In his March commentary, PIMCO's Paul McCulley points to the unraveling of the subprime loans mess as a prime example of Minsky's Financial Instability Hypothesis at work. McCulley believes that the Fed will respond with rate cuts, noting: "Once the Fed begins easing, it will be a long journey down for short rates." Mike Shedlock is on this bandwagon too, but is less inclined to believe it will work. Shedlock says, "…[W]e have finally reached the point where these policies will no more work here than they did in Japan." James Hamilton expressed a similar concern that we aired earlier. Whatever else may unfold, the subprime mess is the latest scare point for nervous investors, and no doubt nervous central bankers.
[Global Central Bank Focus, Paul McCulley, 2/28/07] … it's the first-time buyer, stretching to buy, that is the life’s blood of vibrant property markets. And intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with a young family stretching to buy that first house; most all of us did, as did our parents (many with the aid of the GI Bill). Optimism about rising incomes and making lives better for our children is the cornerstone of the American Dream.
But the human condition is inherently given to the Mae West Doctrine that if a little of something is good, more is better, and way too much is just about right. Such is the case in capitalist finance, as brilliantly diagnosed by both John Maynard Keynes and his disciple, Hyman Minsky. I first introduced Minsky to these pages way back in January 2001, just as the corporate sector was sinking into recession, taking the aggregate economy with it, and the Fed was initiating a massive easing cycle.
Minsky, who passed away in 1996, was the father of the Financial Instability Hypothesis, providing a framework for distinguishing between stabilizing and destabilizing capitalist debt structures. He first articulated the Hypothesis in 1974, and summarized it beautifully in his own hand in 1992:"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: the greater the weight of equity financing in the liability structure, the greater the likelihood that the unit is a hedge financing unit. Speculative finance units are units that can meet their payment commitments on 'income account' on their liabilities, even as they cannot repay the principal out of income cash flows. Such units need to 'roll over' their liabilities — issue new debt to meet commitments on maturing debt. For Ponzi units, the cash flows from operations are not sufficient to fill either the repayment of principal or the interest 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 stocks lowers the equity of a unit, even as it increases liabilities and the prior commitment of future incomes.Clearly, the explosion of exotic mortgages — sub-prime; interest only; pay-option, with negative amortization, et al — in recent years … have been textbook examples of Minsky's speculative and Ponzi units. …
It can be shown that if hedge financing dominates, then the economy may well be an equilibrium-seeking and containing system. In contrast, the greater the weight of speculative and Ponzi finance, the greater the likelihood that the economy is a deviation-amplifying system. The first theorem of the financial instability hypothesis is that the economy has financing regimes under which it is stable, and financing regimes in which it is unstable. The second theorem of the financial instability hypothesis is that 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 to a financial structure in which there is a large weight to units engaged in speculative and Ponzi finance. Furthermore, if an economy 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 positions by selling out positions. This is likely to lead to a collapse of asset values."
… [A]s Minsky had forewarned, eventually this game must come to an end, as Ponzi borrowers are forced to "make positions by selling out of positions," frequently by stopping (or not even beginning!) monthly mortgage payments, the prelude to eventually default or dropping off the keys on the lenders' doorstep.
That is happening. And true to form, Ponzi lenders are now recognizing their sins of irrational exuberance, repenting and promising to sin no more, dramatically tightening underwriting standards, at least back to Minsky's Speculative Units — loans that may not be self-amortizing, but at least are underwritten on evidence that borrowers can pay the required interest, not just the teaser rate, but the fully-indexed rate on ARMs. From a microeconomic point of view, such a tightening of underwriting standards is a good thing, albeit belated. But from a macroeconomic point of view, it is a deflationary turn of events, as serial refinancers, riding the back of presumed perpetual home price appreciation, are trapped long and wrong.
And in this cycle, it's not just the first-time homebuyer … that is trapped, but also the speculative Ponzi long: borrowers who weren't covering a natural short — remember, you are born short a roof over your head, and must cover, either by renting or buying — but rather betting on a bigger fool to take them out ("make book", in Minsky's words). …
Which means that the bigger fish in the domestic and global economic sea are going to be living on leaner diets. It also means that any given level of central-bank enforced short-term policy rates will become ever more restrictive with the passage of time. That is nowhere more the case than in the United States, where mortgage originators' orgy of Ponzi finance stifled the Fed's ability to temper irrational exuberance in housing with hikes in the Fed funds rate.
More specifically, as long as lenders made loans available on virtually non-existent terms, the price didn’t really matter all that much to borrowers; after all, housing prices were going up so fast that a point or two either way on the mortgage rate didn’t really matter. The availability of credit trumped the price of credit. Such is always the case in manias.
It is also the case that once a speculative bubble bursts, reduced availability of credit will dominate the price of credit, even if markets and policy makers cut the price. The supply side of Ponzi credit is what matters, not the interest elasticity of demand.
The ongoing meltdown in the sub-prime mortgage market would not matter, except for those directly involved, except that it marks the unraveling of Ponzi finance units…. As the bubble was forming, riding on first-time homebuyers with first-time access to credit on un-creditworthy terms, and first-time speculators riding the same with visions of bigger first-time fools to take them out, all looked well. But as Minsky warned, stability is ultimately destabilizing, as those who require perpetual asset price appreciation to make book are forced to sell to make book. Such is reality presently in the U.S. residential property market, which has flipped from a sellers' market on the wings of buyers with exotic mortgages to a buyers' market of only the creditworthy.
This state of affairs need not produce a U.S. recession. But it does unambiguously render any given stance of Fed policy more restrictive: a tightening of credit supply based on underwriting terms means that any given policy rate will elicit reduced effective demand for credit. And that’s the stuff of seriously easier monetary policy to come. Just as mortgage demand seemed inelastic to rising short rates when availability was riding relaxed terms, so too will demand seem inelastic to falling short rates when availability faces the headwind of restrictive terms.
It may be a while before the Fed accepts and recognizes this, waiting for these Minsky style debt-deflation dynamics to become evident in broader measures of the economy's health, notably job creation. But make no mistake: A Minsky Meltdown in the most important asset in most Americans' asset portfolio is not a minor matter. …
Once the Fed begins easing, it will be a long journey down for short rates.
[1st Helicopter Drop Now Being Organized, Michael Shedlock, 3/13/07]
Bloomberg is reporting Senate Weighs Aid to 2.2 Million Subprime Borrowers. … [Given the emerging subprime mess] some sort of reaction by the Fed or government was predicted well in advance by me and most likely a few other deflationists as well. I have no doubt the Fed will be cutting interest rates as well. But as I have pointed out before, such interference policies work until they don't. I think we have finally reached the point where these policies will no more work here than they did in Japan.
Three Reasons Bailouts Will Fail
- Consumers are going to be unable to take on more debt in the face of falling home prices.
- A recession will force a cutback in consumer spending.
- Credit will tighten up such that banks will be unwilling to lend given falling asset prices and rising credit risk.
Number 3 above is happening already and it will spread further. A significant repricing of both assets and risk will be the result. Unfortunately this tsunami is about to hit the baby boomers just as they think they are ready to retire.