Books / Digital Text

Chapter 12 The Business Cycle

Interventionism: An Economic Analysis1

2. Credit Expansion

It is a fundamental fact of human behavior that people value present goods higher than future goods. An apple available for immediate consumption is valued higher than an apple which will be available next year. And an apple which will be available in a year is in turn valued higher than an apple which will become available in five years. This difference in valuation appears in the market economy in the form of the discount, to which future goods are subject as compared to present goods. In money transactions this discount is called interest.

Interest therefore cannot be abolished. In order to do away with interest we would have to prevent people from valuing a house, which today is habitable, more highly than a house which will not be ready for use for ten years. Interest is not peculiar to the capitalistic system only. In a socialist community too the fact will have to be considered that a loaf of bread which will not be ready for consumption for another year does not satisfy present hunger.

Interest does not have its origin in the meeting of supply and demand of money loans in the capital market. It is rather the function of the loan market, which in business terms is called the money market (for short-term credit) and the capital market (for long-term credit), to adjust the interest rates for loans transacted in money to the difference in the valuation of present and future goods. This difference in valuation is the real source of interest. An increase in the quantity of money, no matter how large, cannot in the long run influence the rate of interest.

No other economic law is less popular than this, that interest rates are, in the long run, independent of the quantity of money. Public opinion is reluctant to recognize interest as a market phenomenon. Interest is thought to be an evil, an obstacle to human welfare, and, therefore, it is demanded that it be eliminated or at least considerably reduced. And credit expansion is considered the proper means to bring about “easy money.”

There is no doubt that credit expansion leads to a reduction of the interest rate in the short run. At the beginning, the additional supply of credit forces the interest rate for money loans below the point which it would have in an unmanipulated market. But it is equally clear that even the greatest expansion of credit cannot change the difference in the valuation of future and present goods. The interest rate must ultimately return to the point at which it corresponds to this difference in the valuation of goods. The description of this process of adjustment is the task of that part of economics which is called the theory of the business cycle.

At every constellation of prices, wages, and interest rates, there are projects which will not be carried out because a calculation of their profitability shows that there is no chance for the success of such undertakings. The businessman does not have the courage to start the enterprise because his calculations convince him that he will not gain, but will lose by it.

This unattractiveness of the project is not a consequence of money or credit conditions; it is due to the scarcity of economic goods and labor and to the fact that they have to be devoted to more urgent and therefore more attractive uses.

When the interest rate is artificially lowered by credit expansion the false impression is created that enterprises which previously had been regarded as unprofitable now become profitable. Easy money induces the entrepreneurs to embark upon businesses which they would not have undertaken at a higher interest rate. With the money borrowed from the banks they enter the market with additional demand and cause a rise in wages and in the prices of the means of production. This boom of course would have to collapse immediately in the absence of further credit expansion, because these price increases would make the new enterprises appear unprofitable again. But if the banks continue with the credit expansion this brake fails to work. The boom continues.

But the boom cannot continue indefinitely. There are two alternatives. Either the banks continue the credit expansion without restriction and thus cause constantly mounting price increases and an ever-growing orgy of speculation, which, as in all other cases of unlimited inflation, ends in a “crack-up boom” and in a collapse of the money and credit system.2 Or the banks stop before this point is reached, voluntarily renounce further credit expansion and thus bring about the crisis. The depression follows in both instances.

It is obvious that a mere banking process like credit expansion cannot create more goods and wealth. What the credit expansion actually accomplishes is to introduce a source of error in the calculations of the entrepreneurs and thus causes them to misjudge business and investment projects. The entrepreneurs act as if more producers’ goods were available than are actually at hand. They plan expansion of production on a scale for which the available quantities of producers’ goods are not sufficient. These plans are bound to fail because of the deficiency in the available amount of producers’ goods. The result is that there are plants which cannot be used because the complementary facilities are lacking; there are plants which cannot be completed; there are other plants again whose products cannot be sold because consumers desire other products more urgently which cannot be produced in sufficient quantities because the necessary productive facilities are not ready. The boom is not over-investment, it is misdirected investment.

It is frequently argued against this conclusion that it would hold true only if at the beginning of the credit expansion there were neither unused capacity nor unemployment. If there were unemployment and idle capacity, things would be different, they claim. But these assumptions do not affect the argument.

The fact that a part of the productive capacity which cannot be diverted to other uses is unused is the consequence of errors of the past. Investments were made in the past under assumptions which proved to be incorrect; the market now demands something else than what can be produced by these facilities.3 The accumulation of inventories is speculation. The owner does not want to sell the goods at the current market price because he hopes to realize a higher price at a future date. Unemployment of workers is also an aspect of speculation. The worker does not want to change his location or occupation, nor does he want to lower his wage demands because he hopes to find the work he prefers at the place he prefers and at higher wages. Both the owners of merchandise and the unemployed refuse to adjust themselves to market conditions because they hope for new data which would change market conditions to their advantage. Because they do not make the necessary adjustments the economic system cannot reach “equilibrium.”

In the opinion of the advocates of credit expansion, what is necessary fully to utilize the unused capacity, to sell the supply at prices acceptable to the owners, and to enable the unemployed to find work at wages satisfactory to them is merely additional credit which such expansion could provide. This is the view which underlies all plans for “pump priming.” It would be correct for the stocks of goods and for the unemployed under two conditions: (1) if the price rises caused by the additional quantity of money and credit would uniformly and simultaneously affect all other prices and wages, and (2) if the owners of the excessive supplies and the unemployed would not increase their prices and wage demands. This would cause the exchange ratios between these goods and services and other goods and services to change in the same way as they would have to be changed in the absence of credit expansion, by reducing the price and wage demands in order to find buyers and employers.

The course of the boom is not any different because, at its inception, there are unused productive capacity, unsold stocks of goods, and unemployed workers. We might assume, for instance, that we are dealing with copper mines, copper inventories, and copper miners. The price of copper is at a point at which a number of mines cannot profitably continue their production; their workers must remain idle if they do not want to change jobs; and the owners of the copper stocks can only sell part of it if they are unwilling to accept a lower price. What is needed to put the idle mines and miners back to work and to dispose of the copper supply without a price drop is an increase (p) in producers’ goods in general, which would permit an expansion of overall production, so that an increase in the price, sales, and production of copper would follow. If this increase (p) does not occur, but the entrepreneurs are induced by credit expansion to act as if it had occurred, the effects on the copper market will first be the same as if p actually had appeared. But everything that has been said before of the effects of credit expansion develops in this case as well. The sole difference is that misdirected capital investment, as far as copper is concerned, does not necessitate the withdrawal of capital and labor from other branches of production, which under existing conditions are considered more important by the consumers. But this is only due to the fact that, as far as copper is concerned, the credit expansion boom impinges upon previously misdirected capital and labor which have not yet been adjusted by the normal corrective processes of the price mechanism.

The true meaning of the argument of unused capacity, unsold — or, as it is said inaccurately, unsalable — inventories, and idle labor, now becomes apparent. The beginning of every credit expansion encounters such remnants of older, misdirected capital investments and apparently “corrects” them. In actuality, it does nothing but disturb the workings of the adjustment process. The existence of unused means of production does not invalidate the conclusions of the monetary theory of the business cycle. The advocates of credit expansion are mistaken when they believe that, in view of unused means of production, the suppression of all possibilities of credit expansion would perpetuate the depression. The measures they propose would not perpetuate real prosperity, but would constantly interfere with the process of readjustment and the return of normal conditions.

