From John Mauldin's "Thoughts from the Frontline" 4-20-2013


And the following is key. Read it twice (at least!):

Perhaps more than anything else, failure to recognize the precariousness and fickleness of confidence – especially in cases in which large short-term debts need to be rolled over continuously – is the key factor that gives rise to the this-time-is-different syndrome. Highly indebted governments, banks, or corporations can seem to be merrily rolling along for an extended period, when bang! – confidence collapses, lenders disappear, and a crisis hits.

Economic theory tells us that it is precisely the fickle nature of confidence, including its dependence on the public’s expectation of future events, which makes it so difficult to predict the timing of debt crises. High debt levels lead, in many mathematical economics models, to “multiple equilibria” in which the debt level might be sustained – or might not be. Economists do not have a terribly good idea of what kinds of events shift confidence and of how to concretely assess confidence vulnerability. What one does see, again and again, in the history of financial crises is that when an accident is waiting to happen, it eventually does. When countries become too deeply indebted, they are headed for trouble. When debt-fueled asset price explosions seem too good to be true, they probably are. But the exact timing can be very difficult to guess, and a crisis that seems imminent can sometimes take years to ignite.

How confident was the world in October of 2006? John was writing that there would be a recession, a subprime crisis, and a credit crisis in our future. He was on Larry Kudlow’s show with Nouriel Roubini, and Larry and John Rutledge were giving him a hard time about his so-called “doom and gloom.” “If there is going to be a recession you should get out of the stock market,” was John’s call. He was a tad early, as the market proceeded to go up another 20% over the next 8 months. And then the crash came.

But that’s the point. There is no way to determine when the crisis comes.

As Reinhart and Rogoff wrote:

Highly indebted governments, banks, or corporations can seem to be merrily rolling along for an extended period, when bang! – confidence collapses, lenders disappear, and a crisis hits.

Bang! is the right word. It is the nature of human beings to assume that the current trend will work itself out, that things can’t really be that bad. The trend is your friend … until it ends. Look at the bond markets only a year and then just a few months before World War I. There was no sign of an impending war. Everyone “knew” that cooler heads would prevail.

We can look back now and see where we have made mistakes in the current crisis. We actually believed that this time was different, that we had better financial instruments, smarter regulators, and were so, well, modern. Times were different. We knew how to deal with leverage. Borrowing against your home was a good thing. Housing values would always go up. Etc.

Until they didn’t, and then it was too late. What were we thinking? Of course, we were thinking in accordance with our oh-so-human natures. It is all so predictable, except for the exact moment when the crisis hits. (And during the run-up we get all those wonderful quotes from market actors, which then come back to haunt them.)"

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