Archive for the 'Austrian Business-Cycle Theory' Category

Why Are Corporations Hoarding all that Cash?

One of the ongoing puzzles of this joyless recovery (to give it the benefit of the doubt) has been the huge accumulation of cash by corporations. The puzzle is that the huge cash hoards that companies are sitting on are being generated by high earnings, high earning reflected in – or, perhaps more accurately, anticipated by — rising stock prices since the stock market bottomed out in March 2009. So one would think that the high earnings would have encouraged these highly profitable companies to expand output, building new capacity and hiring new workers, rather than accumulate all that cash. But the growth in cash holdings by companies has dwarfed the growth in new capital spending and employment. So what gives?

Corporations, obviously, are not all the same, so that any simple broad generalizations about what they are doing and why are very questionable. A disproportionate share of the newly accumulated cash is in the hands of large companies, especially in the telecommunications sector, the most notorious case being Apple, whose hoard is reportedly close to 200 billion dollars. Let me also observe that the increase in cash holding by corporations has been increasing for a long time, especially since the mid-1990s, tapering off in the mid-2000s before dipping during the financial crisis. But the upward trend resumed and accelerated after the crisis.

Here are some of the reasons that I have seen mentioned or have thought of myself for all this corporate cash hoarding.

A basic proposition of the theory of the demand for money is that an increase in uncertainty increases the demand for money. It is certain that the financial crisis was associated with increased uncertainty, raising the demand for money during and, owing to residual effects of the crisis, after the crisis. One might wonder why, if the demand for money increased during the crisis, corporate cash holdings decreased. The answer is that cash flows during the crisis were drastically reduced, requiring companies to expend cash even though they would have preferred to squirrel it away. The crisis was a period of extreme disequilibrium, and corporations (like many other economic agents) were forced way off their demand curves. So some part of the increase in corporate cash holdings can probably be attributed to a general increase in overall macroeconomic uncertainty. However, macroeconomic conditions has been fairly stable now for the last two or three years, at least in the US. So, although one could argue that the general macroeconomic environment is more uncertain than it was before the crisis, it would be hard to argue that uncertainty has not been gradually diminishing over the past few years, even as corporate cash hoards have continued to grow rapidly.

Some people – I don’t have to name them, you know who they are – like to say that the increase in uncertainty is all, or perhaps only mostly, due to the policies of the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve, especially, but not only, Obamacare and quantitative easing. But Obamacare was enacted in 2010, and it has been implemented gradually since then, coming more or less fully into effect this year. So the uncertainty associated with Obamacare should have been decreasing over time. Quantitative easing has been in effect in one form or another for most of the past four years, so people have gotten used to it. There is now uncertainty about when and how it will come to an end, but there is no sign that concerns about its gradual termination are causing any major market disturbances. So one can’t easily attribute the continuing increase in corporate cash-holding to uncertainty caused by Obamacare or quantitative-easing.

There are also microeconomic sources of uncertainty that are specific to particular sectors or industries, accounting for faster rates of increase in cash-holding by particular types of corporations, but the increase in cash-holding has not been confined to any single group of corporations, though large multi-national corporations, especially technology, media, and telecommunications companies have shown the largest increases in cash holdings. A study by economists at the St. Louis Fed suggested that R&D intensive corporations, being subject to high uncertainty owing to the unpredictable outcomes of their R&D activities, have been increasing their cash holdings more rapidly than less R&D intensive corporations. As R&D expenditures increase as a share of total investment, total cash holding by corporations would be expected to increase. But, again, this explanation can account for a long-term trend towards increased corporate cash holding, but not for the surge in corporate cash holding since 2009.

Let’s think again about why a profitable company is holding a lot of cash. So what can a profitable company do with all that cash gushing into its coffers? Well, 1) it can just hold on to the cash, 2) it could invest in new plant and equipment, (we’ll come back to this in a moment), 3) it could go out and buy other companies, 4) it could pay bonuses to some or all of the employees (guess which ones) of the company, or 5) it could return the cash to the owners of the company by paying dividends or by repurchasing stock.

As promised, let’s now think a bit more about option 2). There are broadly speaking three categories of capital investment. First, there is capital investment that replaces old and depreciating equipment with new and possibly improved equipment, but does not alter the firm’s structure or methods of production. It simply allows the company to keep doing what it has been doing, but perhaps a little bit more efficiently. Second, there is capital investment that aims to alter the structure of production, by adopting a new method or technique of production. Third, there is capital investment intended to increase the total productive capacity of the firm, enabling the firm to expand its output and increase its sales.

