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How the Business Cycle Happens

Mises Daily: Tuesday, September 06, 2005 by


[This excerpt from the first chapters of Murray Rothbard's America's Great Depression (1963) appears in celebration of full publication online. The hard copy is also available from the Mises Institute, introduction by Paul Johnson, for $29. Purchase now.]

Study of business cycles must be based upon a satisfactory cycle theory. Gazing at sheaves of statistics without "pre-judgment" is futile. A cycle takes place in the economic world, and therefore a usable cycle theory must be integrated with general economic theory. And yet, remarkably, such integration, even attempted integration, is the exception, not the rule. Economics, in the last two decades, has fissured badly into a host of airtight compartments — each sphere hardly related to the others. Only in the theories of Schumpeter and Mises has cycle theory been integrated into general economics.[1]

The bulk of cycle specialists, who spurn any systematic integration as impossibly deductive and overly simplified, are thereby (wittingly or unwittingly) rejecting economics itself. For if one may forge a theory of the cycle with little or no relation to general economics, then general economics must be incorrect, failing as it does to account for such a vital economic phenomenon. For institutionalists — the pure data collectors — if not for others, this is a welcome conclusion. Even institutionalists, however, must use theory sometimes, in analysis and recommendation; in fact, they end by using a concoction of ad hoc hunches, insights, etc., plucked unsystematically from various theoretical gardens. Few, if any, economists have realized that the Mises theory of the trade cycle is not just another theory: that, in fact, it meshes closely with a general theory of the economic system.[2] The Mises theory is, in fact, the economic analysis of the necessary consequences of intervention in the free market by bank credit expansion. Followers of the Misesian theory have often displayed excessive modesty in pressing its claims; they have widely protested that the theory is "only one of many possible explanations of business cycles," and that each cycle may fit a different causal theory. In this, as in so many other realms, eclecticism is misplaced. Since the Mises theory is the only one that stems from a general economic theory, it is the only one that can provide a correct explanation. Unless we are prepared to abandon general theory, we must reject all proposed explanations that do not mesh with general economics.

Business Cycles and Business Fluctuations

It is important, first, to distinguish between business cycles and ordinary business fluctuations. We live necessarily in a society of continual and unending change, change that can never be precisely charted in advance. People try to forecast and anticipate changes as best they can, but such forecasting can never be reduced to an exact science. Entrepreneurs are in the business of forecasting changes on the market, both for conditions of demand and of supply. The more successful ones make profits pari passus with their accuracy of judgment, while the unsuccessful forecasters fall by the wayside. As a result, the successful entrepreneurs on the free market will be the ones most adept at anticipating future business conditions. Yet, the forecasting can never be perfect, and entrepreneurs will continue to differ in the success of their judgments. If this were not so, no profits or losses would ever be made in business.

Changes, then, take place continually in all spheres of the economy. Consumer tastes shift; time preferences and consequent proportions of investment and consumption change; the labor force changes in quantity, quality, and location; natural resources are discovered and others are used up; technological changes alter production possibilities; vagaries of climate alter crops, etc. All these changes are typical features of any economic system. In fact, we could not truly conceive of a changeless society, in which everyone did exactly the same things day after day, and no economic data ever changed. And even if we could conceive of such a society, it is doubtful whether many people would wish to bring it about.

It is, therefore, absurd to expect every business activity to be "stabilized" as if these changes were not taking place. To stabilize and "iron out" these fluctuations would, in effect, eradicate any rational productive activity. To take a simple, hypothetical case, suppose that a community is visited every seven years by the seven-year locust. Every seven years, therefore, many people launch preparations to deal with the locusts: produce anti-locust equipment, hire trained locust specialists, etc. Obviously, every seven years there is a "boom" in the locust-fighting industry, which, happily, is "depressed" the other six years. Would it help or harm matters if everyone decided to "stabilize" the locust-fighting industry by insisting on producing the machinery evenly every year, only to have it rust and become obsolete? Must people be forced to build machines before they want them; or to hire people before they are needed; or, conversely, to delay building machines they want — all in the name of "stabilization"? If people desire more autos and fewer houses than formerly, should they be forced to keep buying houses and be prevented from buying the autos, all for the sake of stabilization? As Dr. F.A. Harper has stated:

This sort of business fluctuation runs all through our daily lives. There is a violent fluctuation, for instance, in the harvest of strawberries at different times during the year. Should we grow enough strawberries in greenhouses so as to stabilize that part of our economy throughout the year.[3]

We may, therefore, expect specific business fluctuations all the time. There is no need for any special "cycle theory" to account for them. They are simply the results of changes in economic data and are fully explained by economic theory. Many economists, however, attribute general business depression to "weaknesses" caused by a "depression in building" or a "farm depression." But declines in specific industries can never ignite a general depression. Shifts in data will cause increases in activity in one field, declines in another. There is nothing here to account for a general business depression — a phenomenon of the true "business cycle." Suppose, for example, that a shift in consumer tastes, and technologies, causes a shift in demand from farm products to other goods. It is pointless to say, as many people do, that a farm depression will ignite a general depression, because farmers will buy less goods, the people in industries selling to farmers will buy less, etc. This ignores the fact that people producing the other goods now favored by consumers will prosper; their demands will increase.

