What Janet Yellen and Mark Carney could learn from macroeconomist Hyman Minsky

Gordon Brown, as Chancellor in the UK, and the Federal Reserve’s Alan Greenspan, notably, violated Minsky’s ideas - what will the new twin peaks of global finance do differently?

After the cold turkey of Christmas there is a good slice of humble pie being eaten for New Year dessert. One by one, and a little too easily for my liking, the über-bears of the financial system have been falling into line, accepting that things are OK and the bull market for equities can continue. Nouriel Roubini is only the latest voice to turn from a growl to an apologetic whimper. Hugh Henry did his exit stage right, pursued by his own personal bear, before Christmas. Only Marc Faber carries the torch now.

In any event, they are all being consistent with what the American economist Hyman Minsky (1919 - 1996) recognised, which is that investors have a tendency to exaggerate what is happening rather than seek under-valued investments as a home for their money. Most people follow the momentum of current thought and this is what leads to manias, bubbles and financial crises. In other words, financial institutions are by their very nature unstable, mainly because they are inhabited by faulted human beings whose conscious, rational, self is a slave to the subconscious and the chaotic id that powers it. Consequently, they need managing and regulating, actively, and cannot be left to the self-limiting actions of those involved in the financial system, mainly because they are unable to self-limit.

Although he didn’t live to see it, Minsky got a number of notable things right about the interaction between money and the psyche. It is a moot point whether he would have found any pleasure in watching his theories play out in the post-2000 era leading, eventually, to the ignominious collapse of once-useful financial institutions. But his theories have proved better models for what happened than any statistically-based piece of software that I have seen.

Gordon Brown, then Chancellor in the UK, and the Federal Reserve’s Alan Greenspan, notably, violated Minsky’s ideas. Brown advocated "light-touch" regulation (a euphemism for no regulation) while Greenspan looked on helplessly as the Glass-Steagall act (already ineffectual in many people’s eyes) was dismantled in front of him, allowing the walls to come down between commercial banks and securities firms. Brown took the revenues from the financial system and built up state spending. Greenspan had no such ideological or electoral agenda. But when the financial crisis struck all that was left for both of them was to cut interest rates to lower and lower levels while propping up failing financial institutions with unconventional policies like quantitative easing which have now become uncomfortably accommodated and habituated into our lives.

Minsky has powerful followers, not least of which is the soon-to-be Chair of the interest rate-setting Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, Janet Yellen. One of the conclusions of the Minsky approach is that policy makers need to follow "contra-cyclical" policies to take the mania out of the system. In other words, when the good times roll those in charge should be tightening regulation and rules around financial institutions to stop them from experiencing manic boom and bust.

So the Yellen Federal Reserve, like the Mark Carney Bank of England, will be fundamentally different animals from their predecessors. Not for them the macho rate setting and systematic policy making that has characterised the previous 30 years. We should be looking for something more administrative, more touchy-feely and circumstantial, gradualist even. Because if you were going to start placing the regulatory corset around a financial system you wouldn’t do it to this one and you wouldn’t start now, not with the current need for a bit of reckless lending.  And, as a final corollary, given that these are both most likely one-term governors of their institutions, maybe staying for just five years, sponsoring Minsky-esque regulatory change via the carrot of low interest rates means that neither of them may touch interest rates during their entire term of office.

Chair of the National Reserve, Janet Yellen. Photograph: Getty Images.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty
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As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.