Notice that the first category is necessary for any firm unless it is about to go out of business. A firm may postpone such investment if it is not currently profitable, but it can’t postpone it for long without compromising the viability of the firm. Capital replacement is important, but to a large extent it is automatic, not being sensitive to relatively small changes in economic incentives.

The second category does depend importantly on the relative profitability of different techniques, and these decisions require pretty careful and detailed assessments by corporate management to decide which ones will be profitable and should be undertaken and which ones are unlikely to be profitable or involve too much risk to be undertaken. I note parenthetically that it is only a subset (probably a small subset) of this category that is sensitive to the interest-rate mechanism that looms so large in Austrian business-cycle theory. To presume that this probably small sub-category of interest-sensitive investment is what drives the business cycle involves a huge, and empirically unsupported, assumption.

The third – and undoubtedly the largest — category depends primarily not on calculations about the relative cost and profitability of different techniques, but on expectations about future demand for the firm’s output. If firms believe that they can increase sales at current prices, they will expand capacity to produce more output. If they don’t invest in increased capacity, they will probably lose market share to their competitors.

So, if corporations have been accumulating cash rather than investing in new plant and equipment to expand output – the sort of investment that would involve major expenditures and a significant drawdown of cash hoards — the most obvious explanation seems to be that firms don’t expect future demand at current prices to increase enough to justify such investments. A surge in corporate cash holding is an indication that corporate expectations about future demand are not very optimistic. Mildly pessimistic expectations about future demand are not inconsistent with high current profitability and rising stock prices.

I will not comment about why companies are not using their cash to buy other companies or to pay more and bigger bonuses to employees, but I do want to say something about why companies aren’t paying higher dividends to stockholders or buying back stock. One reason that they are not increasing dividend payments is that dividends are not tax-deductible. The non-deductibility of dividends is a terrible flaw in our corporate tax code. (See this post about Hyman Minsky’s opinion of the corporate income tax.) It penalizes giving the owners of companies the ability to decide how to allocate their capital, locking up capital in existing corporations because capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than dividends.

Now it would still be possible for corporations with excess cash to repurchase stock, allowing stockholders to be taxed at the lower rate on capital gains instead of the higher rate on dividends. But for multinational corporations, there is another obstacle to returning cash to stockholders either by paying dividends or by stock repurchase: cash now held overseas would be subject to the 35% corporate tax rate on either dividends or stock repurchases, imposing a huge penalty on returning idle cash to stockholders. So, instead of the cash being made available to millions of stockholders to spend or invest as they wish, creating new demand for output or providing capital to firms seeking new financing, the money is now effectively embargoed in corporate treasuries. What a waste.

Hayek v. Hawtrey on the Trade Cycle

While searching for material on the close and multi-faceted relationship between Keynes and Hawtrey which I am now studying and writing about, I came across a remarkable juxtaposition of two reviews in the British economics journal Economica, published by the London School of Economics. Economica was, after the Economic Journal published at Cambridge (and edited for many years by Keynes), probably the most important economics journal published in Britain in the early 1930s. Having just arrived in Britain in 1931 to a spectacularly successful debut with his four lectures at LSE, which were soon published as Prices and Production, and having accepted the offer of a professorship at LSE, Hayek began an intense period of teaching and publishing, almost immediately becoming the chief rival of Keynes. The rivalry had been more or less officially inaugurated when Hayek published the first of his two-part review-essay of Keynes’s recently published Treatise on Money in the August 1931 issue of Economica, followed by Keynes’s ill-tempered reply and Hayek’s rejoinder in the November 1931 issue, with the second part of Hayek’s review appearing in the February 1932 issue.

But interestingly in the same February issue containing the second installment of Hayek’s lengthy review essay, Hayek also published a short (2 pages, 3 paragraphs) review of Hawtrey’s Trade Depression and the Way Out immediately following Hawtrey’s review of Hayek’s Prices and Production in the same issue. So not only was Hayek engaging in controversy with Keynes, he was arguing with Hawtrey as well. The points at issue were similar in the two exchanges, but there may well be more to learn from the lower-key, less polemical, exchange between Hayek and Hawtrey than from the overheated exchange between Hayek and Keynes.

