Minsky mania: a raincheck

by Paul Ormerod

The American economist Hyman Minsky is currently very fashionable, especially amongst those who are sympathetic to the idea of more government intervention in the economy.

Hyman Minsky

Minsky argued that financial crises were an inevitable feature of capitalism, unless governments stepped in through regulation and central bank action.

He hypothesised that in prosperous times, when the corporate cash position became strong, exuberance developed which translated into a speculative bubble in asset and property markets.  Private sector debt rose as borrowing increased to fuel the speculation, and at the ‘Minsky moment’ a crisis would occur.  Following this, banks tighten credit, and even companies which are fundamentally sound may be driven out of business because of an unwillingness to roll over debt.

His theory is very seductive in the light of the experience since 2007.

But the theory does not explain why, over the past 80 years, we have only had two major financial crises, the early 1930s and the recent one from 2007.  It is the dog which has not barked which causes fundamental problems for the hypothesis as it stands.

For example, in the United States, private sector debt relative to the size of the economy reached a peak of 2.1 in 1932.  From a low point of only 0.4 in 1945, it rose almost without interruption to a new peak of nearly 2.2 in 2001.  But there was no crisis.  It reached 2.6 in 2006, much higher than its peak in the 1930s Great Depression.  But again, no crisis.

The Minsky story is good at telling us after the event what happened in a crisis.  It does not tell us why crises do not happen, even when the objective facts suggest they should.

It is not wrong.  It needs dramatic expansion using the concepts of networks, and how different stories, different narratives are either spread or contained across them.  The Minsky moment only becomes important when it becomes the dominant narrative, which may have very little connection with objective reality.

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