It is impossible to explain the cyclical changes of business on any basis other than the theory which commonly is referred to as the monetary theory of the business cycle. Even those economists who refuse to recognize in the monetary theory the proper explanation of the business cycle have never attempted to deny the validity of its conclusions about the effects of credit expansion. In order to defend their theories about the business cycle, which differ from the monetary theory, they still have to admit that the upswing cannot occur without simultaneous credit expansion, and that the end of the credit expansion also marks the turning point of the cycle. The opponents of the monetary theory actually confine themselves to the assertion that the upswing of the cycle is not caused by credit expansion, but by other factors, and that the credit expansion, without which the upswing would be impossible, is not the result of a policy intended to lower the interest rate and to invite the execution of additional business plans, but that it is released somehow by conditions leading to the upswing without intervention by the banks or by the authorities.

It has been asserted that the credit expansion is released by the rise in the rate of interest through the failure of the banks to raise their interest rates in accordance with the rise in the “natural” rate.4 This argument too misses the main point of the monetary theory of the cycle. Whether the credit expansion gets under way because the banks ease credit terms, or because they fail to stiffen the terms in accordance with changed market conditions, is of minor importance.5 Decisive only is the fact that there is credit expansion because there exist institutions which consider it their task to influence interest rates by the granting of additional credit. Whoever believes that credit expansion is a necessary factor in the movement which forces the economy into the upswing, which must be followed by a crisis and depression, would have to admit that the surest means to achieve a cycle-proof economic system lies in preventing credit expansion. But despite the general agreement that measures should be taken to smooth the wave-like movements of the cycle, measures to prevent credit expansion do not receive consideration. Business cycle policy is given the task to perpetuate the upswing created by the credit expansion and yet to prevent the breakdown. Proposals to prevent credit expansion are refuted because supposedly they would perpetuate the depression. Nothing could be a more convincing proof of the theory which explains the business cycle as originating from interventions in favor of easy money than the obstinate refusal to abandon credit expansion.

One would have to ignore all facts of recent economic history were one to deny that measures to lower rates are considered desirable and that credit expansion is regarded as the most reliable means to achieve this aim. The fact that the smooth functioning and the development and steady progress of the economy is over and over again disturbed by artificial booms and ensuing depressions is not a necessary characteristic of the market economy. It is rather the inevitable consequence of repeated interventions which intend to create easy money by credit expansion.

The Causes of the Economic Crisis and Other Essays Before and After the Great Depression6

“Monetary Stabilization and Cyclical Policy”

1. The Banking School Fallacy

If notes are issued by the banks, or if bank deposits subject to check or other claim are opened, in excess of the amount of money kept in the vaults as cover, the effect on prices is similar to that obtained by an increase in the quantity of money. Since these fiduciary media, as notes and bank deposits not backed by metal are called, render the service of money as safe and generally accepted, payable on demand monetary claims, they may be used as money in all transactions. On that account, they are genuine money substitutes. Since they are in excess of the given total quantity of money in the narrower sense, they represent an increase in the quantity of money in the broader sense.

The practical significance of these undisputed and indisputable conclusions in the formation of prices is denied by the Banking School with its contention that the issue of such fiduciary media is strictly limited by the demand for money in the economy. The Banking School doctrine maintains that if fiduciary media are issued by the banks only to discount short-term commodity bills, then no more would come into circulation than were “needed” to liquidate the transactions. According to this doctrine, bank management could exert no influence on the volume of the commodity transactions activated. Purchases and sales from which short-term commodity bills originate would, by this very transaction, already have brought into existence paper credit which can be used, through further negotiation, for the exchange of goods and services. If the bank discounts the bill and, let us say, issues notes against it, that is, according to the Banking School, a neutral transaction as far as the market is concerned. Nothing more is involved than replacing one instrument which is technically less suitable for circulation, the bill of exchange, with a more suitable one, the note. Thus, according to this School, the effect of the issue of notes need not be to increase the quantity of money in circulation. If the bill of exchange is retired at maturity, then notes would flow back to the bank and new notes could enter circulation again only when new commodity bills came into being once more as a result of new business.

