Back in the spring of 1998, when Boris Yeltsin was still at Russia’s helm, I led a group of global investors to Moscow to find out firsthand where the Russian economy was headed. My long career with the International Monetary Fund and on Wall Street had taken me to “emerging markets” throughout Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, and I thought I’d seen it all. Yet I still recall the shock I felt at a meeting in Russia’s dingy Ministry of Finance, where I finally realized how a handful of young oligarchs were bringing Russia’s economy to ruin in the pursuit of their own selfish interests, despite the supposed brilliance of Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s economic czar at the time.
At the time, I could not imagine that anything remotely similar could happen in the United States. Indeed, I shared the American conceit that most emerging-market nations had poorly developed institutions and would do well to emulate Washington and Wall Street. These days, though, I’m hardly so confident. Many economists and analysts are worrying that the United States might go the way of Japan, which suffered a “lost decade” after its own real estate market fell apart in the early 1990s. But I’m more concerned that the United States is coming to resemble Argentina, Russia and other so-called emerging markets, both in what led us to the crisis, and in how we’re trying to fix it.
Over the past year, I’ve been getting Russia flashbacks as I witness the AIG debacle as well as the collapse of Bear Sterns and a host of other financial institutions. Much like the oligarchs did in Russia, a small group of traders and executives at onetime venerable institutions have brought the U.S. and global financial systems to their knees with their reckless risk-taking — with other people’s money — for their personal gain.
And here’s the conclusion:
In the twilight of my career, when I am hopefully wiser than before, I have come to regret how the IMF and the U.S. Treasury all too often lectured leaders in emerging markets on how to “get their house in order” — without the slightest thought that the United States might fare no better when facing a major economic crisis. Now, I fear time is running out for our own policymakers to mend their ways and offer real leadership to extricate the United States from its worst economic calamity since the 1930s. If we insist on improvising and not facing our real problems, we might soon lose our status as a country to be emulated and join the ranks of those nations we have patronized for so long.
* For the record, the Atlantic article was finalized on March 17 and went up on the web on March 26; judging from the URL, it looks like Lachman’s article went up on March 25.
Originally published at the Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission.