Mises Daily Articles
[The original version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2004 issue of The Elliott Wave Theorist, a year before the housing-credit bubble burst. An MP3 audio file of this article, read by Dr. Floy Lilley, is available for download.]
I am tired of hearing economists argue that government and the Fed should expand credit for the good of the economy. Sometimes an analogy clarifies a subject, so let's try one.
It may sound crazy, but suppose the government were to decide that the health of the nation depends upon producing Jaguar automobiles and providing them to as many people as possible.
To facilitate that goal, it begins operating Jaguar plants all over the country, subsidizing production with tax money. To everyone's delight, it offers these luxury cars for sale at 50% off the old price. People flock to the showrooms and buy.
Later, sales slow down, so the government cuts the price in half again. More people rush in and buy. Sales again slow, so it lowers the price to $900 each. People return to the stores to buy two or three, or half a dozen. Why not? Look how cheap they are! Buyers give Jaguars to their kids and park an extra one on the lawn. Finally, the country is awash in Jaguars.
Alas, sales slow again, and the government panics. It must move more Jaguars, or, according to its theory — ironically now made fact — the economy will recede. People are working three days a week just to pay their taxes so the government can keep producing more Jaguars. If Jaguars stop moving, the economy will stop. So the government announces "stimulus" programs and begins giving Jaguars away. A few more cars move out of the showrooms, but then it ends. Nobody wants any more Jaguars. They don't care if they're free. They can't find a use for them. Production of Jaguars ceases.
It takes years to work through the overhanging supply of Jaguars. The factories close, unemployment soars and tax collections collapse. The economy is wrecked. People can't afford repairs or gasoline, so many of the Jaguars rust away to worthlessness. The number of Jaguars — at best — returns to the level it was before the program began.
The same thing can happen with credit.
It may sound crazy, but suppose the government were to decide that the health of the nation depends upon producing credit and providing it to as many people as possible.
To facilitate that goal, it begins operating credit-production plants all over the country — called Federal Reserve Banks, Federal Home Loan Banks, Fannie Mae, Sallie Mae, and Freddie Mac, all subsidized by monopoly powers or government guarantees — to funnel credit to the public through banks. To everyone's delight, banks begin reducing collateral requirements and thereby offering credit for sale at below-market rates. People flock to the banks and buy.
Later, sales slow down, so banks cut the price again. More people rush in and buy. Sales again slow, so lenders lower the price to 1% with no collateral and no money down. People return to the banks to buy even more credit. Why not? Look how cheap it is! Borrowers use credit to buy houses, boats, and an extra Jaguar to park out on the lawn. Finally, the country is awash in credit.
Alas, sales slow again, and government and banks start to panic. They must move more credit, or, according to its theory — ironically now made fact — the economy will recede. People are working three days a week just to pay the interest on their debt to the banks so the banks can keep offering more credit. If credit stops moving, the economy will stop. So the government announces "stimulus" programs and begins giving credit away, at 0% interest. A few more loans move through the tellers' windows, but then it ends. Nobody wants any more credit. They don't care if it's free. They can't find a use for it. Production of credit ceases.
It takes years to work through the overhanging supply of credit. Banks close, unemployment soars and tax collections collapse. The economy is wrecked. People can't afford to pay interest on their debts, so many IOUs deteriorate to worthlessness. The value of credit — at best — returns to the level it was before the program began.
See how it works?
Is the analogy perfect? No. The idea of pushing credit on people is far more dangerous than the idea of pushing Jaguars on them. In the credit scenario, debtors and even most creditors lose everything in the end. In the Jaguar scenario, at least everyone ends up with a garage full of cars. Of course, the Jaguar scenario is impossible, because the government can't produce value. It can, however, reduce values.
A government that imposes a central bank monopoly, for example, can reduce the incremental value of credit. A monopoly credit system also allows for fraud and theft on a far bigger scale. Instead of government appropriating citizens' labor openly by having them produce cars, monopoly banking and credit machines do so clandestinely by stealing stored labor from citizens' bank accounts by inflating the supply of credit, thereby reducing the value of savings.
Twentieth-century macroeconomic theory — both Keynesian and monetarist — championed the idea that a growing economy needs easy credit. But this is a false theory. Credit should be supplied by the free market, in which case it will almost always be offered intelligently, primarily to producers, not consumers.
Would lesser availability of consumer credit mean that fewer people would own a house or a car? Quite the opposite. Only the timeline would be different. Initially it would take a few years longer for the same number of people to save enough to own houses and cars — actually own them, not rent them from banks. Prices would be lower because credit would not be competing with money to bid up these goods. And, because banks would not be appropriating so much of people's labor and wealth, the economy as a whole would grow much faster. Eventually, the extent of home and car ownership — actual ownership — would eclipse that in an easy-credit society. Moreover, people would keep their homes and cars because banks would not be foreclosing on them. As a bonus, there would be no devastating across-the-board collapse of the banking system, which, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, is inevitable under a system of central banking and other government-created credit factories.
Jaguars, anyone? More credit? Here's a better idea: let's go back to using real money.