Tag Archives: financial crisis

Connecting the Instability of Markets and Ecosystems – C.S. Holling and Hyman Minsky

Both markets and ecosystems can, and have, been viewed as being shaped by feedback processes that push them towards a steady state – in markets this is the “invisible hand” – in ecology it is “succession.”  However, what has been appreciated in ecology, and has been reluctantly included in economics is that these invisible hands can push systems into turbulence or even tear them apart.

The 2008 financial crisis revived widespread interest in the work of American economist Hyman Minksy who developed a theory on the evolution of financial crises that not only provides a strong framework to understand the forces that created the crisis but also has strong parallels to the work of Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling, an originator of resilience thinking, who developed a theory of social-ecological crises that shares many features with Minksky’s theory.

Minsky and Holling both showed how successful regulation could lead systems into a trap of decreasing resilience and increased vulnerability.

Minsky’s “Financial instability hypothesis” argues that as an economy flourishes people and organizations lose their motivation to consider the possibility of failure, because the costs of concern are high and apparent while the benefits of a relaxed attitude are immediate.  Loans become less and less secure, bad risks drive out good, and the resilience of the entire economy to shocks is reduced. Minsky argued that economic resilience is slowly eroded as there is a shift of dominance between three types of borrowers: hedge borrowers, speculative borrowers, and Ponzi borrowers.   Hedge borrower have a cash flow that they can use to repay interest and principal on a debt, while the speculative borrower can cover the interest, but must continually roll over the principal, and Ponzi borrowers, who have to borrow more to cover their interest payments.  Hedge borrowers are least vulnerable to economic changes, while Ponzi borrowers are the most.  As the economy does well, speculative and Ponzi borrowers can outperform safer borrowers.  For example, highly leveraged investments in housing can yield big profits as house prices increase, driving further investment in housing and housing price increases.  As the use of Ponzi finance expands within the finance system the financial system becomes increasingly vulnerable to any change in the perceived value of Ponzi borrowers assets can trigger a collapse that includes speculative and hedge borrowers.  When a shock or change in perception causes the networks of loans to unravel, crisis moves from the financial sector other parts of the economy.  This theory fits many aspects of the 2008 financial crisis where public and private risk regulations were relaxed, and there was a lot of speculative and Ponzi borrowing in the US housing market.  For example, financial market regulationaccounting standards were lowered, and mortgage risk assessments were abandoned.

Similarly, Holling’s “Pathology of ecosystem management” argues that the management of ecosystems to increase the production of a desired ecological services often achieve their goal by simplifying ecosystems and reducing environmental variation. For example, forest management removes undesired species and suppresses wildfire and produces more timber which leads to sawmills and jobs. While these efforts are often initially successful, over the longer term these effort can trap a system into a situation where there is:

1) a high societal dependence on continuous supply of ecological benefits and

2) a declining ability of an ecosystem to recover from and regulate environmental variation.

Holling’s adaptive cycle concept grew out of the pathology of natural resource management.

Societal dependance arises as investment follows the initial success.  The decline in ecological resilience occurs because of management’s simplification the spatial pattern, food web, and disturbance dynamics of the managed ecosystem.  Often as resilience declines, management has to increasingly invest in artificial ecological regulation to maintain ecological benefits and protect its sunk investment infrastructure.  This dynamic can trap people within a social-ecological system which is unprofitable, has low resilience, and is difficult to disengage from due to sunk cost effects.  For example, logging and forest can lead to more investment in timber mills and towns and the simplified forest, which is more vulnerable to insect outbreaks.  These continual outbreaks require investment in pest control, which decreases the profitability of the logging.  Simultaneously, it is difficult to stop logging or pest control due to the people living in the towns and the investment in the timber mills.

Holling’s pathology was originally developed in the 1980s.  Since then Holling’s ideas have been substantially developed by ecologists and others environmental scientists over the past twenty years (notably in the book Panarchy).  Researchers have tried to identify different types of social-ecological traps.  Resilience researchers have created quantitative models explore and statistical methods to detect instabilities, and expanded upon the pathology to explore the roles of leadership and agency in creating new social-ecological trajectories.

Unlike Holling’s work, Minsky’s work has been largely marginalized within mainstream economics, though it has retained a dedicated following among financial and some hetrodox economists.  The lack of a rigourous mathematical structure to Minsky’s ideas seems to have been much more of a barrier in economics, than the similar lack in Holling’s ideas was to ecology.  However, I expect that the main reason for the lack of interest was that instability was not seen as a particularly relevant idea. The financial turmoil of the last few years has shown that despite economists dreams of a great moderation due to wise regulation, regulators and markets have not been able to tame the destabilizing dynamics of global markets.  Indeed, the financial crisis of 2008 and the recession that has followed has demonstrated that many regulations likely have made this crisis worse by reducing diversity, tightening couplings, and decreasing adaptive capacity.  For example, the Euro prevented countries, like Greece or Spain, from shifting their exchange rates with other countries.

However, the crisis has provoked substantial new interest in Minksy, and now eminient mainstream economists such as Paul Krugman have now attempted to connect his work to the central core of economics (see Eggertsson & Krugman 2012  paper & a critique from hetreodox financial economist Steve Keen).

The financial, political, price turbulence since 2008 has increased interest in theories of instability, but most theory is based upon stability, or short term departures from stable points.  This undersupply of theories of instability, makes the work of Holling and Minksy more valuable.  In separate realms and identifying different mechanisms, the work of Minsky and Holling suggests instability cannot be avoided, as stability creates instability.  This understanding can be used to help navigate instability, and it highlights the value of working to create new theories to understand, analyze, and navigate social-ecological instability – something that we are working on at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Further readings:

Holling (many followup articles are available in Ecology & Society)

  • Holling, C.S., 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems: local surprise and global change. In: Clark, W.C., Munn, R.E. (Eds.), Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Cambridge University Press, London, pp. 292–317.
  • Holling, C.S., Meffe, G.K., 1996. Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conservation Biology 10, 328–337.
  • Gunderson, L.H. & Holling, C.S. (Eds.). 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press.

Minsky (lots of his publications are available on the Levy Institute’s website)

  • Minsky, H. P. (1975). John Maynard Keynes. New York, Columbia University Press.
  • Minsky, H. P. (1982). Can “it” happen again? : essays on instability and finance. Armonk, N.Y., M.E. Sharpe.
  • Minsky, H. P. (1986). Stabilizing an unstable economy, Twentieth Century Fund Report series, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • Wray, L.R. 2011 Minsky Crisis in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Online Edition, 2011.  Edited by Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume. Palgrave.

On the web Ashwin Parameswaren has been building on Minksy and Holling’s ideas at his websites Macroeconomic resilience and All systems need a little disorder.

Analysis of impact of recent global crises on development

In the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK, writes What impact have the global crises had on development thinking? He summarizes some of the findings from an effort at IDS to assess how the financial, fuel, and food crisis of the past several years have shifted the assumptions underlying development.

Economic growth can be a force for good, but it does not have to be

When many of us were taught economics, growth was sometimes seen as sufficient for development and always necessary. [Our study] concluded that some kinds of growth are necessary, others irrelevant, and some harmful. Growth should be treated like technology: with the right governance, it can advance human wellbeing. The growth we want is economic development that is potent in reducing poverty, uses natural resources sustainably and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases. Too much research on growth is focused on how we get it, rather than how we get the type we need. We get the growth we want by focusing on: creating the right initial conditions (such as low inequality); reducing entry barriers for new, small businesses; setting key prices at appropriate levels (as with carbon production); and adopting stronger transparency mechanisms to allow society to pressurise corporations.

Views on growth are surprisingly homogenous. This is probably because only one type of economics (neoclassical) is taught the world over. But monocultures, nature has taught us, are particularly vulnerable to events.

Wellbeing and resilience are not panaceas, but neither are they fads

The crisis impact work indicated that while material goods were very important to the human condition, so too were the relationships and the psychological dimensions of human existence. Wellbeing brings these dimensions together in an explicit way. The emerging concern with resilience of systems is perhaps a good thing to come out of the bad news of the crises. Given the new global uncertainties (climate, the emerging powers, and resource scarcities deriving from current lifestyles) we think these concepts of wellbeing and resilience are here to stay. But if used lazily to provide politically correct gloss to issues of measurement of progress and interdependence, they will become devalued.

Unfortunately the full study only seems to be available as a book.

Burning and Looting

What caused the financial crisis?

Was the it the models, the expectations, correlated risks, non-transparency, dangerous financial innovation, or weak regulations?

It was probably all of the above, but recently it has become clear that the banks caused it as well.

While people have long observed that mismatched incentives, poor models, and lax regulation allowed and encouraged the banks to make mistakes, it has only recently become clear that some banks (+ hedge funds, etc) helped create the crisis by stimulating investment that fed the housing bubble so they could bet on it bursting.  Specifically, those who were betting on a housing bust enhanced the bubble by creating Collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) they wanted to bet against.  By continually creating and buying these CDOs they almost certainly enhanced the bubble, causing a bigger burst and made more money on the bust.  The extent to which this actually promoted the bubble has only recently become clear.

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Planes & Volcanoes vs. Banks & CDOs

P O Neill of Fistful of Euros compares The volcano crisis and the financial crisis:

Are the two crises alike? Consider the similarities. In each, an unexpected event in a forgotten part of the system ends up having global ramifications. The unexpected event occurs in a system that needs constant motion for its effective operation: as long as the securities/passengers can be moved on to the next stage, the system keeps functioning. When one part of it stops working, the rest quickly breaks down. But there’s more.

