ZKIZ Archives


一切似曾相識—–有關蕭條的讀書筆記

http://barrons.blog.caixin.com/archives/45779

在此我推薦Murray Rothbard的《美國大蕭條》(America's GreatDepression)與《經濟蕭條:成因與治癒》(Economic Depressions: Their Cause andCure)。閱讀歷史,傾聽分析,讓人清醒。因為歷史不相信「這次真的不一樣」。

西部的「鬼城」,鐵路的大躍進,城市化促進發展,出口帶動經濟,資本資產及房地產強勁上漲而消費品價格相對穩定。高儲蓄率與高投資加速經濟的發展。在這些一切的背後是銀行信用的大規模擴張,貧富差距加大,腐敗盛行。這是美國發展早期,尤其是1920年代的狀況。

美國在1920年代經濟持續繁榮,處於著名的「RoaringTwenties」時期。而在繁榮的背後,是美國信貸的大規模擴張。從1921年到1929年,美國的M2增加了46%,由於同期流通的貨幣量保持穩定,所以增加的大部分是信用。美國1920年代信貸擴張的一個重要原因是出口導向,支持農產品的出口及農業的就業。胡佛積極支持補貼對外國的貸款,認為即使這些貸款變成壞帳也能幫助美國的出口,是一種廉價的穩定就業的方式。在此時期,美國大量購買外國政府債券,尤其是德國地方政府債券。另一方面,美國實行貿易保護主義,高進口關稅阻礙進口,對外貸款支持出口,造成大量順差。由於美國存在巨額貿易順差,在金本位下黃金大量流入。為了防止黃金大量從國外流入而削弱國外對美國商品的購買能力,美國大量借貸給外國,以支持他們購買自己出口的農產品。美國還與英國協調,用自己本國的通脹來支持英國恢復金本位。

由於大量廉價的信用,極大的促進了美國的經濟發展。從1920年到1929年,美國的真實GNP平均每年增長4.2%,真實人均GNP平均每年增長2.7%,汽車大量普及,軌道交通大發展,城鎮化快速發展,人們的生活水平快速提高。與此同時,美國的物價保持了穩定,CPI的變化一直不大。在此期間,美國經歷了強勁的經濟增長。

但是,大規模的信貸擴張帶來長時間的大繁榮之後,便是可怕的大蕭條。

美國大蕭條對美國,乃至世界的影響巨大,至今仍然讓人膽寒。而歷史上基於對經濟蕭條的分析而產生的理論與決策,無論對錯,都曾經影響了幾十億人的命運。《經濟蕭條:成因與治癒》一文,則回顧了經濟學家,尤其是奧地利學派對蕭條的分析及解決方案。

馬克思是研究經濟週期的先驅。他的很多理論就建立在他對經濟週期,尤其是蕭條的分析之上。馬克思很早就觀察到了經濟週期的現象。他發現在工業革命之前,除了外部因素的衝擊,並沒有反覆出現的有規律的經濟繁榮與蕭條。由於這些經濟週期的現象出現在進入現代工業社會之後,馬克思認為這種經濟週期是資本主義市場經濟內在固有的。他認為資本主義定期發生的蕭條將會越來越嚴重,最終導致資本主義的滅亡,從而進入生產資料公有制及計劃經濟的社會。他對蕭條的分析,以及提出的解決辦法,影響了世界。

與馬克思的觀點不同,奧地利學派不認為經濟週期是市場經濟固有的。如果把一個完整的研究分為提出問題,分析問題,解決問題三個部分,那麼提出問題是最重要的一個開始。對於經濟蕭條,奧地利學派提出了三個問題:

1.為什麼從繁榮到蕭條的經濟週期反覆出現?

2.在經濟蕭條時,為什麼幾乎所有的企業家都同時作出了錯誤的判斷?

3.為什麼在繁榮和蕭條時期,生產者貨物的波動遠遠大於消費品?

奧地利學派對經濟週期的理論始於蘇格蘭哲學家大衛·休謨(DavidHume)和英格蘭經濟學家大衛·李嘉圖(DavidRicardo)。他們發現,在18世紀中期,與工業系統同時出現的,還有一個重要的機構,那就是銀行。他們認為商業銀行由於具有信用擴張和增加貨幣供給的能力,因此在反覆出現的經濟週期中具有至關重要的作用。

李嘉圖對經濟週期的分析認為,在金銀本位的制度下,銀行可以超過所擁有的金銀數量來擴張信用。信用擴張的越多,銀行的利潤越高。信用擴張帶來貨幣供應增加,造成物價上漲,帶來繁榮。但是,當人們用新增的貨幣去購買國外的產品時,黃金或白銀就隨之流出國境,造成這個國家作為貨幣基礎的金銀數量萎縮。由於銀行有義務兌現貨幣所代表的金銀,為了避免擠兌,他們在這種情況下不得不收縮信用。由於信用收縮,蕭條隨之而來。但信用收縮讓價格下跌,促進出口,讓金銀重新回流。這樣以來,銀行用來信用擴張的金銀基礎重新增加,銀行又可以開始下一輪信用擴張。這樣週而復始,造成了經濟週期。

但是,這種最初的分析並不能解釋奧地利學派所提出的第二個和第三個問題。在一個市場經濟裡,企業家的工作就是預測並應對未來。市場經濟的優勝劣汰,讓富有遠見,能夠準確預見未來的企業家發展壯大,而讓無法預見到未來變化的企業家被迫退出競爭。為什麼在這樣的機制下,大量的企業家仍然無法預測反覆出現的週期,同時做出了錯誤的判斷?為什麼在繁榮與蕭條時資本貨物與消費貨物的波動相差如此之大?

