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You Can't Print Production and Prosperity

Tags Booms and BustsThe FedInterventionismMonetary Theory

07/23/2009Doug French

It's hard to imagine that the monetary policy talk can get any nuttier, but we've likely only just begun. After all, despite the Federal Reserve growing its balance sheet by 140 percent and dropping rates essentially to zero, the bankruptcies just keep on coming. Ex-Fed governor Wayne Angell told Larry Kudlow's CNBC audience, "monetary policy always works!" Although Angell does stipulate that it takes time before the tromping on the monetary gas pedal will spin the economic tires and spray the prosperity gravel.

But good grief, the Fed started cutting rates in September 2007, dropping the federal-funds rate from 5.25 percent to 4.75 percent, and it was cut, cut, cut until daddy set the target rate at 0 to .25 percent in December of last year. In the meantime, one trillion dollars has been added to the M-2 money supply.

Despite all this money creation, Circuit City, Sharper Image, Goody's, Gottschalk's, Comp USA, Levitz Furniture, Chrysler, General Motors, General Properties, and — most recently — Eddie Bauer have filed for bankruptcy protection. And personal bankruptcy filings are up in every state and soaring in Nevada, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Indiana, and Michigan.

In May, forty-eight states had more people out of work than in the previous month or year, with the national unemployment rate increasing from 8.9 percent to 9.4 percent. Moreover, California, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, and South Carolina had their highest rates of unemployment on record. Maybe Mr. Angell will change his mind when he gets laid off. Just how long are we supposed to wait for this monetary magic to work?

Now the word is that zero-percent interest rates are just too darn high. That's why we haven't seen a reinflation of bubble America. The Financial Times reports the existence of a Federal Reserve staff memorandum that makes the case for a negative-five-percent federal-funds rate. Meanwhile, Japanese authorities are toying with the idea of outlawing cash in their country. Despite using every fiscal trick in the book and keeping interest rates at zero percent for a decade, that economy has been mired in a postbubble depression. So the current theory "would suggest that nominal interest rates of [negative four] percent might be closer to what is required to rescue the economy from another deflationary spiral," reported the Times Online.

The talking heads and policy wonks are trying to tell us that we're not borrowing enough, and that's why we're in a depression and why the Japanese economy has been depressed for more than a decade.

However, the real reason we're in a depression is because businesses and individuals borrowed too much and invested it poorly. Economist Murray Rothbard explained that a depression is the recovery stage: "The liquidation of unsound businesses, the 'idle capacity' of the malinvested plant, and the 'frictional' unemployment of original factors that must suddenly and en masse shift to lower stages of production — these are the chief hallmarks of the depression stage."

That's why monetary policy isn't working and won't work. People must save and pay off their debts. The malinvestments of the boom must be liquidated. New liquidity and zero-percent interest rates will only create new malinvestments, not a sound economy.

But you won't hear that on TV or read it in the New York Times. The Nobel Prize–winning economist and Gray Lady columnist Paul Krugman is now worried about the "paradox of thrift," the theory

But as economist Frank Shostak explains, it is savings — not demand — that enables the expansion of production of goods and services. "In short, no effective demand can take place without prior production," Shostak writes. "If it were otherwise, then poverty in the world would have been eradicated a long time ago." In other words, you can't print production and prosperity, much as the Fed may try. And Ben Bernanke is trying.

For those not familiar with Krugman's policy suggestions, he wrote back in August 2002 that "[t]o fight this recession, the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble."

Sir Alan followed Krugman's advice, and look where we are now. More of the same will only create more financial pain.


Doug French

Douglas French is President Emeritus of the Mises Institute, author of Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply, and author of Walk Away: The Rise and Fall of the Home-Ownership Myth. He received his master's degree in economics from UNLV, studying under both Professor Murray Rothbard and Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe.