Why We May Be Headed For Another ‘Minsky Moment’
I recently ran across a terrific chart in Grant’s Interest Rate Observer that got me thinking about Hyman Minsky and The Financial Instability Hypothesis. After remaining relatively unknown during the course of his lifetime, Minsky really came to fame in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis as his hypothesis helped to explain what left most economists baffled: the fundamental cause of the crisis. Clearly, though, he has been forgotten just as quickly because, considering where we stand today, it’s obvious the economists with the greatest power to prevent another crisis have still not adopted his insights into their frameworks.
To begin to understand the current situation in Minsky terms we must first understand the hypothesis:
Next we need to understand what these financing units are:
And this is what reminded me of Minsky when I read the recent article in Grant’s with the accompanying chart below. It shows the percent of companies in the S&P 500 that would fall into Minsky’s “Ponzi unit” category. Specifically, Bianco Research defines these “zombies” as companies whose interest expense is greater than their 3-year average EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes). Currently, we face the greatest percentage of “Ponzi units” in at least 20 years.
This should be worrisome to investors and even more so to those managing monetary policy because it suggests that financial instability within the economy may be greater than any other time over the past couple of decades. Minsky again:
Those last three words are critical. “A deviation amplifying system,” simply means an economy built on a virtuous cycle that risks evolving into a vicious one. So long as interest rates remain low and investor risk appetites remain strong zombies will thrive and the economy will, as well, relatively speaking of course. However, should interest rates rise and risk appetites reverse course the risk of a self-reinforcing downturn grows. Minsky explains:
Interest rates have been rising for nearly two years now and the Fed seems to have turned its attention from cultivating a wealth effect in the economy by supporting asset prices via quantitative easing to reining in inflation by unwinding those policies and raising the Fed Funds rate. In the process, by way of the Minsky Hypothesis, they may end up undoing everything they strived so hard to achieve over the better part of the past decade.
It’s not hard to imagine just how vulnerable these zombies might be to rising interest rates and waning risk appetites. Should they be forced into liquidation a resulting collapse in asset values could present a major problem for the economy as there are plenty of reasons to believe the wealth effect may be even more powerful to the downside than it was to the upside. Either way, the threat to the economy posed by the greatest corporate zombie army in history is surely enough to make Minsky roll over in his grave.
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