The problem of the business cycle is one of general boom and depression; it is not a problem of exploring specific industries and wondering what factors make each one of them relatively prosperous or depressed. Some economists — such as Warren and Pearson or Dewey and Dakin — have believed that there are no such things as general business fluctuations — that general movements are but the results of different cycles that take place, at different specific time-lengths, in the various economic activities. To the extent that such varying cycles (such as the 20-year "building cycle" or the seven-year locust cycle) may exist, however, they are irrelevant to a study of business cycles in general or to business depressions in particular. What we are trying to explain are general booms and busts in business.

In considering general movements in business, then, it is immediately evident that such movements must be transmitted through the general medium of exchange — money. Money forges the connecting link between all economic activities. If one price goes up and another down, we may conclude that demand has shifted from one industry to another; but if all prices move up or down together, some change must have occurred in the monetary sphere. Only changes in the demand for, and/or the supply of, money will cause general price changes. An increase in the supply of money, the demand for money remaining the same, will cause a fall in the purchasing power of each dollar, i.e., a general rise in prices; conversely, a drop in the money supply will cause a general decline in prices. On the other hand, an increase in the general demand for money, the supply remaining given, will bring about a rise in the purchasing power of the dollar (a general fall in prices); while a fall in demand will lead to a general rise in prices. Changes in prices in general, then, are determined by changes in the supply of and demand for money. The supply of money consists of the stock of money existing in the society. The demand for money is, in the final analysis, the willingness of people to hold cash balances, and this can be expressed as eagerness to acquire money in exchange, and as eagerness to retain money in cash balance. The supply of goods in the economy is one component in the social demand for money; an increased supply of goods will, other things being equal, increase the demand for money and therefore tend to lower prices. Demand for money will tend to be lower when the purchasing power of the money-unit is higher, for then each dollar is more effective in cash balance. Conversely, a lower purchasing power (higher prices) means that each dollar is less effective, and more dollars will be needed to carry on the same work.

The purchasing power of the dollar, then, will remain constant when the stock of, and demand for, money are in equilibrium with each other: i.e., when people are willing to hold in their cash balances the exact amount of money in existence. If the demand for money exceeds the stock, the purchasing power of money will rise until the demand is no longer excessive and the market is cleared; conversely, a demand lower than supply will lower the purchasing power of the dollar, i.e., raise prices.

Yet, fluctuations in general business, in the "money relation," do not by themselves provide the clue to the mysterious business cycle. It is true that any cycle in general business must be transmitted through this money relation: the relation between the stock of, and the demand for, money. But these changes in themselves explain little. If the money supply increases or demand falls, for example, prices will rise; but why should this generate a "business cycle"? Specifically, why should it bring about a depression? The early business cycle theorists were correct in focusing their attention on the crisis and depression: for these are the phases that puzzle and shock economists and laymen alike, and these are the phases that most need to be explained.

The Problem: The Cluster of Error

The explanation of depressions, then, will not be found by referring to specific or even general business fluctuations per se. The main problem that a theory of depression must explain is: why is there a sudden general cluster of business errors? This is the first question for any cycle theory. Business activity moves along nicely with most business firms making handsome profits. Suddenly, without warning, conditions change and the bulk of business firms are experiencing losses; they are suddenly revealed to have made grievous errors in forecasting.

A general review of entrepreneurship is now in order. Entrepreneurs are largely in the business of forecasting. They must invest and pay costs in the present, in the expectation of recouping a profit by sale either to consumers or to other entrepreneurs further down in the economy's structure of production. The better entrepreneurs, with better judgment in forecasting consumer or other producer demands, make profits; the inefficient entrepreneurs suffer losses. The market, therefore, provides a training ground for the reward and expansion of successful, far-sighted entrepreneurs and the weeding out of inefficient businessmen. As a rule only some businessmen suffer losses at any one time; the bulk either break even or earn profits. How, then, do we explain the curious phenomenon of the crisis when almost all entrepreneurs suffer sudden losses? In short, how did all the country's astute businessmen come to make such errors together, and why were they all suddenly revealed at this particular time? This is the great problem of cycle theory.

It is not legitimate to reply that sudden changes in the data are responsible. It is, after all, the business of entrepreneurs to forecast future changes, some of which are sudden. Why did their forecasts fail so abysmally?

Another common feature of the business cycle also calls for an explanation. It is the well-known fact that capital-goods industries fluctuate more widely than do the consumer-goods industries. The capital-goods industries — especially the industries supplying raw materials, construction, and equipment to other industries — expand much further in the boom, and are hit far more severely in the depression.

A third feature of every boom that needs explaining is the increase in the quantity of money in the economy. Conversely, there is generally, though not universally, a fall in the money supply during the depression.

The Explanation: Boom and Depression

In the purely free and unhampered market, there will be no cluster of errors, since trained entrepreneurs will not all make errors at the same time.[4] The "boom-bust" cycle is generated by monetary intervention in the market, specifically bank credit expansion to business. Let us suppose an economy with a given supply of money. Some of the money is spent in consumption; the rest is saved and invested in a mighty structure of capital, in various orders of production. The proportion of consumption to saving or investment is determined by people's time preferences — the degree to which they prefer present to future satisfactions. The less they prefer them in the present, the lower will their time preference rate be, and the lower therefore will be the pure interest rate, which is determined by the time preferences of the individuals in society. A lower time-preference rate will be reflected in greater proportions of investment to consumption, a lengthening of the structure of production, and a building-up of capital. Higher time preferences, on the other hand, will be reflected in higher pure interest rates and a lower proportion of investment to consumption. The final market rates of interest reflect the pure interest rate plus or minus entrepreneurial risk and purchasing power components. Varying degrees of entrepreneurial risk bring about a structure of interest rates instead of a single uniform one, and purchasing-power components reflect changes in the purchasing power of the dollar, as well as in the specific position of an entrepreneur in relation to price changes. The crucial factor, however, is the pure interest rate. This interest rate first manifests itself in the "natural rate" or what is generally called the going "rate of profit." This going rate is reflected in the interest rate on the loan market, a rate which is determined by the going profit rate.[5]

Now what happens when banks print new money (whether as bank notes or bank deposits) and lend it to business?[6] The new money pours forth on the loan market and lowers the loan rate of interest. It looks as if the supply of saved funds for investment has increased, for the effect is the same: the supply of funds for investment apparently increases, and the interest rate is lowered. Businessmen, in short, are misled by the bank inflation into believing that the supply of saved funds is greater than it really is. Now, when saved funds increase, businessmen invest in "longer processes of production," i.e., the capital structure is lengthened, especially in the "higher orders" most remote from the consumer. Businessmen take their newly acquired funds and bid up the prices of capital and other producers' goods, and this stimulates a shift of investment from the "lower" (near the consumer) to the "higher" orders of production (furthest from the consumer) — from consumer goods to capital goods industries.[7]

If this were the effect of a genuine fall in time preferences and an increase in saving, all would be well and good, and the new lengthened structure of production could be indefinitely sustained. But this shift is the product of bank credit expansion. Soon the new money percolates downward from the business borrowers to the factors of production: in wages, rents, interest. Now, unless time preferences have changed, and there is no reason to think that they have, people will rush to spend the higher incomes in the old consumption-investment proportions. In short, people will rush to reestablish the old proportions, and demand will shift back from the higher to the lower orders. Capital goods industries will find that their investments have been in error: that what they thought profitable really fails for lack of demand by their entrepreneurial customers. Higher orders of production have turned out to be wasteful, and the malinvestment must be liquidated.

A favorite explanation of the crisis is that it stems from "underconsumption" — from a failure of consumer demand for goods at prices that could be profitable. But this runs contrary to the commonly known fact that it is capital goods, and not consumer goods, industries that really suffer in a depression. The failure is one of entrepreneurial demand for the higher order goods, and this in turn is caused by the shift of demand back to the old proportions.

In sum, businessmen were misled by bank credit inflation to invest too much in higher-order capital goods, which could only be prosperously sustained through lower time preferences and greater savings and investment; as soon as the inflation permeates to the mass of the people, the old consumption-investment proportion is reestablished, and business investments in the higher orders are seen to have been wasteful.[8] Businessmen were led to this error by the credit expansion and its tampering with the free-market rate of interest.

The "boom," then, is actually a period of wasteful misinvestment. It is the time when errors are made, due to bank credit's tampering with the free market. The "crisis" arrives when the consumers come to reestablish their desired proportions. The "depression" is actually the process by which the economy adjusts to the wastes and errors of the boom, and reestablishes efficient service of consumer desires. The adjustment process consists in rapid liquidation of the wasteful investments. Some of these will be abandoned altogether (like the Western ghost towns constructed in the boom of 1816-1818 and deserted during the Panic of 1819); others will be shifted to other uses. Always the principle will be not to mourn past errors, but to make most efficient use of the existing stock of capital. In sum, the free market tends to satisfy voluntarily-expressed consumer desires with maximum efficiency, and this includes the public's relative desires for present and future consumption. The inflationary boom hobbles this efficiency, and distorts the structure of production, which no longer serves consumers properly. The crisis signals the end of this inflationary distortion, and the depression is the process by which the economy returns to the efficient service of consumers. In short, and this is a highly important point to grasp, the depression is the "recovery" process, and the end of the depression heralds the return to normal, and to optimum efficiency. The depression, then, far from being an evil scourge, is the necessary and beneficial return of the economy to normal after the distortions imposed by the boom. The boom, then, requires a "bust."

