Books / Digital Text

Part Two: The Value of Money > Chapter 14. The Monetary Policy of Etatism

4. The Balance-of-Payments Theory as a Basis of Currency Policy

According to the current view, the maintenance of sound monetary conditions is only possible with a "credit balance of payments." A country with a "debit balance of payments" is supposed to be unable permanently to stabilize the value of its money; the depreciation of the currency is supposed to have an organic basis and to be irremediable except by the removal of the organic defects.

The confutation of this and related objections is implicit in the quantity theory and in Gresham's law. The quantity theory shows that money can never permanently flow abroad from a country in which only metallic money is used (the "purely metallic currency" of the currency principle). The tightness in the domestic market called forth by the efflux of part of the stock of money reduces the prices of commodities, and so restricts importation and encourages exportation, until there is once more enough money at home. The precious metals which perform the function of money are distributed among individuals, and consequently among separate countries, according to the extent and intensity of the demand of each for money. State intervention to assure to the community the necessary quantity of money by regulating its international movements is supererogatory. An undesired efflux of money can never be anything but a result of state intervention endowing money of different values with the same legal tender All that the state need do, and can do, in order to preserve the monetary system undisturbed, is to refrain from such intervention. That is the essence of the monetary theory of the Classical economists and their immediate successors, the Currency School. It is possible to refine and amplify this doctrine with the aid of the modern subjective theory; but it is impossible to overthrow it, and impossible to put anything else in its place. Those who are able to forget it only show that they are unable to think as economists.

When a country has substituted credit money or fiat money for metallic money because the legal equating of the overissued paper and the metallic money sets in motion the mechanism described by Gresham's law, it is often asserted that the balance of payments determines the rate of exchange. But this also is a quite inadequate explanation. The rate of exchange is determined by the purchasing power possessed by a unit of each kind of money; it must be determined at such a level that it makes no difference whether commodities are purchased directly with the one kind of money or indirectly, through money of the other kind. If the rate of exchange moves away from the position that is determined by the purchasing-power parity, which we call the natural or equilibrium rate, then certain sorts of transaction would become profitable. It would become lucrative to purchase commodities with the money that was undervalued by the rate of exchange as compared with the ratio given by its purchasing power, and to sell them for the money that was overvalued in the rate of exchange in comparison with its purchasing power And because there were such opportunities of profit, there would be a demand on the foreign-exchange market for the money that was undervalued by the exchanges and this would raise the rate of exchange until it attained its equilibrium position. Rates of exchange vary because the quantity of money varies and the prices of commodities vary. As has already been remarked, it is solely owing to market technique that this basic relationship is not actually expressed in the temporal sequence of events. In fact, the determination of foreign-exchange rates, under the influence of speculation, anticipates the expected variations in the prices of commodities.

The balance-of-payments theory forgets that the volume of foreign trade is completely dependent upon prices; that neither exportation nor importation can occur if there are no differences in prices to make trade profitable. The theory clings to the superficial aspects of the phenomena it deals with. It cannot be doubted that if we simply look at the daily or hourly fluctuations on the exchanges we shall only be able to discover that the state of the balance of payments at any moment does determine the supply and the demand in the foreign-exchange market. But this is a mere beginning of a proper investigation into the determinants of the rate of exchange. The next question is, What determines the state of the balance of payments at any moment? And there is no other possible answer to this than that it is the price level and the purchases and sales induced by the price margins that determine the balance of payments. Foreign commodities can be imported, at a time when the rate of exchange is rising, only if they are able to find purchasers despite their high prices.

One variety of the balance-of-payments theory attempts to distinguish between the importation of necessaries and the importation of articles that can be dispensed with. Necessaries, it is said, have to be bought whatever their price is, simply because they cannot be done without. Consequently there must be a continual depreciation in the currency of a country that is obliged to import necessaries from abroad and itself is able to export only relatively dispensable articles. To argue thus is to forget that the greater or less necessity or dispensability of individual goods is fully expressed in the intensity and extent of the demand for them in the market, and thus in the amount of money which is paid for them. However strong the desire of the Austrians for foreign bread, meat, coal, or sugar may be, they can only get these things if they are able to pay for them. If they wish to import more, they must export more; if they cannot export manufactured and semimanufactured goods, then they must export shares, bonds, and securities of various kinds. If the note circulation were not increased, then the prices of the objects that were offered for sale would have to decrease if the demand for import goods and hence their prices were to rise. Or else the upward movement of the prices of necessaries would have to be opposed by a fall in the price of the dispensable articles the purchase of which was restricted so as to permit the purchase of the necessaries. There could be no question of a general rise of prices. And the balance of payments would be brought into equilibrium, either by the export of securities and the like, or by an increased export of dispensable goods. It is only when the above assumption does not hold good, only when the quantity of notes in circulation is increased, that foreign commodities can still be imported in the same quantities in spite of a rise in the foreign exchange; it is only because this assumption does not hold good that the rise in the foreign exchange does not throttle importation and encourage exportation until there is again a credit balance of payments.

Ancient Mercantilist error therefore involved a specter of which we need not be afraid. No country, not even the poorest, need abandon the hope of sound currency conditions. It is not the poverty of individuals and the community, not indebtedness to foreign nations, not the unfavorableness of the conditions of production, that force up the rate of exchange, but inflation.

It follows that all the means that are employed for hindering a rise in the exchange rate are useless. If the inflationary policy continues, they remain ineffective; if there is no inflationary policy, then they are superfluous. The most important of these methods is the prohibition or limitation of the importation of certain goods that are deemed dispensable, or at least less indispensable than others. This causes the sums of domestic money that would have been used for the purchase of these commodities to be used for other purchases and naturally the only goods here concerned are those that would otherwise have been sold abroad. These will now be purchased at home for prices that are higher than those offered for them abroad. Thus the reduction of imports and so of the demand for foreign exchange is balanced on the other side by an equal reduction of exports and so of the supply of foreign exchange. Imports are in fact paid for by exports and not by money, as Neo-Mercantilist dilettantism still continues to believe. If it is really desired to dam up the demand for foreign exchange, then the amount of money to the extent of which it is desired to stop importation must be taken away from those at home—say by taxation—and kept out of circulation altogether; that is, not used for state purposes, but destroyed. That is to say, a deflationary policy must be followed. Instead of the importation of chocolate, wine, and lemonade being limited, the members of the community must be deprived of the money that they would otherwise spend on these commodities. Then they must limit their consumption either of these or of some other commodities. In the former case, less foreign exchange will be wanted, in the latter more foreign exchange offered, than previously.