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

IV. The Effects of Politically Lowered Interest Rates

The expansionists are quite right in asserting that credit expansion succeeds in bringing about booming business. They are mistaken only in ignoring the fact that such an artificial prosperity cannot last and must inextricably lead to a slump, a general depression.

If the market rate of interest is reduced by credit expansion, many projects which were previously deemed unprofitable get the appearance of profitability. The entrepreneur who embarks upon their execution must, however, very soon discover that his calculation was based on erroneous assumptions. He has reckoned with those prices of the factors of production which corresponded to market conditions as they were on the eve of the credit expansion. But now, as a result of credit expansion, these prices have risen. The project no longer appears so promising as before. The businessman's funds are not sufficient for the purchase of the required factors of production. He would be forced to discontinue the pursuit of his plans if the credit expansion were not to continue. However, as the banks do not stop expanding credit and providing business with “easy money,” the entrepreneurs see no cause to worry. They borrow more and more. Prices and wage rates boom. Everybody feels happy and is convinced that now finally mankind has overcome forever the gloomy state of scarcity and reached everlasting prosperity.

In fact, all this amazing wealth is fragile, a castle built on the sands of illusion. It cannot last. There is no means to substitute banknotes and deposits for nonexisting capital goods. Lord Keynes, in a poetical mood, asserted that credit expansion has performed “the miracle... of turning a stone into bread.”1 But this miracle, on closer examination, appears no less questionable than the tricks of Indian fakirs.

There are only two alternatives.

One, the expanding banks may stubbornly cling to their expansionist policies and never stop providing the money business needs in order to go on in spite of the inflationary rise in production costs. They are intent upon satisfying the ever increasing demand for credit. The more credit business demands, the more it gets. Prices and wage rates sky-rocket. The quantity of banknotes and deposits increases beyond all measure. Finally, the public becomes aware of what is happening. People realize that there will be no end to the issue of more and more money substitutes—that prices will consequently rise at an accelerated pace. They comprehend that under such a state of affairs it is detrimental to keep cash. In order to prevent being victimized by the progressing drop in money's purchasing power, they rush to buy commodities, no matter what their prices may be and whether or not they need them. They prefer everything else to money. They arrange what in 1923 in Germany, when the Reich set the classical example for the policy of endless credit expansion, was called die Flucht in die Sachwerte, the flight into real values. The whole currency system breaks down. Its unit's purchasing power dwindles to zero. People resort to barter or to the use of another type of foreign or domestic money. The crisis emerges.

The other alternative is that the banks or the monetary authorities become aware of the dangers involved in endless credit expansion before the common man does. They stop, of their own accord, any further addition to the quantity of banknotes and deposits. They no longer satisfy the business applications for additional credits. Then the panic breaks out. Interest rates jump to an excessive level, because many firms badly need money in order to avoid bankruptcy. Prices drop suddenly, as distressed firms try to obtain cash by throwing inventories on the market dirt cheap. Production activities shrink, workers are discharged.

Thus, credit expansion unavoidably results in the economic crisis. In either of the two alternatives, the artificial boom is doomed. In the long run, it must collapse. The short-run effect, the period of prosperity, may last sometimes several years. While it lasts, the authorities, the expanding banks and their public relations agencies arrogantly defy the warnings of the economists and pride themselves on the manifest success of their policies. But when the bitter end comes, they wash their hands of it.

The artificial prosperity cannot last because the lowering of the rate of interest, purely technical as it was and not corresponding to the real state of the market data, has misled entrepreneurial calculations. It has created the illusion that certain projects offer the chances of profitability when, in fact, the available supply of factors of production was not sufficient for their execution. Deluded by false reckoning, businessmen have expanded their activities beyond the limits drawn by the state of society's wealth. They have underrated the degree of the scarcity of factors of production and overtaxed their capacity to produce. In short: they have squandered scarce capital goods by malinvestment.