Since it clearly takes very little time for the new money to filter down from business to factors of production, why don't all booms come quickly to an end? The reason is that the banks come to the rescue. Seeing factors bid away from them by consumer goods industries, finding their costs rising and themselves short of funds, the borrowing firms turn once again to the banks. If the banks expand credit further, they can again keep the borrowers afloat. The new money again pours into business, and they can again bid factors away from the consumer goods industries. In short, continually expanded bank credit can keep the borrowers one step ahead of consumer retribution. For this, we have seen, is what the crisis and depression are: the restoration by consumers of an efficient economy, and the ending of the distortions of the boom. Clearly, the greater the credit expansion and the longer it lasts, the longer will the boom last. The boom will end when bank credit expansion finally stops. Evidently, the longer the boom goes on the more wasteful the errors committed, and the longer and more severe will be the necessary depression readjustment.

Thus, bank credit expansion sets into motion the business cycle in all its phases: the inflationary boom, marked by expansion of the money supply and by malinvestment; the crisis, which arrives when credit expansion ceases and malinvestments become evident; and the depression recovery, the necessary adjustment process by which the economy returns to the most efficient ways of satisfying consumer desires.[9]

What, specifically, are the essential features of the depression-recovery phase? Wasteful projects, as we have said, must either be abandoned or used as best they can be. Inefficient firms, buoyed up by the artificial boom, must be liquidated or have their debts scaled down or be turned over to their creditors. Prices of producers' goods must fall, particularly in the higher orders of production — this includes capital goods, lands, and wage rates. Just as the boom was marked by a fall in the rate of interest, i.e., of price differentials between stages of production (the "natural rate" or going rate of profit) as well as the loan rate, so the depression-recovery consists of a rise in this interest differential. In practice, this means a fall in the prices of the higher-order goods relative to prices in the consumer goods industries. Not only prices of particular machines must fall, but also the prices of whole aggregates of capital, e.g., stock market and real estate values. In fact, these values must fall more than the earnings from the assets, through reflecting the general rise in the rate of interest return.

Since factors must shift from the higher to the lower orders of production, there is inevitable "frictional" unemployment in a depression, but it need not be greater than unemployment attending any other large shift in production. In practice, unemployment will be aggravated by the numerous bankruptcies, and the large errors revealed, but it still need only be temporary. The speedier the adjustment, the more fleeting will the unemployment be. Unemployment will progress beyond the "frictional" stage and become really severe and lasting only if wage rates are kept artificially high and are prevented from falling. If wage rates are kept above the free-market level that clears the demand for and supply of labor, laborers will remain permanently unemployed. The greater the degree of discrepancy, the more severe will the unemployment be.

Secondary Features of Depression: Deflationary Credit Contraction

The above are the essential features of a depression. Other secondary features may also develop. There is no need, for example, for deflation (lowering of the money supply) during a depression. The depression phase begins with the end of inflation, and can proceed without any further changes from the side of money. Deflation has almost always set in, however. In the first place, the inflation took place as an expansion of bank credit; now, the financial difficulties and bankruptcies among borrowers cause banks to pull in their horns and contract credit.[10] Under the gold standard, banks have another reason for contracting credit — if they had ended inflation because of a gold drain to foreign countries. The threat of this drain forces them to contract their outstanding loans. Furthermore the rash of business failures may cause questions to be raised about the banks; and banks, being inherently bankrupt anyway, can ill afford such questions.[11] Hence, the money supply will contract because of actual bank runs, and because banks will tighten their position in fear of such runs.

Another common secondary feature of depressions is an increase in the demand for money. This "scramble for liquidity" is the result of several factors: (1) people expect falling prices, due to the depression and deflation, and will therefore hold more money and spend less on goods, awaiting the price fall; (2) borrowers will try to pay off their debts, now being called by banks and by business creditors, by liquidating other assets in exchange for money; (3) the rash of business losses and bankruptcies makes businessmen cautious about investing until the liquidation process is over.

