Just a look at the list of Minsky's major works tells that he thought a lot about financial crisises.
[Minsky] theorized that financial fragility is a typical feature of any capitalist economy. High fragility leads to a higher risk of a financial crisis. To facilitate his analysis Minsky defines three types of financing firms choose according to their tolerance of risk. They are hedge finance, speculative finance and Ponzi finance. Ponzi finance leads to the most fragility.
Ponzi finance obviously refers to Ponzi schemes, which are pretty synonymous to pyramid schemes for our purposes.
In Minsky's own words (1974): "The first theorem of the financial instability hypothesis is that the economy has financing regimes under which it is stable, and financing regimes in which it is unstable.
The second theorem of the financial instability hypothesis is that over periods of prolonged prosperity, the economy transits from financial relations that make for a stable system to financial relations that make for an unstable system.
In particular, over a protracted period of good times, capitalist economies tend to move to a financial structure in which there is a large weight to units engaged in speculative and Ponzi finance. Furthermore, if an economy is in an inflationary state, and the authorities attempt to exorcise inflation by monetary constraint, then speculative units will become Ponzi units and the net worth of previously Ponzi units will quickly evaporate. Consequently, units with cash flow shortfalls will be forced to try to make positions by selling out positions. This is likely to lead to a collapse of asset values."
A more technical summary and the 1992 version of Minsky's clarifications are available here.
The internets are already buzzing with relating Minsky's theory to the current situation of the real estate market. Here is a nice summary of the typical bubble cycle.
Stage One – Displacement
Every financial crisis starts with a disturbance. It might be the invention of a new technology, such as the internet. It could be a shift in economic policy. For example, interest rates might be reduced unexpectedly. Whatever it is, the world changes for one sector of the economy. People see the sector differently.
Stage Two – Prices start to increase
Following the displacement, prices in the displaced sector start to rise. Initially, the price increase is barely noticed. Usually, these higher prices reflect some underlying improvement in fundamentals. As the price increases gain momentum, people start to notice.
Stage three – Easy Credit
Increasing prices are not enough for a bubble. Every financial crisis needs rocket fuel and there is only one thing that this rocket burns - cheap credit. Without it, there can be no speculation. Without it, the consequences of the displacement peter out and the sector returns to normal.When a bubble starts, the market is invaded by outsiders. Without cheap credit, the outsiders can’t join in.
Cheap credit is the entrance ticket for outsiders. For example, gas prices have risen sharply in recent years. However, banks aren’t giving out loans so that people can store gas in their garages in the hope that the price will double in three months. The banks, however, are prepared to give loans to people with poor credit to hold condos in the hope that they can be quickly flipped.
The rise in easy credit is also often associated with financial innovation. Often, a new type of financial instrument is developed that miss-prices risk. Indeed, easy credit and financial innovation is a dangerous cocktail. The South-Sea Bubble started life as new-fangled legal innovation called the limited liability joint stock company. In 1929, stock prices were propelled into the stratosphere with the help of margin calls. Housing prices today accelerated as interest-only mortgages emerged as a viable means for financing overpriced real estate purchases.
Stage Four – Over-trading
As the effects of easy credit kicks in, the market starts to overtrade. Overtrading stimulates volumes and shortages emerge. Prices start to accelerate, and easy profits are made. More outsiders are attracted, and prices run out of control. Accelerating prices attract the foolish, greedy and the desperate to enter the market. As a fire needs more fuel, a bubble needs more outsiders.
Stage five – Euphoria
The bubble now enters its most tragic stage. Some wise voices will stand up and say that the bubble can no longer continue. They put together convincing arguments based upon long run fundamentals and sound economic logic. However, these arguments evaporate in the heat of the one over-riding fact – the price is still rising. The wise are shouted down by charlatans, who justify insane prices by the euphoric claim that the world is different and this new world means higher prices.
Of course, the "new world" claim is true; the world is different every day, but that doesn’t mean that prices run out of control. The charlatan wins the day and unjustified optimism takes over. At this point, the charlatans bolster their optimism with the cruelest of all lies; when prices finally reach their new long run level, there will be a "soft landing". The idea of a gentle deceleration of prices calms the nerves.The outsiders are trapped in knowing denial. They know that prices can’t keep rising forever, but they rarely act on that knowledge. Everything is safe so long as they quit one day before the bubble bursts.Those that did not enter the market are stuck in a terrible dilemma. They can not enter but neither can they stay out. They know that they have missed the beginning of the bubble. They are bombarded daily with stories of easy riches and friends making massive profits. The strong stay out and reconcile themselves to the missed opportunity. The weak enter the fire and are damned.
Stage Six - Insider profit taking
Everyone wants to believe in a new brighter future but a bubble takes that desire and turns it upside down. A bubble demands that everyone believes in a brighter future, and so long as this euphoria continues, the bubble is sustained. However, as madness takes hold of the outsiders, the insiders remember the old world. They lose their faith and start to panic. They understand their market, and they know that it has all gone too far. Insiders start to cash out. Typically, the insiders try to sneak away unnoticed, and sometimes they get away with it. Other times, the outsiders see them as they leave. Whether the outsiders see them leave or not, insider profit taking signals the beginning of the end.
Stage seven - Revulsion
Sometimes, panic of the insiders infects the outsiders. Other times, it is the end of cheap credit or some unanticipated piece of news. But whatever may be, euphoria is replaced with revulsion. The building is on fire and everyone starts to run for the door. Outsiders start to sell, but there are no buyers. Panic sets in; prices start to tumble downwards, credit dries up, and losses start to accumulate.
Here is the paradox of all bubbles – everyone knows how the fatal combination of easy credit, overtrading and euphoria will affect prices. Minsky didn’t need to write down a thing about the madness of speculation. America’s investors have a lifetime of experience. Within the space of five years, America moved from the tech stock bubble into the real estate bubble.Today’s housing prices are grossly overvalued. Everyone knows that prices will collapse. It might be tomorrow, or it might be two years from now. One thing, however is certain, the longer it takes for the bubble to burst, the more painful it will be.
New technology "disturbances", easy credit, enthusiastic trading, euphoria... What are we missing?
In a way, we can see that Bush's tax cuts, financial and corporate policies have impressive workings. By encouraging (or forcing, also indirectly via pension funds) people to enter financial and real estate markets, by running up debt (in effect, at the cost of Social Security) they vastly increased demand for stocks and real estate. The demand growth is self-inforcing and self-necessary, just as in a Ponzi scheme. But once the demand hits a ceiling... you can bet, there won't be many buyers.
Minsky's theory is "most applicable to a closed economy". Some bubles might have to collapse by now already, but the process of globalization spreads markets and the pool of outsiders entering them. Hence, the bubbles may keep growing. The recent stock market "corrections" are good indications of this process: the Shanghai dip of 3 weeks ago was provoked by rumours that Chinese government may try to curb market speculations more seriously.
Is a colossal collapse of all bubbles eminent? Perhaps there is still enough room for critical bubbles to grow for a few years, or yet another election cycle. But it would be downright immoral and dangerous to rely on that. Something more intelligent can be done, I believe.
It is pretty amazing that knowing so much about financial cycles, the Bush and other world administrations encourage precisely a path to a sharp crisis. Yes, the path does produce excitement of easily growing wealth - just as a pyramid scheme.
Can we enjoy a financial meltdown now?
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