Robert Murphy, a clever fellow with an excessive, but, to his credit, not entirely uncritical (see here and here), devotion to Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT), criticized my previous post about ABCT. Murphy’s criticism focuses on my alleged misreading or misrepresentation of Mises’s original version of ABCT in his The Theory of Money and Credit. (Note, however, that we are both dealing with the 1934 translation of the revised 1924 edition, not the original 1912 German text.)
Murphy quotes the following passage from my post focusing especially on the part in bold print.
[T]he notion of unsustainability [in Austrian business cycle theory] 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.
Murphy then chastises me for not having read or having forgotten the following statement by von Mises.
Painful consideration of the question whether fiduciary media really could be indefinitely augmented without awakening the mistrust of the public would be not only supererogatory, but otiose.
Now it’s true that I did not recall this particular passage when writing my post, but the passage is not inconsistent with the point I was making. If you look at the passage from section 4 of chapter 5 of Part III of The Theory of Money and Credit (p. 357 of the 1934 edition), you will see that the context in which the statement is written is a hypothetical example in which banks can engage in an unlimited credit expansion without the constraints of an internal or external drain on their balance sheets. So while it is true that Mises anticipated in The Theory of Money and Credit the question whether a banking system not constrained by any internal or external drains could engage in an unlimited credit expansion, Mises was engaged in a hypothetical exercise, not the analysis of any business cycle ever encountered.
Murphy provides two longer quotations from a bit later in the same chapter in which Mises tried to explain why an unlimited credit expansion would be unsustainable:
The situation is as follows: despite the fact that there has been no increase of intermediate products and there is no possibility of lengthening the average period of production, a rate of interest is established in the loan market which corresponds to a longer period of production; and so, although it is in the last resort inadmissible and impracticable, a lengthening of the period of production promises for the time to be profitable. But there cannot be the slightest doubt as to where this will lead. A time must necessarily come when the means of subsistence available for consumption are all used up although the capital goods employed in production have not yet been transformed into consumption goods. This time must come all the more quickly inasmuch as the fall in the rate of interest weakens the motive for saving and so slows up the rate of accumulation of capital. The means of subsistence will prove insufficient to maintain the labourers during the whole period of the process of production that has been entered upon. Since production and consumption are continuous, so that every day new processes of production are started upon and others completed, this situation does not imperil human existence by suddenly manifesting itself as a complete lack of consumption goods; it is merely expressed in a reduction of the quantity of goods available for consumption and a consequent restriction of consumption. The market prices of consumption goods rise and those of production goods fall. (p. 362)
If our doctrine of crises is to be applied to more recent history, then it must be observed that the banks have never gone as far as they might in extending credit and expanding the issue of fiduciary media. They have always left off long before reaching this limit, whether because of growing uneasiness on their own part and on the part of all those who had not forgotten the earlier crises, or whether because they had to defer to legislative regulations concerning the maximum circulation of fiduciary media. And so the crises broke out before they need have broken out. It is only in this sense that we can interpret the statement that it is apparently true after all to say that restriction of loans is the cause of economic crises, or at least their immediate impulse; that if the banks would only go on reducing the rate of interest on loans they could continue to postpone the collapse of the market. If the stress is laid upon the word postpone, then this line of argument can be assented to without more ado. Certainly, the banks would be able to postpone the collapse; but nevertheless, as has been shown, the moment must eventually come when no further extension of the circulation of fiduciary media is possible. Then the catastrophe occurs, and its consequences are the worse. (p. 365)
The latter quotation actually confirms my assertion that Mises’s theory of business cycles as a historical phenomenon was a theory of the effects a credit expansion brought to a close by an external constraint imposed on the banks by the gold standard or perhaps by some artificial legal constraint on the reserve holdings of the banks. It is true that Mises hypothesized that a credit expansion by a completely unconstrained banking system was inevitably destined to be unsustainable, but this is a purely theoretical argument disconnected from historical experience.
But that is just what I said in my post:
[D]espite 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.
So let’s go back to what Mises said in the middle quotation above, where he tries to do the heavy lifting.
[D]espite the fact that there has been no increase of intermediate products and there is no possibility of lengthening the average period of production, a rate of interest is established in the loan market which corresponds to a longer period of production; and so, although it is in the last resort inadmissible and impracticable, a lengthening of the period of production promises for the time to be profitable.
I don’t understand why there has been no increase in intermediate products. The initial monetary expansion causes output to increase temporarily, allowing the amount of intermediate products to increase, and the average period of production to lengthen.
But there cannot be the slightest doubt as to where this will lead.
Note the characteristic Misesian rhetorical strategy: proof by assertion. There cannot be the slightest doubt that I am right and you are wrong. QED. Praxeology in action!
A time must necessarily come when the means of subsistence available for consumption are all used up although the capital goods employed in production have not yet been transformed into consumption goods.
Are the means of subsistence a common property resource? When property rights don’t exist over resources, those resources run out. The means of subsistence are owned and they are sold, not given away or taken at will. As their supply dwindles, their prices rise and consumption is restricted.
This time must come all the more quickly inasmuch as the fall in the rate of interest weakens the motive for saving and so slows up the rate of accumulation of capital.
But the whole point is that monetary expansion is raising the prices of consumption goods thereby imposing forced saving on households to accommodate the additional investment.
The means of subsistence will prove insufficient to maintain the labourers during the whole period of the process of production that has been entered upon.
What does this mean? Are workers dying of starvation? Is Mises working with a Ricardian subsistence theory of wages? But wait; let’s read on.
Since production and consumption are continuous, so that every day new processes of production are started upon and others completed, this situation does not imperil human existence by suddenly manifesting itself as a complete lack of consumption goods; it is merely expressed in a reduction of the quantity of goods available for consumption and a consequent restriction of consumption. The market prices of consumption goods rise and those of production goods fall.
OK, so what is the point? What is unsustainable about this?
Now I am really confused. But wait! Look at the preceding paragraph, and read the following:
Now it is true that an increase of fiduciary media brings about a redistribution of wealth in the course of its effects on the objective exchange value of money which may well lead to increased saving and a reduction of the standard of living. A depreciation of money, when metallic money is employed, may also lead directly to an increase in the stock of goods in that it entails a diversion of some metal from monetary to industrial uses. So far as these factors enter into consideration, an increase of fiduciary media does cause a diminution of even the natural rate of interest, as we could show if it were necessary. But the case that we have to investigate is a different one. We are not concerned with a reduction in the natural rate of interest brought about by an increase in the issue of fiduciary media, but with a reduction below this rate in the money rate charged by the banks, inaugurated by the credit-issuing banks and necessarily followed by the rest of the loan market. The power of the banks to do such a thing has already been demonstrated. (pp. 361-62)
So von Mises actually conceded that monetary expansion by the banks could reduce the real rate of interest via the imposition of forced savings caused by a steady rate of inflation. Unsustainability results only when the central bank reduces the rate of interest below the natural rate and succeeds in keeping it permanently below the natural rate. The result is hyperinflation, which almost everyone agrees is unsustainable. We don’t need ABCT to teach us that! But the question that I and most non-Austrian economists are interested in is whether there is anything unsustainable about a steady rate of monetary expansion associated with a steady rate of growth in NGDP. Answer: not obviously. And, evidently, even the great Ludwig von Mises, himself, admitted that a steady monetary expansion is indeed sustainable. You can look it up.