With the supply of money falling, and the demand for money increasing, generally falling prices are a consequent feature of most depressions. A general price fall, however, is caused by the secondary, rather than by the inherent, features of depressions. Almost all economists, even those who see that the depression adjustment process should be permitted to function unhampered, take a very gloomy view of the secondary deflation and price fall, and assert that they unnecessarily aggravate the severity of depressions. This view, however, is incorrect. These processes not only do not aggravate the depression, they have positively beneficial effects.

There is, for example, no warrant whatever for the common hostility toward "hoarding." There is no criterion, first of all, to define "hoarding"; the charge inevitably boils down to mean that A thinks that B is keeping more cash balances than A deems appropriate for B. Certainly there is no objective criterion to decide when an increase in cash balance becomes a "hoard." Second, we have seen that the demand for money increases as a result of certain needs and values of the people; in a depression, fears of business liquidation and expectations of price declines particularly spur this rise. By what standards can these valuations be called "illegitimate"? A general price fall is the way that an increase in the demand for money can be satisfied; for lower prices mean that the same total cash balances have greater effectiveness, greater "real" command over goods and services. In short, the desire for increased real cash balances has now been satisfied.

Furthermore, the demand for money will decline again as soon as the liquidation and adjustment processes are finished. For the completion of liquidation removes the uncertainties of impending bankruptcy and ends the borrowers' scramble for cash. A rapid unhampered fall in prices, both in general (adjusting to the changed money-relation), and particularly in goods of higher orders (adjusting to the malinvestments of the boom) will speedily end the realignment processes and remove expectations of further declines. Thus, the sooner the various adjustments, primary and secondary, are carried out, the sooner will the demand for money fall once again. This, of course, is just one part of the general economic "return to normal."

Neither does the increased "hoarding" nor the fall of prices at all interfere with the primary depression-adjustment. The important feature of the primary adjustment is that the prices of producers' goods fall more rapidly than do consumer good prices (or, more accurately, that higher order prices fall more rapidly than do those of lower order goods); it does not interfere with the primary adjustment if all prices are falling to some degree. It is, moreover, a common myth among laymen and economists alike, that falling prices have a depressing effect on business. This is not necessarily true. What matters for business is not the general behavior of prices, but the price differentials between selling prices and costs (the "natural rate of interest"). If wage rates, for example, fall more rapidly than product prices, this stimulates business activity and employment.

Deflation of the money supply (via credit contraction) has fared as badly as hoarding in the eyes of economists. Even the Misesian theorists deplore deflation and have seen no benefits accruing from it.[12] Yet, deflationary credit contraction greatly helps to speed up the adjustment process, and hence the completion of business recovery, in ways as yet unrecognized. The adjustment consists, as we know, of a return to the desired consumption-saving pattern. Less adjustment is needed, however, if time preferences themselves change: i.e., if savings increase and consumption relatively declines. In short, what can help a depression is not more consumption, but, on the contrary, less consumption and more savings (and, concomitantly, more investment). Falling prices encourage greater savings and decreased consumption by fostering an accounting illusion. Business accounting records the value of assets at their original cost. It is well known that general price increases distort the accounting-record: what seems to be a large "profit" may only be just sufficient to replace the now higher-priced assets. During an inflation, therefore, business "profits" are greatly overstated, and consumption is greater than it would be if the accounting illusion were not operating — perhaps capital is even consumed without the individual's knowledge. In a time of deflation, the accounting illusion is reversed: what seem like losses and capital consumption, may actually mean profits for the firm, since assets now cost much less to be replaced. This overstatement of losses, however, restricts consumption and encourages saving; a man may merely think he is replacing capital, when he is actually making an added investment in the business.

Credit contraction will have another beneficial effect in promoting recovery. For bank credit expansion, we have seen, distorts the free market by lowering price differentials (the "natural rate of interest" or going rate of profit) on the market. Credit contraction, on the other hand, distorts the free market in the reverse direction. Deflationary credit contraction's first effect is to lower the money supply in the hands of business, particularly in the higher stages of production. This reduces the demand for factors in the higher stages, lowers factor prices and incomes, and increases price differentials and the interest rate. It spurs the shift of factors, in short, from the higher to the lower stages. But this means that credit contraction, when it follows upon credit expansion, speeds the market's adjustment process. Credit contraction returns the economy to free-market proportions much sooner than otherwise.

But, it may be objected, may not credit contraction overcompensate the errors of the boom and itself cause distortions that need correction? It is true that credit contraction may overcompensate, and, while contraction proceeds, it may cause interest rates to be higher than free-market levels, and investment lower than in the free market. But since contraction causes no positive mal-investments, it will not lead to any painful period of depression and adjustment. If businessmen are misled into thinking that less capital is available for investment than is really the case, no lasting damage in the form of wasted investments will ensue.[13] Furthermore, in the nature of things, credit contraction is severely limited — it cannot progress beyond the extent of the preceding inflation.[14] Credit expansion faces no such limit.

