Economic Busts Can Happen in a Free Market. But Central Banks Make Things Much Worse.
Given the nature of the modern global economic system, it is only natural to focus on the role of government-created money and central banks when discussing recessions and the ever-expanding credit structure. However, it is important to remember that theoretically, booms and busts and other downturns are not impossible in a truly free market system. Although, the length, scale, and scope of such downturns are greatly expanded under a system of fiat credit expansion.
Local, Non-System-Wide Busts
Imagine for a moment you’re living in a town that is a major lumber producer. Your town is a trade hub for logs for ship building and you also have a substantial manufacturing base creating high quality home furnishings. However, as ship building began moving toward aluminum and steel and people lost interest in wooden furniture, the town began to suffer. Since capital and labor can’t be instantly retooled, the town eventually went through hard times where, even with broad national economic prosperity, the area lagged in poverty and unemployment significantly.
This above scenario is not a hypothetical but what is happened in a place called Lumberton, N.C. The town and surrounding county was once a major hub for lumber for the marine industry and home of a number of furniture manufacturers. However, as the ship industry transitioned away from wood construction and people began to prefer IKEA over hand-built wooden furniture, the town’s fortunes declined. The city and surrounding county went into a lengthy period of depression where it experienced significantly higher unemployment rates than national averages and has experienced a population drop over the past decade. The town’s fortunes have since improved as the area has rebranded itself as a favored location for retirement, but it still, to this day, lags behind the nation.
The above scenario is a classic free market driven depression. But note that is is localized and limited. Nor is it necessarily recurring. Towns and cities that have built up an economy around a narrow business sector are at high risk of such busts, which many may also call recessions and depressions. Capital deterioration and obsolescence eventually causes the businesses of an area to become less competitive over time when compared to businesses elsewhere.
Over time, busts of this sort can resolve themselves as entrepreneurs purchase the distressed assets at a discount and retool or rebuild in anticipation of future demand. However, this isn’t always the case. If an area is too specialized, such as the well-preserved ghost town of Saint Elmo, Colorado has proven, people will abandon the area if the geography is no longer conducive to habitation.
However, downturns of the type described above can be amplified and exacerbated by government attempts to help. Stimulus efforts tend to be counter-productive since governments naturally attempt to prop up existing businesses and existing sectors. What this inevitably does is choke off the entrepreneur from the necessary land, labor and capital to form a more valuable business is tied up in a government-subsidized Zombie Company. It’s in the attempt to avoid the inevitable recession where the problem is lengthened.
Additionally, such a scenario is possible only if there’s a single dominant company or industry within a region. This is a common issue with small towns, but a diverse economy shouldn’t ever experience a large-scale disruption. A nation like Uzbekistan is at high risk of a free market recession since its economic output is dominated by gold mining, but a country like the United States, Japan or even Mexico should be entirely immune to this since no one sector has any economic dominance. Large scale recessions are evidence of public sector impositions on the economy, be it regulatory burdens or subsidies tying up resources in zombies.
Further, towns that have become unviable places to live, such as natural resource depletion, are exacerbated by government interference as residents that would otherwise have emigrated elsewhere, like the above Saint Elmo, are now given welfare subsidies that alter the calculation and convince people to stay. A good example of this welfare driven depression is in Issaquena County, Mississippi, which was once a river port until freight rail made the location obsolete and is now counting on welfare transfers as a major source of economic activity when they otherwise would have left seeking opportunity elsewhere.
Free Market Booms
A common misconception is that a boom must always be sparked by credit expansion. However, this is not quite the case. It is true that credit expansion is key in sparking a boom-bust cycle, but a boom can be nothing more than investors confusing rising prices with sustained rising demand. Booms have been caused by an increase in a commodity-based money, such as in 17th century Spain with a large influx of gold from the Americas, to booms sparked by unstable fads.
For a fun example of a localized boom-bust, I turn to a fad in the early 1990s, POGs. At the time, I was a middle school student. A few entrepreneurial kids began marketing up the various images as rare or common and a brisk market took off. More of my peers began saving up their allowance money to buy up bags of the things to try and sell to classmates to take advantage of the growing fad. Soon, the lunch period generated a rather brisk trade.
However, since everyone wanted in on the profits, everyone started buying bags of these cardboard disks. Everyone became a seller and no one was interested in being the buyer. Predictably, the market cratered. A few kids tried to unload entire bagfuls of these things for a few Dollars and big losses but were eventually stuck with a product they didn’t want.
This POG craze was a classic Minsky Cycle. Yet, at no point in this was credit ever involved. No bank would hand a 12 year old kid a loan to buy bags of cardboard chips on expectation of turning them for a profit. This was a boom-bust financed purely by savings in a fairly strong example of a free market.
Where the fiat credit system causes problems, however, is it allows the boom to become significantly larger than it otherwise would have been. At the turn of the 21st century, housing was treated very much the same way as my middle school peers treated POGs. Buy with the expectation to flip to someone else for a profit in a short timeframe.
In a healthy, free market credit system, the boom would be muted since interest rates would increase as demand for funds to buy housing depleted the savings base. However, with a central bank in play, interest rates were continually suppressed artificially and new money and credit was created out of thin air, fueling the price increase. The longer the boom continued, the more it convinced less risk-averse investors to try their hand at flipping. Interest rate suppression continued to fuel ever increasing housing prices, pulling more and more people into the bubble, leading to a collapse more spectacular than a few middle school kids blowing a few weeks of allowance money. Had interest rates increased as demand for mortgages increased, people would have balked at 12% loans, causing the bubble to burst much earlier.
Of course, instead of learning our lesson, the government has gone right back to manipulating the housing market and prices are higher now than they were at the 2006 bubble peak.
Government Makes the Problem Worse
As noted above, a boom and bust is not necessarily a result of government intervention. However, what we now commonly regard as recessions and depressions are almost always tied to government-caused credit expansion, and government intervention tends to make booms and busts significantly worse than they otherwise would have been. Government involvement can turn a recession, like the one that quickly resolved itself and was forgotten in 1920, to a full-on Great Depression, which didn’t truly resolve itself until after the Second World War.
Economies have ups and downs independent of government-caused business cycles. What is in demand today and how we build things today is not going to be the same in the future and this will inevitably lead to a decline as an economy changes its capital structure. People and plants can’t be retrained and converted to satisfy the newest demand instantly. In a free market, the impact tends to be muted, especially in a region with significant economic diversity, but not all economic fluctuations are tied to the now all-to-familiar business cycles that follow central-bank money creation.
Revised September 16, 2019.