基於李嘉圖的理論,奧地利學派的經濟學家米塞斯(Ludwig vonMises)提出了他的經濟週期理論。他認為如果沒有銀行的信用擴張,就不會有經濟的週期起伏。政府通過中央銀行,刺激銀行信用擴張,增加貨幣,推高價格,造成通脹。但是,更險惡的是,大量的信用傾瀉到經濟體中,人為壓低了利率,使利率低於自然的自由市場利率水平。在自由市場中,利率是由人們的時間偏好決定的。「一鳥在手勝過雙鳥在林。」由於人們偏好當前勝過未來,今天拿走現金卻在未來償還的貸款就必須支付利息。但是,如果利率被人為壓低,麻煩就來了。由於利率很低,生意人大量投資於資本資產和貨物,那些之前無法盈利的長期項目也變得有利可圖。資本資產,耐用設備,工業原材料方面的投資快速增加,超過了對消費品產出的投入。資本資產的投資具有自我實現的正反饋,與資本資產相關的價格不斷上漲,進一步推動投資。在這些行業的工作的人們也獲得更多報酬。企業家們被人為壓低的利率所迷惑,集體做出了錯誤的決定。

但是,當人們把多得到的錢花出去時,問題就來了。雖然政府可以人為壓低利率,卻無法改變人們的時間偏好,也就無法改變人們消費/儲蓄的比例。人們把增加的收入更多地投入消費,而不是進行儲蓄。這樣一來儲蓄不足,造成投資不足。沒有了更多的投資,企業也就無法購買那些新產出的機器設備、資本資產和工業原材料。突然間,人們發現產能過剩了,過去的很多投資實際上是不良投資。由於過剩,價格必須下降進行調節。但是,由於成本在信貸膨脹的繁榮時期已經變得過高,大規模的虧損就不可避免。但是,有人會問,人們收入的增長很快就會見效,為什麼信用膨脹帶來的繁榮能持續很久呢?這是因為信貸膨脹不是一次性的,而是不斷進行的。這就如同給賽馬不斷注射興奮劑。「藥不能停!」一旦信用膨脹停止,危機就來臨了。經濟必須進行痛苦的調整,為以前的錯誤付出代價。而在繁榮時期的大量不良投資則暴露無遺,必須進行清理。

蕭條令人不快但卻又是必須的。只有把那些在信用膨脹時期過剩的和扭曲的東西清除掉,經濟才能打下堅實的基礎,繁榮才能重新到來。

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我的幾點思考:

從控制論的角度看,在沒有外部輸入擾動的情況下,一個系統如果進入週期性的震盪,那麼這個系統很有可能存在正反饋。作為一個複雜系統,經濟體系的自組織有可能造成這種正反饋。在市場經濟條件下,優勝劣汰,用價格信號調節供需,這樣的經濟系統更像是有著自適應的負反饋調節,是穩定的。如果由於某種原因,讓系統產生了正反饋,那麼這個系統就會變得不穩定,產生巨幅震盪,甚至崩潰。這時候需要找到產生正反饋的原因,改變正反饋,讓系統重新回到負反饋的穩定狀態。從奧地利學派的分析看,人為壓低利率到低於自由市場利率似乎是開啟整個經濟系統正反饋的關鍵。低利率讓市場經濟參與者行為趨於一致,形成複雜系統的自組織,產生正反饋作用,讓系統發生震盪。在系統延時很長,正反饋作用強烈的子系統,比如需要長期投入大量資金的資本資產投資,震盪強烈。在系統延時不長,正反饋作用不那麼強烈,甚至仍然以負反饋為主的子系統,比如只需要短期投入較少資金的消費品生產,震盪相對較弱。對整個經濟系統來說,由於整個系統的巨大延時作用,系統整體震盪的週期較長,如幾年,甚至幾十年,在上升階段人們感覺不到正反饋的作用,而誤以為是經濟自然的增長與繁榮。當震盪的下降週期到來,正反饋讓下降的幅度非常劇烈,由於大多數市場經濟的參與者都只善於在自己的子系統內進行短週期調節,長週期的震盪讓所有人都措手不及。這就從控制論的角度回答了奧地利學派所提出的三個問題。

而如果重新設計一個系統,不參考反饋信號(如價格),完全靠人為的預測與計劃調節,這相當於一個開環系統。這樣的系統不會有反饋,也就不會有週期震盪。但是,開環系統只能用於非常簡單的控制,控制粗糙,無法自適應,對於複雜的系統,外界的擾動等完全無能為力。這樣的系統總會處於超調或不足狀態,遠遠比不上具有負反饋的系統。

附錄:

美國1920年代統計數據: http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/statab1901-1950.htm

Economic Depressions:Their Cause and Cure

by Murray N. Rothbard

We live in a world of euphemism. Undertakers havebecome "morticians," press agents are now "public relationscounsellors" and janitors have all been transformed into"superintendents." In every walk of life, plain facts have beenwrapped in cloudy camouflage.

