August 3rd, 2007

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Are We at The Peak of a Minsky Credit Cycle?

Nouriel Roubini | Jul 30, 2007

It is always risky to call an equity market peak and the beginning of a bear market in equities; so I will not try to do that. But leaving aside equity valuations, it increasingly looks like we are at the peak of a credit/debt cycle, in the US and globally.

Specifically, the crucial macro question that we should ask ourselves today is whether we are at the peak of a Minsky Credit Cycle. Or as the UBS economist George Magnus – an expert of financial instability - put it: “Have we reached a Minsky moment?”

Hyman Minsky was an American economist who died in 1996. His main contribution to economics was a model of asset bubbles driven by credit cycles. In his view periods of economic and financial stability lead to a lowering of investors’ risk aversion and a process of releveraging. Investors start to borrow excessively and push up asset prices excessively high. In this process of releveraging there are three types of investors/borrowers. First, sound or “hedge borrowers” who can meet both interest and principal payments out of their own cash flows. Second, “speculative borrowers” who can only service interest payments out of their cash flows. These speculative borrowers need liquid capital markets that allow them to refinance and roll over their debts as they would not otherwise be able to service the principal of their debts. Finally, there are “Ponzi borrowers” cannot service neither interest or principal payments. They are called “Ponzi borrowers” as they need persistently increasing prices of the assets they invested in to keep on refinancing their debt obligations.

The other important aspect of the Minsky Credit Cycle model is the loosening of credit standards both among supervisors and regulators and among the financial institutions/lenders who, during the credit boom/bubble, find ways to avoid prudential regulations and supervisions.

Minsky’s ideas and model fit nicely the last two US credit booms and asset bubbles that ended up in a recession: the S&L-based real estate boom and bust in the late 1980s; and the tech bubble and bust in the late 1990s. But the experiences of the last few years suggest another Minsky Credit Cycle that has probably now reached its peak. First, it was the US households (and households in some other countries) that releveraged excessively: rising consumption, falling and negative savings, increased in debt burdens and overborrowing, especially in housing but also in other categories of consumer credit, an increase in leverage that was supported by rising asset prices (housing and, more recently, equity). We know now that many sub-prime borrowers, near-prime borrowers and many condo-flippers were exactly the Minsky “Ponzi borrowers”: think of all the “negative amortization mortgages” and no down-payment and no verification of income and assets and interest rate only loans and teaser rates. About 50% of all mortgage originations in 2005-2006 had such characteristics. Also, many other households (near prime and subprime borrowers) were Minsky “speculative borrowers” who expected to be able to refinance their mortgages and debts rather than paying a significant part of their principal.

The Minsky idea of loosening of credit/lending standards among mortgage lenders – and the phenomenon of supervisors/regulators falling asleep at the wheel while the reckless credit bubble occurs – is also now evident in the recent mortgage credit cycle. A supervisory ideology that tried to minimize any prudential supervision and regulation and totally reckless lending practices by mortgage lenders led to a massive housing and mortgage bubble that has now gone bust. The toxic waste aftermath of this bust includes more than fifty subprime lenders gone out of business this years, soaring rates of delinquency, default and foreclosure on subprime, near prime and non-conventional mortgages, and the biggest housing recession in the last few decades with now home prices falling for the first time – year over year – since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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