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How Business Owners Take Cues From Interest Rates

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According to the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) the artificial lowering of interest rates by the central bank leads to a misallocation of resources because businesses undertake various capital projects that prior to the lowering of interest rates weren't considered as viable. This misallocation of resources is commonly described as an economic boom.

As a rule businessmen discover their error once the central bank—that was instrumental in the artificial lowering of interest rates—reverses its stance, which in turn brings to a halt capital expansion and an ensuing economic bust. From the ABCT one can infer that the artificial lowering of interest rates sets a trap for businessmen by luring them into unsustainable business activities that are only exposed once the central bank tightens its interest rate stance.

Critics of the ABCT maintain that there is no reason why businessmen should fall prey again and again to an artificial lowering of interest rates. Businessmen are likely to learn from experience, the critics argue, and not fall into the trap produced by an artificial lowering of interest rates. Correct expectations will undo or neutralize the whole process of the boom-bust cycle that is set in motion by the artificial lowering of interest rates. Hence, it is held, the ABCT is not a serious contender in the explanation of modern business cycle phenomena.

According to a prominent critic of the ABCT, Gordon Tullock,

One would think that business people might be misled in the first couple of runs of the Rothbard cycle and not anticipate that the low interest rate will later be raised. That they would continue to be unable to figure this out, however, seems unlikely. Normally, Rothbard and other Austrians argue that entrepreneurs are well informed and make correct judgments. At the very least, one would assume that a well-informed businessperson interested in important matters concerned with the business would read Mises and Rothbard and, hence, anticipate the government action.1

Even Mises himself had conceded that it is possible that some time in the future businessmen will stop responding to loose monetary policy thereby preventing the setting in motion of the boom-bust cycle. In his reply to Lachmann he wrote,

It may be that businessmen will in the future react to credit expansion in another manner than they did in the past. It may be that they will avoid using for an expansion of their operations the easy money available, because they will keep in mind the inevitable end of the boom. Some signs forebode such a change. But it is too early to make a positive statement.2

Do Expectations Matter?

Now, a businessman has to cater for consumers future requirements if he wants to succeed in his business.

So whenever he observes a lowering in interest rates he knows that this most likely will provide a boost to the demand for various goods and services in the months ahead. Hence, if he wants to make a profit he would have to make the necessary arrangements to meet the future demand.

For instance, if a builder refuses to act on the likely increase in the demand for houses because he believes that this is on account of the loose monetary policy of the central bank and cannot be sustainable, then he will be out of business very quickly. To be in the building business means that he must be in tune with the demand for housing.

Likewise, any other businessman in a given field will have to respond to the likely changes in demand in the area of his involvement if he wants to stay in business.

If a businessman has decided to be in a given business this means that the businessman is likely to cater for changes in the demand in this particular business irrespective of the underlying causes behind changes in demand. Failing to do so will put him out of business very quickly.

Hence, regardless of expectations once the central bank tightens its stance most businessmen will “get caught”. A tighter stance will undermine demand for goods and services and this will put pressure on various business activities that sprang up whilst the interest rate stance was loose. An economic bust emerges.

Furthermore, even if businessmen have correctly anticipated the interest rate stance of the central bank and the subsequent changes in the growth rate of money supply, because of the variable time lag from money changes to its effect on economic activity it will be impossible to establish the accurate timing of the boom-bust cycle.

Due to the time lag, prior changes in money supply could continue to dominate the economic scene for an extended period. (Given that the time lag is variable, it is not possible to ascertain when a given change in the money supply growth rate is going to start to dominate the economic scene and when the effect of past changes in money supply is going to vanish).

We can conclude that correct expectations cannot prevent boom-bust cycles once the central bank has eased its interest rate stance.

The only way to stop the menace of boom-bust cycles is for the central bank to stop the tampering with financial markets.

  • 1. Gordon Tullock, "Why the Austrians are wrong about depressions", The Review of Austrian Economics, vol 2, 1987. Also see Ludwig M. Lachmann, "The role of expectations in economics as a social science", Economica, February 1943. Also, Salerno's Comment on Tullock and Tullock's reply to Salerno.
  • 2. Ludwig von Mises, "Elastic expectations and the Austrian Theory of the Trade Cycle," Economica, August 1943.

Frank Shostak's consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments of financial markets and global economies. Contact: email.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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