No less has this been true of economics. In theold days, we used to suffer nearly periodic economic crises, thesudden onset of which was called a "panic," and the lingeringtrough period after the panic was called"depression."

The most famous depression in modern times, ofcourse, was the one that began in a typical financial panic in 1929and lasted until the advent of World War II. After the disaster of1929, economists and politicians resolved that this must neverhappen again. The easiest way of succeeding at this resolve was,simply to define "depressions" out of existence. From that pointon, America was to suffer no further depressions. For when the nextsharp depression came along, in 1937–38, the economists simplyrefused to use the dread name, and came up with a new, muchsofter-sounding word: "recession." From that point on, we have beenthrough quite a few recessions, but not a singledepression.

But pretty soon the word "recession" also becametoo harsh for the delicate sensibilities of the American public. Itnow seems that we had our last recession in 1957–58. For sincethen, we have only had "downturns," or, even better, "slowdowns,"or "sidewise movements." So be of good cheer; from now on,depressions and even recessions have been outlawed by the semanticfiat of economists; from now on, the worst that can possibly happento us are "slowdowns." Such are the wonders of the "NewEconomics."

For 30 years, our nation's economists haveadopted the view of the business cycle held by the late Britisheconomist, John Maynard Keynes, who created the Keynesian, or the"New," Economics in his book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, andMoney, published in 1936. Beneath their diagrams,mathematics, and inchoate jargon, the attitude of Keynesians towardbooms and bust is simplicity, even naïveté, itself. If there isinflation, then the cause is supposed to be "excessive spending" onthe part of the public; the alleged cure is for the government, theself-appointed stabilizer and regulator of the nation's economy, tostep in and force people to spend less, "sopping up their excesspurchasing power" through increased taxation. If there is arecession, on the other hand, this has been caused by insufficientprivate spending, and the cure now is for the government toincrease its own spending, preferably through deficits, therebyadding to the nation's aggregate spending stream.

The idea that increased government spending oreasy money is "good for business" and that budget cuts or hardermoney is "bad" permeates even the most conservative newspapers andmagazines. These journals will also take for granted that it is thesacred task of the federal government to steer the economic systemon the narrow road between the abysses of depression on the onehand and inflation on the other, for the free-market economy issupposed to be ever liable to succumb to one of theseevils.

All current schools of economists have the sameattitude. Note, for example, the viewpoint of Dr. Paul W.McCracken, the incoming chairman of President Nixon's Council ofEconomic Advisers. In an interview with the New YorkTimes shortly after taking office [January 24, 1969], Dr.McCracken asserted that one of the major economic problems facingthe new Administration is "how you cool down this inflationaryeconomy without at the same time tripping off unacceptably highlevels of unemployment. In other words, if the only thing we wantto do is cool off the inflation, it could be done. But our socialtolerances on unemployment are narrow." And again: "I think we haveto feel our way along here. We don't really have much experience intrying to cool an economy in orderly fashion. We slammed on thebrakes in 1957, but, of course, we got substantial slack in theeconomy."


Note the fundamental attitude of Dr. McCracken toward the economy –remarkable only in that it is shared by almost all economists ofthe present day. The economy is treated as a potentially workable,but always troublesome and recalcitrant patient, with a continualtendency to hive off into greater inflation or unemployment. Thefunction of the government is to be the wise old manager andphysician, ever watchful, ever tinkering to keep the economicpatient in good working order. In any case, here the economicpatient is clearly supposed to be the subject, and the governmentas "physician" the master.

It was not so long ago that this kind of attitudeand policy was called "socialism"; but we live in a world ofeuphemism, and now we call it by far less harsh labels, such as"moderation" or "enlightened free enterprise." We live andlearn.

What, then, are the causes of periodicdepressions? Must we always remain agnostic about the causes ofbooms and busts? Is it really true that business cycles are rooteddeep within the free-market economy, and that therefore some formof government planning is needed if we wish to keep the economywithin some kind of stable bounds? Do booms and then busts justsimply happen, or does one phase of the cycle flow logically fromthe other?

The currently fashionable attitude toward thebusiness cycle stems, actually, from Karl Marx. Marx saw that,before the Industrial Revolution in approximately the lateeighteenth century, there were no regularly recurring booms anddepressions. There would be a sudden economic crisis whenever someking made war or confiscated the property of his subject; but therewas no sign of the peculiarly modern phenomena of general andfairly regular swings in business fortunes, of expansions andcontractions. Since these cycles also appeared on the scene atabout the same time as modern industry, Marx concluded thatbusiness cycles were an inherent feature of the capitalist marketeconomy. All the various current schools of economic thought,regardless of their other differences and the different causes thatthey attribute to the cycle, agree on this vital point: That thesebusiness cycles originate somewhere deep within the free-marketeconomy. The market economy is to blame. Karl Marx believed thatthe periodic depressions would get worse and worse, until themasses would be moved to revolt and destroy the system, while themodern economists believe that the government can successfullystabilize depressions and the cycle. But all parties agree that thefault lies deep within the market economy and that if anything cansave the day, it must be some form of massive governmentintervention.

There are, however, some critical problems in theassumption that the market economy is the culprit. For "generaleconomic theory" teaches us that supply and demand always tend tobe in equilibrium in the market and that therefore prices ofproducts as well as of the factors that contribute to productionare always tending toward some equilibrium point. Even thoughchanges of data, which are always taking place, prevent equilibriumfrom ever being reached, there is nothing in the general theory ofthe market system that would account for regular and recurringboom-and-bust phases of the business cycle. Modern economists"solve" this problem by simply keeping their general price andmarket theory and their business cycle theory in separate,tightly-sealed compartments, with never the twain meeting, muchless integrated with each other. Economists, unfortunately, haveforgotten that there is only one economy and therefore only oneintegrated economic theory. Neither economic life nor the structureof theory can or should be in watertight compartments; ourknowledge of the economy is either one integrated whole or it isnothing. Yet most economists are content to apply totally separateand, indeed, mutually exclusive, theories for general priceanalysis and for business cycles. They cannot be genuine economicscientists so long as they are content to keep operating in thisprimitive way.

But there are still graver problems with thecurrently fashionable approach. Economists also do not see oneparticularly critical problem because they do not bother to squaretheir business cycle and general price theories: the peculiarbreakdown of the entrepreneurial function at times of economiccrisis and depression. In the market economy, one of the most vitalfunctions of the businessman is to be an "entrepreneur," a man whoinvests in productive methods, who buys equipment and hires laborto produce something which he is not sure will reap him any return.In short, the entrepreneurial function is the function offorecasting the uncertain future. Before embarking on anyinvestment or line of production, the entrepreneur, or"enterpriser," must estimate present and future costs and futurerevenues and therefore estimate whether and how much profits hewill earn from the investment. If he forecasts well andsignificantly better than his business competitors, he will reapprofits from his investment. The better his forecasting, the higherthe profits he will earn. If, on the other hand, he is a poorforecaster and overestimates the demand for his product, he willsuffer losses and pretty soon be forced out of thebusiness.

The market economy, then, is a profit-and-losseconomy, in which the acumen and ability of business entrepreneursis gauged by the profits and losses they reap. The market economy,moreover, contains a built-in mechanism, a kind of naturalselection, that ensures the survival and the flourishing of thesuperior forecaster and the weeding-out of the inferior ones. Forthe more profits reaped by the better forecasters, the greaterbecome their business responsibilities, and the more they will haveavailable to invest in the productive system. On the other hand, afew years of making losses will drive the poorer forecasters andentrepreneurs out of business altogether and push them into theranks of salaried employees.


If, then, the market economy has a built-in natural selectionmechanism for good entrepreneurs, this means that, generally, wewould expect not many business firms to be making losses. And, infact, if we look around at the economy on an average day or year,we will find that losses are not very widespread. But, in thatcase, the odd fact that needs explaining is this: How is it that,periodically, in times of the onset of recessions and especially insteep depressions, the business world suddenly experiences amassive cluster of severe losses? A moment arrives when businessfirms, previously highly astute entrepreneurs in their ability tomake profits and avoid losses, suddenly and dismayingly findthemselves, almost all of them, suffering severe and unaccountablelosses – How come? Here is a momentous fact that any theory ofdepressions must explain. An explanation such as "underconsumption"– a drop in total consumer spending – is not sufficient, for onething, because what needs to be explained is why businessmen, ableto forecast all manner of previous economic changes anddevelopments, proved themselves totally and catastrophically unableto forecast this alleged drop in consumer demand. Why this suddenfailure in forecasting ability?

An adequate theory of depressions, then, mustaccount for the tendency of the economy to move through successivebooms and busts, showing no sign of settling into any sort ofsmoothly moving, or quietly progressive, approximation of anequilibrium situation. In particular, a theory of depression mustaccount for the mammoth cluster of errors which appears swiftly andsuddenly at a moment of economic crisis, and lingers through thedepression period until recovery. And there is a third universalfact that a theory of the cycle must account for. Invariably, thebooms and busts are much more intense and severe in the "capitalgoods industries" – the industries making machines and equipment,the ones producing industrial raw materials or constructingindustrial plants – than in the industries making consumers' goods.Here is another fact of business cycle life that must be explained– and obviously can't be explained by such theories of depressionas the popular underconsumption doctrine: That consumers aren'tspending enough on consumer goods. For if insufficient spending isthe culprit, then how is it that retail sales are the last and theleast to fall in any depression, and thatdepression really hits such industries as machine tools,capital equipment, construction, and raw materials? Conversely, itis these industries that really take off in the inflationary boomphases of the business cycle, and not those businesses serving theconsumer. An adequate theory of the business cycle, then, must alsoexplain the far greater intensity of booms and busts in thenon-consumer goods, or "producers' goods,"industries.