The whole entrepreneurial class is, as it were, in the position of a master builder whose task it is to construct a building out of a limited supply of building materials. If this man overestimates the quantity of the available supply, he drafts a plan for the execution of which the means at his disposal are not sufficient. He overbuilds the groundwork and the foundations and discovers only later, in the progress of the construction, that he lacks the material needed for the completion of the structure. This belated discovery does not create our master builder's plight. It merely discloses errors committed in the past. It brushes away illusions and forces him to face stark reality.

There is need to stress this point, because the public, always in search of a scapegoat, is as a rule ready to blame the monetary authorities and the banks for the outbreak of the crisis. They are guilty, it is asserted, because in stopping the further expansion of credit, they have produced a deflationary pressure on trade. Now, the monetary authorities and the banks were certainly responsible for the orgies of credit expansion and the resulting boom; although public opinion, which always approves such inflationary ventures wholeheartedly, should not forget that the fault rests not alone with others. The crisis is not an outgrowth of the abandonment of the expansionist policy. It is the inextricable and unavoidable aftermath of this policy. The question is only whether one should continue expansionism until the final collapse of the whole monetary and credit system or whether one should stop at an earlier date. The sooner one stops, the less grievous are the damages inflicted and the losses suffered.

Public opinion is utterly wrong in its appraisal of the phases of the trade cycle. The artificial boom is not prosperity, but the deceptive appearance of good business. Its illusions lead people astray and cause malinvestment and the consumption of unreal apparent gains which amount to virtual consumption of capital. The depression is the necessary process of readjusting the structure of business activities to the real state of the market data, i.e., the supply of capital goods and the valuations of the public. The depression is thus the first step on the return to normal conditions, the beginning of recovery and the foundation of real prosperity based on the solid production of goods and not on the sands of credit expansion.

Additional credit is sound in the market economy only to the extent that it is evoked by an increase in the public's savings and the resulting increase in the amount of commodity credit. Then, it is the public's conduct that provides the means needed for additional investment. If the public does not provide these means, they cannot be conjured up by the magic of banking tricks. The rate of interest, as it is determined on a loan market not manipulated by an “easy money” policy, is expressive of the people's readiness to withhold from current consumption a part of the income really earned and to devote it to a further expansion of business. It provides the businessman reliable guidance in determining how far he may go in expanding investment, what projects are in compliance with the true size of saving and capital accumulation and what are not. The policy of artificially lowering the rate of interest below its potential market height seduces the entrepreneurs to embark upon certain projects of which the public does not approve. In the market economy, each member of society has his share in determining the amount of additional investment. There is no means of fooling the public all of the time by tampering with the rate of interest. Sooner or later, the public's disapproval of a policy of over-expansion takes effect. Then the airy structure of the artificial prosperity collapses.

Interest is not a product of the machinations of rugged exploiters. The discount of future goods as against present goods is an eternal category of human action and cannot be abolished by bureaucratic measures. As long as there are people who prefer one apple available today to two apples available in twenty-five years, there will be interest. It does not matter whether society is organized on the basis of private ownership of the means of production, viz., capitalism, or on the basis of public ownership, viz., socialism or communism. For the conduct of affairs by a totalitarian government, interest, the different valuation of present and of future goods, plays the same role it plays under capitalism.

Of course, in a socialist economy, the people are deprived of any means to make their own value judgments prevail and only the government's value judgments count. A dictator does not bother whether or not the masses approve of his decision of how much to devote for current consumption and how much for additional investment. If the dictator invests more and thus curtails the means available for current consumption, the people must eat less and hold their tongues. No crisis emerges, because the subjects have no opportunity to utter their dissatisfaction. But in the market economy, with its economic democracy, the consumers are supreme. Their buying or abstention from buying creates entrepreneurial profit or loss. It is the ultimate yardstick of business activities.

  • 1. Paper of the British Experts (April 8, 1943).