Column: Talking troubled Turkey

Written by Paul Krugman | Updated: Feb 2 2014, 03:19am hrs
OK, who ordered that With everything else going on, the last thing we needed was a new economic crisis in a country already racked by political turmoil. True, the direct global spillovers from Turkey, with its Los Angeles-sized economy, wont be large. But were hearing that dreaded word contagionthe kind of contagion that once caused a crisis in Thailand to spread across Asia, more recently caused a crisis in Greece to spread across Europe, and now, everyone worries, might cause Turkeys troubles to spread across the worlds emerging markets.

It is, in many ways, a familiar story. But thats part of what makes it so disturbing: Why do we keep having these crises And heres the thing: The intervals between crises seem to be getting shorter, and the fallout from each crisis seems to be worse than the last. Whats going on

Before I get to Turkey, a brief history of global financial crises.

For a generation after World War II, the world financial system was, by modern standards, remarkably crisis-freeprobably because most countries placed restrictions on cross-border capital flows, so that international borrowing and lending were limited. In the late 1970s, however, deregulation and rising banker aggressiveness led to a surge of funds into Latin America, followed by whats known in the trade as a sudden stop in 1982and a crisis that led to a decade of

economic stagnation.

Latin America eventually returned to growth (although Mexico had a nasty relapse in 1994), but, in the 1990s, a bigger version of the same story unfolded in Asia: Huge money inflows followed by a sudden stop and economic implosion. Some of the Asian economies bounced back quickly, but investment never fully recovered, and neither did growth.

Most recently, yet another version of the story has played out within Europe, with a rush of money into Greece, Spain and Portugal, followed by a sudden stop and immense economic pain.

As I said, although the outline of the story remains the same, the effects keep getting worse. Real output fell 4% during Mexicos crisis of 1981-83; it fell 14% in Indonesia from 1997 to 1998; it has fallen more than 23% in Greece.

So is an even worse crisis brewing The fundamentals are slightly reassuring; Turkey, in particular, has low government debt, and while businesses have borrowed a lot from abroad, the overall financial situation doesnt look that bad. But each previous crisis defied sanguine expectations. And the same forces that sent money sloshing into Turkey also make the world economy as a whole highly vulnerable.

You may or may not have heard that theres a big debate among economists about whether we face secular stagnation. Whats that Well, one way to describe it is as a situation in which the amount people want to save exceeds the volume of investments worth making.

When thats true, you have one of two outcomes. If investors are being cautious and prudent, we are collectively, in effect, trying to spend less than our income, and since my spending is your income and your spending is my income, the result is a persistent slump.

The larger point is that Turkey isnt really the problem; neither are South Africa, Russia, Hungary, India, and whoever else is getting hit right now. The real problem is that the worlds wealthy economiesthe United States, the euro area, and smaller players, toohave failed to deal with their own underlying weaknesses. Most obviously, faced with a private sector that wants to save too much and invest too little, we have pursued austerity policies that deepen the forces of depression. Worse yet, all indications are that, by allowing unemployment to fester, were depressing our long-run as well as short-run growth prospects, which will depress private investment even more.

Oh, and much of Europe is already at risk of a Japanese-style deflationary trap. An emerging-markets crisis could, all too plausibly, turn that risk into reality.

So Turkey seems to be in serious troubleand China, a vastly bigger player, is looking a bit shaky, too. But what makes these troubles scary is the underlying weakness of Western economies, a weakness made much worse by really, really bad policies.