So here is my summary (in reverse order) of the two reviews:

Hayek on Trade Depression and the Way Out.

Hayek, in his usual polite fashion, begins by praising Hawtrey’s theoretical eminence and skill as a clear expositor of his position. (“the rare clarity and painstaking precision of his theoretical exposition and his very exceptional knowledge of facts making anything that comes from his pen well worth reading.”) However, noting that Hawtrey’s book was aimed at a popular rather than a professional audience, Hayek accuses Hawtrey of oversimplification in attributing the depression to a lack of monetary stimulus.

Hayek proceeds in his second paragraph to explain what he means by oversimplification. Hayek agrees that the origin of the depression was monetary, but he disputes Hawtrey’s belief that the deflationary shocks were crucial.

[Hawtrey’s] insistence upon the relation between “consumers’ income” and “consumers’ outlay” as the only relevant factor prevents him from seeing the highly important effects of monetary causes upon the capitalistic structure of production and leads him along the paths of the “purchasing power theorists” who see the source of all evil in the insufficiency of demand for consumers goods. . . . Against all empirical evidence, he insists that “the first symptom of contracting demand is a decline in sales to the consumer or final purchaser.” In fact, of course, depression has always begun with a decline in demand, not for consumers’ goods but for capital goods, and the one marked phenomenon of the present depression was that the demand for consumers’ goods was very well maintained for a long while after the crisis occurred.

Hayek’s comment seems to me to misinterpret Hawtrey slightly. Hawtrey wrote “a decline in sales to the consumer or final purchaser,” which could refer to a decline in the sales of capital equipment as well as the sales of consumption goods, so Hawtrey’s assertion was not necessarily inconsistent with Hayek’s representation about the stability of consumption expenditure immediately following a cyclical downturn. It would also not be hard to modify Hawtrey’s statement slightly; in an accelerator model, with which Hawtrey was certainly familiar, investment depends on the growth of consumption expenditures, so that a leveling off of consumption, rather than an actual downturn in consumption, would suffice to trigger the downturn in investment which, according to Hayek, was a generally accepted stylized fact characterizing the cyclical downturn.

Hayek continues:

[W]hat Mr. Hawtrey, in common with many other English economists [I wonder whom Hayek could be thinking of], lacks is an adequate basic theory of the factors which affect [the] capitalistic structure of production.

Because of Hawtrey’s preoccupation with the movements of the overall price level, Hayek accuses Hawtrey of attributing the depression solely “to a process of deflation” for which the remedy is credit expansion by the central banks. [Sound familiar?]

[Hawtrey] seems to extend [blame for the depression] on the policy of the Bank of England even to the period before 1929, though according to his own criterion – the rise in the prices of the original factors of production [i.e., wages] – it is clear that, in that period, the trouble was too much credit expansion. “In 1929,” Mr. Hawtrey writes, “when productive activity was at its highest in the United States, wages were 120 percent higher than in 1913, while commodity prices were only 50 percent higher.” Even if we take into account the fact that the greater part of this rise in wages took place before 1921, it is clear that we had much more credit expansion before 1929 than would have been necessary to maintain the world-wage-level. It is not difficult to imagine what would have been the consequences if, during that period, the Bank of England had followed Mr. Hawtrey’s advice and had shown still less reluctance to let go. But perhaps, this would have exposed the dangers of such frankly inflationist advice quicker than will now be the case.

A remarkable passage indeed! To accuse Hawtrey of toleration of inflation, he insinuates that the 50% rise in wages from 1913 to 1929, was at least in part attributable to the inflationary policies Hawtrey was advocating. In fact, I believe that it is clear, though I don’t have easy access to the best data source C. H. Feinstein’s “Changes in Nominal Wages, the Cost of Living, and Real Wages in the United Kingdom over Two Centuries, 1780-1990,” in Labour’s Reward edited by P. Schoillers and V. Zamagni (1995). From 1922 to 1929 the overall trend of nominal wages in Britain was actually negative. Hayek’s reference to “frankly inflationist advice” was not just wrong, but wrong-headed.

