Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part X: Financial Crises and Asset Crashes

After presenting his account of an endogenous cycle in chapters 14 and 15, Hawtrey focuses more specifically in chapter 16 on the phenomenon of a financial crisis, which he considers to be fundamentally a cyclical phenomenon arising because the monetary response to inflation is sharp and sudden rather than gradual. As Hawtrey puts it:

It is not easy to say precisely what constitutes a financial crisis, but broadly it may be defined to be an escape from inflation by way of widespread failures and bankruptcies instead of by a gradual reduction of credit money. (p. 201)

Hawtrey’s focus in his discussion of financial crises is on the investment in fixed capital, having already discussed the role of inventory investment by merchants and traders in his earlier explanation of how variations in the lending rates of the banking system can lead to cumulative expansions or contractions through variations in the desired holdings of inventories by traders and merchants. New investments in fixed capital are financed, according to Hawtrey, largely out of the savings of the wealthy, which are highly pro-cyclical. The demand for new investment projects by businesses is also pro-cyclical, depending on the expected profit of businesses from installing new capital assets, the expected profit, in turn, depending on the current effective demand.

The financing for new long-term investment projects is largely channeled to existing businesses through what Hawtrey calls the investment market, the most important element of which is the stock exchange. The stock exchange functions efficiently only because there are specialists whose business it is to hold inventories of various stocks, being prepared to buy those stocks from those wishing to sell them or sell those stock to those wishing to buy them, at prices that seem at any moment to be market-clearing, i.e, at prices that keep buy and sell orders roughly in balance. The specialists, like other traders and middlemen, finance their holdings of inventories by borrowing from banks, using the proceeds from purchases and sales – corresponding to the bid-ask spread  – to repay their indebtedness to the banks. Unlike commercial traders and merchants, the turnover of whose inventories is relatively predictable with little likelihood of large price swings, and can obtain short-term financing for a fixed term, stock dealers hold inventories that are not very predictable in their price and turnover, and therefore can obtain financing only on a day to day basis, or “at call.” The securities held by the stock dealer serves as collateral for the loan, and banks require the dealer to hold securities with a value exceeding some minimum percentage (margin) of the dealer’s indebtedness to the bank.

New investment financed by the issue of stock must ultimately be purchased by savers who are seeking profitable investment opportunities into which to commit their savings. Existing firms may sometimes finance new projects by issuing new stock, but more often they issue debt or retained earnings to finance investment. Debt financing can be obtained by issuing bonds or preferred stock or by borrowing from banks. New issues of stock have to be underwritten and marketed through middlemen who expect to earn a return on their underwriting or marketing function and must have financing resources sufficient to bear risk of holding a large stock of securities until they are sold to the public.

Now at a time of expanding trade and growing inflation, when there is a general expectation of high profits and at the same time there is a flood of savings seeking investment, an underwriter’s business yields a good profit at very little risk. But at the critical moment when the banks are compelled to intervene to reduce the inflation this is changed. There is a sudden diminution of profits which simultaneously checks the accumulation of savings and dispels the expectation of high profits. An underwriter may find that the diminution of savings upsets his calculations and leaves on his hands a quantity of securities for which before the tide turned he could have found a ready market and that the prospect of disposing of these securities grows less and less with the steady shrinkage in the demand for investments and the falling prospect of high dividends. . . . (pp. 210-11)

It will be seen, then, that of all the borrowers from the bans those who borrow for the purposes of the investment market are the most liable to failure when the period of good trade comes to an end. And as it happens, it is they who are most at the mercy of the banks in times of trouble. For it is their habit to borrow from day to day, and the bans, since they cannot call in loans to traders which will only mature after several weeks or months, are apt to try to reduce an excess of credit money by refusing to lend from day to day. If that happens, the investment market will suddenly have to find the money which the banks want. The total amount of ready money in the hands of the whole investment market will probably be quite small, and, except in so far as they can persuade the bans to wait (in consideration probably of a high rate of interest), they must raise money by selling securities. But there are limits to the amount that can be raised in this way. The demand for investments is very inelastic. The money offered at any time is ordinarily simply the amount of accumulated savings of the community till then uninvested. This total can only be added to by people investing sums which they would otherwise leave as part of their working balances of money, and they cannot be induced to increase their investments very much in this way, however low the price in proportion to the yield of the securities offered. Consequently when the banks curtail the accommodation which they give to the investment market and the investment market tries to raise money by selling securities, the prices of securities may fall heavily without attracting much additional money. Meanwhile the general fall in the prices of securities will undermine the position of the entire investment market, since the value of the assets held against their liabilities to the banks will be depreciated. If the banks insist on payment in such circumstances a multitude of failures on the Stock Exchange and in the investment market must follow. The knowledge of this will deter the banks from making the last turn of the screw if they can help it. But it may be that the banks themselves are acting under dire necessity. If they have let the creation of credit get beyond their control, if they are on the point of running short of the legal tender money necessary to meet the daily demands upon them, they must have no alternative but to insist on payment. When the collapse comes it is not unlikely that that some of the banks themselves will be dragged down by it. A bank which has suffered heavy losses may be unable any longer to show an excess of assets over liabilities, and if subjected to heavy demands may be unable to borrow to meet them.