Both the finance and airline industries have to balance the tension between 2 parts of their business: the “utility”, the bit that people and governments view as an essential service (payment systems and getting people from A to B) and the rest of the business model that has grown up around that, and at least in the good times, where the big profits are made. And although both industries have seen a progressive loosening of government oversight in the last 3 decades, it takes just one crisis to show how quickly the leash can be suddenly pulled back.

Finally, each crisis does a good job of revealing the hidden assumptions: we buy pieces of paper because we’re confident we’re able to sell them, and we get on a plane to somewhere because we’re confident we’ll be able to get back. Each industry built up its “illusion of liquidity”.

Then of course, there are the differences. We mentioned above the tightening leash on each industry as a crisis developed. That on airlines is much tighter. Even as banking systems seemed to be dragging down the world economy in late 2008, governments never gave any serious thought to suspending their operations. But the airspace was shut down not in the basis of a specific airplane event, but a worst-case scenario.

Second, in contrast to the G20-inspired rush to coordinate responses to the financial crisis, the response to the volcano crisis looks very ad hoc. Yes there are some pan-European agencies and the EU, but the ripple effects are all over the world and once one reviews the tales of woe, one sees that passengers are subject to the varied policies and rules for airlines, airports, hotels, visas, and travel agencies. In contrast to the concerns about “financial protectionism”, the airline business does not seem to have characterized by any assumption of equal treatment for all: the airline and the airport is still the flag carrier (even when privately-operated) and where you were when your journey got interrupted mattered a lot.

Dubai’s new tower

The world’s tallest building has just been opened in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.


burj_dubaiThe Toronto Globe and Mail writes:

Soaring 200 storeys and 828 metres into the sky, the world’s tallest structure has opened in Dubai, a monument to the excesses of the emirate’s bygone boom. But while the $1.5-billion (U.S.) tower’s striking opulence recalls the unrestrained era of a massive property bubble, its surprise name is very much grounded in Dubai’s new reality.

Originally called Burj Dubai, it was renamed Burj Khalifa Monday in a tribute to Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, head of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, which came to debt-laden Dubai’s financial rescue last month.

Abu Dhabi has provided about $25-billion in bailout funds for Dubai in the past year, including a $10-billion lifeline in December that was funnelled to state-owned conglomerate Dubai World to avoid an embarrassing default on its crushing debt load.

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Paradoxes of efficient market theory

Complex systems scientist Cosma Shalizi reviews economic journalist Justin Fox‘s book The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street for American Scientist magazine in the article Twilight of the Efficient Markets:

The Myth of the Rational Market, by Justin Fox, is an account—popular but thorough—of the roots, rise, triumph and ongoing fall of the theory of efficient markets in finance. This school of thought is an exemplary specimen of a type of social science that flourished after World War II: It has mathematical models at its center, has supposedly been empirically validated by statistical analyses, is indifferent to history and to institutions, and takes as an axiom that people are intelligent, farsighted and greedy. Unlike many economic theories, the efficient-market school has been influential beyond academia. It helped reshape ideas about how companies should be run, how executives should be paid, and indeed how the economy should be regulated (or not) to promote the general welfare. (In comic-book form: A mild-mannered social science by day, at night efficient-market theory puts on a cloak of ideology and struggles for the Capitalist Way.) The theory contributed, arguably, to setting up the crisis that has gripped the world economy since 2007. Its story is of much more than just scholarly interest.

The founding principles of efficient-market theory are easily described. The assumption on which all else rests is that, unless one has private knowledge, there is no way to profit from financial markets without risk. …

… Therefore, says efficient-market theory, securities prices are unpredictable. Current prices are supposed to be optimal forecasts, on the basis of currently available data, of the present value of future returns, because changes in optimal forecasts are, themselves, unpredictable. (If you know that tomorrow your forecast of next year’s gasoline price will be higher than today’s forecast by $1, you should raise your current forecast.) As Paul Samuelson put it, “properly anticipated prices fluctuate randomly.” The efficient-market hypothesis, as a technical term, is the claim that market prices cannot be predicted, either from past prices alone or from past prices combined with other publicly available information. One of the early triumphs of the school was the demonstration that stock prices look very much indeed like random walks.

