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.