CRF Blog

Minsky’s moment

by David De La Torre

The Economist has published a series of six articles on seminal ideas in economics. The second article is on Minsky’s moment, “Hyman Minsky’s hypothesis that booms sow the seeds of busts.”

Minsky distinguished between three kinds of financing. The first, which he called “hedge financing”, is the safest: firms rely on their future cashflow to repay all their borrowings. For this to work, they need to have very limited borrowings and healthy profits. The second, speculative financing, is a bit riskier: firms rely on their cashflow to repay the interest on their borrowings but must roll over their debt to repay the principal. This should be manageable as long as the economy functions smoothly, but a downturn could cause distress. The third, Ponzi financing, is the most dangerous. Cashflow covers neither principal nor interest; firms are betting only that the underlying asset will appreciate by enough to cover their liabilities. If that fails to happen, they will be left exposed.

Economies dominated by hedge financing — that is, those with strong cashflows and low debt levels — are the most stable. When speculative and, especially, Ponzi financing come to the fore, financial systems are more vulnerable. If asset values start to fall, either because of monetary tightening or some external shock, the most overstretched firms will be forced to sell their positions. This further undermines asset values, causing pain for even more firms. They could avoid this trouble by restricting themselves to hedge financing. But over time, particularly when the economy is in fine fettle, the temptation to take on debt is irresistible. When growth looks assured, why not borrow more? Banks add to the dynamic, lowering their credit standards the longer booms last. If defaults are minimal, why not lend more? Minsky’s conclusion was unsettling. Economic stability breeds instability. Periods of prosperity give way to financial fragility. [more]

The first article can be found here: George Akerlof’s 1970 paper, “The Market for Lemons”