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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Ponzi" Economics in One Easy Lesson and the Minsky Moment

Tim Knight posted this over at The Slope of Hope under the title Economics in One Easy Lesson:

“Heidi is the proprietor of a bar in Berlin. In order to increase sales, she decides to allow her loyal customers - most of whom are unemployed alcoholics - to drink now but pay later.

She keeps track of the drinks consumed on a ledger (thereby granting the customers loans). Word gets around and as a result increasing numbers of customers flood into Heidi's bar. Taking advantage of her customers' freedom from immediate payment constraints, Heidi increases her prices for wine and beer, the most-consumed beverages.

Her sales volume increases massively. A young and dynamic customer service consultant at the local bank recognizes these customer debts as valuable future assets and increases Heidi's borrowing limit. He sees no reason for undue concern since he has the debts of the alcoholics as collateral. At the bank's corporate headquarters, expert bankers transform these customer assets into DRINKBONDS, ALKBONDS and PUKEBONDS. These securities are then traded on markets worldwide. No one really understands what these abbreviations mean and how the securities are guaranteed. Nevertheless, as their prices continuously climb, the securities become top- selling items.

One day, although the prices are still climbing, a risk manager of the bank, (subsequently of course fired due to his negativity), decides that slowly the time has come to demand payment of the debts incurred by the drinkers at Heidi's bar. However they cannot pay back the debts. Heidi cannot fulfill her loan obligations and claims bankruptcy.

DRINKBOND and ALKBOND drop in price by 95 %. PUKEBOND performs better, stabilizing in price after dropping by 80 %. The suppliers of Heidi's bar, having granted her generous payment due dates and having invested in the securities are faced with a new situation. Her wine supplier claims bankruptcy; her beer supplier is taken over by a competitor. The bank is saved by the Government following dramatic round-the-clock consultations by leaders from the governing political parties.

The funds required for this purpose are obtained by a tax levied on the non- drinkers.”

That describes the generic “Ponzi Scheme” perfectly. More generally this describes what is known as Finance Capitalism where the processes of production are subordinated to the accumulation of money profits in a financial system.

In Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, Hyman Minsky warned of the inevitable consequences of finance capitalism. He theorized that the accumulation of debt eventually results in the unexpected manifestation of a debt crisis. The final point of no return for an economy is referred to as “The Minsky Moment”:

“…the point in a credit cycle or business cycle when investors have cash flow problems due to spiraling debt they have incurred in order to finance speculative investments. At this point, a major selloff begins due to the fact that no counterparty can be found to bid at the high asking prices previously quoted, leading to a sudden and precipitous collapse in market clearing asset prices and a sharp drop in market liquidity.”

(Pssst! That’s deflation right there.)

An interesting paper: Minsky's Analysis of Financial Capitalism


In this paper, the authors discuss Minsky's analysis of the evolution of one variety of capitalism--financial capitalism--which developed at the end of the nineteenth century and was the dominant form of capitalism in the developed countries after World War II. Minsky's approach, like those of Schumpeter and Veblen, emphasized the importance of market power in this stage of capitalism. According to Minsky, modern capitalism requires expensive and long-lived capital assets, which, in turn, necessitate financing of positions in these assets as well as market power in order to gain access to financial markets. It is the relation between finance and investment that creates instability in the modern capitalist economy. Financial capitalism emerged from World War II with an array of new institutions that made it stronger than ever before. As the economy evolved, it moved from this more successful form of financial capitalism to the fragile form of capitalism that exists today.