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Krugman: Talking Turkey -#8212; and global crises

  • In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 photo, people walk by an electric board showing currency rates at a money exchange brokerage in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkey's central bank has sharply raised its key interest rate to 12 percent from 7.75 percent to try to stave off inflation and support the national currency, which has fallen sharply in recent weeks. The decision was taken late Tuesday at an emergency meeting the central bank called for after the currency, the lira, hit a record low. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

OK, who ordered that? With everything else going on, the last thing we needed was a new economic crisis in a country already racked by political turmoil. True, the direct global spillovers from Turkey, with its Los Angeles-sized economy, won't be large. But we're hearing that dreaded word "contagion" -#8212; the kind of contagion that once caused a crisis in Thailand to spread across Asia, more recently caused a crisis in Greece to spread across Europe, and now, everyone worries, might cause Turkey's troubles to spread across the world's emerging markets.

It is, in many ways, a familiar story. But that's part of what makes it so disturbing: Why do we keep having these crises? And here's the thing: The intervals between crises seem to be getting shorter, and the fallout from each crisis seems worse than the last. What's going on? Before I get to Turkey, a brief history of global financial crises.

For a generation after World War II, the world financial system was, by modern standards, remarkably crisis-free -#8212; probably because most countries placed restrictions on cross-border capital flows, so that international borrowing and lending were limited. In the late 1970s, however, deregulation and rising banker aggressiveness led to a surge of funds into Latin America, followed by what's known in the trade as a "sudden stop" in 1982 -#8212; and a crisis that led to a decade of economic stagnation.

Latin America eventually returned to growth, but, in the 1990s, a bigger version of the same story unfolded in Asia: Huge money inflows followed by a sudden stop and economic implosion. Some of the Asian economies bounced back quickly, but investment never fully recovered, and neither did growth.

Most recently, yet another version of the story has played out within Europe, with a rush of money into Greece, Spain and Portugal, followed by a sudden stop and immense economic pain.

As I said, although the outline of the story remains the same, the effects keep getting worse. Real output fell 4 percent during Mexico's crisis of 1981-83; it fell 14 percent in Indonesia from 1997 to 1998; it has fallen more than 23 percent in Greece.

So is an even worse crisis brewing? The fundamentals are slightly reassuring; Turkey has low government debt, and while businesses have borrowed a lot from abroad, the overall financial situation doesn't look that bad. But each previous crisis defied sanguine expectations. And the same forces that sent money sloshing into Turkey also make the world economy vulnerable.

You may have heard that there's a big debate among economists about whether we face "secular stagnation." What's that? Well, one way to describe it is as a situation in which the amount that people want to save exceeds the volume of investments worth making.

When that's true, you have one of two outcomes. If investors are being cautious, we are collectively, in effect, trying to spend less than our income, and since my spending is your income and your spending is my income, the result is a persistent slump.

Alternatively, flailing investors can delude themselves, pouring money into ill-conceived projects, be they subprime lending or capital flows to emerging markets. This can boost the economy for a while, but eventually investors face reality, the money dries up and pain follows.


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