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Demand for Money and Supply of Money

Tags History of the Austrian School of EconomicsMonetary TheoryMoney and BankingPhilosophy and Methodology

10/06/2009Ludwig von Mises

[This article is excerpted from Human Action chapter XVII, "Indirect Exchange." An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.]


In the marketability of the various commodities and services there prevail considerable differences. There are goods for which it is not difficult to find applicants ready to disburse the highest recompense which, under the given state of affairs, can possibly be obtained, or a recompense only slightly smaller. There are other goods for which it is very hard to find a customer quickly, even if the vendor is ready to be content with a compensation much smaller than he could reap if he could find another aspirant whose demand is more intense. It is these differences in the marketability of the various commodities and services which created indirect exchange. A man who at the instant cannot acquire what he wants to get for the conduct of his own household or business, or who does not yet know what kind of goods he will need in the uncertain future, comes nearer to his ultimate goal if he exchanges a less marketable good he wants to trade against a more marketable one. It may also happen that the physical properties of the merchandise he wants to give away (as, for instance, its perishability or the costs incurred by its storage or similar circumstances) impel him not to wait longer. Sometimes he may be prompted to hurry in giving away the good concerned because he is afraid of a deterioration of its market value. In all such cases he improves his own situation in acquiring a more marketable good, even if this good is not suitable to satisfy directly any of his own needs.

A medium of exchange is a good which people acquire neither for their own consumption nor for employment in their own production activities, but with the intention of exchanging it at a later date against those goods which they want to use either for consumption or for production.

Money is a medium of exchange. It is the most marketable good which people acquire because they want to offer it in later acts of interpersonal exchange. Money is the thing which serves as the generally accepted and commonly used medium of exchange. This is its only function. All the other functions which people ascribe to money are merely particular aspects of its primary and sole function, that of a medium of exchange.1

Media of exchange are economic goods. They are scarce; there is a demand for them. There are on the market people who desire to acquire them and are ready to exchange goods and services against them. Media of exchange have value in exchange. People make sacrifices for their acquisition; they pay "prices" for them. The peculiarity of these prices lies merely in the fact that they cannot be expressed in terms of money. In reference to the vendible goods and services we speak of prices or of money prices. In reference to money we speak of its purchasing power with regard to various vendible goods.

There exists a demand for media of exchange because people want to keep a store of them. Every member of a market society wants to have a definite amount of money in his pocket or box, a cash holding or cash balance of a definite height. Sometimes he wants to keep a larger cash holding, sometimes a smaller; in exceptional cases he may even renounce any cash holding. At any rate, the immense majority of people aim not only to own various vendible goods; they want no less to hold money. Their cash holding is not merely a residuum, an unspent margin of their wealth. It is not an unintentional remainder left over after all intentional acts of buying and selling have been consummated. Its amount is determined by a deliberate demand for cash. And as with all other goods it is the changes in the relation between demand for and supply of money that bring about changes in the exchange ratio between money and the vendible goods.

Every piece of money is owned by one of the members of the market economy. The transfer of money from the control of one actor into that of another is temporally immediate and continuous. There is no fraction of time in between in which the money is not a part of an individual's or a firm's cash holding, but just in "circulation."2 It is unsound to distinguish between circulating and idle money. It is no less faulty to distinguish between circulating money and hoarded money. What is called hoarding is a height of cash holding which — according to the personal opinion of an observer — exceeds what is deemed normal and adequate. However, hoarding is cash holding. Hoarded money is still money and it serves in the hoards the same purposes which it serves in cash holdings called normal. He who hoards money believes that some special conditions make it expedient to accumulate a cash holding which exceeds the amount he himself would keep under different conditions, or other people keep, or an economist censuring his action considers appropriate. That he acts in this way influences the configuration of the demand for money in the same way in which every "normal" demand influences it.

Many economists avoid applying the terms demand and supply in the sense of demand for and supply of money for cash holding because they fear a confusion with the current terminology as used by the bankers. It is, in fact, customary to call demand for money the demand for short-term loans and supply of money the supply of such loans. Accordingly one calls the market for short-term loans the money market. One says money is scarce if there prevails a tendency toward a rise in the rate of interest for short-term loans, and one says money is plentiful if the rate of interest for such loans is decreasing. These modes of speech are so firmly entrenched that it is out of the question to venture to discard them. But they have favored the spread of fateful errors. They made people confound the notions of money and of capital and believe that increasing the quantity of money could lower the rate of interest lastingly. But it is precisely the crassness of these errors which makes it unlikely that the terminology suggested could create any misunderstanding. It is hard to assume that economists could err with regard to such fundamental issues.