Government Depression Policy: Laissez-Faire

If government wishes to see a depression ended as quickly as possible, and the economy returned to normal prosperity, what course should it adopt? The first and clearest injunction is: don't interfere with the market's adjustment process. The more the government intervenes to delay the market's adjustment, the longer and more grueling the depression will be, and the more difficult will be the road to complete recovery. Government hampering aggravates and perpetuates the depression. Yet, government depression policy has always (and would have even more today) aggravated the very evils it has loudly tried to cure. If, in fact, we list logically the various ways that government could hamper market adjustment, we will find that we have precisely listed the favorite "anti-depression" arsenal of government policy. Thus, here are the ways the adjustment process can be hobbled:

  1. Prevent or delay liquidation. Lend money to shaky businesses, call on banks to lend further, etc.

  2. Inflate further. Further inflation blocks the necessary fall in prices, thus delaying adjustment and prolonging depression. Further credit expansion creates more malinvestments, which, in their turn, will have to be liquidated in some later depression. A government "easy money" policy prevents the market's return to the necessary higher interest rates.

  3. Keep wage rates up. Artificial maintenance of wage rates in a depression insures permanent mass unemployment. Furthermore, in a deflation, when prices are falling, keeping the same rate of money wages means that real wage rates have been pushed higher. In the face of falling business demand, this greatly aggravates the unemployment problem.

  4. Keep prices up. Keeping prices above their free-market levels will create unsalable surpluses, and prevent a return to prosperity.

  5. Stimulate consumption and discourage saving. We have seen that more saving and less consumption would speed recovery; more consumption and less saving aggravate the shortage of saved-capital even further. Government can encourage consumption by "food stamp plans" and relief payments. It can discourage savings and investment by higher taxes, particularly on the wealthy and on corporations and estates. As a matter of fact, any increase of taxes and government spending will discourage saving and investment and stimulate consumption, since government spending is all consumption. Some of the private funds would have been saved and invested; all of the government funds are consumed.[15] Any increase in the relative size of government in the economy, therefore, shifts the societal consumption-investment ratio in favor of consumption, and prolongs the depression.

  6. Subsidize unemployment. Any subsidization of unemployment (via unemployment "insurance," relief, etc.) will prolong unemployment indefinitely, and delay the shift of workers to the fields where jobs are available.

These, then, are the measures which will delay the recovery process and aggravate the depression. Yet, they are the time-honored favorites of government policy, and, as we shall see, they were the policies adopted in the 1929-1933 depression, by a government known to many historians as a "laissez-faire" administration.

Since deflation also speeds recovery, the government should encourage, rather than interfere with, a credit contraction. In a gold-standard economy, such as we had in 1929, blocking deflation has further unfortunate consequences. For a deflation increases the reserve ratios of the banking system, and generates more confidence in citizen and foreigner alike that the gold standard will be retained. Fear for the gold standard will precipitate the very bank runs that the government is anxious to avoid. There are other values in deflation, even in bank runs, which should not be overlooked. Banks should no more be exempt from paying their obligations than is any other business. Any interference with their comeuppance via bank runs will establish banks as a specially privileged group, not obligated to pay their debts, and will lead to later inflations, credit expansions, and depressions. And if, as we contend, banks are inherently bankrupt and "runs" simply reveal that bankruptcy, it is beneficial for the economy for the banking system to be reformed, once and for all, by a thorough purge of the fractional-reserve banking system. Such a purge would bring home forcefully to the public the dangers of fractional-reserve banking, and, more than any academic theorizing, insure against such banking evils in the future.[16]

The most important canon of sound government policy in a depression, then, is to keep itself from interfering in the adjustment process. Can it do anything more positive to aid the adjustment? Some economists have advocated a government-decreed wage cut to spur employment, e.g., a 10 percent across-the-board reduction. But free-market adjustment is the reverse of any "across-the-board" policy. Not all wages need to be cut; the degree of required adjustments of prices and wages differs from case to case, and can only be determined on the processes of the free and unhampered market.[17] Government intervention can only distort the market further.

There is one thing the government can do positively, however: it can drastically lower its relative role in the economy, slashing its own expenditures and taxes, particularly taxes that interfere with saving and investment. Reducing its tax-spending level will automatically shift the societal saving-investment-consumption ratio in favor of saving and investment, thus greatly lowering the time required for returning to a prosperous economy.[18] Reducing taxes that bear most heavily on savings and investment will further lower social time preferences.[19] Furthermore, depression is a time of economic strain. Any reduction of taxes, or of any regulations interfering with the free market, will stimulate healthy economic activity; any increase in taxes or other intervention will depress the economy further.

