Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part IX: An Endogenous Cycle

We are now at the point at which Hawtrey’s model of the business cycle can be assembled from the parts laid out in the previous thirteen chapters. Hawtrey had already shown that monetary disturbances can lead to significant cumulative fluctuations, while mere demand shifts cause only minor temporary fluctuations, but his aim was to account not just for a single cumulative expansion or contraction in response to a single disturbance, but for recurring cyclical fluctuations. His theoretical model therefore required a mechanism whereby a positive or expansionary impulse would be reversed and transformed into a negative or contractionary impulse. A complete cyclical theory must provide some explanation of how an expansion becomes a contraction, and how a contraction becomes an expansion.

In chapters 14 and 15, Hawtrey identifies the banking system as the transforming agent required for a theory of recurring cycles. The key behavioral relationship for Hawtrey was that banks demand reserves — either gold or currency or reserves held with the central bank — into which their own liabilities (banknotes or deposits) are convertible. Given their demand for reserves, banks set interest rates at a level that will maintain their reserves at the desired level, raising interest rates when their reserves are less than desired, and reducing interest rates when reserves are greater than desired. Hawtrey combined this behavioral relationship with two key empirical relationships: 1) that workers and other lower-income groups generally make little use of banknotes (limited in Britain to denominations above £5, roughly the equivalent of $200 at today’s prices) and almost none of bank deposits; 2) that the share of labor in total income is countercyclical.

Using these two relationships, Hawtrey provided a theoretical account of recurring cyclical fluctuations in output, income, and employment. He begins the story at the upper turning point, when a combination of rising inflation and diminishing reserves causes banks to raise their interest rates to stem a loss of reserves. The rise in interest rates causes a reduction in spending, thereby leading to falling prices, output, and employment. Hawtrey poses the following question:

We are now concerned not with the direct consequences of a given monetary disturbance, but with the influences at work to modify and, perhaps in the end, to counteract those consequence. In particular are we to regard the tendency towards renewed inflation which experience teaches us to expect after a period of depression as a fortuitous disturbance which may come sooner or later, or as a reaction the seeds of which are already sown? To put the same problem in another form, when the position of equilibrium which should follow a disturbance according to the theory of Chapter 6 is attained, is there any reason, apart from visible causes of renewed disturbance, why that equilibrium should not continue?  (pp. 182-83)

Hawtrey argues that the equilibrium will not continue, invoking the different money-holding habits of capitalists and workers along with the countercyclical share of labor in total income. Although both employment and wages fall in the downturn, Hawtrey maintains that profits fall more sharply than wages, so that the share of labor in total income actually increases in the downturn. The entire passage is worth quoting, because it also constitutes an implicit criticism of the Austrian theory of the downturn, notwithstanding the fact that Hawtrey very likely was not yet acquainted with the Austrian theory of the business cycles, its primary text, Mises’s Theory of Money and Credit, having been published in German in 1912 just a year before publication of Good and Bad Trade.

[R]ather than let their plant lie idle, manufacturers will sacrifice part or even the whole of their profits, and that in this way the restriction of output is mitigated. If all producers insisted on stopping work unless they could obtain a normal rate of profit, there would be a greater restriction of output and more workmen would be discharged, and in that case the proceeds of the diminished output would be divided (approximately) in the same proportion between the capitalists and the workmen as before. But in consequence of the sacrifice of profits to output which actually occurs, the number of workmen in employment and therefore also the aggregate of working-class earnings will not be so severely diminished as they would otherwise be. Thus the capitalists will get a smaller proportion and the workmen a greater proportion of the gross proceeds than before. But anything which tends to increase or maintain working-class earnings tends to increase or maintain the amount of cash in the hands of the working classes. If the banks have succeeded in reducing the outstanding amount of credit money by 10 percent, they will probably have reduced the incomes of the people with bank accounts by 10 percent, but the earnings of the working classes will have been reduced in a much smaller proportion – say, 5 percent. (pp. 189-90)

The reduction in the quantity of the liabilities of the banking system in the hands of the public will relieve the pressure that previously felt to increase their reserves, which pressure had caused them to raise interest rates.

Here is the process at work which is likely enough to produce fluctuations. For the bankers will thereupon be ready to increase the stock of credit money again, and once they have embarked on this course they may find it very difficult to stop short of a dangerous inflation. . . .

Instead of ending up, therefore, with the establishment of a golden mean of prosperity, unbroken by any deviation towards less or more, the depression will be marked in its later stages by a new complication. At the time when the reduction of wages is beginning to be accompanied not merely by an increase of employment, but also by an increase of profits, the banks will find that cash is beginning to accumulate in their vaults. They will ease off the rate of interest to something a little below the profit rate, and dealers will take advantage of the low rate to add to their stocks. The manufacturers will become aware of an increase in orders, and they will find that they can occupy their plant more fully. And now that stocks and output are both increased, borrowing will be increased and the bankers will have gained their end. But then the new accession to the amount of credit money means a corresponding increase of purchasing power. At existing prices the dealers find that their stocks are being depleted by the growing demand from the consumer. The prospect of rising prices is an inducement to add to their stocks as much as they can at existing prices, and so their order to the manufacturers grow, wholesale prices go up; and as the consumers’ demands on the dealers’ stocks grow, retail prices go up; ans as prices go up, the money needed to finance a given quantity of goods grows greater and greater, and both dealers and manufacturers borrow more and more from their bankers. In fact here are all the characteristics of a period of trade expansion in full swing. (pp. 190-92)

How far such a cumulative process of credit expansion can proceed before it reaches its upper turning point depends on the willingness of the banks to continue supplying credit with an ever smaller margin of reserves relative to liabilities.

