Even though he has written that he no longer considers himself an Austrian economist, George Selgin remains sympathetic to the Austrian theory of business cycles, and, in accord with the Austrian theory, still views recessions and depressions as more or less inevitable outcomes of distortions originating in the preceding, credit-induced, expansions. In a recent post, George argues that the 2002-06 housing bubble conforms to the Austrian pattern in which a central-bank lending rate held below the “appropriate,” or “natural” rate causes a real misallocation of resources reflecting the overvaluation of long-lived capital assets (like houses) induced by the low-interest rate policy. For Selgin, it was the Fed’s distortion of real interest rates from around 2003 to 2005 that induced a housing bubble even though the rate of increase in nominal GDP during the housing bubble was only slightly higher than the 5% rate of increase in nominal GDP during most of the Great Moderation.
Consequently, responses by Marcus Nunes, Bill Woolsey and Scott Sumner to Selgin, questioning whether he used an appropriate benchmark against which to gauge nominal GDP growth in the 2003 to 2006 period, don’t seem to me to address the core of Selgin’s argument. Selgin is arguing that the real distortion caused by the low-interest-rate policy of the Fed was more damaging to the economy than one would gather simply by looking at a supposedly excessive rate of nominal GDP growth, which means that the rate of growth of nominal GDP in that time period does not provide all the relevant information about the effects of monetary policy.
So to counter Selgin’s argument – which is to say, the central argument of Austrian Business-Cycle Theory – one has to take a step back and ask why a price bubble, or a distortion of interest rates, caused by central-bank policy should have any macroeconomic significance. In any conceivable real-world economy, entrepreneurial error is a fact of life. Malinvestments occur all the time; resources are, as a consequence, constantly being reallocated when new information makes clear that some resources were misallocated owing to mistaken expectations. To be sure, the rate of interest is a comprehensive price potentially affecting how all resources are allocated. But that doesn’t mean that a temporary disequilibrium in the rate of interest would trigger a major economy-wide breakdown, causing the growth of real output and income to fall substantially below their historical trend, perhaps even falling sharply in absolute terms.
The Austrian explanation for this system-wide breakdown is that the price bubble or the interest-rate misallocation leads to the adoption of investments projects and of production processes that “unsustainable.” The classic Austrian formulation is that the interest-rate distortion causes excessively roundabout production processes to be undertaken. For a time, these investment projects and production processes can be sustained by way of credit expansion that shifts resources from consumption to investment, what is sometimes called “forced saving.” At a certain point, the credit expansion must cease, and at that point, the unsustainability of the incomplete investment projects or even the completed, but excessively roundabout, production processes becomes clear, and the investments and production processes are abandoned. The capital embodied in those investment projects and production processes is revealed to have been worthless, and all or most of the cooperating factors of production, especially workers, are rendered unemployable in their former occupations.
Although it is not without merit, that story is far from compelling. There are two basic problems with it. First, the notion of unsustainability is itself unsustainable, or at the very least greatly exaggerated and misleading. Why must the credit expansion that produced the interest-rate distortion or the price bubble come to an end? Well, if one goes back to the original sources for the Austrian theory, namely Mises’s 1912 book The Theory of Money and Credit and Hayek’s 1929 book Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle, one finds that the effective cause of the contraction of credit is not a physical constraint on the availability of resources with which to complete the investments and support lengthened production processes, but the willingness of the central bank to tolerate a decline in its gold holdings. It is quite a stretch to equate the demand of the central bank for a certain level of gold reserves with a barrier that renders the completion of investment projects and the operation of lengthened production processes impossible, which is how Austrian writers, fond of telling stories about what happens when someone tries to build a house without having the materials required for its completion, try to explain what “unsustainability” means.
The original Austrian theory of the business cycle was thus a theory specific to the historical conditions associated with classical gold standard. Hawtrey, whose theory of the business cycle, depended on a transmission mechanism similar to, but much simpler than, the mechanism driving the Austrian theory, realized that there was nothing absolute about the gold standard constraint on monetary expansion. He therefore believed that the trade cycle could be ameliorated by cooperation among the central banks to avoid the sharp credit contractions imposed by central banks when they feared that their gold reserves were falling below levels that they felt comfortable with. Mises and Hayek in the 1920s (along with most French economists) greatly mistrusted such ideas about central bank cooperation and economizing the use of gold as a threat to monetary stability and sound money.
However, despite their antipathy to proposals for easing the constraints of the gold standard on individual central banks, Mises and Hayek never succeeded in explaining why a central-bank expansion necessarily had to be stopped. Rather than provide such an explanation they instead made a different argument, which was that the stimulative effect of a central-bank expansion would wear off once economic agents became aware of its effects and began to anticipate its continuation. This was a fine argument, anticipating the argument of Milton Friedman and Edward Phelps in the late 1960s by about 30 or 40 years. But that was an argument that the effects of central-bank expansion would tend to diminish over time as its effects were anticipated. It was not an argument that the expansion was unsustainable. Just because total income and employment are not permanently increased by the monetary expansion that induces an increase in investment and an elongation of the production process does not mean that the investments financed by, and the production processes undertaken as a result of, the monetary expansion must be abandoned. The monetary expansion may cause a permanent shift in the economy’s structure of production in the same way that tax on consumption, whose proceeds were used to finance investment projects that would otherwise not have been undertaken, might be carried on indefinitely. So the Austrian theory has never proven that forced saving induced by monetary expansion, in the absence of a gold-standard constraint, is necessarily unsustainable, inevitably being reversed because of physical constraints preventing the completion of the projects financed by the credit expansion. That’s the first problem.
The second problem is even more serious, and it goes straight to the argument that Selgin makes against Market Monetarists. The whole idea of unsustainability involves a paradox. The paradox is that unsustainability results from some physical constraint on the completion of investment projects or the viability of newly adopted production processes, because the consumer demand is driving up the costs of resources to levels making it unprofitable to complete the investment projects or operate new production processes. But this argument presumes that all the incomplete investment projects and all the new production processes become unprofitable more or less simultaneously, leading to their rapid abandonment. But the consequence is that all the incomplete investment projects and all the newly adopted production processes are scuttled, producing massive unemployment and redundant resources. But why doesn’t that drop in resource prices restore the profitability of all the investment projects and production processes just abandoned?
It therefore seems that the Austrian vision is of a completely brittle economy in which price adjustments continue without inducing any substitutions to ease the resource bottlenecks. Demands and supplies are highly inelastic, and adjustments cannot be made until prices can no longer even cover variable costs. At that point prices collapse, implying that resource bottlenecks are eliminated overnight, without restoring profitability to any of the abandoned projects or processes. Actually the most amazing thing about such a vision may be how closely it resembles the vision of an economy espoused by Hayek’s old nemesis Piero Sraffa in his late work The Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, a vision based on fixed factor proportions in production, thus excluding the possibility of resource substitution in production in response to relative price changes.
A more realistic vision, it seems to me, would be for resource bottlenecks to induce substitution away from the relatively scarce resources allowing production processes to continue in operation even though the value of many fixed assets would have to be written down substantially. Those write downs would allow existing or new owners to maintain output as long as total demand is not curtailed as a result of a monetary policy that either deliberately seeks or inadvertently allows monetary contraction. Real distortions inherited from the past can be accommodated and adjusted to by a market economy as long as that economy is not required at the same time to undergo a contraction, in total spending. But once a sharp contraction in total spending does occur, a recovery may require a temporary boost in total spending above the long-term trend that would have sufficed under normal conditions.