In sum, the proper governmental policy in a depression is strict laissez-faire, including stringent budget slashing, and coupled perhaps with positive encouragement for credit contraction. For decades such a program has been labeled"ignorant," "reactionary," or "Neanderthal" by conventional economists. On the contrary, it is the policy clearly dictated by economic science to those who wish to end the depression as quickly and as cleanly as possible.[20]

It might be objected that depression only began when credit expansion ceased. Why shouldn't the government continue credit expansion indefinitely? In the first place, the longer the inflationary boom continues, the more painful and severe will be the necessary adjustment process, Second, the boom cannot continue indefinitely, because eventually the public awakens to the governmental policy of permanent inflation, and flees from money into goods, making its purchases while the dollar is worth more than it will be in future. The result will be a "runaway" or hyperinflation, so familiar to history, and particularly to the modern world.[21] Hyperinflation, on any count, is far worse than any depression: it destroys the currency — the lifeblood of the economy; it ruins and shatters the middle class and all "fixed income groups"; it wreaks havoc unbounded. And furthermore, it leads finally to unemployment and lower living standards, since there is little point in working when earned income depreciates by the hour. More time is spent hunting goods to buy. To avoid such a calamity, then, credit expansion must stop sometime, and this will bring a depression into being.

Preventing Depressions

Preventing a depression is clearly better than having to suffer it. If the government's proper policy during a depression is laissez-faire, what should it do to prevent a depression from beginning? Obviously, since credit expansion necessarily sows the seeds of later depression, the proper course for the government is to stop any inflationary credit expansion from getting under way. This is not a very difficult injunction, for government's most important task is to keep itself from generating inflation. For government is an inherently inflationary institution, and consequently has almost always triggered, encouraged, and directed the inflationary boom. Government is inherently inflationary because it has, over the centuries, acquired control over the monetary system. Having the power to print money (including the "printing" of bank deposits) gives it the power to tap a ready source of revenue. Inflation is a form of taxation, since the government can create new money out of thin air and use it to bid away resources from private individuals, who are barred by heavy penalty from similar "counterfeiting." Inflation therefore makes a pleasant substitute for taxation for the government officials and their favored groups, and it is a subtle substitute which the general public can easily — and can be encouraged to — overlook. The government can also pin the blame for the rising prices, which are the inevitable consequence of inflation, upon the general public or some disliked segments of the public, e.g., business, speculators, foreigners. Only the unlikely adoption of sound economic doctrine could lead the public to pin the responsibility where it belongs: on the government itself.

Private banks, it is true, can themselves inflate the money supply by issuing more claims to standard money (whether gold or government paper) than they could possibly redeem. A bank deposit is equivalent to a warehouse receipt for cash, a receipt which the bank pledges to redeem at any time the customer wishes to take his money out of the bank's vaults. The whole system of "fractional-reserve banking" involves the issuance of receipts which cannot possibly be redeemed. But Mises has shown that, by themselves, private banks could not inflate the money supply by a great deal.[22] In the first place, each bank would find its newly issued uncovered, or "pseudo," receipts (uncovered by cash) soon transferred to the clients of other banks, who would call on the bank for redemption. The narrower the clientele of each bank, then, the less scope for its issue of pseudo-receipts. All the banks could join together and agree to expand at the same rate, but such agreement would be difficult to achieve. Second, the banks would be limited by the degree to which the public used bank deposits or notes as against standard cash; and third, they would be limited by the confidence of the clients in their banks, which could be wrecked by runs at any time.

Instead of preventing inflation by prohibiting fractional-reserve banking as fraudulent, governments have uniformly moved in the opposite direction, and have step-by-step removed these free-market checks to bank credit expansion, at the same time putting themselves in a position to direct the inflation. In various ways, they have artificially bolstered public confidence in the banks, encouraged public use of paper and deposits instead of gold (finally outlawing gold), and shepherded all the banks under one roof so that they can all expand together. The main device for accomplishing these aims has been Central Banking, an institution which America finally acquired as the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Central Banking permitted the centralization and absorption of gold into government vaults, greatly enlarging the national base for credit expansion:[23] it also insured uniform action by the banks through basing their reserves on deposit accounts at the Central Bank instead of on gold. Upon establishment of a Central Bank, each private bank no longer gauges its policy according to its particular gold reserve; all banks are now tied together and regulated by Central Bank action. The Central Bank, furthermore, by proclaiming its function to be a "lender of last resort" to banks in trouble, enormously increases public confidence in the banking system. For it is tacitly assumed by everyone that the government would never permit its own organ — the Central Bank — to fail. A Central Bank, even when on the gold standard, has little need to worry about demands for gold from its own citizens. Only possible drains of gold to foreign countries (i.e., by non-clients of the Central Bank) may cause worry.

