In recent years, critical scholars have emphasised how the recollection of past events as traumas can both constrain and widen the political possibilities of a present. This article builds on such research by suggesting that the management of contemporary financial crises is reliant on a ritual work of repetition, wherein prior ‘crisis’ episodes are called upon to identify and authorise specific sites and modes of crisis management. In order to develop this argument, I focus on how past crises figure within the public pronouncements of four key policymaking organisations during the financial instability of 2007–9. I find that while the Great Depression does enable these organisations to reaffirm old ways of managing crises, both it and the more recent Asian crisis are also made to disclose new truths about the evolution of multilateralism as a form of governance. In so doing, I argue, these historical narratives reveal how the management of global financial crisis depends upon a kind of ‘magic trick’. Rather than a strictly rational, historical process of problem solving, contemporary crises are instead negotiated through a contingent and self-referential conjuring of crisis-histories.