Posts Tagged 'Austrian Business-Cycle Theory'

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.

Advertisements

Hawtrey v. Keynes on the Rate of Interest that Matters

In my previous post, I quoted Keynes’s remark about the “stimulus and useful suggestion” he had received from Hawtrey and the “fundamental sympathy and agreement” that he felt with Hawtrey even though he nearly always disagreed with Hawtrey in detail. One important instance of such simultaneous agreement about principle and disagreement about detail involves their conflicting views about whether it is the short-run rate of interest (bank rate) or the long-run rate of interest (bond rate) that is mainly responsible for the fluctuations in investment that characterize business cycles, the fluctuations that monetary policy should therefore attempt to control.

Already in 1913 in his first work on monetary theory, Good and Bad Trade, Hawtrey had identified the short-term interest rate as the key causal variable in the business cycle, inasmuch as the holdings of inventories that traders want to hold are highly sensitive to the short-term interest rates at which traders borrow to finance those holdings. Increases in the desired inventories induce output increases by manufacturers, thereby generating increased incomes for workers and increased spending by consumers, further increasing the desired holding of stocks by traders. Reduced short-term interest rates, according to Hawtrey, initiated a cumulative process leading to a permanently higher level of nominal income and output. But Keynes disputed whether adjustments in the desired stocks held by traders were of sufficient size to account for the observed fluctuations in income and employment. Instead, Keynes argued, it was fluctuations in fixed-capital investment that accounted for the fluctuations in income and employment characteristic of business cycles. In his retrospective (1969) on the differences between Hawtrey and Keynes, J. R. Hicks observed that “there are large parts of the Treatise [on Money] which are a reply to Currency and Credit Hawtrey’s 1919 book on monetary theory and business cycles. But despite their differences, Hicks emphasized that Hawtrey and Keynes

started from common ground, not only on the need for policy, but in agreement that the instrument of policy was the rate of interest, or “terms of credit,” to be determined, directly or indirectly, by a Central Bank. But what rate of interest? It was Hawtrey’s doctrine that the terms of bank lending had a direct eSect on the activity of trade and industry; traders, having more to pay for credit, would seek to reduce their stocks, being therefore less willing to buy and more willing to sell. Keynes, from the start (or at least from the time of the Treatise 1930) rejected this in his opinion too simple view. He substituted for it (or began by substituting for it) an alternative mechanism through the long rate of interest. A change in the terms of bank lending affected the long rate of interest, the terms on which business could raise long-term capital; only in this roundabout way would a change in the terms of bank lending affect the activity of industry.

I think we can now see, after all that has happened, and has been said, since 1930, that the trouble with both of these views (as they were presented, or at least as they were got over) was that the forces they purported to identify were not strong enough to bear the weight that was put upon them. This is what Keynes said about Hawtrey (I quote from the Treatise):

The whole emphasis is placed on one particular kind of investment, namely, investment by dealers and middlemen in liquid goods-to which a degree of sensitivity to changes in Bank Rate is attributed which certainly does not exist in fact…. [Hawtrey] relies exclusively on the increased costs of business resulting from dearer money. [He] admits that these additional costs will be too small materially to affect the manufacturer, but assumes without investigation that they do materially affect the trader…. Yet probably the question whether he is paying S or 6 per cent for the accommodation he receives from his banker influences the mind of the dealer very little more than it influences the mind of the manufacturer as compared with the current and prospective rate of take-off for the goods he deals in and his expectations as to their prospective price-movements. [Treatise on Money, v. I, pp. 193-95.]

Although Hicks did not do so, it is worth quoting the rest of Keynes’s criticism of Hawtrey

The classical refutation of Hawtrey was given by Tooke in his examination of an argument very similar to Hawtrey’s, put forward nearly a hundred years ago by Joseph Hume. Before the crisis of 1836-37 the partisans of the “currency theory” . . . considered the influence of the Bank of England on the price level only operated through the amount of its circulation; but in 1839 the new-fangled notion was invented that Bank-rate also had an independent influence through its effect on “speculation.”