The weak link in this well-known line of reasoning lies in the assertion that the volume of transactions completed, as sales and purchases from which commodity bills can derive, is independent of the behavior of the banks. If the banks discount at a lower, rather than at a higher, interest rate, then more loans are made. Enterprises which are unprofitable at 5 percent, and hence are not undertaken, may be profitable at 4 percent. Therefore, by lowering the interest rate they charge, banks can intensify the demand for credit. Then, by satisfying this demand, they can increase the quantity of fiduciary media in circulation. Once this is recognized, the Banking Theory’s only argument, that prices are not influenced by the issue of fiduciary media, collapses.

One must be careful not to speak simply of the effects of credit in general on prices, but to specify clearly the effects of “increased credit” or “credit expansion.” A sharp distinction must be made between (1) credit which a bank grants by lending its own funds or funds placed at its disposal by depositors, which we call “commodity credit,” and (2) that which is granted by the creation of fiduciary media, i.e., notes and deposits not covered by money, which we call “circulation credit.” It is only through the granting of circulation credit that the prices of all commodities and services are directly affected.

If the banks grant circulation credit by discounting a three month bill of exchange, they exchange a future good — a claim payable in three months — for a present good that they produce out of nothing. It is not correct, therefore, to maintain that it is immaterial whether the bill of exchange is discounted by a bank of issue or whether it remains in circulation, passing from hand to hand. Whoever takes the bill of exchange in trade can do so only if he has the resources. But the bank of issue discounts by creating the necessary funds and putting them into circulation. To be sure, the fiduciary media flow back again to the bank at expiration of the note. If the bank does not give the fiduciary media out again, precisely the same consequences appear as those which come from a decrease in the quantity of money in its broader sense.

2. Early Effects of Credit Expansion

The fact that in the regular course of banking operations the banks issue fiduciary media only as loans to producers and merchants means that they are not used directly for purposes of consumption. Rather, these fiduciary media are used first of all for production, that is to buy factors of production and pay wages. The first prices to rise, therefore, as a result of an increase of the quantity of money in the broader sense, caused by the issue of such fiduciary media, are those of raw materials, semimanufactured products, other goods of higher orders, and wage rates. Only later do the prices of goods of the first order [consumers’ goods] follow. Changes in the purchasing power of a monetary unit, brought about by the issue of fiduciary media, follow a different path and have different accompanying social side effects from those produced by a new discovery of precious metals or by the issue of paper money. Still in the last analysis, the effect on prices is similar in both instances.

Changes in the purchasing power of the monetary unit do not directly affect the height of the rate of interest. An indirect influence on the height of the interest rate can take place as a result of the fact that shifts in wealth and income relationships, appearing as a result of the change in the value of the monetary unit, influence savings and, thus, the accumulation of capital. If a depreciation of the monetary unit favors the wealthier members of society at the expense of the poorer, its effect will probably be an increase in capital accumulation since the well-to-do are the more important savers. The more they put aside, the more their incomes and fortunes will grow.

If monetary depreciation is brought about by an issue of fiduciary media, and if wage rates do not promptly follow the increase in commodity prices, then the decline in purchasing power will certainly make this effect much more severe. This is the “forced savings” which is quite properly stressed in recent literature.7 However, three things should not be forgotten. First, it always depends upon the data of the particular case whether shifts of wealth and income, which lead to increased saving, are actually set in motion. Second, under circumstances which need not be discussed further here, by falsifying economic calculation, based on monetary bookkeeping calculations, a very substantial devaluation can lead to capital consumption (such a situation did take place temporarily during the recent inflationary period). Third, as advocates of inflation through credit expansion should observe, any legislative measure which transfers resources to the “rich” at the expense of the “poor” will also foster capital formation.

