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Why the Recurring Economic Crises?

A selection from Chapter 42 of Economic Controversies.

Why, then, does the business cycle recur? Why does the next boom-and-bust cycle always begin? To answer that, we have to understand the motivations of the banks and the government. The commercial banks live and profit by expanding credit and by creating a new money supply; so they are naturally inclined to do so, “to monetize credit,” if they can. The government also wishes to inflate, both to expand its own revenue (either by printing money or so that the banking system can finance government deficits) and to subsidize favored economic and political groups through a boom and cheap credit. So we know why the initial boom began. The government and the banks had to retreat when disaster threatened and the crisis point had arrived. But as gold flows into the country, the condition of the banks becomes sounder. And when the banks have pretty well recovered, they are then in the confident position to resume their natural tendency of inflating the supply of money and credit. And so the next boom proceeds on its way, sowing the seeds for the next inevitable bust.

Thus, the Ricardian theory also explained the continuing recurrence of the business cycle. But two things it did not explain. First, and most important, it did not explain the massive cluster of error that businessmen are suddenly seen to have made when the crisis hits and bust follows boom. For businessmen are trained to be successful forecasters, and it is not like them to make a sudden cluster of grave error that forces them to experience widespread and severe losses. Second, another important feature of every business cycle has been the fact that both booms and busts have been much more severe in the “capital goods industries” (the industries making machines, equipment, plant or industrial raw materials) than in consumer goods industries. And the Ricardian theory had no way of explaining this feature of the cycle.

The Austrian, or Misesian, theory of the business cycle built on the Ricardian analysis and developed its own “monetary overinvestment” or, more strictly, “monetary malinvestment” theory of the business cycle. The Austrian theory was able to explain not only the phenomena explicated by the Ricardians, but also the cluster of error and the greater intensity of capital goods’ cycles. And, as we shall see, it is the only one that can comprehend the modern phenomenon of stagflation.

Mises begins as did the Ricardians: government and its central bank stimulate bank credit expansion by purchasing assets and thereby increasing bank reserves. The banks proceed to expand credit and hence the nation’s money supply in the form of checking deposits (private bank notes having virtually disappeared). As with the Ricardians, Mises sees that this expansion of bank money drives up prices and causes inflation.

But, as Mises pointed out, the Ricardians understated the unfortunate consequences of bank credit inflation. For something even more sinister is at work. Bank credit expansion not only raises prices, it also artificially lowers the rate of interest, and thereby sends misleading signals to businessmen, causing them to make unsound and uneconomic investments.

For, on the free and unhampered market, the interest rate on loans is determined solely by the “time preferences” of all the individuals that make up the market economy. For the essence of any loan is that a “present good” (money which can be used at present) is being exchanged for a “future good” (an IOU which can be used at some point in the future). Since people always prefer having money right now to the present prospect of getting the same amount of money at some point in the future, present goods always command a premium over future goods in the market. That premium, or “agio,” is the interest rate, and its height will vary according to the degree to which people prefer the present to the future, i.e., the degree of their time preferences.

People’s time preferences also determine the extent to which people will save and invest for future use, as compared to how much they will consume now. If people’s time preferences should fall, i.e., if their degree of preference for present over future declines, then people will tend to consume less now and save and invest more; at the same time, and for the same reason, the rate of interest, the rate of time-discount, will also fall. Economic growth comes about largely as the result of falling rates of time preference, which bring about an increase in the proportion of saving and investment to consumption, as well as a falling rate of interest.

But what happens when the rate of interest falls not because of voluntary lower time preferences and higher savings on the part of the public, but from government interference that promotes the expansion of bank credit and bank money? For the new checkbook money created in the course of bank loans to business will come onto the market as a supplier of loans, and will therefore, at least initially, lower the rate of interest. What happens, in other words, when the rate of interest falls artificially, due to intervention, rather than naturally, from changes in the valuations and preferences of the consuming public?

What happens is trouble. For businessmen, seeing the rate of interest fall, will react as they always must to such a change of market signals: they will invest more in capital goods. Investments, particularly in lengthy and time-consuming projects, which previously looked unprofitable, now seem profitable because of the fall in the interest charge. In short, businessmen react as they would have if savings had genuinely increased: they move to invest those supposed savings. They expand their investment in durable equipment, in capital goods, in industrial raw material, and in construction, as compared with their direct production of consumer goods.

