From Financial Crisis to Debt Crisis?

RogoffKenneth Rogoff in Project Syndicate:

Everyone from the Queen of England to laid-off Detroit autoworkers wants to know why more experts did not see the financial crisis coming. It is an awkward question. How can policymakers be so certain that financial catastrophe won’t soon recur when they seemed to have no idea that such a crisis would happen in the first place?

The answer is not very reassuring. First, the fact is that economics tells us much more about a country’s vulnerability to financial crises than it does about the timing. Second, there is every reason to worry that the banking crisis has simply morphed into a long-term government debt crisis.

After all, why exactly are most investors now so confident that it is over? Mainly because they see that the governments of the world have cast a vast and expansive safety net over the major financial institutions and markets. At the same time, policymakers have turned on all the tools of modern macroeconomic stimulus to full blast, with huge fiscal deficits and near zero policy interest rates.

But if the governments have shown they will spare no expense to backstop the financial system, who is to backstop governments, particularly with so many running out-sized deficits at the same time.

As governments pile up war-level debt burdens, when will the problem explode? One again we just don’t know. Our theoretical models tell us that even a massively leveraged economy can plod along for years, if not decades, before crashing and burning. It all boils down to confidence. It is precisely when investors are most sure that governments will eventually dig their way out of huge debt holes that politicians dig their way deeper and deeper into debt. Economics theory tells us a lot about which countries are most vulnerable, but specifying exactly where and when crises will erupt is far more difficult.