History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. – Edward Gibbon
The economics profession has an unfortunate tendency to view recent experience in the narrow window provided by standard datasets. With a few notable exceptions, cross-country empirical studies of financial crises typically begin in 1980 and are limited in other important respects. Yet an event that is rare in a three-decade span may not be all that rare when placed in a broader context.
In a recent paper co-authored with Kenneth Rogoff, we introduce a comprehensive new historical database for studying debt and banking crises, inflation, currency crashes and debasements.3 The database covers sixty-six countries across all regions. The range of variables encompasses external and domestic debt, trade, GNP, inflation, exchange rates, interest rates, and commodity prices. The coverage spans eight centuries, going back to the date of independence or well into the colonial period for some countries.
In what follows, I sketch some of the highlights of the dataset, with special reference to the current conjuncture. We note that policymakers should not be overly cheered by the absence of major external defaults from 2003 to 2007, after the wave of defaults in the preceding two decades. Serial default remains the norm; major default episodes are typically spaced some years (or decades) apart, creating an illusion that “this time is different” among policymakers and investors. We also find that high inflation, currency crashes, and debasements often go hand-in-hand with default. Last, but not least, we find that historically, significant waves of increased capital mobility are often followed by a string of domestic banking crises.
More information on the book, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, co-authored with Kenneth S. Rogoff can be found over at Princeton University Press.