Others maintained that one should not speak of the demand for and supply of money because the aims of those demanding money differ from the aims of those demanding vendible commodities. Commodities, they say, are demanded ultimately for consumption, while money is demanded in order to be given away in further acts of exchange. This objection is no less invalid. The use which people make of a medium of exchange consists eventually in its being given away. But first of all they are eager to accumulate a certain amount of it in order to be ready for the moment in which a purchase may be accomplished. Precisely because people do not want to provide for their own needs right at the instant at which they give away the goods and services they themselves bring to the market, precisely because they want to wait or are forced to wait until propitious conditions for buying appear, they barter not directly but indirectly through the interposition of a medium of exchange. The fact that money is not worn out by the use one makes of it and that it can render its services practically for an unlimited length of time is an important factor in the configuration of its supply. But it does not alter the fact that the appraisement of money is to be explained in the same way as the appraisement of all other goods: by the demand on the part of those who are eager to acquire a definite quantity of it.

Economists have tried to enumerate the factors which within the whole economic system may increase or decrease the demand for money. Such factors are: the population figure; the extent to which the individual households provide for their own needs by autarkic production and the extent to which they produce for other people's needs, selling their products and buying for their own consumption on the market; the distribution of business activity and the settlement of payments over the various seasons of the year; institutions for the settlement of claims and counterclaims by mutual cancellation, such as clearinghouses. All these factors indeed influence the demand for money and the height of the various individuals' and firms' cash holding. But they influence them only indirectly by the role they play in the considerations of people concerning the determination of the amount of cash balances they deem appropriate. What decides the matter is always the value judgments of the men concerned. The various actors make up their minds about what they believe the adequate height of their cash holding should be. They carry out their resolution by renouncing the purchase of commodities, securities, and interest-bearing claims, and by selling such assets or conversely by increasing their purchases. With money, things are not different from what they are with regard to all other goods and services. The demand for money is determined by the conduct of people intent upon acquiring it for their cash holding.

Another objection raised against the notion of the demand for money was this: The marginal utility of the money unit decreases much more slowly than that of the other commodities; in fact its decrease is so slow that it can be practically ignored. With regard to money nobody ever says that his demand is satisfied, and nobody ever forsakes an opportunity to acquire more money provided the sacrifice required is not too great. It is therefore impermissible to consider the demand for money as limited. The very notion of an unlimited demand is, however, contradictory. This popular reasoning is entirely fallacious. It confounds the demand for money for cash holding with the desire for more wealth as expressed in terms of money. He who says that his thirst for more money can never be quenched, does not mean to say that his cash holding can never be too large. What he really means is that he can never be rich enough. If additional money flows into his hands, he will not use it for an increase of his cash balance or he will use only a part of it for this purpose. He will expend the surplus either for instantaneous consumption or for investment. Nobody ever keeps more money than he wants to have as cash holding.

The insight that the exchange ratio between money on the one hand and the vendible commodities and services on the other is determined, in the same way as the mutual exchange ratios between the various vendible goods, by demand and supply was the essence of the quantity theory of money. This theory is essentially an application of the general theory of supply and demand to the special instance of money. Its merit was the endeavor to explain the determination of money's purchasing power by resorting to the same reasoning which is employed for the explanation of all other exchange ratios. Its shortcoming was that it resorted to a holistic interpretation. It looked at the total supply of money in the Volkswirtschaft and not at the actions of the individual men and firms. An outgrowth of this erroneous point of view was the idea that there prevails a proportionality in the changes of the — total — quantity of money and of money prices. But the older critics failed in their attempts to explode the errors inherent in the quantity theory and to substitute a more satisfactory theory for it. They did not fight what was wrong in the quantity theory; they attacked, on the contrary, its nucleus of truth. They were intent upon denying that there is a causal relation between the movements of prices and those of the quantity of money. This denial led them into a labyrinth of errors, contradictions, and nonsense. Modern monetary theory takes up the thread of the traditional quantity theory as far as it starts from the cognition that changes in the purchasing power of money must be dealt with according to the principles applied to all other market phenomena and that there exists a connection between the changes in the demand for and supply of money on the one hand and those of purchasing power on the other. In this sense one may call the modern theory of money an improved variety of the quantity theory.

  • 1. Cf. Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit, trans. by H.E. Batson (London and New York, 1934), pp. 34–37.
  • 2. Money can be in the process of transportation, it can travel in trains, ships, or planes from one place to another. But it is in this case, too, always subject to somebody's control.

Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises was the acknowledged leader of the Austrian school of economic thought, a prodigious originator in economic theory, and a prolific author. Mises's writings and lectures encompassed economic theory, history, epistemology, government, and political philosophy. His contributions to economic theory include important clarifications on the quantity theory of money, the theory of the trade cycle, the integration of monetary theory with economic theory in general, and a demonstration that socialism must fail because it cannot solve the problem of economic calculation. Mises was the first scholar to recognize that economics is part of a larger science in human action, a science that he called praxeology.