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Crisis, what crisis?

8 Oct 2012 By Hugo Dixon

The credit crisis burst into the open five years ago. The euro crisis has been rumbling for over two years. The term “crisis” isn’t just on everybody’s lips in finance. Wherever one turns – politics, business, medicine, ecology, psychology, in fact virtually every field of human activity – people talk about crises. But what are they, how do they develop and what can people do to change their course?

The first thing to say is that a crisis is not just a bad situation. When the word is used that way, it is devalued. The etymology is from the ancient Greek: krisis, or judgment. The Greek Orthodox Church uses the term when it talks about the Final Judgment – when sinners go to hell but the virtuous end up in heaven. The Chinese have a similar concept: the characters for crisis represent danger and opportunity.

A crisis is a point when people have to make rapid choices under extreme pressure, normally after something unhealthy has been exposed in a system. To use two other Greek words, one path can lead to chaos; another to catharsis or purification.

A crisis is certainly a test of character. It can be scary. Think of wars; environmental disasters that destroy civilisations of the sort charted in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse; mass unemployment; or individual depression that triggers suicide.

But the outcome can also be beneficial. This applies whether one is managing the aftermath of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, the current euro crisis, the blow-up of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico or an individual’s mid-life crisis. Much depends on how the protagonists act.

Students of crises are fond of dividing them into phases. For example, Charles Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics, and Crashes identifies five phases of a financial crisis: an exogenous, normally positive, shock to the system; a bubble when people exaggerate the benefits of that shock; distress when some financiers realise that the game cannot last; the crash; and finally a depression.

While there is much to commend in Kindleberger’s system, it is too rigid to account for all crises in all fields. It also downplays the possibility that decision-makers can change the course of a crisis. A more flexible scheme that leaves space for human agency to affect how events turn out has two just phases: the bubble and the crash.

The bubble is typically characterised by mania and denial. Things are going well – or, at least, appear to be. Feedback loops end up magnifying confidence. In corporations or politics, bosses surround themselves with lackeys who tell them how brilliant they are. In finance, leverage plays a big part.

This is not healthy. Manic individuals don’t know their limitations and end up taking excessive risks – whether on a personal level or in managing an organisation or an entire economy. As the ancient Greeks said, hubris comes before nemesis.

But before that, there is denial. People do not wish to recognise that there is a fundamental sickness in a system, especially when they are doing so well. For example, back in 2007 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the greed was palpable. Market participants had such a strong interest in keeping the game going that they turned a blind eye to the unsustainable buildup of leverage.

The ethical imperative in this phase is to burst the bubble before it gets too big. That, in turn, means both being able to spot a bubble and having the courage to stop the party before it gets out of hand. Neither is easy. It’s hard to recognise a sickness given that there is usually some ideology which explains away the mania as a new normal. The few naysayers can be ridiculed by those who benefit from the continuation of the status quo.

What’s more, politicians, business leaders and investors rarely have long-term horizons. So even if they have an inkling that things aren’t sustainable, they may still have an incentive to prolong the bubble.

The crash, by contrast, is characterised by panic and scapegoating. People fear that the system could collapse. Negative feedback loops are in operation: the loss of confidence breeds further losses in confidence. This is apparent on an individual level as much as a macro one.

Events move extremely fast and decisions have to be taken rapidly. Witness the succession of weekend crisis meetings after Lehman went bust – or the endless euro crisis summits. The key challenge is to take effective decisions that avoid vicious spirals while not embracing short-term fixes that fail to address the fundamental issues. With the euro crisis:, for example, it is important to improve competitiveness with structural reforms not just rely on liquidity injections from the European Central Bank.

In this phase, there is no denial that there is a problem. But there is often no agreement over what has gone wrong. Protagonists are reluctant to accept their share of responsibility but, instead, seek to blame others. Such scapegoating, though, prevents people from reforming a system fundamentally so that similar crises don’t recur.

Crises will always be a feature of life. The best that humanity can do is to make sure it doesn’t repeat the same ones. And the main way to evolve – both during a bubble and after a crash – is to strive to be honest about what is sick in a system. That way, crises won’t go to waste.

(Research by Viktoria Dendrinou)


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