The total credit money created by the banks will be so limited by them as not to outstrip the capacities of these working balances [deposits of the banks at the Bank of England], while the Bank of England will not allow the balances to grow out of proportion to its own cash holdings. It is indeed almost, though not quite, true to say that the entire stock of credit money in England is built up not on the cash holdings of the banks taken as a whole, but on the Reserve of the Bank of England. And as the legal tender money in circulation is something like four times the average amount of the reserves, it is obvious that a small proportional change in the quantity in circulation will produce a relatively large proportional change in the reserve, and therefor in the stock of credit money. The Bank of England does not maintain blindly a fixed proportion between reserve and deposits, so that a given change in the reserve isnot reflected immediately in the stock of credit money, but of course when there is a marked increase in the reserve there is a tendency toward a marked increase in the deposits and through the other banks towards a general increase in credit money. (pp. 195-96)

But as the expansion proceeds, and businesses begin to expect to profit from selling their output at rising prices, businesses short of workers with which to increase output will start bidding up wages.

Production having been stimulated to great activity there is a scarcity of labour, or at any rate of properly trained and competent labour, and employers are so anxious ot get the benefit of the high profits that ehy are more ready than usual to make concessions in preference to facing strikes which would leave their workers idle. There follows a period of full employment and rising wages. But this means growing cash requirements, and sooner or later the banks must take action to prevent their reserves being depleted. If they act in time they may manage to relieve the inflation of credit money gradually and an actual financial crisis may be avoided. But in either case there must ensue a period of slack trade. Here, therefore, we have proved that there is an inherent tendency toward fluctuations in the banking institutions which prevail in the world as it is. (p. 199)

This built-in cyclical pattern may also be amplified by other special factors.

Another cause which tends to aggravate trade fluctuations is that imprudent banking is profitable. In a period of buoyant trade such as marks the recovery from a state of depression the profit rate is high, and the rate of interest received by the banks on their loans and discounts is correspondingly high. It may be that during the depression the banks have had to be content with 1 or 1.5 percent. When the recovery begins they find in quite a short time that they can earn 4 or 5 percent. This is not 4 or 5 percent on their own capital, but on the money which they lend, which may be for ten times their capital. That portion of their deposits which is represented by cash in hand is idle and earns nothing, and they are eager to swell their profits by reducing their cash and reserves and increasing their loans and discounts. Working balances are more or less elastic and can at a pinch be reduced, but the lower its reserves fall the more likely is the bank to find it necessary to borrow from other institutions. Again, the reader a bank is to lend, the more likely it is to lend to speculative enterprises, the more likely it is to suffer losses through the total or perhaps temporary failure of such enterprises, and the more likely it is to show a balance on the wrong side of its accounts when it needs to borrow. When many banks have yielded to these temptations a crisis is almost inevitable, or if an acute crisis with its accompaniment of widespread bankruptcies is avoided, there is bound to be a very severe and probably prolonged depression during which the top-heavy structure of credit money is gently pulled down brick by brick. . . .

It will probably be only a minority of the banks that overreach themselves in speculation, and it may not occur in all countries. But the prudent banks have no means of guarding themselves against the consequences of their neighbours’ rashness. They could hardly be expected to increase their reserves beyond what they believe to be a prudent proportion. It is true that a central bank, in those countries where such an institution exists, can take this precaution. But it will only do so if aware of the over-speculation. Of this, however, it will have no accurate or complete knowledge, and it will experience great difficulty in determining what measures are to be taken. (pp. 200-02)

Hawtrey elaborates on his account of the cycle in chapter 16 with a discussion of financial crises, which he views as an exceptionally severe cyclical downturn. My next post in this series will focus on that discussion and possibly also on Hawtrey’s discussion in chapter 14 of another special case: the adjustment to an expected rate of deflation that exceeds the real rate of interest.

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2 Responses to “Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part IX: An Endogenous Cycle”

  1. 1 JP Koning November 5, 2013 at 7:40 am

    Just to verify, Hawtrey’s business cycle theory is based on a Humean PSFM mechanism. This is evident because Hawtrey says that banks can independently push prices up by expanding their liabilities during the cumulative stage of the business cycle. Under a classical Smithian mechanism, any over-expansion of convertible liabilities would reflux to their issuer. Is that more or less correct?

  2. 2 David Glasner November 5, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    JP, In Good and Bad Trade, Hawtrey does indeed reason in terms of Humean PSFM. However, if banks reduce interest rates because they have more gold reserves than they want, there will be a tendency for banks to release some of the gold that they are holding, causing gold to lose some of its value (causing inflation). So Hawtrey’s story is not necessarily inconsistent with a non-PSFM theory. The more troublesome inconsistency is that Hawtrey seems to allow for national price levels to diverge and for PSFM to operate to counteract the divergence. I think that he rectified this part of his analysis in his later writings, but I have not documented the evolution of his thinking on this point.

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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