Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 19 October 2018

Crashed by Adam Tooze

My review of Crash: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World is finally out at the London Review of Books (subscribers only I’m afraid). From what I’ve read it has received glowing reviews elsewhere, and mine is no exception. Reflecting its ambition it is no quick read (the main text is 600 pages). There is an introduction which does summarise some of the key ideas, but the triumph of the book is that it combines a detailed account of the events of the last ten years with an analytical overview which makes sense of the detail and which makes good sense. It has the additional advantage from my point of view that it is broadly consistent with many of the arguments made on this blog, although I don’t think I ever managed to match the quality of his prose.

The argument that binds the whole book together is that the crisis was not the result of the specific shocks of Subprime debt or the housing markets of Ireland and Spain, but an inevitable consequence of a global banking system that became chronically short of buffers to cushion against any kind of significant systemic shock. To use the technical term the system became over leveraged: lending too much in relation to the capital it had to cover loans going bad. This is the same theme as the book by Tam Bayoumi I discussed here, but in fact the two compliment each other: Bayoumi focuses on the regulatory changes that created global megabanks, while Tooze deals with the consequences of when these banks crashed.

Key to how the crisis played out was how different governments reacted to the crisis, and this is the central part of the book. After the mistake of Lehman, the US government took comprehensive action on a huge scale. To quote Tooze:
“It was a class logic, admittedly – ‘Protect Wall Street first, worry about Main Street later – but at least it had a rationale and one operating on a grand scale.”

The UK did the same, but because there were no widespread defaults in the UK there was no failure to help borrowers.

The contrast with the Eurozone is emphasised by Tooze. First Eurozone countries tried to suggest this was an anglo-saxon crisis, despite their own banks being deeply embedded in this global network, and was particularly rich as the Fed was (as Tooze shows) providing billions of dollars to European banks to keep them afloat. Germany with the help of the ECB refused to participate in a joint Eurozone response, and then later attempted the ‘bait and switch’ of blaming the Eurozone crisis on excessive government debt: bait and switch is the title of my review, and was originally used by Mark Blyth who in his book Austerity: the History of a Dangerous Idea saw earlier than most that the crisis was all about banks. Again to quote Tooze on the Eurozone response:
“‘It is a spectacle that ought to inspire outrage. Millions have suffered for no good reason.”

I have to add for those reading in the UK that this was about how individual Eurozone governments behaved within the Eurozone system, and has nothing to do with the trade relationships and regulation pooling that is the EU.

There is a lot more in my review (LRB gives you the luxury of over 3,000 words), and many important things in the book that I did not have space to comment on. For those into international relations as well as economists and historians this book is a goldmine.

On the subject of books, my own more modest effort is out shortly: it can be ordered at a 20% discount here, rising to 35% if you join the publisher’s mailing list.)

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