Eventually, the issue of fiduciary media in such manner can also lead to increased capital accumulation within narrow limits and, hence, to a further reduction of the interest rate. In the beginning, however, an immediate and direct decrease in the loan rate appears with the issue of fiduciary media, but this immediate decrease in the loan rate is distinct in character and degree from the later reduction. The new funds offered on the money market by the banks must obviously bring pressure to bear on the rate of interest. The supply and demand for loan money were adjusted at the interest rate prevailing before the issue of any additional supply of fiduciary media. Additional loans can be placed only if the interest rate is lowered. Such loans are profitable for the banks because the increase in the supply of fiduciary media calls for no expenditure except for the mechanical costs of banking (i.e., printing the notes and bookkeeping). The banks can, therefore, undercut the interest rates which would otherwise appear on the loan market, in the absence of their intervention. Since competition from them compels other money lenders to lower their interest charges, the market interest rate must therefore decline. But can this reduction be maintained? That is the problem.

3. Inevitable Effects of Credit Expansion on Interest Rates

In conformity with Wicksell’s terminology, we shall use “natural interest rate” to describe that interest rate which would be established by supply and demand if real goods were loaned in natura [directly, as in barter] without the intermediary of money. “Money rate of interest” will be used for that interest rate asked on loans made in money or money substitutes. Through continued expansion of fiduciary media, it is possible for the banks to force the money rate down to the actual cost of the banking operations, practically speaking that is almost to zero. As a result, several authors have concluded that interest could be completely abolished in this way. Whole schools of reformers have wanted to use banking policy to make credit gratuitous and thus to solve the “social question.” No reasoning person today, however, believes that interest can ever be abolished, nor doubts but what, if the “money interest rate” is depressed by the expansion of fiduciary media, it must sooner or later revert once again to the “natural interest rate.” The question is only how this inevitable adjustment takes place. The answer to this will explain at the same time the fluctuations of the business cycle.

The Currency Theory limited the problem too much. It only considered the situation that was of practical significance for the England of its time — that is, when the issue of fiduciary media is increased in one country while remaining unchanged in others. Under these assumptions, the situation is quite clear: General price increases at home; hence an increase in imports, a drop in commodity exports; and with this, as notes can circulate only within the country, an outflow of metallic money. To obtain metallic money for export, holders of notes present them for redemption; the metallic reserves of the banks decline; and consideration for their own solvency then forces them to restrict the credit offered.

That is the instant at which the business upswing, brought about by the availability of easy credit, is demonstrated to be illusory prosperity. An abrupt reaction sets in. The “money rate of interest” shoots up; enterprises from which credit is withdrawn collapse and sweep along with them the banks which are their creditors. A long persisting period of business stagnation now follows. The banks, warned by this experience into observing restraint, not only no longer underbid the “natural interest rate” but exercise extreme caution in granting credit.

4. The Price Premium

In order to complete this interpretation, we must, first of all, consider the price premium. As the banks start to expand the circulation credit, the anticipated upward movement of prices results in the appearance of a positive price premium. Even if the banks do not lower the actual interest rate any more, the gap widens between the “money interest rate” and the “natural interest rate” which would prevail in the absence of their intervention. Since loan money is now cheaper to acquire than circumstances warrant, entrepreneurial ambitions expand.

New businesses are started in the expectation that the necessary capital can be secured by obtaining credit. To be sure, in the face of growing demand, the banks now raise the “money interest rate.” Still they do not discontinue granting further credit. They expand the supply of fiduciary media issued, with the result that the purchasing power of the monetary unit must decline still further. Certainly the actual “money interest rate” increases during the boom, but it continues to lag behind the rate which would conform to the market, i.e., the “natural interest rate” augmented by the positive price premium.

So long as this situation prevails, the upswing continues. Inventories of goods are readily sold. Prices and profits rise. Business enterprises are overwhelmed with orders because everyone anticipates further price increases and workers find employment at increasing wage rates. However, this situation cannot last forever!

