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

III. The Function of Prices, Wage Rates, and Interest Rates

The rate of interest is a market phenomenon. In the market economy it is the structure of prices, wage rates and interest rates, as determined by the market, that directs the activities of the entrepreneurs toward those lines in which they satisfy the wants of the consumers in the best possible and cheapest way. The prices of the material factors of production, wage rates and interest rates on the one hand and the anticipated future prices of the consumers’ goods on the other hand are the items that enter into the planning businessman's calculations. The result of these calculations shows the businessman whether or not a definite project will pay. If the market data underlying his calculations are falsified by the interference of the government, the result must be misleading. Deluded by an arithmetical operation with illusory figures, the entrepreneurs embark upon the realization of projects that are at variance with the most urgent desires of consumers. The disagreement of the consumers becomes manifest when the products of capital malinvestment reach the market and cannot be sold at satisfactory prices. Then, there appears what is called “bad business.”

If, on a market not hampered by government tampering with the market data, the examination of a definite project shows its unprofitability, it is proved that under the given state of affairs the consumers prefer the execution of other projects. The fact that a definite business venture is not profitable means that the consumers, in buying its products, are not ready to reimburse entrepreneurs for the prices of the complementary factors of production required, while on the other hand, in buying other products, they are ready to reimburse entrepreneurs for the prices of the same factors. Thus the sovereign consumers express their wishes and force business to adjust its activities to the satisfaction of those wants which they consider the most urgent. The consumers thus bring about a tendency for profitable industries to expand and for unprofitable ones to shrink.

It is permissible to say that what proximately prevents the execution of certain projects is the state of prices, wage rates and interest rates. It is a serious blunder to believe that if only these items were lower, production activities could be expanded. What limits the size of production is the scarcity of the factors of production. Prices, wage rates and interest rates are only indices expressive of the degree of this scarcity. They are pointers, as it were. Through these market phenomena, society sends out a warning to the entrepreneurs planning a definite project: Don't touch this factor of production; it is earmarked for the satisfaction of another, more urgent need.

The expansionists, as the champions of inflation style themselves today, see in the rate of interest nothing but an obstacle to the expansion of production. If they were consistent, they would have to look in the same way at the prices of the material factors of production and at wage rates. A government decree cutting down wage rates to 50 percent of those on the unhampered labor market would likewise give to certain projects, which do not appear profitable in a calculation based on the actual market data, the appearance of profitability. There is no more sense in the assertion that the height of interest rates prevents a further expansion of production than in the assertion that the height of wage rates brings about these effects. The fact that the expansionists apply this kind of fallacious argumentation only to interest rates and not also to the prices of primary commodities and to the prices of labor is the proof that they are guided by emotions and passions and not by cool reasoning. They are driven by resentment. They envy what they believe is the rich man's take. They are unaware of the fact that in attacking interest they are attacking the broad masses of savers, bondholders and beneficiaries of insurance policies.