China 2009 = America 2001 = Rome 11 BC?

One of the top experts on China’s economy – Michael Pettis – has a very long but interesting essay arguing that China is blowing a giant credit bubble to avoid the global downturn.

Pettis documents reports and statistics from modern China, of course. But he ends with a must-read comparison to ancient Rome:

Let me post here a portion of Chapter 15 from Will Durant’s History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to AD 325

The famous “panic” of A.D. 33 illustrates the development and complex interdependence of banks and commerce in the Empire. Augustus had coined and spent money lavishly, on the theory that its increased circulation, low interest rates, and rising prices would stimulate business. They did; but as the process could not go on forever, a reaction set in as early as 10 B.C., when this flush minting ceased. Tiberius rebounded to the opposite theory that the most economical economy is the best. He severely limited the governmental expenditures, sharply restricted new issues of currency, and hoarded 2,700,000,000 sesterces in the Treasury.

The resulting dearth of circulating medium was made worse by the drain of money eastward in exchange for luxuries. Prices fell, interest rates rose, creditors foreclosed on debtors, debtors sued usurers, and money-lending almost ceased. The Senate tried to check the export of capital by requiring a high percentage of every senator’s fortune to be invested in Italian land; senators thereupon called in loans and foreclosed mortgages to raise cash, and the crisis rose. When the senator Publius Spinther notified the bank of Balbus and Ollius that he must withdraw 30,000,000 sesterces to comply with the new law, the firm announced its bankruptcy.

At the same time the failure of an Alexandrian firm, Seuthes and Son due to their loss of three ships laden with costly spices and the collapse of the great dyeing concern of Malchus at Tyre, led to rumors that the Roman banking house of Maximus and Vibo would be broken by their extensive loans to these firms. When its depositors began a “run” on this bank it shut its doors, and later on that day a larger bank, of the Brothers Pettius, also suspended payment. Almost simultaneously came news that great banking establishments had failed in Lyons, Carthage, Corinth, and Byzantium. One after another the banks of Rome closed. Money could be borrowed only at rates far above the legal limit. Tiberius finally met the crisis by suspending the land-investment act and distributing 100,000,000 sesterces to the banks, to be lent without interest for three years on the security of realty. Private lenders were thereby constrained to lower their interest rates, money came out of hiding, and confidence slowly re-turned.

Except for the exotic names … and the spice-bearing ships, this story has a remarkably contemporary ring to it, as do nearly all historical accounts of financial crisis, by the way. This story is not totally relevant to China today except to the extent that it indicates how difficult it is for banking systems flush with cash to avoid speculative lending, and how the very fact of their speculative lending then creates the conditions that can bring the whole thing crashing down. Hyman Minsky told us all about this kind of thing. There has never been a political or economic system in history that has been able to avoid the consequences of excessive liquidity within the banking system. Even the Romans learned this, and they learned it the hard way, as we always do.

America’s easy credit bubble started in 2001. Rome’s prior to 10 BC. We know the results of both.

Is China now blowing a huge credit bubble which will lead to a giant crash down the line?

Pettis thinks so, and every Austrian economist in the world would agree.

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