Friday, 25 January 2013

The Austrian Theory of the Trade Cycle - a reminder

Richard M. Ebeling has put together an easy to comprehend piece about the The Austrian Theory of the Trade Cycle. Although we have written about this topic many times before on this website, this is a worthwhile read, and an important reminder as the U.S. monetary base and the Fed's balance sheet just hit record highs. Here are a couple of excerpts from his article.
In issuing fiduciary media, by which I mean bank notes without gold backing or current accounts which are not entirely backed by gold reserves, the banks are in a position to expand credit considerably. The creation of these additional fiduciary media permits them to extend credit well beyond the limit set by their own assets and by the funds entrusted to them by their clients. They intervene on the market in this case as "suppliers" of additional credit, created by themselves, and they thus produce a lowering of the rate of interest, which falls below the level at which it would have been without their intervention. The lowering of the rate of interest stimulates economic activity. Projects which would not have been thought "profitable" if the rate of interest had not been influenced by the manipulations of the banks, and which, therefore, would not have been undertaken, are nevertheless found "profitable" and can be initiated. The more active state of business leads to increased demand for production materials and for labor. The prices of the means of production and the wages of labor rise, and the increase in wages leads, in turn, to an increase in prices of consumption goods. If the banks were to refrain from any further extension of credit and limited themselves to what they had already done, the boom would rapidly halt. But the banks do not deflect from their course of action; they continue to expand credit on a larger and larger scale, and prices and wages correspondingly continue to rise.

This upward movement could not, however, continue indefinitely. The material means of production and the labor available have not increased; all that has increased is the quantity of the fiduciary media which can play the same role as money in the circulation of goods. The means of production and labor which have been diverted to the new enterprises have had to be taken away from other enterprises. Society is not sufficiently rich to permit the creation of new enterprises without taking anything away from other enterprises. As long as the expansion of credit is continued this will not be noticed, but this extension cannot be pushed indefinitely. For if an attempt were made to prevent the sudden halt of the upward movement (and the collapse of prices which would result) by creating more and more credit, a continuous and even more rapid increase of prices would result. But the inflation and the boom can continue smoothly only as long as the public thinks that the upward movement of prices will stop in the near future. As soon as public opinion becomes aware that there is no reason to expect an end to the inflation, and that prices will continue to rise, panic sets in. No one wants to keep his money, because its possession implies greater and greater losses from one day to the next; everyone rushes to exchange money for goods, people buy things they have no considerable use for without even considering the price, just in order to get rid of the money. Such is the phenomenon that occurred in Germany and in other countries that followed a policy of prolonged inflation and that was known as the "flight into real values." Commodity prices rise enormously as do foreign exchange rates, while the price of the domestic money falls almost to zero. The value of the currency collapses, as was the case in Germany in 1923.

If, on the contrary, the banks decided to halt the expansion of credit in time to prevent the collapse of the currency and if a brake is thus put on the boom, it will quickly be seen that the false impression of "profitability" created by the credit expansion has led to unjustified investments. Many enterprises or business endeavors which had been launched thanks to the artificial lowering of the interest rate, and which had been sustained thanks to the equally artificial increase of prices, no longer appear profitable. Some enterprises cut back their scale of operation, others close down or fail. Prices collapse; crisis and depression follow the boom. The crisis and the ensuing period of depression are the culmination of the period of unjustified investment brought about by the extension of credit. The projects which owe their existence to the fact that they once appeared "profitable" in the artificial conditions created on the market by the extension of credit and the increase in prices which resulted from it, have ceased to be "profitable." The capital invested in these enterprises is lost to the extent that it is locked in. The economy must adapt itself to these losses and to the situation that they bring about. In this case the thing to do, first of all, is to curtail consumption and, by economizing, to build up new capital funds in order to make the productive apparatus conform to the actual wants and not to artificial wants which could never be manifested and considered as real except as a consequence of the false calculation of "profitability" based on the extension of credit.

Read the full article here.