A Minsky moment is an economic term describing a period of optimism that ends with a market crash. It describes the point at which a market boom marked by speculative trading and increasing debt suddenly gives way to a freefall marked by plunging market sentiment, asset values, and economic activity.
It is named for American economist Hyman Minsky, who studied the characteristics of financial crises, and whose “financial instability hypothesis” offered reasons why financial markets were and would be inherently unstable. Minsky died in 1996, and the phrase “Minsky moment” was coined in 1998, when a portfolio manager used it in reference to the 1997 Asian debt crisis, which was widely blamed on currency speculators.
How Does a Minsky Moment Happen?
A Minsky Moment refers to something sudden, though the economist maintained that it doesn’t arise all at once. He identified three stages by which a market builds up to the convoluted speculation and complete instability that finally undoes even the longest bull markets.
1. The Hedge Phase: This often comes in the wake of a market collapse. In this phase, both banks and borrowers are cautious. Banks only lend to borrowers with income to cover the principal of the loan and interest payments; and borrowers are wary of taking on more debt than they’re highly confident they can repay entirely.
2. Speculative Borrowing Phase: As economic conditions improve, debts are repaid and confidence rises. Banks become willing to make loans to borrowers who can afford to pay the interest but not the principal, but the bank and the borrower don’t worry because most of these loans are for assets—stocks, real estate and so on—that are appreciating in value. The banks are also betting that interest rates won’t go up.
3. The Ponzi Phase: The third and final phase leading up to the Minsky Moment is named for the iconic fraudster Charles Ponzi. Ponzi invented a scheme that offers fake investments, and gathers new investors based on the returns earned by the original investors. It pays the first investors from new investments, and so on, until it collapses.
In Minsky’s theory, the Ponzi phase arrives when confident borrowers and lenders graduate to a new level of risk-taking and speculation: when lenders lend to borrowers without enough cash flow to cover the principal payments or the interest payments. They do so in the expectation that the underlying assets will continue rising, allowing the borrower to sell those assets at prices high enough for them to cover their debt.
The longer the growth swing in the market, the more debt investors take on. While those investments are still rising and generating returns, the borrowers can use that money to pay off the debt and the interest payments. But assets eventually go down in value, in any market, even just for a while.
At this point, the investors are relying on the growth of those assets to repay the loans they’ve taken out to buy them. Any interruption of that growth means they can’t repay the debt they’ve taken on. That’s when the lenders call in the loans. And the borrowers have to sell their assets—at any price—to repay the lenders. When there are thousands of investors doing this at the same time, the values of the underlying assets plummet. This is the Minsky moment.
In addition to plunging prices, a Minsky moment is usually accompanied by a steep drop in market-wide liquidity. That lack of liquidity can stop the daily functioning of the economy, and it’s the part of these crises that causes central banks to intervene as a lender of last resort.
The Minsky Moment and the 2008 Subprime Mortgage Crisis
The 2008 subprime mortgage crisis offered a very clear and relatable example of this kind of escalation, as many people borrowed money to buy homes they couldn’t afford. They did so believing that the property value would go up fast enough that they could flip the house to cover their borrowing costs, while earning a tidy profit.
Minsky theorized that a lengthy economic growth cycle tends to generate an outsized increase in market speculation. But that accelerating speculation is often funded by large amounts of debt on the part of both large and small investors. And that tends to increase market instability and the likelihood of sudden, catastrophic collapse.
Accordingly, the 2008 financial crisis was marked by a sudden drop and downward momentum fueled investors selling assets to cover short-term debts. Some of those included margin calls, which are when an investor is forced to sell securities to cover the collateral needed to borrow money from a brokerage.
How to Predict the Next Minsky Moment
While Hyman Minsky provided a framework of the three escalating phases that lead up to a market collapse, there’s no way to tell how long each phase will last. Using its framework can help investors understand where they are in a broader economic cycle, but people will disagree on how much debt is too much, or the point at which speculation threatens the stability of the markets.
Most recently, market-watchers keep an eye on the high rates of corporate debt in trying to detect a coming Minsky moment. And even the International Monetary Fund has sounded warning bells over high debt levels, alongside slowing growth around the planet.
But other authorities have warned of other Minsky moments over the years that haven’t necessarily happened. It calls to mind the old joke: “The stock market has forecast nine of the last five recessions.”
A Minsky moment is named after an economist who described the way that markets overheat and collapse. And the concept can help investors understand where they are in a market cycle.
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