Hawtrey on Prices and Production

Hawtrey spends the first two or three pages or so of his review giving a summary of Hayek’s theory, explaining the underlying connection between Hayek and the Bohm-Bawerkian theory of production as a process in time, with the length of time from beginning to end of the production process being a function of the rate of interest. Thus, reducing the rate of interest leads to a lengthening of the production process (average period of production). Credit expansion financed by bank lending is the key cyclical variable, lengthening the period of production, but only temporarily.

The lengthening of the period of production can only take place as long as inflation is increasing, but inflation cannot increase indefinitely. When inflation stops increasing, the period of production starts to contract. Hawtrey explains:

Some intermediate products (“non-specific”) can readily be transferred from one process to another, but others (“specific”) cannot. These latter will no longer be needed. Those who have been using them, and still more those who have producing them, will be thrown out of employment. And here is the “explanation of how it comes about at certain times that some of the existing resources cannot be used.” . . .

The originating cause of the disturbance would therefore be the artificially enhanced demand for producers’ goods arising when the creation of credit in favour of producers supplements the normal flow savings out of income. It is only because the latter cannot last for ever that the reaction which results in under-employment occurs.

But Hawtrey observes that only a small part of the annual capital outlay is applied to lengthening the period of production, capital outlay being devoted mostly to increasing output within the existing period of production, or to enhancing productivity through the addition of new plant and equipment embodying technical progress and new inventions. Thus, most capital spending, even when financed by credit creation, is not associated with any alteration in the period of production. Hawtrey would later introduce the terms capital widening and capital deepening to describe investments that do not affect the period of production and those that do affect it. Nor, in general, are capital-deepening investments the most likely to be adopted in response to a change in the rate of interest.

Similarly, If the rate of interest were to rise, making the most roundabout processes unprofitable, it does not follow that such processes will have to be scrapped.

A piece of equipment may have been installed, of which the yield, in terms of labour saved, is 4 percent on its cost. If the market rate of interest rises to 5 percent, it would no longer be profitable to install a similar piece. But that does not mean that, once installed, it will be left idle. The yield of 4 percent is better than nothing. . . .

When the scrapping of plant is hastened on account of the discovery of some technically improved process, there is a loss not only of interest but of the residue of depreciation allowance that would otherwise have accumulated during its life of usefulness. It is only when the new process promises a very suitable gain in efficiency that premature scrapping is worthwhile. A mere rise in the rate of interest could never have that effect.

But though a rise in the rate of interest is not likely to cause the scrapping of plant, it may prevent the installation of new plant of the kind affected. Those who produce such plant would be thrown out of employment, and it is this effect which is, I think, the main part of Dr. Hayek’s explanation of trade depressions.

But what is the possible magnitude of the effect? The transition from activity to depression is accompanied by a rise in the rate of interest. But the rise in the long-term rate is very slight, and moreover, once depression has set in, the long-term rate is usually lower than ever.

Changes are in any case perpetually occurring in the character of the plant and instrumental goods produced for use in industry. Such changes are apt to throw out of employment any highly specialized capital and labour engaged in the production of plant which becomes obsolete. But among the causes of obsolescence a rise in the rate of interest is certainly one of the least important and over short periods it may safely be said to be quite negligible.

Hawtrey goes on to question Hayek’s implicit assumption that the effects of the depression were an inevitable result of stopping the expansion of credit, an assumption that Hayek disavowed much later, but it was not unreasonable for Hawtrey to challenge Hayek on this point.

It is remarkable that Dr. Hayek does not entertain the possibility of a contraction of credit; he is content to deal with the cessation of further expansion. He maintains that at a time of depression a credit expansion cannot provide a remedy, because if the proportion between the demand for consumers’ goods and the demand for producers’ goods “is distorted by the creation of artificial demand, it must mean that part of the available resources is again led into a wrong direction and a definite and lasting adjustment is again postponed.” But if credit being contracted, the proportion is being distorted by an artificial restriction of demand.

The expansion of credit is assumed to start by chance, or at any rate no cause is suggested. It is maintained because the rise of prices offers temporary extra profits to entrepreneurs. A contraction of credit might equally well be assumed to start, and then to be maintained because the fall of prices inflicts temporary losses on entrepreneurs, and deters them from borrowing. Is not this to be corrected by credit expansion?

Dr. Hayek recognizes no cause of under-employment of the factors of production except a change in the structure of production, a “shortening of the period.” He does not consider the possibility that if, through a credit contraction or for any other reason, less money altogether is spent on intermediate products (capital goods), the factors of production engaged in producing these products will be under-employed.

