Kindleberger: The Model
We start with the model of the late Hyman Minsky, a man with a reputation among monetary theorists for being particularly pessimistic, even lugubrious, in his emphasis on the fragility of the monetary system and its propensity to disaster. Although Minsky was a monetary theorist rather than an economic historian, his model lends itself effectively to the interpretation of economic and financial history. Indeed, in its emphasis on the instability of the credit system, it is a lineal descendant of a model, set out with personal variations, by a host of classical economists including John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall, Knut Wicksell, and Irving Fisher. Like Fisher, Minsky attached great importance to the role of debt structures in causing financial difficulties, and especially debt contracted to leverage the acquisition of speculative assets for subsequent resale.
According to Minsky, events leading up to a crisis start with a "displacement," some exogenous, outside shock to the macroeconomic system. The nature of this displacement varies from one speculative boom to another. It may be the outbreak or end of a war, a bumper harvest or crop failure, the widespread adoption of an invention with pervasive effects---canals, railroads, the automobile---some political event or surprising financial success, or debt conversion that precipitously lowers interest rates. An unanticipated change of monetary policy might constitute such a displacement and some economists who think markets have it right and governments wrong blame "policy-switching" for some financial instability. But whatever the source of the displacement, if it is sufficiently large and pervasive, it will alter the economic outlook by changing profit opportunities in at least one important sector of the economy. Displacement brings opportunities for profit in some new or existing lines and closes out others. As a result, business firms and individuals with savings or credit seek to take advantage of the former and retreat from the latter. If the new opportunities dominate those that lose, investment and production pick up. A boom is under way.
In Minsky’s model, the boom is fed by an expansion of bank credit that enlarges the total money supply. Banks typically can expand money, whether by the issue of bank’s notes under earlier institutional arrangements or by lending in the form of addictions to bank deposits. Bank credit is, or at least has been, notoriously unstable, and the Minsky model rests squarely on that fact. This feature of the Minsky model is incorporated in what follows, but we go further. Before banks had evolved, and afterward, additional means of payment to fuel a speculative mania were available in the virtually infinitely expansible nature of personal credit. For a given banking system at a given time, monetary means of payment may be expanded not only within the existing system of banks but also by the formation of new banks, the development of new credit instruments, and the expansion of personal credit outside of banks. Crucial questions of policy turn on how to control all these avenues of monetary expansion. But even if the instability of old and potential new banks were corrected, instability of personal credit would remain to provide means of payment to finance the boom, given a sufficiently throughgoing stimulus.
Let us assume, then, that the urge to speculate is present and transmuted into effective demand for goods or financial assets. After a time, increased demand presses against the capacity to produce goods or the supply of existing financial assets. Prices increase, giving rise to new profit opportunities and attracting still further firms and investors. Positive feedback develops, as new investment leads to increases in income that stimulate further investment and further income increases. At this stage we may well get what Minsky called "euphoria." Speculation for price increases is added to investment for production and sale. If this process builds up, the result is often, though not inevitably, what Adam Smith and his contemporaries called "overtrading."
Now, overtrading is by no means a clear concept. It may involve pure speculation for a price rise, an overestimate of prospective returns, or excessive "gearing." Pure speculation, of course involves buying for resale rather than use in the case of comodities or for resale rather than income in the case of financial assets. Overestimation of profits comes from euphoria, affects firms engaged in the production and distributive processes, and requires no explanation. Excessive gearing arises from cash requirements that are low relative both to the prevailing price of a good or asset and to possible changes in its price. It means buying on margin, or by installments, under circumstances in which one can sell the asset and transfer with it the obligation to make future payments. As firms or households see others making profits from speculative purchases and resales, they tend to follow: "Monkey see, monkey do." In my talks about financial crisis over the last decades, I have polished one line that always gets a nervous laugh: "There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich. When the number of firms and households indulging in these practices grows large, bringing in segments of the population that are normally aloof from such ventures, speculation for profit leads away from normal, rational behavior to what has been described as "manias" or "bubbles." The word mania emphasizes the irrationality; bubble foreshadows the bursting. In the technical language of some economists, a bubble is any deviation from "fundamentals," whether up or down, leading to the possibility and even the reality of negative bubbles, which rather gets away from the thrust of the metaphor. More often small price variations about fundamental values (as prices) are called "noise." In this book, a bubble is an upward price movement over an extended range that then implodes. An extended negative bubble is a crash.
