're back blowing bubbles. Today's MSNBC headline reads 'New Market Bubble May be Brewing,' the 'Greenspan Put' (government will bail out falling markets, while allowing soaring ones) continues, no action has been taken to rein in Wall Street gambling and unwarranted bonuses, financial institutions believed 'too big to fail' are bigger than ever, and 2010 election pressures will undoubtedly auger for continued easy money, inflating ourselves out of debt, and increased debt at all levels.