Hawtrey then discusses the tension between Hayek’s recognition that the sense in which the quantity of money should be kept constant is the maintenance of a constant stream of money expenditure, so that in fact an ideal monetary policy would adjust the quantity of money to compensate for changes in velocity. Nevertheless, Hayek did not feel that it was within the capacity of monetary policy to adjust the quantity of money in such a way as to keep total monetary expenditure constant over the course of the business cycle.

Here are the concluding two paragraphs of Hawtrey’s review:

In conclusion, I feel bound to say that Dr. Hayek has spoiled an original piece of work which might have been an important contribution to monetary theory, by entangling his argument with the intolerably cumbersome theory of capital derived from Jevons and Bohm-Bawerk. This theory, when it was enunciated, was a noteworthy new departure in the metaphysics of political economy. But it is singularly ill-adapted for use in monetary theory, or indeed in any practical treatment of the capital market.

The result has been to make Dr. Hayek’s work so difficult and obscure that it is impossible to understand his little book of 112 pages except at the cost of many hours of hard work. And at the end we are left with the impression, not only that this is not a necessary consequence of the difficulty of the subject, but that he himself has been led by so ill-chosen a method of analysis to conclusions which he would hardly have accepted if given a more straightforward form of expression.

My Paper (co-authored with Paul Zimmerman) on Hayek and Sraffa

I have just uploaded to the SSRN website a new draft of the paper (co-authored with Paul Zimmerman) on Hayek and Sraffa and the natural rate of interest, presented last June at the History of Economics Society conference at Brock University. The paper evolved from an early post on this blog in September 2011. I also wrote about the Hayek-Sraffa controversy in a post in June 2012 just after the HES conference.

One interesting wrinkle that occurred to me just as I was making revisions in the paper this week is that Keynes’s treatment of own rates in chapter 17 of the General Theory, which was in an important sense inspired by Sraffa, but, in my view, came to a very different conclusion from Sraffa’s, was actually nothing more than a generalization of Irving Fisher’s analysis of the real and nominal rates of interest, first presented in Fisher’s 1896 book Appreciation and Interest. In his Tract on Monetary Reform, Keynes extended Fisher’s analysis into his theory of covered interest rate arbitrage. What is really surprising is that, despite his reliance on Fisher’s analysis in the Tract and also in the Treatise on Money, Keynes sharply criticized Fisher’s analysis of the nominal and real rates of interest in chapter 13 of the General Theory. (I discussed that difficult passage in the General Theory in this post).  That is certainly surprising. But what is astonishing to me is that, after trashing Fisher in chapter 13 of the GT, Keynes goes back to Fisher in chapter 17, giving a generalized restatement of Fisher’s analysis in his discussion of own rates. Am I the first person to have noticed Keynes’s schizophrenic treatment of Fisher in the General Theory?

PS: My revered teacher, the great Armen Alchian passed away yesterday at the age of 98. There have been many tributes to him, such as this one by David Henderson, also a student of Alchian’s, in the Wall Street Journal. I have written about Alchian in the past (here, here, here, here, and here), and I hope to write about Alchian again in the near future. There was none like him; he will be missed terribly.

Those Dreaded Cantillon Effects

Once again, I find myself slightly behind the curve, with Scott Sumner (and again, and again, and again, and again), Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey out there trying to face down an onslaught of Austrians rallying under the dreaded banner (I won’t say what color) of Cantillon Effects. At this point, the best I can do is some mopping up by making a few general observations about the traditional role of Cantillon Effects in Austrian business cycle theory and how that role squares with the recent clamor about Cantillon Effects.

Scott got things started, as he usually does, with a post challenging an Austrian claim that the Federal Reserve favors the rich because its injections of newly printed money enter the economy at “specific points,” thereby conferring unearned advantages on those lucky or well-connected few into whose hands those crisp new dollar bills hot off the printing press first arrive. The fortunate ones who get to spend the newly created money before the fresh new greenbacks have started on their inflationary journey through the economy are able to buy stuff at pre-inflation prices, while the poor suckers further down the chain of transactions triggered by the cash infusion must pay higher prices before receiving any of the increased spending. Scott’s challenge provoked a fierce Austrian counterattack from commenters on his blog and from not-so-fierce bloggers like Bob Murphy. As is often the case, the discussion (or the shouting) produced no clear outcome, each side confidently claiming vindication. Scott and Nick argued that any benefits conferred on first recipients of cash would be attributable to the fiscal impact of the Fed’s actions (e.g., purchasing treasury bonds with new money rather than helicopter distribution), with Murphy et al. arguing that distinctions between the fiscal and monetary effects of Fed operations are a dodge. No one will be surprised when I say that Scott and Nick got the better of the argument.

