Hyman Minsky didn’t have all the answers

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Economist Hyman Minsky, who never got much attention while he was alive, has become one of the big celebrities of this financial crisis. In Sunday’s Boston Globe, Stephen Mihm has the best account of Minsky’s life and significance that I’ve seen so far. A sample:

Today most economists, it’s safe to say, are probably reading Minsky for the first time, trying to fit his unconventional insights into the theoretical scaffolding of their profession. If Minsky were alive today, he would no doubt applaud this belated acknowledgment, even if it has come at a terrible cost. As he once wryly observed, “There is nothing wrong with macroeconomics that another depression [won’t] cure.”

But did Minsky really have much to add beyond the crucial insight that financial systems are inherently unstable? His former student Eric Falkenstein, responding on his blog to Mihm’s article, isn’t so sure:

I was Minsky’s TA while a senior at Washington University in St.Louis in 1987, and took a couple of his advanced classes, which regardless of the official name, were all just classes in Minskyism. He was a maverick, but perhaps a bit too much, being a little too dismissive of others, as he hated the traditional Samuelson/Solow Keynesians as much as the Friedmanite Monetarists. He always thought a market collapse was just around the corner. The S&P was 250 when I took his course, it went to 1500 in 2007 and then back to 735 in 2009. Does that prove he was right all along? …

The problem … is that his top-down theory is rejected by the data. Aggregate leverage ratios do not closely correspond to business cycles. If Minsky took microeconomics more seriously he could have made his theory more relevant, by noting that crises tend to occur in specific subsets in the economy: in 1990, hotels and Commercial real estate, in 2001, high tech, in 2008, mortgages. The mistake is not one made in aggregate, but in different sectors each recession. By noting these areas, but not the aggregate economy, had too much leverage, and depended on expected future increases in collateral value, he might have been more successful proselytizing his colleagues. But he was a traditional Keynesian, who liked to look at aggregate equations, like Profits=Investment + Deficits + Net Imports.

I think the broader point here is that there is no one Theory That Explains Everything in economics. Neoclassical economics certainly doesn’t explain everything. Neither does Minskyism. Nor Austrian business cycle theory. Nor complexity theory. It seems like the best approach would be an eclectic one that takes lots of different economic models into account. But eclecticism doesn’t get you far in academia.

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