5. Malinvestment of Available Capital Goods

The “natural interest rate” is established at that height which tends toward equilibrium on the market. The tendency is toward a condition where no capital goods are idle, no opportunities for starting profitable enterprises remain unexploited and the only projects not undertaken are those which no longer yield a profit at the prevailing “natural interest rate.” Assume, however, that the equilibrium, toward which the market is moving, is disturbed by the interference of the banks. Money may be obtained below the “natural interest rate.” As a result businesses may be started which weren’t profitable before, and which become profitable only through the lower than “natural interest rate” which appears with the expansion of circulation credit.

Here again, we see the difference which exists between a drop in purchasing power, caused by the expansion of circulation credit, and a loss of purchasing power, brought about by an increase in the quantity of money. In the latter case [i.e., with an increase in the quantity of money in the narrower sense] the prices first affected are either (1) those of consumers’ goods only or (2) the prices of both consumers’ and producers’ goods. Which it will be depends on whether those first receiving the new quantities of money use this new wealth for consumption or production. However, if the decrease in purchasing power is caused by an increase in bank created fiduciary media, then it is the prices of producers’ goods which are first affected. The prices of consumers’ goods follow only to the extent that wages and profits rise.

Since it always requires some time for the market to reach full “equilibrium,” the “static” or “natural”8 prices, wage rates and interest rates never actually appear. The process leading to their establishment is never completed before changes occur which once again indicate a new “equilibrium.” At times, even on the unhampered market, there are some unemployed workers, unsold consumers’ goods and quantities of unused factors of production, which would not exist under “static equilibrium.” With the revival of business and productive activity, these reserves are in demand right away. However, once they are gone, the increase in the supply of fiduciary media necessarily leads to disturbances of a special kind.

In a given economic situation, the opportunities for production, which may actually be carried out, are limited by the supply of capital goods available. Roundabout methods of production can be adopted only so far as the means for subsistence exist to maintain the workers during the entire period of the expanded process. All those projects, for the completion of which means are not available, must be left uncompleted, even though they may appear technically feasible — that is, if one disregards the supply of capital. However, such businesses, because of the lower loan rate offered by the banks, appear for the moment to be profitable and are, therefore, initiated. However, the existing resources are insufficient. Sooner or later this must become evident. Then it will become apparent that production has gone astray, that plans were drawn up in excess of the economic means available, that speculation, i.e., activity aimed at the provision of future goods, was misdirected.

  • 1. [Ludwig von Mises, Interventionism: An Economic Analysis (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1998), chap. 3, “Inflation and Credit Expansion,” pp. 39–44.]
  • 2. As explained in this section on “Credit Expansion.”
  • 3. In the absence of credit expansion there also may be plants which are not fully utilized. But they do not disturb the market any more than does the unused submarginal land.
  • 4. [Fritz] Machlup, (The Stock Market, Credit and Capital Formation, London, 1940), p. 248, speaks of “passive inflationism.”
  • 5. If a bank is unable to expand credit it cannot create an upswing even if it lowers its interest rate below the market rate. It would merely make a gift to its debtors. The conclusion to be drawn from the monetary theory of the cycle with regard to stabilizing measures is not the postulate that the banks should not lower the interest rate, but that they should not expand credit. This [Gottfried] Haberler (Prosperity and Depression, League of Nations, Geneva, 1939, pp. 65 ff.) misunderstood and therefore his criticisms are untenable.
  • 6. [Ludwig von Mises, “Monetary Stabilization and Cyclical Policy,” in The Causes of the Economic Crisis and Other Essays Before and After the Great Depression, ed. Percy L. Greaves, Jr. (1928; Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2006), chap. 2: “Circulation Credit Theory,” pp. 103–15.]
  • 7. Albert Hahn and Joseph Schumpeter have given me credit for the expression “forced savings” or “compulsory savings.”
  • 8. In the language of Knut Wicksell and the classical economists.
Shield icon library