But there are a couple of further points that I would like to bring up about Cantillon effects. It seems to me that the reason Cantillon effects were thought to be of import by the early Austrian theorists like Hayek was that they had a systematic theory of the distribution or the incidence of those effects. Merely to point out that such effects exist and redound to the benefits of some lucky individuals would have been considered a rather trivial and pointless exercise by Hayek. Hayek went to great lengths in the 1930s to spell out a theory of how the creation of new money resulting in an increase in total expenditure would be associated with a systematic and (to the theorist) predictable change in relative prices between consumption goods and capital goods, a cheapening of consumption goods relative to capital goods causing a shift in the composition of output in favor of capital goods. Hayek then argued that such a shift in the composition of output would be induced by the increase in capital-goods prices relative to consumption-goods prices, the latter shift, having been induced by a monetary expansion that could not (for reasons I have discussed in previous posts, e.g., here) be continued indefinitely, eventually having to be reversed. This reversal was identified by Hayek with the upper-turning point of the business cycle, because it would trigger a collapse of the capital-goods industries and a disruption of all the production processes dependent on a continued supply of those capital goods.

Hayek’s was an interesting theory, because it identified a particular consequence of monetary expansion for an important sector of the economy, providing an explanation of the economic mechanism and a prediction about the direction of change along with an explanation of why the initial change would eventually turn out to be unsustainable. The theory could be right or wrong, but it involved a pretty clear-cut set of empirical implications. But the point to bear in mind is that this went well beyond merely saying that in principle there would be some gainers and some losers as the process of monetary expansion unfolds.

What accounts for the difference between the empirically rich theory of systematic Cantillon Effects articulated by Hayek over 80 years ago and the empirically trivial version on which so much energy was expended over the past few days on the blogosphere? I think that the key difference is that in Hayek’s cycle theory, it is the banks that are assumed somehow or other to set an interest rate at which they are willing to lend, and this interest rate may or may not be consistent with the constant volume of expenditure that Hayek thought (albeit with many qualifications) was ideal criterion of the neutral monetary policy which he favored. A central bank might or might not be involved in the process of setting the bank rate, but the instrument of monetary policy was (depending on circumstances) the lending rate of the banks, or, alternatively, the rate at which the central bank was willing lending to banks by rediscounting the assets acquired by banks in lending to their borrowers.

The way Hayek’s theory works is through an unobservable natural interest rate that would, if it were chosen by the banks, generate a constant rate of total spending. There is, however, no market mechanism guaranteeing that the lending rate selected by the banks (with or without the involvement of a central bank) coincides with the ideal but unobservable natural rate.  Deviations of the banks’ lending rate from the natural rate cause Cantillon Effects involving relative-price distortions, thereby misdirecting resources from capital-goods industries to consumption-goods industries, or vice versa. But the specific Cantillon effect associated with Hayek’s theory presumes that the banking system has the power to determine the interest rates at which borrowing and lending take place for the entire economy.  This presumption is nowhere ot my knowledge justified, and it does not seem to me that the presumption is even remotely justifiable unless one accepts the very narrow theory of interest known as the loanable-funds theory.  According to the loanable-funds theory, the rate of interest is that rate which equates the demand for funds to be borrowed with the supply of funds available to be lent.  However, if one views the rate of interest (in the sense of the entire term structure of interest rates) as being determined in the process by which the entire existing stock of capital assets is valued (i.e., the price for each asset at which it would be willingly held by just one economic agent) those valuations being mutually consistent only when the expected net cash flows attached to each asset are discounted at the equilibrium term structure and equilibrium risk premia. Given that comprehensive view of asset valuations and interest-rate determination, the notion that banks (with or without a central bank) have any substantial discretion in choosing interest rates is hard to take seriously. And to the extent that banks have any discretion over lending rates, it is concentrated at the very short end of the term structure. I really can’t tell what she meant, but it is at least possible that Joan Robinson was alluding to this idea when, in her own uniquely charming way, she criticized Hayek’s argument in Prices and Production.