… A vast superstructure was erected on these foundations, beginning in the 1950s and really taking off in the 1960s and 1970s. Particularly impressive wings of that edifice were devoted to the design of portfolios to balance risk against return and to the valuation of derivative securities (“contingent claims” or bets on the value of other securities), especially options to buy or sell stocks at given prices by given dates. As Fox notes, scholars of finance achieved acclaim, and were awarded substantial consulting fees, for solving pricing problems that by hypothesis were already being solved by the markets themselves! (Donald Mackenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera explores this paradox in depth.)By the 1980s and 1990s, these ideas had led to changes in the way the investment industry worked, new concepts of corporate governance and new kinds of financial firms, which aimed to systematically identify arbitrage opportunities—deviations from what the theory said prices should be—and to earn a profit even as they eliminated those opportunities. More diffusely, the academic prestige of efficient-market theory provided, at the least, rhetorical support for deregulating markets, especially financial markets, and delegating more and more authority to them. This was aided by a conflation—subscribed to by many scholars—between those markets having informationally efficient prices (that is, unpredictable ones) and those markets allocating capital efficiently (directing savings to where the money can be used most profitably). The latter is the more usual economic notion of efficiency, but informationally efficient prices are neither necessary nor sufficient for efficient allocation.

The whole edifice, however, has turned out to be built, if not on sand, then at best on loose fill. More rigorous testing on larger data sets has shown that the capital asset pricing model does not fit the data; beta in particular does not predict returns at all. The response has been to identify variables that do predict returns and presume that they must be risk factors, although the extra risk has never been demonstrated. Prices are hard to predict, although not impossible, especially with high-frequency data (arriving minute-by-minute or faster). One reason markets are hard to predict is that they change much more than forecasts of future earnings should, and often they change on no detectable information at all. (Defenders claim that this just shows scholars aren’t smart enough to grasp information known to everyone in the market.) Economists taking a behavioral approach have shown that actual investors don’t act like the cool, farsighted calculators that efficient-market theory demands; worse, it turns out that having a handful of smart arbitrageurs around is actually not enough to swamp the “noise traders”—it really is the case that, as the saying goes, “markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”

This leaves us at an impasse. Efficient-market theory ought, with any methodological justice, to be relegated to the Museum of Nice Tries. But there is no unified replacement theory, and developing one will be arduous, involving empirical and theoretical work on all scales, from the experimental psychology of individual investors, through the institutional constraints under which money managers work, to solving for the aggregated effects of market participants’ interactions. In the meantime, efficient-market theory provides a ready basis for precise calculations, and one that is moreover now built into the academic field of finance and into the practice and even infrastructure of the markets.

Oil Prices and the Financial Crisis

The Financial Times suggests that the IEA agrees with Herman Daly (at least a little bit), in  Did oil cause the latest recession? IEA weighs into the debate:

A feature in the draft executive summary of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, which will be published tomorrow, revisits this argument and comes to a rather worrying conclusion.

It starts out keeping in line with the prevailing view: the run-up in oil prices from 2003 to mid-2008 played “an important, albeit secondary” role in the global economic downturn that took hold last year. Higher oil prices made oil-importing countries more vulnerable to the financial crisis, it says.

The feature concludes, however, on a somewhat stronger note.

The IEA points out that it had warned in 2006 that the effect of high oil prices from the preceding four years had not yet worked their way through the world economy, and that further increases in prices would “pose a significant threat to the world economy, by causing a worsening of current account imbalances and by triggering abrupt exchange rate realignments, a rise in interest rates and a slump in house and other asset prices”.

Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis

Historian Stephen Mihm writes in the Boston Review on Hyman Minsky‘s work on the unstable dynamics of capitalism in Why capitalism fails:

Minsky called his idea the “Financial Instability Hypothesis.” In the wake of a depression, he noted, financial institutions are extraordinarily conservative, as are businesses. With the borrowers and the lenders who fuel the economy all steering clear of high-risk deals, things go smoothly: loans are almost always paid on time, businesses generally succeed, and everyone does well. That success, however, inevitably encourages borrowers and lenders to take on more risk in the reasonable hope of making more money. As Minsky observed, “Success breeds a disregard of the possibility of failure.”

As people forget that failure is a possibility, a “euphoric economy” eventually develops, fueled by the rise of far riskier borrowers – what he called speculative borrowers, those whose income would cover interest payments but not the principal; and those he called “Ponzi borrowers,” those whose income could cover neither, and could only pay their bills by borrowing still further. As these latter categories grew, the overall economy would shift from a conservative but profitable environment to a much more freewheeling system dominated by players whose survival depended not on sound business plans, but on borrowed money and freely available credit.

Once that kind of economy had developed, any panic could wreck the market. The failure of a single firm, for example, or the revelation of a staggering fraud could trigger fear and a sudden, economy-wide attempt to shed debt. This watershed moment – what was later dubbed the “Minsky moment” – would create an environment deeply inhospitable to all borrowers. The speculators and Ponzi borrowers would collapse first, as they lost access to the credit they needed to survive. Even the more stable players might find themselves unable to pay their debt without selling off assets; their forced sales would send asset prices spiraling downward, and inevitably, the entire rickety financial edifice would start to collapse. Businesses would falter, and the crisis would spill over to the “real” economy that depended on the now-collapsing financial system.

It sounds very similar to Holling’s adaptive cycle and the pathology of natural resource management.