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5. The Trade Cycle and Credit Expansion: The Economic Consequences of Cheap Money (1946)

II. The Two Classes of Credit

There is no difference between the ultimate objectives of the anti-interest policies of canon law and the policies recommended by modern interest-baiting. But the methods applied are different. Medieval orthodoxy was intent first upon prohibiting by decree interest altogether and later upon limiting the height of interest rates by the so-called usury laws. Modern self-styled unorthodoxy aims at lowering or even abolishing interest by means of credit expansion.

Every serious discussion of the problem of credit expansion must start from the distinction between two classes of credit: commodity credit and circulation credit.

Commodity credit is the transfer of savings from the hands of the original saver into those of the entrepreneurs who plan to use these funds in production. The original saver has saved money by not consuming what he could have consumed by spending it for consumption. He transfers purchasing power to the debtor and thus enables the latter to buy these nonconsumed commodities for use in further production. Thus the amount of commodity credit is strictly limited by the amount of saving, i.e., abstention from consumption. Additional credit can only be granted to the extent that additional savings have been accumulated. The whole process does not affect the purchasing power of the monetary unit.

Circulation credit is credit granted out of funds especially created for this purpose by the banks. In order to grant a loan, the bank prints banknotes or credits the debtor on a deposit account. It is creation of credit out of nothing. It is tantamount to the creation of fiat money, to undisguised, manifest inflation. It increases the amount of money substitutes, of things which are taken and spent by the public in the same way in which they deal with money proper. It increases the buying power of the debtors. The debtors enter the market of factors of production with an additional demand, which would not have existed except for the creation of such banknotes and deposits. This additional demand brings about a general tendency toward a rise in commodity prices and wage rates.

While the quantity of commodity credit is rigidly fixed by the amount of capital accumulated by previous saving, the quantity of circulation credit depends on the conduct of the bank's business. Commodity credit cannot be expanded, but circulation credit can. Where there is no circulation credit, a bank can only increase its lending to the extent that the savers have entrusted it with more deposits. Where there is circulation credit, a bank can expand its lending by what is, curiously enough, called “being more liberal.”

Credit expansion not only brings about an inextricable tendency for commodity prices and wage rates to rise it also affects the market rate of interest. As it represents an additional quantity of money offered for loans, it generates a tendency for interest rates to drop below the height they would have reached on a loan market not manipulated by credit expansion. It owes its popularity with quacks and cranks not only to the inflationary rise in prices and wage rates which it engenders, but no less to its short-run effect of lowering interest rates. It is today the main tool of policies aiming at cheap or easy money.