Thus, businesses happily borrow the newly expanded bank money that is coming to them at cheaper rates; they use the money to invest in capital goods, and eventually this money gets paid out in higher wages to workers in the capital goods industries. The increased business demand bids up labor costs, but businesses think they will be able to pay these higher costs because they have been fooled by the government-and-bank intervention in the loan market and by its vitally important tampering with the interest-rate signal of the marketplace—the signal that determines how many resources will be devoted to the production of capital goods and how many to consumer goods.

Problems surface when the workers begin to spend the new bank money that they have received in the form of higher wages. For the time preferences of the public have not really gotten lower; the public doesn’t want to save more than it has. So the workers set about to consume most of their new income, in short, to reestablish their old consumer/saving proportions. This means that they now redirect spending in the economy back to the consumer goods industries, and that they don’t save and invest enough to buy the newly produced machines, capital equipment, industrial raw materials, etc. This lack of enough saving-and-investment to buy all the new capital goods at expected and existing prices reveals itself as a sudden, sharp depression in the capital goods industries. For once the consumers reestablish their desired consumption/investment proportions, it is thus revealed that business had invested too much in capital goods (hence the term “monetary overinvestment theory”), and had also underinvested in consumer goods. Business had been seduced by the governmental tampering and artificial lowering of the rate of interest, and acted as if more savings were available to invest than were really there. As soon as the new bank money filtered through the system and the consumers reestablish their old time-preference proportions, it became clear that there were not enough savings to buy all the producers’ goods, and that business had misinvested the limited savings available (“monetary malinvestment theory”). Business had overinvested in capital goods and underinvested in consumer goods.

The inflationary boom thus leads to distortions of the pricing and production system. Prices of labor, raw materials, and machines in the capital goods industries are bid up too high during the boom to be profitable once the consumers are able to reassert their old consumption/ investment preferences. The “depression” is thus seen— even more than in the Ricardian theory—as the necessary and healthy period in which the market economy sloughs off and liquidates the unsound, uneconomic investments of the boom, and reestablishes those proportions between consumption and investment that are truly desired by the consumers. The depression is the painful but necessary process by which the free market rids itself of the excesses and errors of the boom and reestablishes the market economy in its function of efficient service to the mass of consumers. Since the prices of factors of production (land, labor, machines, raw materials) have been bid too high in the capital goods industries during the boom, this means that these prices must be allowed to fall in the recession until proper market proportions of prices and production are restored.

Put another way, the inflationary boom will not only increase prices in general, it will also distort relative prices, will distort relations of one type of price to another. In brief, inflationary credit expansion will raise all prices; but prices and wages in the capital goods industries will go up faster than the prices of consumer goods industries. In short, the boom will be more intense in the capital goods than in the consumer goods industries. On the other hand, the essence of the depression adjustment period will be to lower prices and wages in the capital goods industries relative to consumer goods, in order to induce resources to move back from the swollen capital goods to the deprived consumer goods industries. All prices will fall because of the contraction of bank credit, but prices and wages in capital goods will fall more sharply than in consumer goods. In short, both the boom and the bust will be more intense in the capital than in the consumer goods industries. Hence, we have explained the greater intensity of business cycles in the former type of industry.

There seems to be a flaw in the theory, however; for, since workers receive the increased money in the form of higher wages fairly rapidly, and then begin to reassert their desired consumer/investment proportions, how is it that booms go on for years without facing retribution: without having their unsound investments revealed or their errors caused by bank tampering with market signals made evident? In short, why does it take so long for the depression adjustment process to begin its work? The answer is that the booms would indeed be very short lived (say, a few months) if the bank credit expansion and the subsequent pushing of interest rates below the free-market level were just a one-shot affair. But the crucial point is that the credit expansion is not one shot. It proceeds on and on, never giving the consumers the chance to reestablish their preferred proportions of consumption and saving, never allowing the rise in cost in the capital goods industries to catch up to the inflationary rise in prices. Like the repeated doping of a horse, the boom is kept on its way and ahead of its inevitable comeuppance by repeated and accelerating doses of the stimulant of bank credit. It is only when bank credit expansion must finally stop or sharply slow down, either because the banks are getting shaky or because the public is getting restive at the continuing inflation, that retribution finally catches up with the boom. As soon as credit expansion stops, the piper must be paid, and the inevitable readjustments must liquidate the unsound overinvestments of the boom and redirect the economy more toward consumer goods production. And, of course, the longer the boom is kept going, the greater the malinvestments that must be liquidated, and the more harrowing the readjustments that must be made.


Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.