The pace and severity of financial crises has taken an ominous turn for the worse. Over the past 30 years, a crisis has occurred, on average, every three years. Yet, now, only 18 months after the meltdown of late 2008, Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has hit with full force. With one crisis seemingly begetting another, and the fuse between crises now getting shorter and shorter, the world economy is on a very treacherous course.
Each crisis has its poster child – from Thailand, to dot-com, to subprime. But they all have one thing in common – easy money. The “Greenspan put” – the notion that central banks would be quick and aggressive in backstopping financial market disruptions – was the short-term anesthetic that repeatedly set the stage for the next crisis.
In the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, über monetary accommodation fed the equity bubble. Once that bubble burst in 2000, another dose of extraordinary monetary ease set the stage for massive property and credit bubbles. The aftershocks of that post-bubble carnage have now brought Europe to the brink.
Sadly, central banks are doing it again – policy rates near the zero bound in nominal terms and negative in real terms. And in the parlance of the Federal Reserve, this destabilizing condition is likely to persist for an “extended” period. As day follows night, this is a recipe for the next crisis. Whether that crisis is spawned by another asset bubble, a credit binge, or CPI inflation is impossible to say. But any – or all – of these options are conceivable in yet another undisciplined post-crisis climate.