Books / Digital Text
3. The Significance of Pre-existing Prices in the Determination of Market Exchange-Ratios
From what has just been said, the important conclusion follows that a historically continuous component is contained in the objective exchange value of money.
The past value of money is taken over by the present and transformed by it; the present value of money passes on into the future and is transformed in its turn. In this there is a contrast between the determination of the exchange value of money and that of the exchange value of other economic goods. All preexisting exchange ratios are quite irrelevant so far as the actual levels of the reciprocal exchange ratios of other economic goods are concerned. It is true that if we look beneath the concealing monetary veil to the real exchange ratios between goods we observe a certain continuity. Alterations in real prices occur slowly as a rule. But this stability of prices has its cause in the stability of the price determinants, not in the law of price determination itself. Prices change slowly because the subjective valuations of human beings change slowly. Human needs, and human opinions as to the suitability of goods for satisfying those needs, are no more liable to frequent and sudden changes than are the stocks of goods available for consumption, or the manner of their social distribution. The fact that today's market price is seldom very different from yesterday's is to be explained by the fact that the circumstances that determined yesterday's price have not greatly changed overnight, so that today's price is a resultant of nearly identical factors. If rapid and erratic variations in prices were usually encountered in the market, the conception of objective exchange value would not have attained the significance that it is actually accorded both by consumer and producer.
In this sense, reference to an inertia of prices is unobjectionable, although the errors of earlier economists should warn us of the real danger that the use of terms borrowed from mechanics may lead to a "mechanical" system, that is, to one that abstracts erroneously from the subjective valuations of individuals. But any suggestion of a causal relationship between past and present prices must be decisively rejected.
It is not disputed that there are institutional forces in operation which oppose changes in prices that would be necessitated by changes in valuations, and which are responsible when changes in prices that would have been caused by changes in supply and demand are postponed and when small or transitory changes in the relations between supply and demand lead to no corresponding change in prices at all. It is quite permissible to speak of an inertia of prices in this sense. Even the statement that the closing price forms the starting point for the transactions of the next market7 may be accepted if it is understood in the sense suggested above. If the general conditions that determined yesterday's price have altered but little during the night, today's price should be but little different from that of yesterday, and in practice it does not seem incorrect to make yesterday's the starting point. Nevertheless, there is no causal connection between past and present prices as far as the relative exchange ratios of economic goods (not including money) are concerned. The fact that the price of beer was high yesterday cannot be of the smallest significance as far as today's price is concerned—we need only think of the effect upon the prices of alcoholic drinks that would follow a general triumph of the Prohibition movement. Anybody who devotes attention to market activities is daily aware of alterations in the exchange ratios of goods, and it is quite impossible for anybody who is well acquainted with economic phenomena to accept a theory which seeks to explain price changes by a supposed constancy of prices.
It may incidentally be remarked that to trace the determination of prices back to their supposed inertia, as even Zwiedineck in his pleadings for this assumption is obliged to admit, is to resign at the outset any hope of explaining the ultimate causes of prices and to be content with explanations from secondary causes.8 It must unreservedly be admitted that an explanation of the earliest forms of exchange transaction that can be shown to have existed—a task to the solution of which the economic historian has so far contributed but little would show that the forces that counteract sudden changes in prices were once stronger than they are now. But it must positively be denied that there is any sort of connection between those early prices and those of the present day; that is, if there really is anybody who believes it possible to maintain the assertion that the exchange ratios of economic goods (not the money prices) that prevail today on the German stock exchanges are in any sort of causal connection with those that were valid in the days of Hermann or Barbarossa. If all the exchange ratios of the past were erased from human memory, the process of market-price determination might certainly become more difficult, because everybody would have to construct a new scale of valuations for himself; but it would not become impossible. In fact, people the whole world over are engaged daily and hourly in the operation from which all prices result: the decision as to the relative significance enjoyed by specific quantities of goods as conditions for the satisfaction of wants.
It is so far as the money prices of goods are determined by monetary factors, that a historically continuous component is included in them, without which their actual level could not be explained. This component, too, is derived from exchange ratios which can be entirely explained by reference to the subjective valuations of the individuals taking part in the market, even though these valuations were not originally grounded upon the specifically monetary utility alone of these goods. The valuation of money by the market can only start from a value possessed by the money in the past, and this relationship influences the new level of the objective exchange value of money. The historically transmitted value is transformed by the market without regard to what has become its historical content.9 But it is not merely the starting point for today's objective exchange value of money; it is an indispensable element in its determination. The individual must take into account the objective exchange value of money, as determined in the market yesterday, before he can form an estimate of the quantity of money that he needs today. The demand for money and the supply of it are thus influenced by the value of money in the past; but they in their turn modify this value until they are brought into equilibrium.