Mises Wire

Money, Interest, and the Business Cycle

[This essay is a selection from lecture 7 in Marxism Unmasked: From Delusion to Destruction.]

The banks very often expand credit for political reasons. There is an old saying that if prices are rising, if business is booming, the party in power has a better chance to succeed in an election campaign than it would otherwise. Thus the decision to expand credit is very often influenced by the government that wants to have “prosperity.” Therefore, governments all over the world are in favor of such a credit-expansion policy.

On the market, credit expansion creates the impression that more capital and savings are available than actually are, and that projects which yesterday were not practical because of the higher interest rate are feasible today because conditions have changed. Businessmen assume that the lower interest rate signals the availability of sufficient capital goods. This means that credit expansion falsifies the businessman’s economic calculations; it gives the impression to him, to the nation, and to the world, that there are more capital goods than there really are. By credit expansion, you can increase the accounting concept of “capital”; what you cannot do is create more real capital goods. As production is necessarily always limited by the amount of capital goods available, the result of credit expansion is to make businessmen believe that projects are feasible which actually cannot be executed on account of the existing scarcity of capital goods. Thus credit expansion misleads businessmen, results in distorting production and causes economic “malinvestment.” When the credit expansion causes businessmen to undertake such projects, the result is called a “boom.”

We must not overlook the fact that all during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was always an obsession, unfortunately not against credit expansion, but at least against giving the government too much power in matters of credit expansion. The main object was to limit the government’s influence with regard to the central banks.

In the course of history, governments have used the central banks again and again for borrowing money. The government can borrow money from the public. For instance, a person who has saved one hundred dollars could hold them as dollars or invest them. But instead of doing either of these things he can buy a new government bond; this purchase doesn’t change the amount of money in existence; the money he pays for the bond passes from his hands to those of the government. But if the government goes to the central bank to borrow the money, the bank can buy government bonds and lend money to the government simply by expanding credit, in effect creating new money. Governments have a lot of good ideas as to how to carry out this borrowing.

There has always been a struggle between parliaments and the executive concerning the government’s influence on the central banks. Most of the European legislatures said very clearly that their central banks must be separate from the government, that they must be independent. And in this country, you know there is a continual conflict between the Federal Reserve Board and the U.S. Treasury. This is a natural situation caused by economic laws and government legislation. Some governments have found it very easy to violate the legislation without violating the letter of the law. The German government, for instance, borrowed from the public during World War I because the Reichsbank had promised to give it loans. Private individuals who bought German government bonds needed to pay out only 17 percent of the amount of the bond, and this 17 percent gave them a yield of 6 or 7 percent. Hence, 83 percent of the price of the bond was supplied by the Bank. This meant that when the government borrowed from the public, it was actually borrowing indirectly from the German Reichsbank. The result was that in Germany the U.S. dollar went from 4.20 Marks pre–World War I, to 4.2 billion Marks by the end of 1923.1

There has always been resistance to giving power to the central banks, but in the last decades this resistance has been by and large completely defeated in all countries of the world. The U.S. government has used the power of the central bank, the Federal Reserve, to borrow from it to obtain a considerable part of the money it needs to fund its expenditures. The consequences have been inflation and a tendency for prices and wage rates to rise.

There is no doubt that the credit expansion brings about a drop in the rate of interest. Why then does this not mean that the rate of interest can always remain low and that interest could really disappear completely? If it is true that the rate of interest is not a monetary phenomenon but a general phenomenon of the market, which reflects the fact that future goods are traded at a discount as compared with present goods, we must ask ourselves, “What is the nature of the process which, after the initial drop of the interest rate due to credit expansion, finally brings about step by step a return of the rate of interest to that level which reflects market conditions and the general state of affairs?” That is, if the rate of interest is a general category of human action, and yet if an increased supply of money and bank credit can bring about a temporary drop in the rate of interest, how does the interest rate return once more to the rate that reflects the discount of future goods over present goods?

In answering this question, we are also answering a question that has occupied people for decades, even centuries in some countries that have had central banks and a system of credit expansion. This is the problem of the trade cycle—the regular return of periods of economic depression. In Great Britain from the end of the eighteenth century on, and later in those countries of the world that entered step by step into the system of modern capitalism and modern banking methods, we could observe from time to time an almost regular occurrence of events, i.e., the emergence of periods of economic depression, economic crises. We do not mean economic crises brought about by some obvious event that makes it possible to explain the emergence of this crisis. For instance, in the early 1860s the American Civil War made it impossible to ship cotton from the United States to Europe; and the U.S. Southern states were at that time the only suppliers of cotton to Europe. There was a very bad economic crisis, starting in the cotton-goods industries in Europe and as a consequence other industries suffered also. But everyone realized what was causing this crisis—it was the American Civil War and the stoppage of shipments of cotton to Europe. We do not deal with such crises due to a definite identifiable situation. We deal with a genuine crisis in all branches of business—although it is sometimes worse in some branches than in others—a crisis for which people couldn’t see any special reason.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century on, people began to consider these periodic crises as one of the most important problems of economic research. In the 1830s and 1840s British economists answered this question by saying, “What we have to study is not the economic depression. This depression is always the consequence of a preceding boom. We must ask ourselves not ‘What is the cause of the crisis?’—we must ask ‘What is the cause of the preceding boom?’ And we must ask ourselves what is the reason why the unquestionable and certain development of economic conditions that takes place in all countries with capitalism does not proceed steadily upward, but follows a wave-like movement, a movement in which there are repeated boom periods that always are followed by periods of depression.” In this way the crisis problem was transformed into the problem of the trade cycle. And for the problem of the trade cycle many more or less wrong explanations were offered.

