Now a well worn phrase has been that "no one could have seen this coming." Well, that is just not true; many did. And what set them apart from the cheering herd and its Panglossian view that all is for the best in this best of all worlds is that they did not drink from the neo-classical ideological kool-aid.
Hyman Minsky is about the last person asset managers would want to be mentioning in their letters to their clients (I cannot recall where I originally read this, or I would attribute credit). Minsky is perhaps best known for his Financial Instability Hypothesis which is being wonderfully articulated by Steve Keen at his debt deflation blog , along with the good folks over at the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability and many others.
Why the resurgence in interest in Minsky? Well, he explained and expanded ideas set forth by Keynes, who did not believe that markets were efficient and self-regulating. The price of an asset was not always the correct price.
From Keynes´s article in 1937:
Actually, however, we have, as a rule, only the vaguest idea of any but the most direct consequences of our acts. Sometimes we are not much concerned with their remoter consequences, even tho time and chance may make much of them. But sometimes we are intensely concerned with them, more so, occasionally, than with the immediate consequences.
Now of all human activities which are affected by this remoter preoccupation, it happens that one of the most important is economic in character, namely. Wealth. The whole object of the accumulation of Wealth is to produce results, or potential results, at a comparatively distant, and sometimes at an indefinitely distant, date. Thus the fact that our knowledge of the future is fluctuating, vague and uncertain, renders Wealth a peculiarly unsuitable subject for the methods of the classical economic theory. This theory might work very well in a world in which economic goods were necessarily consumed within a short interval of their being produced. But it requires, I suggest, considerable amendment if it is to be applied to a world in which the accumulation of wealth for an indefinitely postponed future is an important factor; and the greater the proportionate part played by such wealth-accumulation the more essential does such amendment become.
By "uncertain" knowledge, let me explain, I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known for certain from what is only probable. The game of roulette is not subject, in this sense, to uncertainty; nor is the prospect of a Victory bond being drawn. Or, again, the expectation of life is only slightly uncertain. Even the weather is only moderately uncertain. The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention, or the position of private wealthowners in the social system in 1970. About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know. Nevertheless, the necessity for action and for decision compels us as
practical men to do our best to overlook this awkward fact and to behave exactly as we should if we had behind us a good Benthamite calculation of a series of prospective advantages and disadvantages, each multiplied by its appropriate probability, waiting to he summed.
How do we manage in such circumstances to behave in a manner which saves our faces as rational, economic men? We have devised for the purpose a variety of techniques, of which much the most important are the three following:
(1) We assume that the present is a much more serviceable guide to the future than a candid examination of past experience would show it to have been hitherto. In other words we largely ignore the prospect of future changes about the actual character of which we know nothing.
(2) We assume that the existing state of opinion as expressed in prices and the character of existing output is based on a correct summing up of future prospects, so that we can accept it as such unless and until something new and relevant comes into the picture.
(3) Knowing that our own individual judgment is worthless, we endeavor to fall back on the judgment of the rest of the world which is perhaps better informed. That is, we endeavor to conform with the behavior of the majority or the average. The psychology of a society of individuals each of whom is endeavoring to copy the others leads to what we may strictly term a conventional judgment.
Now a practical theory of the future based on these three principles has certain marked characteristics. In particular, being based on so flimsy a foundation, it is subject to sudden and violent changes. The practice of calmness and immobility, of certainty and security, suddenly breaks down. New fears and hopes will, without warning, take charge of human conduct. The forces of disillusion may suddenly impose a new conventional basis of valuation. All these pretty, polite techniques, made for a well-panelled Board Room and a nicely regulated market, are liable to collapse. At all times the vague panic fears and equally vague and unreasoned hopes are not really lulled, and lie but a little way below the surface.
Perhaps the reader feels that this general, philosophical disquisition on the behavior of mankind is somewhat remote from the economic theory under discussion. But I think not. Tho this is how we behave in the market place, the theory we devise in the study of how we behave in the market place should not itself submit to market-place idols. I accuse the classical economic theory of being itself one of these pretty, polite techniques which tries to deal with the present by abstracting from the fact that we know very little about the
I daresay that a classical economist would readily admit this. But, even so, I think he has overlooked the precise nature of the difference which his abstraction makes between theory and practice, and the character of the fallacies into which he is likely to be led.
Keynes, John Maynard (1937). `The General Theory of Employment`, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 51. cited in Shaw, G.K. (198. The Keynesian Heritage: Volume I. pp.11-13
Minsky identified three types of finance: hedge, speculative and Ponzi. Once the Ponzi stage is reached, debt is taken on in the belief that asset prices will continue to rise which will enable the debt to be serviced. Needless to say, once asset prices start to fall many will default. This is what we are seeing now. From Wray and Tymoigne :
Minsky created a famous taxonomy of financing profiles undertaken by investing firms: hedge (prospective income flows are expected to cover interest and principle with a safe margin); speculative (near-term income flows will cover only interest, although it is expected that finance costs will fall, that income flows will rise, or that assets can be sold at a higher price later—in which case revenues will be sufficient to cover principle); and Ponzi (near-term receipts are insufficient to cover interest payments so that debt increases because the Ponzi unit borrows to cover interest payments). Over the course of an expansion, financial stances evolve from largely hedge to include ever rising proportions of speculative and even Ponzi positions. Some Ponzi positions are undertaken voluntarily (due, for example, to expectations that debt can be refinanced at much more favorable terms or that large capital gains can be realized from asset price appreciation), some are fraudulent (a “pyramid” scheme is an example, in which a crook dupes everlarger numbers of suckers to provide the funds to pay the earliest participants), and some result from disappointment (revenues are lower than expected or finance costs rise unexpectedly). Attempts to raise leverage and to move to more speculative positions can be frustrated at least temporarily: if results turn out to be more favorable than expected, an investor attempting to engage in speculative finance could remain hedge because incomes realized are greater than were anticipated. This is because as aggregate investment rises, it has a multiplier impact on effective demand that can raise sales beyond what had been expected. Later, Minsky explicitly incorporated the Kaleckian result that in the truncated model, aggregate profits equal investment plus the government’s deficit.7 Thus, in an investment boom, profits would be increasing along with investment, helping to validate expectations and encouraging even more investment. This added strength to his proposition that the fundamental instability in the capitalist economy is upward—toward a speculative frenzy (as investment generates profits), which breeds more investment.
Here is an in depth look at the work and ideas of Hyman Mynsky.
Macroeconomics Meets Hyman P. Minsky the Financial Theory of Investment