The Fed chairman conceded that “one cannot look back at the Great Moderation today without asking whether the sustained economic stability of the period somehow promoted the excessive risk-taking that followed. The idea that this long period of calm lulled investors, financial firms and financial regulators into paying insufficient attention to building risks must have some truth in it.”
One economist who would have expected that development was Hyman Minsky. In 1995, the year before Minsky died, Steve Keen, an Australian economist, used his ideas to set forth a possibility that now seems prescient. It was published in The Journal of Post Keynesian Economics.
He suggested that lending standards would be gradually reduced, and asset prices would rise, as confidence grew that “the future is assured, and therefore that most investments will succeed.” Eventually, the income-earning ability of an asset would seem less important than the expected capital gains. Buyers would pay high prices and finance their purchases with ever-rising amounts of debt.
When something went wrong, an immediate need for liquidity would cause financiers to try to sell assets immediately. “The asset market becomes flooded,” Mr. Keen wrote, “and the euphoria becomes a panic, the boom becomes a slump.” Minsky argued that could end without disaster, if inflation bailed everyone out. But if it happened in a period of low inflation, it could feed upon itself and lead to depression.
“The chaotic dynamics explored in this paper,” Mr. Keen concluded, “should warn us against accepting a period of relative tranquillity in a capitalist economy as anything other than a lull before the storm.”
When I talked to Mr. Keen this week, he called my attention to the fact that Mr. Bernanke, in his 2000 book “Essays on the Great Depression,” briefly mentioned, and dismissed, both Minsky and Charles Kindleberger, author of the classic “Manias, Panics and Crashes.”
They had, Mr. Bernanke wrote, “argued for the inherent instability of the financial system but in doing so have had to depart from the assumption of rational economic behavior.” In a footnote, he added, “I do not deny the possible importance of irrationality in economic life; however it seems that the best research strategy is to push the rationality postulate as far as it will go.”
It seems to me that he had both Minsky and Kindleberger wrong. Their insight was that behavior that seems perfectly rational at the time can turn out to be destructive. As Robert J. Barbera, now the co-director of the Center for Financial Economics at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in his 2009 book, “The Cost of Capitalism,” “One of Minsky’s great insights was his anticipation of the ‘Paradox of Goldilocks.’ Because rising conviction about a benign future, in turn, evokes rising commitment to risk, the system becomes increasingly vulnerable to retrenchment, notwithstanding the fact that consensus expectations remain reasonable relative to recent history.”