Hong Kong, China - As long as there are free markets and humans remain emotional creatures, there will always be financial crises.
So says renowned British historian Niall Ferguson. The Harvard University professor and I had a chance to meet in Hong Kong at a recent investors' conference. He shared his observations on the current economic crisis.
CNN: Is there anything unique about this recession?
Ferguson: This isn't a recession is the first point to make. It's a near depression. In fact, I am calling it the Slight Depression to distinguish it from the Great Depression of 1929 to 1933. And the unique thing is that we nearly repeated history. In other words we nearly repeated the Great Depression, but we avoided it with massive monetary and fiscal stimulus. So we are in new territory.
CNN: When does government intervention work?
Ferguson: We need to be very careful when we talk about government intervention. That covers a multitude of sins. There was a lot of government intervention in the Soviet Union and we know how that story ended. So we are talking very specifically here about two policies: one is the use of central bank money creating power to avoid a liquidity crisis that crunches the entire banking system. So intervention by the (U.S.) Federal Reserve beginning in 2007 and escalating in September of 2008 was primarily designed to avoid massive bank failures of the sort that made the Depression so serious in the early 1930s. And I think there is no question that we have learned from history and Ben Bernanke, as chairman of the Fed, has learned from history, that it's a good idea to avoid a generalized collapse of the banking system.
CNN: When does government intervention not work?
Ferguson: The other kind of government intervention, which is slightly more problematic, is the sort in which the government runs a large deficit in order to stimulate the economy by building roads and building bridges in order to get people back to work in the hope that in doing that, it will generate a recovery. This is the model developed by John Maynard Keynes back in the 1930s and it's been used by countries around the world to varying degrees. And to some extent, this has been effective. But the problem is, in the United States, you are adding a stimulus on top of an already huge structural deficit in the public finances, and the prospect of a trillion dollars of new borrowing every year for the decade ahead, that scares me and it should scare everybody.
CNN: There's been a backlash against the financial world, especially Wall Street. Have we seen the same level of fury after past crises and where does that vitriol lead?
Ferguson: It's not, by any means, the first time that people have felt furious of what they have seen going on in Wall Street: a financial speculative bubble that bursts and causes a recession which drives other people, ordinary folks out of jobs. The question is just how far this populous backlash is going to go in the United States and indeed around the world now. My suspicion is that it's got a ways to go. Each time an American loses his or her job, not surprisingly, he or she looks around and asks who's to blame for this. And when they see on Wall Street, the banks paying out million-dollar bonuses with what appears to be, and in some cases is, taxpayer money from the TARP fund, I am not at all surprised that people feel mad. And when they feel mad, they turn around and they say, 'How can I express this anger? Who can I vote for who is going to articulate my feelings of frustration?' And I wouldn't be at all surprised to see, as we approach the mid-term elections, more and more politicians, particularly Republicans, trying to articulate that sense of popular grievance.
What lessons have you learned from the current economic crisis? Tell us what your experiences are.
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