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The Monetary or Circulation-Credit Theory of the Trade Cycle

Mises Daily: Friday, June 11, 2010 by

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[This article is excerpted from chapter 20 of Human Action: The Scholar's Edition and is read by Jeff Riggenbach.]

Bank of England Accountants' Office, 1870

The theory of the cyclical fluctuations of business as elaborated by the British Currency School was in two respects unsatisfactory.

First, it failed to recognize that circulation credit can be granted not only by the issue of banknotes in excess of the banks' holding of cash reserves, but also by creating bank deposits subject to check in excess of such reserves (checkbook money, deposit currency). Consequently it did not realize that deposits payable on demand can also be used as a device of credit expansion. This error is of little weight, as it can be easily amended. It is enough to stress the point that all that refers to credit expansion is valid for all varieties of credit expansion no matter whether the additional fiduciary media are banknotes or deposits.

However, the teachings of the Currency School inspired British legislation designed to prevent the return of credit-expansion booms and their necessary consequence, depressions, at a time when this fundamental defect was not yet unmasked. Peel's Act of 1844 and its imitations in other countries did not attain the ends sought, and this failure shook the prestige of the Currency School. The Banking School triumphed undeservedly.

The second shortcoming of the Currency Theory was more momentous. It restricted its reasoning to the problem of the external drain. It dealt only with a particular case, viz., credit expansion in one country only while there is either no credit expansion or only credit expansion to a smaller extent in other areas. This was, by and large, sufficient to explain the British crisis of the first part of the 19th century. But it touched only the surface of the problem.

The essential question was not raised at all. Nothing was done to clarify the consequences of a general expansion of credit not confined to a number of banks with a restricted clientele. The reciprocal relations between the supply of money (in the broader sense) and the rate of interest were not analyzed. The multifarious projects to lower or to abolish interest altogether by means of a banking reform were haughtily derided as quackery, but not critically dissected and refuted.

The naïve presumption of money's neutrality was tacitly ratified. Thus a free hand was left to all futile attempts to interpret crises and business fluctuations by means of the theory of direct exchange. Many decades passed before the spell was broken.

The hindrance that the monetary or circulation-credit theory had to overcome was not merely theoretical error but also political bias. Public opinion is prone to see in interest nothing but a merely institutional obstacle to the expansion of production. It does not realize that the discount of future goods as against present goods is a necessary and eternal category of human action and cannot be abolished by bank manipulation.

In the eyes of cranks and demagogues, interest is a product of the sinister machinations of rugged exploiters. The age-old disapprobation of interest has been fully revived by modern interventionism. It clings to the dogma that it is one of the foremost duties of good government to lower the rate of interest as far as possible or to abolish it altogether.

"The discount of future goods as against present goods is a necessary and eternal category of human action."

All present-day governments are fanatically committed to an easy money policy. As has been mentioned already, the British government has asserted that credit expansion has performed "the miracle … of turning a stone into bread." A Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has declared that "final freedom from the domestic money market exists for every sovereign national state where there exists an institution which functions in the manner of a modern central bank, and whose currency is not convertible into gold or into some other commodity."[1] Many governments, universities, and institutes of economic research lavishly subsidize publications whose main purpose is to praise the blessings of unbridled credit expansion and to slander all opponents as ill-intentioned advocates of the selfish interests of usurers.

The wavelike movement affecting the economic system, the recurrence of periods of boom which are followed by periods of depression, is the unavoidable outcome of the attempts, repeated again and again, to lower the gross market rate of interest by means of credit expansion. There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.

The only objection ever raised against the circulation-credit theory is lame indeed. It has been asserted that the lowering of the gross market rate of interest below the height it would have reached on an unhampered loan market may appear not as the outcome of an intentional policy on the part of the banks or the monetary authorities but as the unintentional effect of their conservatism. Faced with a situation which would, when left alone, result in a raise in the market rate, the banks refrain from altering the interest they charge on advances and thus willy-nilly tumble into expansion.[2]

These assertions are unwarranted. But if we are prepared to admit their correctness for the sake of argument, they do not affect at all the essence of the monetary explanation of the trade cycle. It is of no concern what the particular conditions are that induce the banks to expand credit and to underbid the gross market rate of interest which the unhampered market would have determined. What counts is solely that the banks and the monetary authorities are guided by the idea that the height of interest rates as the free loan market determines it is an evil, that it is the objective of a good economic policy to lower it, and that credit expansion is an appropriate means of achieving this end without harm to anybody but parasitic moneylenders. It is this infatuation that causes them to embark upon ventures which must finally bring about the slump.

If one takes these facts into consideration, one could be tempted to abstain from any discussion of the problems involved in the frame of the theory of the pure market economy and to relegate it to the analysis of interventionism, the interference of government with the market phenomena. It is beyond doubt that credit expansion is one of the primary issues of interventionism. Nevertheless, the right place for the analysis of the problems involved is not in the theory of interventionism but in that of the pure market economy. For the problem we have to deal with is essentially the relation between the supply of money and the rate of interest, a problem of which the consequences of credit expansion are only a particular instance.

"The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved."

Everything that has been asserted with regard to credit expansion is equally valid with regard to the effects of any increase in the supply of money proper as far as this additional supply reaches the loan market at an early stage of its inflow into the market system. If the additional quantity of money increases the quantity of money offered for loans at a time when commodity prices and wage rates have not yet been completely adjusted to the change in the money relation, the effects are no different from those of a credit expansion.

In analyzing the problem of credit expansion, catallactics completes the structure of the theory of money and of interest. It implicitly demolishes the age-old errors concerning interest and explodes the fantastic plans to "abolish" interest by means of monetary or credit reform.

What differentiates credit expansion from an increase in the supply of money as it can appear in an economy employing only commodity money and no fiduciary media at all is conditioned by divergences in the quantity of the increase and in the temporal sequence of its effects on the various parts of the market. Even a rapid increase in the production of the precious metals can never have the range which credit expansion can attain. The gold standard was an efficacious check upon credit expansion, as it forced the banks not to exceed certain limits in their expansionist ventures.

The gold standard's own inflationary potentialities were kept within limits by the vicissitudes of gold mining. Moreover, only a part of the additional gold immediately increased the supply offered on the loan market. The greater part acted first upon commodity prices and wage rates and affected the loan market only at a later stage of the inflationary process.

However, the continuous increase in the quantity of commodity money exercised a steady expansionist pressure on the loan market. The gross market rate of interest was, in the course of the last centuries, continually subject to the impact of an inflow of additional money into the loan market. Of course, this pressure for the last 150 years in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and for the last 100 years in the countries of the European continent, was far exceeded by the effects of the synchronous development of circulation credit as granted by the banks apart from their — from time to time reiterated — straightforward endeavors to lower the gross market rate of interest by an intensified expansion of credit.

Thus, three tendencies toward a lowering of the gross market rate of interest were operating at the same time and strengthening one another. One was the outgrowth of the steady increase in the quantity of commodity money; the second the outgrowth of a spontaneous development of fiduciary media in banking operations; the third the fruit of intentional anti-interest policies sponsored by the authorities and approved by public opinion. It is, of course, impossible to ascertain in a quantitative way the effect of their joint operation and the contribution of each of them; an answer to such a question can only be provided by historical understanding.

What catallactic reasoning can show us is merely that a slight although continuous pressure on the gross market rate of interest as originating from a continuous increase in the quantity of gold, and also from a slight increase in the quantity of fiduciary media, which is not overdone and intensified by purposeful easy money policy, can be counterpoised by the forces of readjustment and accommodation inherent in the market economy. The adaptability of business not purposely sabotaged by forces extraneous to the market is powerful enough to offset the effects which such slight disturbances of the loan market can possibly bring about.

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Audiobook read by Jeff Riggenbach

Statisticians have tried to investigate the long waves of business fluctuations with statistical methods. Such attempts are futile. The history of modern capitalism is a record of steady economic progress, again and again interrupted by feverish booms and their aftermath, depressions. It is generally possible to discern statistically these recurring oscillations from the general trend toward an increase in the amount of capital invested and the quantity of products turned out. It is impossible to discover any rhythmical fluctuation in the general trend itself.

Notes

[1] Beardsley Ruml, "Taxes for Revenue Are Obsolete," American Affairs, VIII (1946), 35–36.

[2] Machlup (The Stock Market, Credit and Capital Formation, p. 248) calls this conduct of the banks "passive inflationism."