I want to mention only one. This was the doctrine of an otherwise famous economist, William Stanley Jevons [1835–82]. His doctrine acquired some fame. He attributed economic crises to sunspots. He said that sunspots bring about bad harvests, and this means bad business. If this was so, why then didn’t business adjust to this natural phenomenon as it learned to adjust to other natural phenomena?

If there is credit expansion, it must necessarily lower the rate of interest. If the banks are to find borrowers for additional credit, they must lower the rate of interest or lower the credit qualifications of would-be borrowers. Because all those who wanted loans at the previous rate of interest had gotten them, the banks must either offer loans at a lower interest rate or include in the class of businesses to whom loans are granted at the previous rate less-promising businesses, people of lower credit quality.

When individuals consume less than they produce, the surplus production is set aside as savings. Thus when the money given out in loans comes from savers, it represents actual goods which are available for further production. But when the loans are granted out of credit expansion, businessmen are misled; there are no goods standing behind them, only newly created credit. This leads to a falsification of economic calculation. Credit expansion brings about a systematic falsification—it gives to the individual businessman the impression that a project that couldn’t be executed yesterday because there were not enough capital goods, can now be executed on account of the credit expansion. As a result, there is an intensification of business activity, which means that higher prices are offered for the factors of production. But there has been no increase in the quantity of capital goods. Therefore the intensification of business activity means an artificial boom. Producers of factors of production are happy when they see that the prices they are getting are higher than they were yesterday. But this cannot go on forever, because no more material factors of production have been produced. The prices of these factors of production are going up more and more as borrowers of the new credit compete and bid up their prices. Then finally two alternatives are possible.

Business is asking for more and more credit. Either (1) the banks grant this demand by creating more and more credit (this happened in Germany in 1923, when it led to a complete breakdown of the currency). Or (2) one day, because they realize for some reason or other that they must stop credit expansion, the banks do stop creating new credit to lend. Then the firms that have expanded cannot get credit to pay for the factors of production necessary for the completion of the investment projects which they have already committed themselves. Because they cannot pay their bills, they sell off their inventories cheap. Then comes the panic, the breakdown. And the depression starts.

On account of the credit expansion the whole economic system of the country or of the world is in the situation of a man who has a limited supply of building materials available and wants to construct a home. But being poor in technological calculations, he makes some mistakes. He thinks he can build a bigger house out of his limited supply of building materials than he really can. Therefore, he starts by constructing too large a foundation. Only later does he discover that he has made a mistake and that he cannot finish the house in the way he had intended. Then he must either abandon the whole project, or use the materials still available to build a smaller house, leaving part of the foundation unused. This is the situation in which a country or in which the world finds itself at the end of a crisis caused by credit expansion. Because of the easy credit businessmen make mistakes in their economic calculations and find themselves with over-ambitious plans which cannot be completed because of insufficient factors of production.

In every boom period that precedes a crisis, in Great Britain and then later in other parts of the world, indeed, in every country in the world which has experienced credit expansion, you always find people who have said, “This is not a boom that will be followed by a crisis; only people who do not know what is going on can say such a thing. This is the final prosperity—an everlasting prosperity. We will never again have such a crisis.” The more people believe in this slogan of everlasting prosperity, the more desperate they become when they discover that the “everlasting” prosperity doesn’t last forever.