Fortunately, a correct theory of depression andof the business cycle does exist, even though it isuniversally neglected in present-day economics. It, too, has a longtradition in economic thought. This theory began with theeighteenth century Scottish philosopher and economist David Hume,and with the eminent early nineteenth century English classicaleconomist David Ricardo. Essentially, these theorists saw thatanother crucial institution had developed in the mid-eighteenthcentury, alongside the industrial system. This was the institutionof banking, with its capacity to expand credit and the money supply(first, in the form of paper money, or bank notes, and later in theform of demand deposits, or checking accounts, that are instantlyredeemable in cash at the banks). It was the operations of thesecommercial banks which, these economists saw, held the key to themysterious recurrent cycles of expansion and contraction, of boomand bust, that had puzzled observers since the mid-eighteenthcentury.

The Ricardian analysis of the business cycle wentsomething as follows: The natural moneys emerging as such on theworld free market are useful commodities, generally gold andsilver. If money were confined simply to these commodities, thenthe economy would work in the aggregate as it does in particularmarkets: A smooth adjustment of supply and demand, and therefore nocycles of boom and bust. But the injection of bank credit addsanother crucial and disruptive element. For the banks expand creditand therefore bank money in the form of notes or deposits which aretheoretically redeemable on demand in gold, but in practice clearlyare not. For example, if a bank has 1000 ounces of gold in itsvaults, and it issues instantly redeemable warehouse receipts for2500 ounces of gold, then it clearly has issued 1500 ounces morethan it can possibly redeem. But so long as there is no concerted"run" on the bank to cash in these receipts, its warehouse-receiptsfunction on the market as equivalent to gold, and therefore thebank has been able to expand the money supply of the country by1500 gold ounces.

The banks, then, happily begin to expand credit,for the more they expand credit the greater will be their profits.This results in the expansion of the money supply within a country,say England. As the supply of paper and bank money in Englandincreases, the money incomes and expenditures of Englishmen rise,and the increased money bids up prices of English goods. The resultis inflation and a boom within the country. But this inflationaryboom, while it proceeds on its merry way, sows the seeds of its owndemise. For as English money supply and incomes increase,Englishmen proceed to purchase more goods from abroad. Furthermore,as English prices go up, English goods begin to lose theircompetitiveness with the products of other countries which have notinflated, or have been inflating to a lesser degree. Englishmenbegin to buy less at home and more abroad, while foreigners buyless in England and more at home; the result is a deficit in theEnglish balance of payments, with English exports falling sharplybehind imports. But if imports exceed exports, this means thatmoney must flow out of England to foreign countries. And what moneywill this be? Surely not English bank notes or deposits, forFrenchmen or Germans or Italians have little or no interest inkeeping their funds locked up in English banks. These foreignerswill therefore take their bank notes and deposits and present themto the English banks for redemption in gold – and gold will be thetype of money that will tend to flow persistently out of thecountry as the English inflation proceeds on its way. But thismeans that English bank credit money will be, more and more,pyramiding on top of a dwindling gold base in the English bankvaults. As the boom proceeds, our hypothetical bank will expand itswarehouse receipts issued from, say 2500 ounces to 4000 ounces,while its gold base dwindles to, say, 800. As this processintensifies, the banks will eventually become frightened. For thebanks, after all, are obligated to redeem their liabilities incash, and their cash is flowing out rapidly as their liabilitiespile up. Hence, the banks will eventually lose their nerve, stoptheir credit expansion, and in order to save themselves, contracttheir bank loans outstanding. Often, this retreat is precipitatedby bankrupting runs on the banks touched off by the public, who hadalso been getting increasingly nervous about the ever more shakycondition of the nation's banks.


The bank contraction reverses the economic picture; contraction andbust follow boom. The banks pull in their horns, and businessessuffer as the pressure mounts for debt repayment and contraction.The fall in the supply of bank money, in turn, leads to a generalfall in English prices. As money supply and incomes fall, andEnglish prices collapse, English goods become relatively moreattractive in terms of foreign products, and the balance ofpayments reverses itself, with exports exceeding imports. As goldflows into the country, and as bank money contracts on top of anexpanding gold base, the condition of the banks becomes muchsounder.

This, then, is the meaning of the depressionphase of the business cycle. Note that it is a phase that comes outof, and inevitably comes out of, the preceding expansionary boom.It is the preceding inflation that makes the depression phasenecessary. We can see, for example, that the depression is theprocess by which the market economy adjusts, throws off theexcesses and distortions of the previous inflationary boom, andreestablishes a sound economic condition. The depression is theunpleasant but necessary reaction to the distortions and excessesof the previous boom.

Why, then, does the next cycle begin? Why dobusiness cycles tend to be recurrent and continuous? Because whenthe banks have pretty well recovered, and are in a soundercondition, they are then in a confident position to proceed totheir natural path of bank credit expansion, and the next boomproceeds on its way, sowing the seeds for the next inevitablebust.

But if banking is the cause of the businesscycle, aren't the banks also a part of the private market economy,and can't we therefore say that the free marketis still the culprit, if only in the banking segment ofthat free market? The answer is No, for the banks, for one thing,would never be able to expand credit in concert were it not for theintervention and encouragement of government. For if banks weretruly competitive, any expansion of credit by one bank wouldquickly pile up the debts of that bank in its competitors, and itscompetitors would quickly call upon the expanding bank forredemption in cash. In short, a bank's rivals will call upon it forredemption in gold or cash in the same way as do foreigners, exceptthat the process is much faster and would nip any incipientinflation in the bud before it got started. Banks can only expandcomfortably in unison when a Central Bank exists, essentially agovernmental bank, enjoying a monopoly of government business, anda privileged position imposed by government over the entire bankingsystem. It is only when central banking got established that thebanks were able to expand for any length of time and the familiarbusiness cycle got underway in the modern world.

The central bank acquires its control over thebanking system by such governmental measures as: Making its ownliabilities legal tender for all debts and receivable in taxes;granting the central bank monopoly of the issue ofbank notes, as contrasted to deposits (in England the Bankof England, the governmentally established central bank, had alegal monopoly of bank notes in the London area); or through theoutright forcing of banks to use the central bank as their clientfor keeping their reserves of cash (as in the United States and itsFederal Reserve System). Not that the banks complain about thisintervention; for it is the establishment of central banking thatmakes long-term bank credit expansion possible, since the expansionof Central Bank notes provides added cash reserves for the entirebanking system and permits all the commercial banks to expand theircredit together. Central banking works like a cozy compulsory bankcartel to expand the banks' liabilities; and the banks are now ableto expand on a larger base of cash in the form of central banknotes as well as gold.


So now we see, at last, that the business cycle is brought about,not by any mysterious failings of the free market economy, butquite the opposite: By systematic intervention by government in themarket process. Government intervention brings about bank expansionand inflation, and, when the inflation comes to an end, thesubsequent depression-adjustment comes into play.

The Ricardian theory of the business cyclegrasped the essentials of a correct cycle theory: The recurrentnature of the phases of the cycle, depression as adjustmentintervention in the market rather than from the free-marketeconomy. But two problems were as yet unexplained: Why the suddencluster of business error, the sudden failure of theentrepreneurial function, and why the vastly greater fluctuationsin the producers' goods than in the consumers' goods industries?The Ricardian theory only explained movements in the price level,in general business; there was no hint of explanation of the vastlydifferent reactions in the capital and consumers' goodsindustries.

The correct and fully developed theory of thebusiness cycle was finally discovered and set forth by the Austrianeconomist Ludwig von Mises, when he was a professor at theUniversity of Vienna. Mises developed hints of his solution to thevital problem of the business cycle in his monumental Theory of Money and Credit, publishedin 1912, and still, nearly 60 years later, the best book on thetheory of money and banking. Mises developed his cycle theoryduring the 1920s, and it was brought to the English-speaking worldby Mises's leading follower, Friedrich A. von Hayek, who came fromVienna to teach at the London School of Economics in the early1930s, and who published, in German and in English, two books whichapplied and elaborated the Mises cycle theory: Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle,and Prices and Production. Since Mises andHayek were Austrians, and also since they were in the tradition ofthe great nineteenth-century Austrian economists, this theory hasbecome known in the literature as the "Austrian" (or the "monetaryover-investment") theory of the business cycle.

Building on the Ricardians, on general "Austrian"theory, and on his own creative genius, Mises developed thefollowing theory of the business cycle:

Without bank credit expansion, supply and demandtend to be equilibrated through the free price system, and nocumulative booms or busts can then develop. But then governmentthrough its central bank stimulates bank credit expansion byexpanding central bank liabilities and therefore the cash reservesof all the nation's commercial banks. The banks then proceed toexpand credit and hence the nation's money supply in the form ofcheck deposits. As the Ricardians saw, this expansion of bank moneydrives up the prices of goods and hence causes inflation. But,Mises showed, it does something else, and something even moresinister. Bank credit expansion, by pouring new loan funds into thebusiness world, artificially lowers the rate of interest in theeconomy below its free market level.

On the free and unhampered market, the interestrate is determined purely by the "time-preferences" of all theindividuals that make up the market economy. For the essence of aloan is that a "present good" (money which can be used at present)is being exchanged for a "future good" (an IOU which can only beused at some point in the future). Since people always prefer moneyright now to the prospect of getting the same amount of money sometime in the future, the present good always commands a premium inthe market over the future. This premium is the interest rate, andits height will vary according to the degree to which people preferthe present to the future, i.e., the degree of theirtime-preferences.

People's time-preferences also determine theextent to which people will save and invest, as compared to howmuch they will consume. If people's time-preferences should fall,i.e., if their degree of preference for present over future falls,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 comesabout largely as the result of falling rates of time-preference,which lead to an increase in the proportion of saving andinvestment to consumption, and also to a falling rate ofinterest.

But what happens when the rate of interest falls,not because of lower time-preferences and higher savings, but fromgovernment interference that promotes the expansion of bank credit?In other words, if the rate of interest falls artificially, due tointervention, rather than naturally, as a result of changes in thevaluations and preferences of the consumingpublic?