I very well remember Hayek’s visit to Cambridge on his way to the London School. He expounded his theory and covered a black board with his triangles. The whole argument, as we could see later, consisted in confusing the current rate of investment with the total stock of capital goods, but we could not make it out at the time. The general tendency seemed to be to show that the slump was caused by [excessive] consumption. R. F. Kahn, who was at that time involved in explaining that the multiplier guaranteed that saving equals investment, asked in a puzzled tone, “Is it your view that if I went out tomorrow and bought a new overcoat, that would increase unemploy- ment?”‘ “Yes,” said Hayek, “but,” pointing to his triangles on the board, “it would take a very long mathematical argument to explain why.”

At any rate, if interest rates are determined comprehensively in all the related markets for existing stocks of physical assets, not in flow markets for current borrowing and lending, Hayek’s notion that the banking system can cause significant Cantillon effects via its control over interest rates is hard to credit. There is perhaps some room to alter very short-term rates, but longer-term rates seem impervious to manipulation by the banking system except insofar as inflation expectations respond to the actions of the banking system. But how does one derive a Cantillon Effect from a change in expected inflation?  Cantillon Effects may or may not exist, but unless they are systematic, predictable, and unsustainable, they have little relevance to the study of business cycles.

And Now Here’s a Kind Word for Austrian Business Cycle Theory

I recently wrote two posts (this and this) about the Austrian Theory of Business Cycles (ABCT) that could be construed as criticisms of the theory, and regular readers of this blog are probably aware that critical comments about ABCT are not unprecedented on this blog. Nevertheless, I am not at all hostile to ABCT, though I am hostile to the overreach of some ABCT enthusiasts who use ABCT as a justification for their own radically nihilistic political agenda of promoting the collapse of our existing financial and monetary system and the resulting depression in the expectation that the apocalypse would lead us into a libertarian free market paradise. So, even though I don’t consider myself an Austrian economist, I now want to redress the balance by saying something positive about ABCT, because I actually believe that the Austrian theory and approach has something important to teach us about business-cycle theory and macroeconomics.

The idea for writing a positive post about Austrian business-cycle theory actually came to me while I was writing my latest installment on Earl Thompson’s reformulation of macroeconomics. The point of my series on Earl Thompson is to explain how Thompson constructed a macroeconomic model in many ways similar to the Keynesian IS-LM model, but on a consistent and explicitly neoclassical foundation. Moreover, by inquiring deeply into the differences between his reformulated model with IS-LM model, Thompson identified some important conceptual shortcomings in the Keynesian model, perhaps most notably the downward-sloping IS curve, a shortcoming with potentially important policy implications.

Now to be able to construct a macroeconomic model at what Thompson called “a Keynesian level of aggregation” (i.e, a model consisting of just four markets, money, output, capital services and labor services) that could also be reconciled with neoclassical production theory, it was necessary to assume that capital and output are a single homogeneous substance that can either be consumed or used as an input in the production process for new output. One can, as Thompson did, construct a consistent model based on these assumptions, a model that may even yield important and useful insights, but it is not clear to me that these minimal assumptions provide a sufficient basis for constructing a reliable macroeconomic model.

What does this have to do with ABCT? Well, ABCT seeks to provide an explanation of business cycles that is built from the ground up based on how individuals engage in rational goal-oriented action in market transactions. In Austrian theory, understanding how market actions are motivated and coordinated is primarily achieved by understanding how relative prices adjust to the market forces of demand and supply. Market determined prices direct resources toward their most highly valued uses given the available resources and the structure of demand for final outputs, while coordinating the separate plans of individual households and business firms. In this view, total aggregate spending is irrelevant as it is nothing more than the sum total of individual decisions. It is the individual decisions that count; total spending is simply the resultant of all those individual decisions, not the determinant of them.  Those decisions are made in light of the incentives and costs faced by the individual decision-makers. Total spending doesn’t figure into their decision-making processes, so what is the point of including it as a variable in the mode?

This mistaken preoccupation of Keynesian macroeconomics with aggregate spending has been the central message of Austrian anti-Keynesianism going back at least to Hayek’s 1931 review of Keynes’s Treatise on Money in which Hayek charged that “Mr. Keynes’s aggregates conceal the most fundamental mechanisms of change.” But the assertion that aggregates are irrelevant to individual decisions is not necessarily valid. Businesses decide on how much they are going to invest based on some forecast of the future demand for their products. Is that forecast of future demand independent of what total spending will be in the future? That is a matter of theoretical judgment, not an issue of methodological malpractice.  Interest rates, a quintessential market price, the rate at which one can transform current commodities or money units into future commodities or future money units, are not independent of forecasts about the future purchasing power of the monetary unit. But the purchasing power of the monetary unit is another one of those illegitimate aggregate about which Austrians complain. So although I sympathize with Austrian mistrust of overly aggregated macroeconomic models, I am not sure that I agree with their specific criticisms about the meaningfulness and relevance of particular aggregates.

So let me offer an alternative criticism of excessive aggregation, but in the context of a different kind of example. Suppose I wish to explain a very simple kind of social interaction in which a decision by one person can lead to a kind of chain reaction followed by a rapid succession of subsequent, but formally, independent, decisions. Think of a crowd of people watching a ball game. The spectators are all seated in their seats.  Suddenly something important or exciting happens on the court or the field and almost instantaneously everyone is standing. Why? As soon as one person stands he blocks the vision of the person behind him, forcing that person to stand, causing a chain reaction. For some reason, the action on the field causes a few people to stand. If those people did not stand, no one else would have stood. In fact, even if the first people to stand stood for reasons that had nothing to do with what was happening on the field, the effect would have been the same, because everyone else would have stood; once their vision is  blocked by people in front of them, spectators have to stand up to to see the action.  But this phenomenon of everyone in a crowd standing when something exciting happens on the ball field happens only with a crowd of spectators of some minimum density.   Below that density, not everyone will be forced to stand just because a few people near the front get up from their seats.

A similar chain reaction, causing a more serious inefficiency, results when traffic slows down to a crawl on an expressway not because of an obstruction, but just because there is something off to the side of the road that some people are slowing down to look at. The effect only happens, or is at least highly sensitive to, the traffic density on the expressway. If the expressway is sufficiently uncrowded, some attention-attracting sight on the side of the road will cause only a minimal slowdown in the flow of traffic.

The point here is that there is something about certain kinds of social phenomena that is very sensitive to certain kinds of interactions between the individuals in the larger group under consideration. The phenomenon cannot be explained unless you take account of how the individuals are interacting. Just looking at the overall characteristics of the group without taking into account the interactions between the individuals will cause you to miss something essential to the process that you are trying to explain. It seems to me that there is something about business-cycle phenomena that is deeply similar to the crowd-like effects in the two examples I gave in the previous paragraph. Aggregation in economic models is not necessarily bad, even Austrians routinely engaging in aggregation in their business-cycle analyses, rarely, for example, discussing changes in the shape of the yield curve, but simply assuming that the entire yield curve rises or falls with “the interest rate.” The question is always a pragmatic one, is the increased tractability of the analysis that aggregation permits worth the impoverishment of the model, by reducing the scope for interactions between the remaining variables. In this respect, it seems to me that real-business cycle models, especially those of the representative-agent ilk, are, by far, the most impoverished of all.  I mean can you imagine, a representative spectator or representative-driver model of either of the social interactions described above?

So my advice, for whatever it’s worth, to Austrians (and non-Austrians) is to try to come up with explanations for why aggregated models suppress some type of interaction between agents that is crucial to the explanation of a phenomenon of interest.  That would be an more useful analytical contribution than simply complaining about aggregation in the abstract.

PS  Via Mark Thoma I see that Alan Kirman has just posted an article on Vox in which he makes a number of points very similar to those that I make here. For example:

The student then moves on to macroeconomics and is told that the aggregate economy or market behaves just like the average individual she has just studied. She is not told that these general models in fact poorly reflect reality. For the macroeconomist, this is a boon since he can now analyse the aggregate allocations in an economy as though they were the result of the rational choices made by one individual. The student may find this even more difficult to swallow when she is aware that peoples’ preferences, choices and forecasts are often influenced by those of the other participants in the economy. Students take a long time to accept the idea that the economy’s choices can be assimilated to those of one individual.


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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