Book Reviews: Manias, Panics, and Crashes, and Devil Take the Hindmost

Sometimes we forget how bad it can be, and then we howl over minor bad times in the markets. We may be past a mania in residential housing, but we have not really experienced a panic or crash yet. People squeal over how bad the equity market is, but recently we haven’t had anything like the 2000-2002 experience, much less the 1973-1974 or 1929-1932 experience.

Two books come to mind when I think about disaster in a non-fear-mongering way: Manias, Panics, and Crashes, by Charles Kindleberger, and Devil Take the Hindmost, by Edward Chancellor. They take two different approaches to the topic, and those approaches complement each othe, giving a fuller picture. Chancellor takes a historical approach, while Kindleberger deals with the structures of financial crises.

From Chancellor, you will see that manias and their subsequent fallout are endemic to Western culture. Someone living a full life over the last 300+ years would see one or two big ones, and numerous small ones. Relatively free societies give people freedom to make mistakes. Given the way that people chase performance, we can all make mistakes as a group, with large booms and busts. Much as the regulators might want to tame it, they can pretty much only affect what kind of crisis we get, and not whether we get one. He is somewhat prescient in suggesting that the leverage inherent in derivatives post-LTCM could be the next crisis. This book is a better one if you like the stories, and don’t want to dig into the theories.

But if you like trying to place the manias, panics, and crashes on a common grid, to see their similarities, Kindleberger has written the book for you. In it he draws on a number of common factors:

  • Loose monetary policy
  • People chase the performance of the speculative asset
  • Speculators make fixed commitments buying the speculative asset
  • The speculative asset’s price gets bid up to the point where it costs money to hold the positions
  • A shock hits the system, a default occurs, or monetary policy starts contracting
  • The system unwinds, and the price of the speculative asset falls leading to
  • Insolvencies with those that borrowed to finance the assets
  • A lender of last resort appears to end the cycle

I liked them both, but I am an economic history buff, and a bit of a wonk. The benefit of both books is that they will make you more aware of how financial crises come to be, and what the qualitative signs tend to manifest during the boom and bust phases of the overall speculation cycle.

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