What happens is trouble. For businessmen, seeingthe rate of interest fall, react as they always would and must tosuch a change of market signals: They invest more in capital andproducers' goods. Investments, particularly in lengthy andtime-consuming projects, which previously looked unprofitable nowseem profitable, because of the fall of the interest charge. Inshort, businessmen react as they would react if savingshad genuinely increased: They expand their investment indurable equipment, in capital goods, in industrial raw material, inconstruction as compared to their direct production of consumergoods.

Businesses, in short, happily borrow the newlyexpanded bank money that is coming to them at cheaper rates; theyuse the money to invest in capital goods, and eventually this moneygets paid out in higher rents to land, and higher wages to workersin the capital goods industries. The increased business demand bidsup labor costs, but businesses think they can pay these highercosts because they have been fooled by the government-and-bankintervention in the loan market and its decisively importanttampering with the interest-rate signal of themarketplace.

The problem comes as soon as the workers andlandlords – largely the former, since most gross business income ispaid out in wages – begin to spend the new bank money that theyhave received in the form of higher wages. For the time-preferencesof the public have not really gotten lower; the publicdoesn't wantto save more than it has. So the workers setabout to consume most of their new income, in short to reestablishthe old consumer/saving proportions. This means that they redirectthe spending back to the consumer goods industries, and they don'tsave and invest enough to buy the newly-produced machines, capitalequipment, industrial raw materials, etc. This all reveals itselfas a sudden sharp and continuing depression in the producers'goods industries. Once the consumers reestablished theirdesired consumption/investment proportions, it is thus revealedthat business had invested too much in capital goods and hadunderinvested in consumer goods. Business had been seduced by thegovernmental tampering and artificial lowering of the rate ofinterest, and acted as if more savings were available to investthan were really there. As soon as the new bank money filteredthrough the system and the consumers reestablished their oldproportions, it became clear that there were not enough savings tobuy all the producers' goods, and that business had misinvested thelimited savings available. Business had overinvested in capitalgoods and underinvested in consumer products.


The inflationary boom thus leads to distortions of the pricing andproduction system. Prices of labor and raw materials in the capitalgoods industries had been bid up during the boom too high to beprofitable once the consumers reassert their oldconsumption/investment preferences. The "depression" is then seenas the necessary and healthy phase by which the market economysloughs off and liquidates the unsound, uneconomic investments ofthe boom, and reestablishes those proportions between consumptionand investment that are truly desired by the consumers. Thedepression is the painful but necessary process by which the freemarket sloughs off the excesses and errors of the boom andreestablishes the market economy in its function of efficientservice to the mass of consumers. Since prices of factors ofproduction have been bid too high in the boom, this means thatprices of labor and goods in these capital goods industries must beallowed to fall until proper market relations areresumed.

Since the workers receive the increased money inthe form of higher wages fairly rapidly, how is it that booms cango on for years without having their unsound investments revealed,their errors due to tampering with market signals become evident,and the depression-adjustment process begins its work? The answeris that booms would be very short lived if the bank creditexpansion and subsequent pushing of the rate of interest below thefree market level were a one-shot affair. But the point is that thecredit expansion is not one-shot; it proceeds on and on,never giving consumers the chance to reestablish their preferredproportions of consumption and saving, never allowing the rise incosts in the capital goods industries to catch up to theinflationary rise in prices. Like the repeated doping of a horse,the boom is kept on its way and ahead of its inevitablecomeuppance, by repeated doses of the stimulant of bank credit. Itis only when bank credit expansion must finally stop, eitherbecause the banks are getting into a shaky condition or because thepublic begins to balk at the continuing inflation, that retributionfinally catches up with the boom. As soon as credit expansionstops, then the piper must be paid, and the inevitablereadjustments liquidate the unsound over-investments of the boom,with the reassertion of a greater proportionate emphasis onconsumers' goods production.

Thus, the Misesian theory of the business cycleaccounts for all of our puzzles: The repeated and recurrent natureof the cycle, the massive cluster of entrepreneurial error, the fargreater intensity of the boom and bust in the producers' goodsindustries.

Mises, then, pinpoints the blame for the cycle oninflationary bank credit expansion propelled by the intervention ofgovernment and its central bank. What does Mises say should bedone, say by government, once the depression arrives? What is thegovernmental role in the cure of depression? In the first place,government must cease inflating as soon as possible. It is truethat this will, inevitably, bring the inflationary boom abruptly toan end, and commence the inevitable recession or depression. Butthe longer the government waits for this, the worse the necessaryreadjustments will have to be. The sooner thedepression-readjustment is gotten over with, the better. Thismeans, also, that the government must never try to prop up unsoundbusiness situations; it must never bail out or lend money tobusiness firms in trouble. Doing this will simply prolong the agonyand convert a sharp and quick depression phase into a lingering andchronic disease. The government must never try to prop up wagerates or prices of producers' goods; doing so will prolong anddelay indefinitely the completion of the depression-adjustmentprocess; it will cause indefinite and prolonged depression and massunemployment in the vital capital goods industries. The governmentmust not try to inflate again, in order to get out of thedepression. For even if this reinflation succeeds, it will only sowgreater trouble later on. The government must do nothing toencourage consumption, and it must not increase its ownexpenditures, for this will further increase the socialconsumption/investment ratio. In fact, cutting the governmentbudget will improve the ratio. What the economy needs is not moreconsumption spending but more saving, in order to validate some ofthe excessive investments of the boom.

