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Financial Crises, 1929 to the Present

Author(s):Hsu, Sara
Reviewer(s):Wheelock, David C.

Published by EH.Net (November 2014)

Sara Hsu, Financial Crises, 1929 to the Present. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2013. v + 178 pp. $100 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-85793-342-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by David C. Wheelock, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

In Financial Crises, 1929 to the Present, Sara Hsu of the State University of New York, New Paltz, offers a concise history of several of the world’s major financial crises — from the Great Depression to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-08 and European debt crisis of 2009-10.

Financial crises are not easy to define precisely, except perhaps in the context of a stylized model, and different authors have used a variety of quantitative measures to identify and measure the severity of crises. In the first chapter of the book, Hsu explains how different authors define financial crises, focusing especially on the ideas of Hyman Minsky and Charles Kindleberger. Hsu provides neither a precise theoretical nor a quantitative definition of a financial crisis, but aligns herself with Minsky in concluding that unregulated financial systems of capitalist economies are inherently prone to instability and crises with potentially severe macroeconomic repercussions: “Hyman Minsky was right in the sense that given free rein, capitalism has created instability and unanticipated crises” (p. 146).

After a brief summary of how the global financial system has evolved since the 1930s, subsequent chapters review the histories of individual crises, beginning with the Great Depression. Hsu follows John Kenneth Galbraith in tracing the origins of the Great Depression to Wall Street speculation and attributes the eventual market crash to heightened uncertainty and a global credit crunch associated with French claims on British gold and the introduction of the Young Plan in 1929. Although she acknowledges the decline in the money stock and deflation that took hold after the crash, Hsu rejects the view of Friedman and Schwartz (1963) that banking panics and a contracting money supply caused the Great Depression, favoring instead Ben Bernanke’s (1983) emphasis on the nonmonetary effects that financial crises had on the economy.

The Great Depression led to major changes in the regulation of U.S. banks and financial markets, as well as disintegration of the international gold standard and the imposition of capital and exchange controls around the world. Controls became universal during World War II and remained in place for several years after the war under the post-war Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Hsu nicely summarizes key features of the Bretton Woods System and its breakdown in the 1970s in the book’s third chapter.
The remaining chapters summarize major financial crises, beginning with the debt crises of emerging market economies in the 1980s. Hsu explains how many emerging market economies had borrowed heavily to support economic growth when commodity prices were rising in the 1970s, only to experience difficulty servicing their debts and obtaining new loans when commodity prices fell after the Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy and the U.S. economy went into recession in the early 1980s. This chapter has an especially good summary of how the debt crisis unfolded in different countries and how lenders, governments, and the IMF responded.

Hsu next discusses several crises that occurred in the 1990s, including the Western European exchange rate crisis, Nordic banking crises, Japanese real estate collapse and subsequent “lost decade,” Mexican debt crisis, and Asian financial crisis. A subsequent chapter describes the Russian and Brazilian financial crises of 1998 and the Argentinian crisis of 2000. Like many others, Hsu is highly critical of the “conditionality” requirements imposed by the IMF on nations in crisis. For example, she argues that “The IMF program for Korea went beyond measures needed to resolve the crisis … and, destructively, called for even wider opening(!) of Korea’s capital and current accounts” (p. 91).

The penultimate chapter of the book focuses on the subprime mortgage crisis and recession of 2007-08, which originated in the United States but was felt around the world, and the European debt crisis that emerged in 2009-10. For Hsu, “the crisis showed that all financial markets are unstable and require constant supervision and regulation” (p. 129). She blames “excessive overleveraging” of subprime assets in the form of opaque financial instruments created by a largely unregulated and unsupervised banking system and the trading of those securities “over the counter” rather than through organized and regulated exchanges. She argues that much of the government’s response to the crisis, such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, was flawed and failed to halt the crisis.

The final chapter considers alternative policies for preventing future crises and for containing and resolving any crises that might occur. Hsu is generally supportive of capital controls, macro-prudential bank regulations, and countercyclical fiscal and monetary policy, as well as greater coordination of policies across countries. Indeed, she argues that “The preeminence of country sovereignty and competitiveness over global financial stability ensures that fault lines will exist and expand, and that crises will continue to occur. Should country priorities shift en masse from economic growth to economic and financial stability, there is a much greater probability that future financial crises might be prevented” (p. 146).

The book could serve as a supplement for undergraduate courses in economic history, international finance, and macroeconomics or as a reference for anyone wishing summaries of the key events and issues surrounding particular crises. However, the book might hold less appeal for courses in U.S. economic history because it does not cover several noteworthy episodes of financial instability in the United States, such as the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. Further, readers interested in more theoretical explanations of the causes and effects of financial crises or those interested in the interplay of political and economic forces that shape the financial regulatory environment and can promote instability and crises even in highly regulated financial systems, as discussed recently by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber (2014), will want to look elsewhere.

References:

Bernanke, Ben S. “Nonmonetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the Great Depression,” American Economic Review 73(3), June 1983, pp. 257-76.

Calomiris, Charles W. and Stephen H. Haber. Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Friedman, Milton and Anna J. Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

David C. Wheelock researches U.S. financial and monetary history. His recent publications include (with Michael D. Bordo), “The Promise and Performance of the Federal Reserve as Lender of Last Resort,” in M.D. Bordo and W. Roberds, editors, The Origins, History, and Future of the Federal Reserve: A Return to Jekyll Island. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII