Hyman Minsky

Last updated
Hyman Minsky
Hyman Philip Minsky

(1919-09-23)September 23, 1919
DiedOctober 24, 1996(1996-10-24) (aged 77)
Nationality United States
Field Macroeconomics
School or
Post-Keynesian economics
Alma mater University of Chicago (B.S.)
Harvard University (M.P.A./Ph.D.)
Joseph Schumpeter
Wassily Leontief
Mauro Gallegati
L. Randall Wray
Influences Henry Simons
Karl Marx
Joseph Schumpeter
Wassily Leontief
Michał Kalecki
John Maynard Keynes
Irving Fisher
Abba Lerner
Contributions Financial instability hypothesis
Minsky moment
Information at IDEAS / RePEc

Hyman Philip Minsky (September 23, 1919 – October 24, 1996) was an American economist, a professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis, and a distinguished scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. His research attempted to provide an understanding and explanation of the characteristics of financial crises, which he attributed to swings in a potentially fragile financial system. Minsky is sometimes described as a post-Keynesian economist because, in the Keynesian tradition, he supported some government intervention in financial markets, opposed some of the financial deregulation of the 1980s, stressed the importance of the Federal Reserve as a lender of last resort and argued against the over-accumulation of private debt in the financial markets. [1]


Minsky's economic theories were largely ignored for decades, until the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 caused a renewed interest in them.[ citation needed ]


A native of Chicago, Illinois, Minsky was born into a family of Menshevik emigrants from Belarus. His mother, Dora Zakon, was active in the nascent trade union movement. His father, Sam Minsky, was active in the Jewish section of the Socialist party of Chicago. [2] In 1937, Minsky graduated from George Washington High School in New York City. In 1941, Minsky received his B.S. in mathematics from the University of Chicago and went on to earn an M.P.A. and a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, where he studied under Joseph Schumpeter and Wassily Leontief.


Minsky taught at Brown University from 1949 to 1958, and from 1957 to 1965 was an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1965 he became Professor of Economics of Washington University in St Louis and retired from there in 1990. [3] At the time of his death he was a Distinguished Scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. He was a consultant to the Commission on Money and Credit (1957–1961) while at Berkeley.

Financial theory

Minsky proposed theories linking financial market fragility, in the normal life cycle of an economy, with speculative investment bubbles endogenous to financial markets. Minsky stated that in prosperous times, when corporate cash flow rises beyond what is needed to pay off debt, a speculative euphoria develops, and soon thereafter debts exceed what borrowers can pay off from their incoming revenues, which in turn produces a financial crisis. As a result of such speculative borrowing bubbles, banks and lenders tighten credit availability, even to companies that can afford loans, and the economy subsequently contracts.

This slow movement of the financial system from stability to fragility, followed by crisis, is something for which Minsky is best known, and the phrase "Minsky moment" refers to this aspect of Minsky's academic work. [4]

"He offered very good insights in the '60s and '70s when linkages between the financial markets and the economy were not as well understood as they are now," said Henry Kaufman, a Wall Street money manager and economist. "He showed us that financial markets could move frequently to excess. And he underscored the importance of the Federal Reserve as a lender of last resort." [5]

Minsky's model of the credit system, which he dubbed the "financial instability hypothesis" (FIH), [6] incorporated many ideas already circulated by John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, Knut Wicksell and Irving Fisher. [7] "A fundamental characteristic of our economy," Minsky wrote in 1974, "is that the financial system swings between robustness and fragility and these swings are an integral part of the process that generates business cycles." [8]

Disagreeing with many mainstream economists of the day, he argued that these swings, and the booms and busts that can accompany them, are inevitable in a so-called free market economy – unless government steps in to control them, through regulation, central bank action and other tools. Such mechanisms did in fact come into existence in response to crises such as the Panic of 1907 and the Great Depression. Minsky opposed the deregulation that characterized the 1980s.

It was at the University of California, Berkeley, that seminars attended by Bank of America executives[ citation needed ] helped him to develop his theories about lending and economic activity, views he laid out in two books, John Maynard Keynes (1975), a classic study of the economist and his contributions, and Stabilizing an Unstable Economy (1986), and more than a hundred professional articles.

Further developments

Minsky's theories have enjoyed some popularity, but have had little influence in mainstream economics or in central bank policy.

Minsky stated his theories verbally, and did not build mathematical models based on them. Minsky preferred to use interlocking balance sheets rather than mathematical equations to model economies: "The alternative to beginning one's theorizing about capitalist economies by positing utility functions over the reals and production functions with something labeled K (called capital) is to begin with the interlocking balance sheets of the economy." [9] Consequently, his theories have not been incorporated into mainstream economic models, which do not include private debt as a factor.

Minsky's theories, which emphasize the macroeconomic dangers of speculative bubbles in asset prices, have also not been incorporated into central bank policy. However, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–2010 there has been increased interest in policy implications of his theories, with some central bankers advocating that central bank policy include a Minsky factor. [10]

Minsky's theories and the subprime mortgage crisis

Minsky's financial instability-hypothesis

Hyman Minsky's theories about debt accumulation received revived attention in the media during the subprime mortgage crisis of the first decade of this century. The New Yorker has labelled it "the Minsky Moment". [11] [12]

Minsky argued that a key mechanism that pushes an economy towards a crisis is the accumulation of debt by the non-government sector. He identified three types of borrowers that contribute to the accumulation of insolvent debt: hedge borrowers, speculative borrowers, and Ponzi borrowers.

The "hedge borrower" can make debt payments (covering interest and principal) from current cash flows from investments. For the "speculative borrower", the cash flow from investments can service the debt, i.e., cover the interest due, but the borrower must regularly roll over, or re-borrow, the principal. The "Ponzi borrower" (named for Charles Ponzi, see also Ponzi scheme) borrows based on the belief that the appreciation of the value of the asset will be sufficient to refinance the debt but could not make sufficient payments on interest or principal with the cash flow from investments; only the appreciating asset value can keep the Ponzi borrower afloat.

These 3 types of borrowers manifest into a 3 phased system:

Hedge Phase: This phase occurs right after a financial crisis and after recovery, during a point at which banks and borrowers are overtly cautious. This causes loans to be minimal ensuring that the borrower can afford to repay both the initial principal and the interest. Thus, the economy is most likely seeking equilibrium and virtually self-containing. This is the “not too hot not too cold” Goldilocks phase of debt accumulation.

Speculative phase: After some progression in the Hedge phase, the Speculative period emerges as confidence in the banking system is slowly renewed. As banks continue this observation, they continue this risky process. Rather than issue loans to borrowers that can pay both principal and interest; loans are issued where the borrower can only afford to pay the interest. This begins the decline to instability

Ponzi Phase: As confidence continues to grow in the banking system and banks continue to believe that asset prices will continue to rise, the third stage in the cycle, the Ponzi stage, begins. In the final stage of the FIH, the borrower can neither afford to pay the principal nor the interest on the loans which are issued by banks leading to foreclosures and vast debt failures.

If the use of Ponzi finance is general enough in the financial system, then the inevitable disillusionment of the Ponzi borrower can cause the system to seize up: when the bubble pops, i.e., when the asset prices stop increasing, the speculative borrower can no longer refinance (roll over) the principal even if able to cover interest payments. As with a line of dominoes, collapse of the speculative borrowers can then bring down even hedge borrowers, who are unable to find loans despite the apparent soundness of the underlying investments. [6]

Application to the subprime mortgage crisis

Economist Paul McCulley described how Minsky's hypothesis translates to the subprime mortgage crisis. [13] McCulley illustrated the three types of borrowing categories using an analogy from the mortgage market: a hedge borrower would have a traditional mortgage loan and is paying back both the principal and interest; the speculative borrower would have an interest-only loan, meaning they are paying back only the interest and must refinance later to pay back the principal; and the ponzi borrower would have a negative amortization loan, meaning the payments do not cover the interest amount and the principal is actually increasing. Lenders only provided funds to ponzi borrowers due to a belief that housing values would continue to increase.

McCulley writes that the progression through Minsky's three borrowing stages was evident as the credit and housing bubbles built through approximately August 2007. Demand for housing was both a cause and effect of the rapidly expanding shadow banking system, which helped fund the shift to more lending of the speculative and ponzi types, through ever-riskier mortgage loans at higher levels of leverage. This helped drive the housing bubble, as the availability of credit encouraged higher home prices. Since the bubble burst, we are seeing the progression in reverse, as businesses de-leverage, lending standards are raised and the share of borrowers in the three stages shifts back towards the hedge borrower.

McCulley also points out that human nature is inherently pro-cyclical, meaning, in Minsky's words, that "from time to time, capitalist economies exhibit inflations and debt deflations which seem to have the potential to spin out of control. In such processes, the economic system's reactions to a movement of the economy amplify the movement – inflation feeds upon inflation and debt-deflation feeds upon debt-deflation." In other words, people are momentum investors by nature, not value investors. People naturally take actions that expand the high and low points of cycles. One implication for policymakers and regulators is the implementation of counter-cyclical policies, such as contingent capital requirements for banks that increase during boom periods and are reduced during busts.

Minsky's periods of capitalism

Though Minsky's research in the 1980s depended on Keynesian analysis, he thought that changes in the structure of the US economy by then required new analysis, and for this he turned to Schumpeter. [14] Both Schumpeter (and Keynes), Minsky argued, believed that finance was the engine of investment in capitalist economies, so the evolution of financial systems, motivated by profit-seeking, could explain the shifting nature of capitalism across time. From this, Minsky split capitalism into four stages: Commercial, Financial, Managerial and Money Manager. Each is characterized by what is being financed and who is doing the financing.

Commercial Capitalism

Minsky's first period correlated to Merchant Capitalism. In this period, banks use their privileged knowledge of distant banks and local merchants to gain a profit. They issued bills for commodities, essentially creating credit for the merchants and a corresponding liability to themselves, so in the case of unexpected losses they guaranteed to pay. When a credit contract was fulfilled, the credit was destroyed. Banks financed the inventories of merchant, but not capital stock ––this means that the primary source of profit was through trade, and not expanding production as in later periods. As Minsky explained, "commercial capitalism might well be taken to correspond to the structure of finance when production is by labor and tools, rather than by machinery and labor."

Financial Capitalism

The industrial revolution put more importance on employing machinery in production, and the non-labor costs that came with it. This required 'durable assets' and so brought about the corporation as an entity, with limited liability for investors. The main source of financing shifted from commercial banks to investment banks, especially with the proliferation of stocks and bonds in security markets. As competition between firms could lead to a decline in prices, threatening their ability to fulfill existing financial commitments, investment banks started promoting a consolidation of capital by facilitating trusts, mergers and acquisition. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 ended their dominance of the economy.

Managerial Capitalism

Relying on the profit theory of Michal Kalecki, Minsky argues that level of investment determines aggregate demand and thus the flow of profits (i.e investment finances itself.) According to Minsky, the Keynesian deficit spending of post-depression economies guaranteed the flow of profits, and allowed for the return of firms financing themselves out of profits (something that hadn't been widespread since the first period of capitalism.) Management in firms became more independent on the investment banker and the shareholder, leading to longer time horizons in business decisions, which Minsky believed was potentially beneficial. He offsets this, however, by pointing out that firms became bureaucratized, lacking the dynamic efficiency of earlier capitalism, such that they became "prisoners of tradition." Government spending decisions shifting to underwriting consumption rather than the development of capital assets also contributed to stagnation, although stable aggregate demand meant there was an absence of depressions or recessions.

Money Manager Capitalism

Minsky argues that due to tax laws and the way markets capitalized on income, the value of equity in indebted firms was higher than conservatively financed ones. This led to a shift, as explained by Minsky,

A market in the control of firms developed: the fund managers whose compensation was based on the total returns earned by the portfolio they managed were quick to accept the higher price for the assets in their portfolio that resulted from the refinancing that accompanied changes in the control of firms. In addition to selling the equities that led to the change in control, the manager of money were buyers of the liabilities (bonds) that came out of such a refinancing. The independence of operating corporations from the money and financial markets that characterized the managerial capitalism was thus a transitory stage. The emergence of return and capital-gains-oriented blocks of managed money resulted in financial markets once again being a major influence in determining the performance of the economy. However, unlike the earlier epoch of finance capitalism, the emphasis was not upon the capital development of the economy but rather the upon the quick turn of the speculator, upon trading profits.

Minsky noted that the rise of money management, trading huge multi-million dollar blocks every day, led to an increase in securities and people taking financial positions to gain a profit. This positioning itself was financed by banks. Minsky noted that financial institutions had become so far removed from the financing of capital development at this point, but rather committed large cash flows to 'debt validation.' [15]

Minsky's periodization of capitalism
Economic ActivityTradeProductionAggregate DemandAsset-Value
Object FinancedMerchantsCorporationManagerial CorporationInternational Corporation; Securities; Positions
Source of FinancingCommercial Bank (+ internal financing)Investment BankCentral Bank (+ internal financing)Money-Fund

Further economists such as Charles Whalen and Jan Toporowski have discussed Minsky's periods of capitalism. Both suggest an intermediary stage between commercial and financial capitalism, what Whalen calls "industrial capitalism" and what Toporowski calls "classic capitalism." This was characterized by the traditional capitalist-entrepreneur, the full proprietor of their firm whose was particularly focused on the expansion of production through developing capital assets. Whalen contrasts this expansion with the consolidation of capital under Financial Capitalism. [14] Toporowski links money manager capitalism to current trends in globalization and financialization. [16]

Views on John Maynard Keynes

In his book John Maynard Keynes (1975), Minsky criticized the neoclassical synthesis' interpretation of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money . He also put forth his own interpretation of the General Theory, one which emphasized aspects that were de-emphasized or ignored by the neoclassical synthesis, like Knightian uncertainty.

Selected publications

See also

Related Research Articles

Ponzi scheme Type of financial fraud

A Ponzi scheme is a form of fraud that lures investors and pays profits to earlier investors with funds from more recent investors. The scheme leads victims to believe that profits are coming from legitimate business activity, and they remain unaware that other investors are the source of funds. A Ponzi scheme can maintain the illusion of a sustainable business as long as new investors contribute new funds, and as long as most of the investors do not demand full repayment and still believe in the non-existent assets they are purported to own.

An economic bubble is a situation in which asset prices are much higher than the underlying fundamentals can reasonably justify. Bubbles are sometimes caused by unlikely and overly optimistic projections about the future. It could also be described as prices which strongly exceed the asset's intrinsic value.

Liquidity trap Situation described in Keynesian economics

A liquidity trap is a situation, described in Keynesian economics, in which, "after the rate of interest has fallen to a certain level, liquidity preference may become virtually absolute in the sense that almost everyone prefers holding cash rather than holding a debt which yields so low a rate of interest."

Second mortgage

Second mortgages, commonly referred to as junior liens, are loans secured by a property in addition to the primary mortgage. Depending on the time at which the second mortgage is originated, the loan can be structured as either a standalone second mortgage or piggyback second mortgage. Whilst a standalone second mortgage is opened subsequent to the primary loan, those with a piggyback loan structure are originated simultaneously with the primary mortgage. With regard to the method in which funds are withdrawn, second mortgages can be arranged as home equity loans or home equity lines of credit. Home equity loans are granted for the full amount at the time of loan origination in contrast to home equity lines of credit which permit the homeowner access to a predetermined amount which is repaid during the repayment period.

A real-estate bubble or property bubble is a type of economic bubble that occurs periodically in local or global real-estate markets, and typically follow a land boom. A land boom is the rapid increase in the market price of real property such as housing until they reach unsustainable levels and then decline. This period, during the run up to the crash, is also known as froth. The questions of whether real estate bubbles can be identified and prevented, and whether they have broader macroeconomic significance, are answered differently by schools of economic thought, as detailed below.

The Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT) is an economic theory developed by the Austrian School of economics about how business cycles occur. The theory views business cycles as the consequence of excessive growth in bank credit due to artificially low interest rates set by a central bank or fractional reserve banks. The Austrian business cycle theory originated in the work of Austrian School economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Hayek won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 in part for his work on this theory.

Financial crisis Situation in which financial assets suddenly lose a large part of their nominal value

A financial crisis is any of a broad variety of situations in which some financial assets suddenly lose a large part of their nominal value. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many financial crises were associated with banking panics, and many recessions coincided with these panics. Other situations that are often called financial crises include stock market crashes and the bursting of other financial bubbles, currency crises, and sovereign defaults. Financial crises directly result in a loss of paper wealth but do not necessarily result in significant changes in the real economy.

The real economy concerns the production, purchase and flow of goods and services within an economy. It is contrasted with the financial economy, which concerns the aspects of the economy that deal purely in transactions of money and other financial assets, which represent ownership or claims to ownership of real sector goods and services.

The United States subprime mortgage crisis was a multinational financial crisis that occurred between 2007 and 2010 that contributed to the 2007–2008 global financial crisis. It was triggered by a large decline in US home prices after the collapse of a housing bubble, leading to mortgage delinquencies, foreclosures, and the devaluation of housing-related securities. Declines in residential investment preceded the Great Recession and were followed by reductions in household spending and then business investment. Spending reductions were more significant in areas with a combination of high household debt and larger housing price declines.

At the micro-economic level, deleveraging refers to the reduction of the leverage ratio, or the percentage of debt in the balance sheet of a single economic entity, such as a household or a firm. It is the opposite of leveraging, which is the practice of borrowing money to acquire assets and multiply gains and losses.

Minsky moment Sudden collapse of asset values which generates a credit or business cycle

A Minsky moment is a sudden, major collapse of asset values which marks the end of the growth phase of a cycle in credit markets or business activity.

Debt deflation is a theory that recessions and depressions are due to the overall level of debt rising in real value because of deflation, causing people to default on their consumer loans and mortgages. Bank assets fall because of the defaults and because the value of their collateral falls, leading to a surge in bank insolvencies, a reduction in lending and by extension, a reduction in spending.

Causes of the United States housing bubble

Observers and analysts have attributed the reasons for the 2001–2006 housing bubble and its 2007–10 collapse in the United States to "everyone from home buyers to Wall Street, mortgage brokers to Alan Greenspan". Other factors that are named include "Mortgage underwriters, investment banks, rating agencies, and investors", "low mortgage interest rates, low short-term interest rates, relaxed standards for mortgage loans, and irrational exuberance" Politicians in both the Democratic and Republican political parties have been cited for "pushing to keep derivatives unregulated" and "with rare exceptions" giving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac "unwavering support".

A credit crunch is a sudden reduction in the general availability of loans or a sudden tightening of the conditions required to obtain a loan from banks. A credit crunch generally involves a reduction in the availability of credit independent of a rise in official interest rates. In such situations, the relationship between credit availability and interest rates changes. Credit becomes less available at any given official interest rate, or there ceases to be a clear relationship between interest rates and credit availability. Many times, a credit crunch is accompanied by a flight to quality by lenders and investors, as they seek less risky investments.

The U.S. subprime mortgage crisis was a set of events and conditions that led to a financial crisis and subsequent recession that began in 2007. It was characterized by a rise in subprime mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures, and the resulting decline of securities backed by said mortgages. Several major financial institutions collapsed in September 2008, with significant disruption in the flow of credit to businesses and consumers and the onset of a severe global recession.

Paul Allen McCulley is an American economist and former managing director at PIMCO. He coined the terms "Minsky moment" and "shadow banking system", which became famous during the Financial crisis of 2007–2009. He is currently a senior fellow at Cornell Law School and an adjunct professor at Georgetown McDonough School of Business.

The Subprime mortgage crisis solutions debate discusses various actions and proposals by economists, government officials, journalists, and business leaders to address the subprime mortgage crisis and broader financial crisis of 2007–08.

Many factors directly and indirectly serve as the causes of the Great Recession that started in 2008 with the US subprime mortgage crisis. The major causes of the initial subprime mortgage crisis and the following recession include lax lending standards contributing to the real-estate bubbles that have since burst; U.S. government housing policies; and limited regulation of non-depository financial institutions. Once the recession began, various responses were attempted with different degrees of success. These included fiscal policies of governments; monetary policies of central banks; measures designed to help indebted consumers refinance their mortgage debt; and inconsistent approaches used by nations to bail out troubled banking industries and private bondholders, assuming private debt burdens or socializing losses.

The credit channel mechanism of monetary policy describes the theory that a central bank's policy changes affect the amount of credit that banks issue to firms and consumers for purchases, which in turn affects the real economy.

Financial crisis of 2007–2008 Global financial crisis

The financial crisis of 2007–2008, also known as the global financial crisis (GFC), was a severe worldwide economic crisis. Prior to the COVID-19 recession in 2020, it was considered by many economists to have been the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. Predatory lending targeting low-income homebuyers, excessive risk-taking by global financial institutions, and the bursting of the United States housing bubble culminated in a "perfect storm". Mortgage-backed securities (MBS) tied to American real estate, as well as a vast web of derivatives linked to those MBS, collapsed in value. Financial institutions worldwide suffered severe damage, reaching a climax with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008, and a subsequent international banking crisis.


  1. Uchitelle, Louis (October 26, 1996). "H. P. Minsky, 77, Economist Who Decoded Lending Trends". New York Times .
  2. Arestis, Philip; Sawyer, Malcolm C. (2000). A biographical dictionary of dissenting economists. ISBN   9781858985602 . Retrieved 2009-11-08.
  3. Hyman Minsky, professor emeritus of economics. Washington University in St. Louis.
  4. "Minsky's moment". The Economist. 2016-07-30. ISSN   0013-0613 . Retrieved 2019-06-09.
  5. Uchitelle, Louis (October 26, 1996). "H. P. Minsky, 77, Economist Who Decoded Lending Trends". The New York Times. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
  6. 1 2 Minsky, Hyman P. (May 1992). "The Financial Instability Hypothesis" (PDF). Working Paper No. 74: 6–8.
  7. Kindleberger, Charles P. Manias, Panics, and Crashes (4th ed.). p. 14.
  8. Minsky, Hyman P. (September 15, 1974). "Our Financial System is Fragile". Ocala Star Banner. p. 5A.
  9. Financial Factors in the Economics of Capitalism by Hyman Minsky in Journal of Financial Services Research 9:197-208 (1995)
  10. A Minsky Meltdown: Lessons for Central Bankers, by Janet L. Yellen, President and CEO, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, April 16, 2009
  11. John Cassidy, The Minsky Moment. Subprime mortgage crisis and possible recession, New Yorker, February 4, 2008.
  12. The Credit Crisis: Denial, delusion and the "defunct" American economist who foresaw the dénouement.
  13. McCulley-PIMCO-The Shadow Banking System and Hyman Minsky's Economic Journey
  14. 1 2 Whalen, Charles J. (2001). "Integrating Schumpeter and Keynes: Hyman Minsky's Theory of Capitalist Development". Journal of Economic Issues. 35 (4): 805–823. ISSN   0021-3624.
  15. Minsky, Hyman (1992-01-01). "Schumpeter and Finance". Hyman P. Minsky Archive.
  16. Toporowski, Jan (August 2020). "Financialisation and the periodisation of capitalism: appearances and processes". Review of Evolutionary Political Economy. 1 (2): 149–160. doi:10.1007/s43253-020-00005-4. ISSN   2662-6136.

Further reading