Thus, what the government should do, according tothe Misesian analysis of the depression, is absolutely nothing. Itshould, from the point of view of economic health and ending thedepression as quickly as possible, maintain a strict hands off,"laissez-faire" policy. Anything it does will delay andobstruct the adjustment process of the market; the less it does,the more rapidly will the market adjustment process do its work,and sound economic recovery ensue.


The Misesian prescription is thus the exact opposite of theKeynesian: It is for the government to keep absolute hands off theeconomy and to confine itself to stopping its own inflation and tocutting its own budget.

It has today been completely forgotten, evenamong economists, that the Misesian explanation and analysis of thedepression gained great headway precisely during the GreatDepression of the 1930s – the very depression that is always heldup to advocates of the free market economy as the greatest singleand catastrophic failure of laissez-faire capitalism. Itwas no such thing. 1929 was made inevitable by the vast bank creditexpansion throughout the Western world during the 1920s: A policydeliberately adopted by the Western governments, and mostimportantly by the Federal Reserve System in the United States. Itwas made possible by the failure of the Western world to return toa genuine gold standard after World War I, and thus allowing moreroom for inflationary policies by government. Everyone now thinksof President Coolidge as a believer in laissez-faire andan unhampered market economy; he was not, and tragically, nowhereless so than in the field of money and credit. Unfortunately, thesins and errors of the Coolidge intervention were laid to the doorof a non-existent free market economy.

If Coolidge made 1929 inevitable, it wasPresident Hoover who prolonged and deepened the depression,transforming it from a typically sharp but swiftly-disappearingdepression into a lingering and near-fatal malady, a malady "cured"only by the holocaust of World War II. Hoover, not FranklinRoosevelt, was the founder of the policy of the "New Deal":essentially the massive use of the State to do exactly whatMisesian theory would most warn against – to prop up wage ratesabove their free-market levels, prop up prices, inflate credit, andlend money to shaky business positions. Roosevelt only advanced, toa greater degree, what Hoover had pioneered. The result for thefirst time in American history, was a nearly perpetual depressionand nearly permanent mass unemployment. The Coolidge crisis hadbecome the unprecedentedly prolonged Hoover-Rooseveltdepression.

Ludwig von Mises had predicted the depressionduring the heyday of the great boom of the 1920s – a time, justlike today, when economists and politicians, armed with a "neweconomics" of perpetual inflation, and with new "tools" provided bythe Federal Reserve System, proclaimed a perpetual "New Era" ofpermanent prosperity guaranteed by our wise economic doctors inWashington. Ludwig von Mises, alone armed with a correct theory ofthe business cycle, was one of the very few economists to predictthe Great Depression, and hence the economic world was forced tolisten to him with respect. F. A. Hayek spread the word in England,and the younger English economists were all, in the early 1930s,beginning to adopt the Misesian cycle theory for their analysis ofthe depression – and also to adopt, of course, the strictlyfree-market policy prescription that flowed with this theory.Unfortunately, economists have now adopted the historical notion ofLord Keynes: That no "classical economists" had a theory of thebusiness cycle until Keynes came along in 1936.There was a theory of the depression; it was the classicaleconomic tradition; its prescription was strict hard moneyand laissez-faire; and it was rapidly being adopted, inEngland and even in the United States, as the accepted theory ofthe business cycle. (A particular irony is that the major"Austrian" proponent in the United States in the early andmid-1930s was none other than Professor Alvin Hansen, very soon tomake his mark as the outstanding Keynesian disciple in thiscountry.)

What swamped the growing acceptance of Misesiancycle theory was simply the "Keynesian Revolution" – the amazingsweep that Keynesian theory made of the economic world shortlyafter the publication of the General Theory in 1936. It isnot that Misesian theory was refuted successfully; it wasjust forgotten in the rush to climb on the suddenlyfashionable Keynesian bandwagon. Some of the leading adherents ofthe Mises theory – who clearly knew better – succumbed to the newlyestablished winds of doctrine, and won leading American universityposts as a consequence.

But now the once arch-KeynesianLondon Economist has recently proclaimed that "Keynes isDead." After over a decade of facing trenchant theoreticalcritiques and refutation by stubborn economic facts, the Keynesiansare now in general and massive retreat. Once again, the moneysupply and bank credit are being grudgingly acknowledged to play aleading role in the cycle. The time is ripe – for a rediscovery, arenaissance, of the Mises theory of the business cycle. It can comenone too soon; if it ever does, the whole concept of a Council ofEconomic Advisors would be swept away, and we would see a massiveretreat of government from the economic sphere. But for all this tohappen, the world of economics, and the public at large, must bemade aware of the existence of an explanation of the business cyclethat has lain neglected on the shelf for all too many tragicyears.

This essay was originally published as aminibook by the Constitutional Alliance of Lansing, Michigan,1969.


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