We are all Keynesians now. When Barack Obama takes office he will propose a gigantic fiscal stimulus package. Such packages are being offered by many other governments. Even Germany is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into this race. The ghost of John Maynard Keynes, the father of macroeconomics, has returned [and] that of his most interesting disciple, Hyman Minsky.I first heard Hy Minsky talk in the 1960s. His main message I summarize as follows:
1. Financial systems have a built-in tendency to euphoria. The financial market does not tend toward stability. The opposite is true. Bankers and other financial actors borrow more and more heavily, making the system increasingly vulnerable to panic. Lenders start after a scare by being conservative, hedging their bets. But eventually confidence returns and speculation takes hold again. Then investors get to the Ponzi phase – manic use of credit, a euphoria or bubble.
2. The credit cycle tends to manic, ends with panic. The Ponzi phase continues until some investors exit with their profits, or the central bank raises interest rates to reduce investor euphoria, and then a financial institution runs into difficulty. The failure causes a bankers' panic. Turning points in the five stages of the cycle are called “Minsky moments”.
3. The system tends to instability and must be regulated. Fashions in monetary theory have moved from a belief that Keynesian sophisticates could “fine-tune” the economy, to fear that the Fed had lost control of the ability to contain inflation, to a belief that markets work best with minimal interference. Hy rejected all these ideas, preaching consistently about the need for regulation and the importance of leaning against the excesses of what Keynes called the animal spirits of investors.
Born in Chicago, Hy taught at Brown, Berkeley and Washington University (St. Louis). He died 12 years ago in Rhinebeck, 77 years old, near Bard College’s Levy Institute, which has a special interest in business cycles and treated Hy as a star in his last six years. Hy didn’t live to see how closely this year’s meltdowns would follow his predicted scenario, with the Lehman failure being one of several clear Minsky moments.
Former Fed Governor Laurence Meyer, who spoke in New York City last week, has said of Minsky: “few have influenced my thinking about economics more than Hy.” If Hy had been listened to more than he was in a deregulatory environment, we would have seen less permissiveness – Ninja mortgages, lax SEC oversight, highly leveraged instruments and institutions, Treasury deficits – during the credit runup. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and then-Governor Ben Bernanke were anxious not to “pop the bubble” because (citing the Milton Friedman-Anna Schwartz history) that’s the mistake the Fed made in 1928. The Fed was concerned not to stifle financial innovation, arguing that it is ready with new weapons in the event of an asset-destroying credit freeze.
This last theory is now being tested. The stakes are high, beyond an academic debate. Whatever side one takes, any sensible person should be rooting for the outgoing and incoming Fed-Treasury teams to succeed in restoring confidence and the flow of credit.