TOPICS: Galbraith saw the crisis coming

Stephen Dunn

One hundred years ago on Oct. 15, one of the intellectual titans of the 20th century was born. Had the warnings issued by JK Galbraith up until his death two years ago been better heeded by the policymakers of today, it seems unlikely we would find ourselves so deep in the economic mire.

Galbraith ceaselessly warned of the dangers of financial excess. In his extensive writings — most famously The Great Crash 1929 — Galbraith described the common events that precede and accompany particular financial crises, events that are conveniently forgotten by politicians, regulators and their advisers in the good times, when financial deregulation takes grip.

As Galbraith remarked, all stockmarket bubbles exhibit “seemingly imaginative, currently lucrative, and eventually disastrous innovation in financial structures”. Galbraith argued that an unfettered, competitive capitalist system, operating on pure free-market principles, was inherently cyclical and unstable, requiring robust regulation and active government.

Starting with the tulip bulb mania in the 1630s, bubble after speculative bubble has been erased from the popular memory. These episodes share a theme: a perceived fundamental change in the economy arouses euphoria and heightened expectations of return, leading to excess, fraud and collapse.

This pattern underpinned the folly of sub-prime lending. The expansion in business activity feeds entrepreneurial and speculative behaviour in the financial sectors. It drives monetary innovation and the new forms of financing structures that are contrived to allow firms to participate in the boom. Heightened expectations stimulate a credit boom, with the banking system keen to cash in. As Galbraith remarked in Money: “The banks, needless to say, provided the money that financed the speculation that in each case preceded the crash.”

As Galbraith and Keynes before him warned, such speculation inevitably leads to euphoria or overtrading. As debt accumulates, soon it can only be serviced by the issue of new liabilities. As long as the financial markets are booming, it is possible to sustain low levels of cash inflow. But when the hangover comes it hits hard.

When the financial markets slow their expansion, organisations that have covered their future liabilities through issuing more debt are forced to sell assets. These “distress” sales cause asset prices to fall, at which point the financial markets, and businesses, collapse. The next phase in which investors try to get their money back out of the markets, naturally gives way to one of “panic”. This is the essence of The Great Crash.

The flurry of action by governments in recent days suggests that Galbraith’s works have finally been pored over. The experience of the 1930s must be avoided. This financial crisis must be met with programmes designed to maintain demand and avoid another Great Depression. On the 100th anniversary of Galbraith’s birth, his words matter more than ever.