The calling in of loans from the investment market enables the banks to reduce the excess of credit money rapidly. The failure of one or more banks, by annihilating the credi money based upon their demand liabilities, hastens the process still more. A crisis therefore has the effect of bringing a trade depression into being with striking suddenness. . . .

It should not escape attention that even in a financial crisis, which is ordinarily regarded as simply a “collapse of credit,” credit only plays a secondary part. The shortage of savings, which curtails the demand for investments, and the excess of credit money, which leads the banks to call in loans, are causes at least as prominent as the impairment of credit. And the impairment of credit itself is not a mere capricious loss of confidence, but is a revised estimate of the profits of commercial enterprises in general, which is based on the palpable facts of the market. The wholesale depreciation of securities at such a time is not due to a vague “distrust” but partly to the plain fact that the money values of the assets which they represent are falling and partly to forced sales necessitated by the sudden demand for money. . . .[T]he crisis dos not originate in distrust. Loss of credit in fact is only a symptom. (pp. 212-14)

Let me now go back to Hawtrey’s discussion in chapter 14 in which he considers the effect of expected inflation or deflation on the rate of interest (i.e., the Fisher effect). This discussion is one of the few, if not the only one, that I have seen that consders the special case in which expected deflation is actually greater than the real (or natural) rate of interest. In my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations” I suggested that such a situation would account for a sudden crash of asset values such as occurred in September and October of 2008.

It is in order to counteract the effect of the falling prices that the bankers fix a rate of interest lower than the natural rate by the rate at which prices are believed to be falling. If they fail to do this they will find their business gradually falling off and superfluous stocks of gold accumulating in their vaults. Here may digress for a moment to consider a special case. What if the rate of depreciation of prices is actually greater than the natural rate of interest? If that is so nothing that the bankers can do will make borrowing sufficiently attractive. Business will be revolving in a vicious circle; the dealers unwilling to buy in a falling market, the manufacturers unable to maintain their output in face of ever-diminishing orders, dealers and manufacturers alike cutting down their borrowings in proportion to the decline of business, demand falling in proportion to the shrinkage in credit money, and with the falling demand, the dealers more unwilling to buy than ever. This, which may be called “stagnation” of trade, is of course exceptional, but it deserves our attention in passing.

From the apparent impasse there is one way out – a drastic reduction of money wages. If at any time this step is taken the spell will be broken. Wholesale prices will fall abruptly, the expectation of a further fall will cease, dealers will begin to replenish their stocks, manufacturers to increase their output, dealers and manufacturers alike will borrow again, and the stock of credit money will grow. In fact the profit rate will recover, and will again equal or indeed exceed the natural rate. The market rate, however, will be kept below the profit rate, since in the preceding period of stagnation the bankers’ reserves will have been swollen beyond the necessary proportions, and the bankers will desire to develop their loan and discount business. It should be observed that this phenomenon of stagnation will only be possible where the expected rate of depreciation of prices of commodities happens to be high. As to the precise circumstances in which this will be so, it is difficult to arrive at any very definite conclusion. Dealers will be guided partly by the tendency of prices in the immediate past, partly by what they know of the conditions of production.

A remarkable example of trade stagnation occurred at the end of the period from 1873 to 1897, when there had been a prolonged falling off in the gold supply, and in consequence a continuous fall in prices. The rate of interest in London throughout the period of no less than seven years, ending with 1897, averaged only 1.5 percent, and yet superfluous gold went on accumulating in the vaults of the Bank of England. (pp. 186-87)

It seems that Hawtrey failed to see that the circumstances that he is describing here — an expected rate of deflation that exceeds the real rate of interest — would precipitate a crisis. If prices are expected to fall more rapidly than the expected yield on real capital, then the expected return on holding cash exceeds the expected return on holding real assets. If so, holders of real assets will want to sell their assets in order to hold cash, implying that asset prices must start falling. This is precisely the sort of situation that Hawtrey describes in the passages I quoted above from chapter 16, a crisis precipitated by the reversal of an inflationary credit expansion. Exactly why Hawtrey failed to see that the two processes that he describes in chapter 14 and in chapter 16 are essentially equivalent I am unable to say.

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4 Responses to “Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part X: Financial Crises and Asset Crashes”


  1. 1 Blue Aurora November 9, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    Ralph Hawtrey writes some poignant descriptions of financial crises in this chapter, indeed. But out of curiosity, David Glasner, were you aware that some scholars have suggested that Ralph Hawtrey might have had some sort of influence upon Hyman Minsky? (This is disputed, however.)

  2. 2 David Glasner November 16, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    Blue Aurora, If I was aware, I have forgotten. Please provide more details if you have them.


  1. 1 Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part XI: Conclusion | Uneasy Money Trackback on November 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm
  2. 2 Why Fed Inflation-Phobia Mattered | Uneasy Money Trackback on March 4, 2014 at 8:04 pm

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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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