One thing that made matters worse following 1929, than in preceding periods of depression, was that the American unions were really very powerful and they would not tolerate that the crisis should bring about those results which were the consequence of earlier crises in this country and in other countries—i.e., they would not tolerate a considerable drop in money wage rates. In some branches of business, money wages went a little bit down. But by and large the unions were successful in maintaining the wage rates which had been developed artificially during the boom. Therefore, the number of unemployed remained considerable, and unemployment continued for a very long time. On the other hand, those workers who did not lose their jobs enjoyed a situation in which their wages did not drop to the same extent as commodity prices. The living conditions of some groups of labor even improved.2

This was the same situation that led to the conditions in England in the latter part of the 1920s, which were important in bringing about the doctrines of Lord Keynes and the ideas of credit expansion that have been practiced in recent years. The British government made a very serious mistake in the 1920s. It was necessary for Great Britain to stabilize the currency. But they did not simply stabilize. In 1925, they returned to the pre-war gold value of the pound. That meant that the pound was a heavier pound afterwards and had a greater purchasing power than the pound, of let us say, 1920. A country like Great Britain that imports raw materials and foodstuffs and exports manufactures should not have made the pound more expensive. As Hitler expressed it, “They must either export or starve.” In such a country, in which the unions did not tolerate a drop in wage rates, it meant that the costs in pounds of manufacturing British products were increased in relation to production costs in countries which had not made a similar return to the gold standard. With higher costs, you must ask higher prices to stay in business. So you can sell fewer units and must cut production. Therefore, unemployment increased, and there was permanent mass unemployment.

Because it was impossible to deal with the unions concerning this problem, the government proceeded in 1931 to devalue the pound much more than it had been revalued in 1925, in order, they said, to encourage export trade. Other countries did the same. Czechoslovakia did it twice. The United States followed in 1933. The countries of the French standard (France, Switzerland) followed in 1936. I mention this because it is necessary to realize why the crisis of 1929—it was merely a crisis of credit expansion—had much longer and more serious consequences than those crises in preceding times. Of course, the Marxians say, every crisis must be worse and worse; the Russians, they say, have no trade cycle. Of course the Russians don’t; they have a depression all the time.

We must realize the tremendous “psychological” importance, the enormous importance of the fact that in the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, credit expansion was limited. Nevertheless, it was the general opinion of businessmen, economists, statesmen, and the people, that bank credit expansion was necessary, that the rate of interest was an obstacle to prosperity, and that an “easy money” policy was a good policy to have. Everyone, businessmen as well as economists, considered credit expansion necessary and they became very angry if somebody tried to say that it might have some drawbacks. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was considered practically indecent to support the British Currency School, which was opposed to credit expansion.

When I started to study the theory of money and credit I found in the whole world of literature only one living author, a Swedish economist, Knut Wicksell [1851–1926], who really saw the problems in credit expansion.1  The idea prevails even today that we cannot do without credit expansion. It will be impossible, without a very serious struggle which really has to be fought, to defeat all those ideological forces that are operating in favor of credit expansion. Most people, of course, don’t give any thought to credit expansion. But the governments have a very clear idea about it—they say, “We can’t do without it.”

Credit expansion is fundamentally really a problem of civil rights. Representative government is based on the principle that the citizens need to pay to the government only those taxes that have been legally promulgated in a constitutional way: “No taxation without representation.” However, governments believe they cannot ask their citizens to pay as much in taxes as is needed to cover the whole of government expenditures. When governments cannot cover their expenses out of legally enacted taxes, they borrow from the commercial banks and so expand credit. Therefore, representative government can actually be the instigator of credit expansion and inflation.

If the institution of credit expansion and other types of government inflation had been invented in the seventeenth century the history of the struggle of the Stuarts with the British Parliament would have been very different. Charles I [1600–49] wouldn’t have had any problems in getting the money he needed if he could simply have ordered the Bank of England, which didn’t exist in his time, to grant him credit. He would then have been in a position to organize an army of the King and to defeat Parliament. This is only one aspect.

The second aspect—I don’t believe that this country could stand psychologically a recurrence of a crisis like that of 1929. And the only way to avoid such a crisis is by preventing the boom. We are already very far along in this boom, but we could still stop it in time. However, there is a great danger. While capital goods are limited in amount and are scarce and would, therefore, limit those projects which can be executed and make many projects appear impossible for the time being, credit expansion can hide by the illusion of an increase in the capital reported in dollars on the books. Credit expansion creates the illusion of available capital, while in fact there is not.

The fundamental problem of the nineteenth century was that people didn’t realize these things. As a result, capitalism was very much discredited, for people believed that the almost periodic occurrence of depressions was a phenomenon of capitalism. Marx and his followers expected the depressions to get progressively worse, and Stalin still says openly every day: “We have only to wait. There will be a very bad crisis in the capitalist countries.” If we want to thwart these plans we must realize that sound credit policies acknowledge the fact that there is a scarcity of capital goods, that capital cannot simply be increased by credit expansion. This must come to be recognized by our businessmen and politicians.

  • 1a1b[See Ludwig von Mises, “Business Under German Inflation,” The Freeman, November 2003.—Ed.]
  • 2[See Ludwig von Mises, “The Causes of the Economic Crisis” (1931) in Percy L. Greaves, Jr., ed., On the Manipulation of Money and Credit: Essays of Ludwig von Mises (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Free Market Books, 1978), pp. 173–203, esp. pp. 186–92.—Ed.]
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