Keynes then quoted the following passage from Tooke:

There are, doubtless, persons, who, upon imperfect information, and upon insufficient grounds, or with too sanguine a view of contingencies in their favour, speculate improvidently; but their motive or inducement so to speculate is the opinion which, whether well or ill-founded, or whether upon their own view or upon the authority or example of other persons, they entertain the probability of an advance of price. It is not the mere facility of borrowing, or the difference between borrowing at 3 or at 6 percent that supplies the motive for purchasing, or even for selling. Few persons of the description here mentioned ever speculate but upon the confident expectation of an advance of price of at least 10 percent.

In his review of the Treatise, published in The Art of Central Banking, Hawtrey took note of this passage and Keynes’s invocation of Tooke’s comment on Joseph Hume.

This quotation from Tooke is entirely beside the point. My argument relates not to speculators . . . but to regular dealers or merchants. And as to these there is no evidence, in the following passage, that Tooke’s view of the effects of a rise in the rate of interest did not differ very widely from that which I have advocated. In volume v. of his History of Prices (p. 584) he wrote:

Inasmuch as a higher than ordinary rate of interest supposes a contraction of credit, such goods as are held by means of a large proportion of borrowed capital may be forced for sale by a difficulty in obtaining banking accommodation, the measure of which difficulty is in the rate of discount and perhaps in the insufficiency of security. In this view, and in this view only, a rate of interest higher than ordinary may be said to have an influence in depressing prices.

Tooke here concentrates on the effect of a high rate of interest in hastening sales. I should lay more emphasis on delaying purchases. But at any rate he clearly recognizes the susceptibility to credit conditions of the regular dealers in commodities.

And Hicks, after quoting Keynes’s criticism of Hawtrey’s focus on the short-term interest, followed up with following observation about Keynes:

Granted, but could not very much the same be said of Keynes’s own alternative mechanism? One has a feeling that in the years when he was designing the General Theory he was still clinging to it, for it is deeply embedded in the structure of his theory; yet one suspects that before the book left his hands it was already beginning to pass out. It has left a deep mark on the teaching of Keynesian economics, but a much less deep mark upon its practical influence. In the fight that ensued after the publication of the General Theory, it was quite clearly a casualty.

In other words, although Keynes in the Treatise believed that variation in the long-term interest rate could moderate business-cycle fluctuations by increasing or decreasing the amount of capital expenditure by business firms, Keynes in the General Theory was already advocating the direct control of spending through fiscal policy and minimizing the likely effectiveness of trying to control spending via the effect of monetary policy on the long-term interest rate. Hicks then goes on to observe that the most effective response to Keynes’s view that monetary policy operates by way of its effect on the long-term rate of interest came from none other than Hawtrey.

It had taken him some time to mount his attack on Keynes’s “modus operandi of Bank Rate” but when it came it was formidable. The empirical data which Keynes had used to support his thesis were derived from a short period only-the 1920’s; and Hawtrey was able to show that it was only in the first half of that decade (when, in the immediate aftermath of the War, the long rate in England was for that time unusually volatile) that an effect of monetary policy on the long rate, sufficient to give substantial support yo Keynes’s case, was at all readily detectable. Hawtrey took a much longer period. In A Century of Bank Rate which, in spite of the narrowness of its subject, seems to me to be one of his best books, he ploughed through the whole of the British experience from 1844 to the date of writing; and of any effect of Bank Rate (or of any short rate) upon the long rate of interest, sufficient to carry the weight of Keynes’s argument, he found little trace.

On the whole I think that we may infer that Bank Rate and measures of credit restriction taken together rarely, if ever, affected the price of Consols by more than two or three points; whereas a variation of }4 percent in the long-term rate of interest would correspond to about four points in the price of a 3 percent stock.