As we shall see in the next chapter the object of speculation may vary widely from one mania or bubble to the next. It may involve primary products, especially those imported from afar (where the exact conditions of supply and demand are not known in detail), or goods manufactured for export to distant markets, domestic and foreign securities of various kinds, contracts to buy or sell goods or securities, land in the country or city, houses, office buildings, shopping centers, condominiums, foreign exchange. At a late stage, speculation tends to detach itself from really valuable objects and turn to delusive ones. A larger and larger group of people seeks to become rich without a real understanding of the processes involved. Not surprisingly, swindlers and catchpenny schemes flourish.
Although Minsky’s model is limited to single country, overtrading has historically tended to spread from one country to another. The conduits are many. Internationally traded commodities and assets that go up in price in one market will rise in others through arbitrage. The foreign-trade multiplier communicates income changes in a given country to others through increased or decreased imports. Capital flows constitute a third link. Money flows of gold, silver (under gold standard or bimetallism), or foreign exchange are a fourth. And there are purely psychological connections, as when investor euphoria or pessimism in one country infects investors in others. The declines in prices on October 24 and 29, 1929, and October 19, 1987, were practically instantaneous in all financial markets (except Japan), far faster than can be accounted for by arbitrage, income changes, capital flows, or money movements.
Observe with respect the money movements that in an ideal world, a gain of specie for one country would be matched by a corresponding loss for another, and the resulting expansion in the first case would be offset by the contraction in the second. In the real world, however, while the boom in the first country may gain speed from the increase in the supply of reserves, or "high-powered money," it may also rise in the second, despite the loss in monetary reserves, as investors respond to rising prices and profits abroad by joining in the speculative chase. In other words, the potential contraction from the shrinkage on the monetary side may be overwhelmed by the increase in speculative interest and the rise in demand. For the two countries together, in any event, the credit system is stretched tighter.
As the speculative boom continues, interest rates, velocity of circulation, and prices all continue to mount. At some stage, a few insiders decide to take their profits and sell out. At the top of the market there is hesitation, as new recruits to speculation are balanced by insiders who withdraw. Prices begin to level off. There may then ensue an uneasy period of "financial distress." The term comes from corporate finance, where a firm is said to be in financial distress when it must contemplate the possibility, perhaps only a remote one, that it will not be able to meet its liabilities. For an economy as a whole, the equivalent is the awareness on the part of a considerable segment of the speculating community that a rush for liquidity---to get out of other assets and into money---may develop, with disastrous consequences for the prices of goods and securities, and leaving some speculative borrowers unable to pay off their loans. As distress persists, speculators realize, gradually or suddenly, that the market cannot go higher. It is time to withdraw. The race out of real or long-term financial assets and into money may turn into a stampede.
The specific signal that precipitates the crisis may be the failure of a bank or firm stretched too tight, the revelation of a swindle or defalcation by someone who sought to escape distress by dishonest means, or a fall in the price of the primary object of speculation as it, at first alone, is seen to be overpriced. In any case, the rush is on. Prices decline. Bankruptcies increase. Liquidation sometimes is orderly but may degenerate into panic as the realization spreads that there is only so much money, not enough to enable everyone to sell out at the top. The word for this state---again, not from Minsky---is revulsion. Revulsion against commodities or securities leads banks to cease lending on the collateral of such assets. In the early nineteenth century this condition was known as discredit. Overtrading, revulsion, discredit—all these terms have a musty, old-fashion flavor. They are imprecise, but they do convey a graphic picture.
Revulsion and discredit may go so far as to lead to panic (or as the Germans put it, Torschlusspanik. "door-shut-panic"), with people crowding to get through the door before it slams shut. The panic feeds on itself, as did the speculation, until one or more of three things happen: (1) prices fall so low that people are again tempted to move back into less liquid assets; (2) trade is cut off by setting limits on price declines, shutting down exchanges, or otherwise closing trading; or (3) a lender of last resort succeeds in convincing the market that money will be made available in sufficient volume to meet the demand for cash. Confidence may be restored even if a large volume of money is not issued against other assets; the mere knowledge that one can get money is frequently sufficient to moderate or eliminate the desire.
Whether there should be a lender of last resort is a matter of some debate. Those who oppose the function argue that it encourages speculation in the first place. Supporters worry more about the current crisis than about forestalling some future one. There is also a question of the place for an international lender of last resort. In domestic crises, government or the central bank (when there is one) has responsibility. At the international level, there is neither a world government nor any world bank adequately equipped to serve as a lender of last resort, although some would contend that the International Monetary Fund since Bretton Woods in 1944 is capable of discharging the role.
Dilemmas, debates, doubts, questions abound. We shall have more to say about these questions later on.