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

Getty
Show Hide image

Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt