The Financial Instability Hypothesis

Janet Yellen, President of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, pointed out at the 18th annual conference honoring the work of Hyman P. Minsky that:
“… with the financial world in turmoil, Minsky’s work has become required reading. It is getting the recognition it richly deserves.”

Paul Krugman has also been re-reading Hyman Minsky’s most famous book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy.

Central to Minsky’s view of how financial meltdowns occur is his Financial Instability Hypothesis (FIH) — what has come to be known as ‘an investment theory of the business cycle and a financial theory of investment’. But, what is it all about? Quoting from Minsky . . .

“The theoretical argument of the financial instability hypothesis starts from the characterization of the economy as a capitalist economy with expensive capital assets and a complex, sophisticated financial system… The focus is on an accumulating capitalist economy that moves through real calendar time…”

“The capital development of a capitalist economy is accompanied by exchanges of present money for future money. The present money pays for resources that go into the production of investment output, whereas the future money is the “profits” which will accrue to the capital asset owning firms (as the capital assets are used in production). As a result of the process by which investment is financed, the control over items in the capital stock by producing units is financed by liabilities–these are commitments to pay money at dates specified or as conditions arise. For each economic unit, the liabilities on its balance sheet determine a time series of prior payment commitments, even as the assets generate a time series of conjectured cash receipts…
A part of the financing of the economy can be structured as dated payment commitments in which banks are the central player…”

“Thus, in a capitalist economy the past, the present, and the future are linked not only by capital assets and labor force characteristics but also by financial relations. The key financial relationships link the creation and the ownership of capital assets to the structure of financial relations and changes in this structure…”

“In spite of the greater complexity of financial relations, the key determinant of system behavior remains the level of profits. The financial instability hypothesis incorporates the Kalecki (1965)-Levy (1983) view of profits, in which the structure of aggregate demand determines profits. In the skeletal model, with highly simplified consumption behavior by receivers of profit incomes and wages, in each period aggregate profits equal aggregate investment…”

“In a more complex (though still highly abstract) structure, aggregate profits equal aggregate investment plus the government deficit. Expectations of profits depend upon investment in the future, and realized profits are determined by investment: thus, whether or not liabilities are validated depends upon investment. Investment takes place now because businessmen and their bankers expect investment to take place in the future…”

“The financial instability hypothesis, therefore, is a theory of the impact of debt on system behavior and also incorporates the manner in which debt is validated….”

“The financial instability hypothesis takes banking seriously as a profit-seeking activity. Banks seek profits by financing activity and bankers. Like all entrepreneurs in a capitalist economy, bankers are aware that innovation assures profits. Thus, bankers (using the term generically for all intermediaries in finance), whether they be brokers or dealers, are merchants of debt who strive to innovate in the assets they acquire and the liabilities they market…”

“Three distinct income-debt relations for economic units, which are labeled as hedge, speculative, and Ponzi finance, can be identified.
Hedge financing units are those which can fulfill all of their contractual payment obligations by their cash flows.
Speculative finance units are units that can meet their payment commitments on “income account” on their liabilities, even as they cannot repay the principle out of income cash flows. Such units need to “roll over” their liabilities: (e.g. issue new debt to meet commitments on maturing debt)
For Ponzi units, the cash flows from operations are not sufficient to fulfill either the repayment of principle or the interest due on outstanding debts by their cash flows from operations. Such units can sell assets or borrow. Borrowing to pay interest or selling assets to pay interest (and even dividends) on common stock lowers the equity of a unit, even as it increases liabilities and the prior commitment of future incomes. A unit that Ponzi finances lowers the margin of safety that it offers the holders of its debts.”
“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 from a financial structure dominated by hedge finance units to a structure in which there is large weight to units engaged in speculative and Ponzi finance.”
“Furthermore, if an economy with a sizeable body of speculative financial units 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 position by selling out position. This is likely to lead to a collapse of asset values.”
“The financial instability hypothesis is a model of a capitalist economy which does not rely upon exogenous shocks to generate business cycles of varying severity. The hypothesis holds that business cycles of history are compounded out of (i) the internal dynamics of capitalist economies, and (ii) the system of interventions and regulations that are designed to keep the economy operating within reasonable bounds.”

Source: Excerpts from Hyman Minsky’s 1992 paper linked to above.

Update: A good summary of Minsky’s view can be found here and here.

One Response to The Financial Instability Hypothesis

  1. Great summary!This is exactly why, I personally use and advocate that people should strongly support CREDIT UNIONS.