Now a variation of even less than 1/8 per cent in the long-term rate of interest ought, theoretically and in the long run, to have a definite effect for what it is worth on the volume of capital outlay…. But there is in reality no close adjustment of prospective yield to the rate of interest. Most of the industrial projects offered for exploitation at any time promise yields ever so far above the rate of interest…. [They will not be adopted until] promoters are satisfied that the projects they take up will yield a commensurate profit, and the rate of interest calculated on money raised will probably be no more than a very moderate deduction from this profit. [A Century of Bank Rate pp. 170-71]

Hicks concludes that, as regards the effect of the rate of interest on investment and aggregate spending, Keynes and Hawtrey cancelled each other out, thereby clearing the path for fiscal policy to take over as the key policy instrument for macroeconomic stabilization, a conclusion that Hawtrey never accepted. But Hicks adds an interesting and very modern-sounding (even 40 years on) twist to his argument.

When I reviewed the General Theory, the explicit introduction of expectations was one of the things which I praised; but I have since come to feel that what Keynes gave with one hand, he took away with the other. Expectations do appear in the General Theory, but (in the main) they appear as data; as autonomous influences that come in from outside, not as elements that are moulded in the course of the process that is being analysed. . . .

I would maintain that in this respect Hawtrey is distinctly superior. In his analysis of the “psychological effect” of Bank Rate — it is not just a vague indication, it is analysis — he identifies an element which ought to come into any monetary theory, whether the mechanism with which it is concerned is Hawtrey’s, or any other. . . .

What is essential, on Hawtrey’s analysis, is that it should be possible (and should look as if it were possible) for the Central Bank to take decisive action. There is a world of difference . . . between action which is determinedly directed to imposing restraint, so that it gives the impression that if not effective in itself, it will be followed by further doses of the same medicine; and identically the same action which does not engender the same expectations. Identically the same action may be indecisive, if it appears to be no more than an adjustment to existing market conditions; or if the impression is given that it is the most that is politically possible. If conditions are such that gentle pressure can be exerted in a decisive manner, no more than gentle pressure will, as a rule, be required. But as soon as there is doubt about decisiveness, gentle pressure is useless; even what would otherwise be regarded as violent action may then be ineffective.  [p. 313]

There is a term which was invented, and then spoiled, by Pigou . . . on which I am itching to get my hand; it is the term announcement effect. . . . I want to use the announcement effect of an act of policy to mean the change which takes place in people’s minds, the change in the prospect which they think to be before them, before there is any change which expresses itself in transactions of any kind. It is the same as what Hawtrey calls “psychological effect”; but that is a bad term, for it suggests something irrational, and this is entirely rational. Expectations of the future (entirely rational expectations) [note Hicks’s use of the term “rational expectations before Lucas or Sargent] are based upon the data that are available in the present. An act of policy (if it is what I have called a decisive action) is a significant addition to the data that are available; it should result, and should almost immediately result, in a shift in expectations. This is what I mean by an announcement effect.

What I learn from Hawtrey’s analysis is that the “classical” Bank Rate system was strong, or could be strong, in its announcement effects. Fiscal policy, at least as so far practised, gets from this point of view much worse marks. It is not simply that it is slow, being subject to all sorts of parliamentary and administrative delays; made indecisive, merely because the gap between announcement and effective operation is liable to be so long. This is by no means its only defect. Its announcement effect is poor, for the very reason which is often claimed to be one of its merits its selectivity; for selectivity implies complexity and an instrument which is to have a strong announcement effect should, above all, be simple. [p. 315]

Just to conclude this rather long and perhaps rambling selection of quotes with a tangentially related observation, I will note that Hawtrey’s criticism of Keynes’s identification of the long-term interest rate as the key causal and policy variable for the analysis of business cycles applies with equal force to Austrian business-cycle theory, which, as far as I can tell, rarely, if ever, distinguishes between the effects of changes in short-term and long-term rates caused by monetary policy.

HT: Alan Gaukroger

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.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. 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.

Archives

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,137 other followers

Follow Uneasy Money on WordPress.com
Advertisements