The government assured Federal Reserve control over the banks by (1) granting to the Federal Reserve System (FRS) a monopoly over note issue; (2) compelling all the existing "national banks" to join the Federal Reserve System, and to keep all their legal reserves as deposits at the Federal Reserve[24]; and (3) fixing the minimum reserve ratio of deposits at the Reserve to bank deposits (money owned by the public). The establishment of the FRS was furthermore inflationary in directly reducing existing reserve-ratio requirements.[25] The Reserve could then control the volume of money by governing two things: the volume of bank reserves, and the legal reserve requirements. The Reserve can govern the volume of bank reserves (in ways which will be explained below), and the government sets the legal ratio, but admittedly control over the money supply is not perfect, as banks can keep "excess reserves." Normally, however, reassured by the existence of a lender of last resort, and making profits by maximizing its assets and deposits, a bank will keep fully "loaned up" to its legal ratio.

While unregulated private banking would be checked within narrow limits and would be far less inflationary than Central Bank manipulation,[26] the clearest way of preventing inflation is to outlaw fractional-reserve banking, and to impose a 100 percent gold reserve to all notes and deposits. Bank cartels, for example, are not very likely under unregulated, or "free" banking, but they could nevertheless occur. Professor Mises, while recognizing the superior economic merits of 100 percent gold money to free banking, prefers the latter because 100 percent reserves would concede to the government control over banking, and government could easily change these requirements to conform to its inflationist bias.[27] But a 100 percent gold reserve requirement would not be just another administrative control by government; it would be part and parcel of the general libertarian legal prohibition against fraud. Everyone except absolute pacifists concedes that violence against person and property should be outlawed, and that agencies, operating under this general law, should defend person and property against attack. Libertarians, advocates of laissez-faire, believe that "governments" should confine themselves to being defense agencies only. Fraud is equivalent to theft, for fraud is committed when one part of an exchange contract is deliberately not fulfilled after the other's property has been taken. Banks that issue receipts to non-existent gold are really committing fraud, because it is then impossible for all property owners (of claims to gold) to claim their rightful property. Therefore, prohibition of such practices would not be an act of government intervention in the free market; it would be part of the general legal defense of property against attack which a free market requires.[28], [29]

Hoover caused it

What, then, was the proper government policy during the 1920s? What should government have done to prevent the crash? Its best policy would have been to liquidate the Federal Reserve System, and to erect a 100 percent gold reserve money; failing that, it should have liquidated the FRS and left private banks unregulated, but subject to prompt, rigorous bankruptcy upon failure to redeem their notes and deposits. Failing these drastic measures, and given the existence of the Federal Reserve System, what should its policy have been? The government should have exercised full vigilance in not supporting or permitting any inflationary credit expansion. We have seen that the Fed — the Federal Reserve System — does not have complete control over money because it cannot force banks to lend up to their reserves; but it does have absolute anti-inflationary control over the banking system. For it does have the power to reduce bank reserves at will, and thereby force the banks to cease inflating, or even to contract if necessary. By lowering the volume of bank reserves and/or raising reserve requirements, the federal government, in the 1920s as well as today, has had the absolute power to prevent any increase in the total volume of money and credit. It is true that the FRS has no direct control over such money creators as savings banks, savings and loan associations, and life insurance companies, but any credit expansion from these sources could be offset by deflationary pressure upon the commercial banks. This is especially true because commercial bank deposits (1) form the monetary base for the credit extended by the other financial institutions, and (2) are the most actively circulating part of the money supply. Given the Federal Reserve System and its absolute power over the nation's money, the federal government, since 1913, must bear the complete responsibility for any inflation. The banks cannot inflate on their own; any credit expansion can only take place with the support and acquiescence of the federal government and its Federal Reserve authorities. The banks are virtual pawns of the government, and have been since 1913. Any guilt for credit expansion and the consequent depression must be borne by the federal government and by it alone.[30]

Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and served as vice president for academic affairs of the Mises Institute. Comment on the blogSupport Mises.org's online texts.


  1. Various neo-Keynesians have advanced cycle theories. They are integrated, however, not with general economic theory, but with holistic Keynesian systems — systems which are very partial indeed.

  2. There is, for example, not a hint of such knowledge in Haberler's well-known discussion. See Gottfried Haberler, Prosperity and Depression (2nd ed., Geneva, Switzerland: League of Nations, 1939).

  3. F.A. Harper, Why Wages Rise (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1957), pp. 118-19.

  4. Siegfried Budge, Grundzüge der Theoretische Nationalökonomie (Jena, 1925), quoted in Simon S. Kuznets, "Monetary Business Cycle Theory in Germany," Journal of Political Economy (April, 1930): 127-28.

    Under conditions of free competition . . . the market is . . . dependent upon supply and demand . . . there could [not] develop a disproportionality in the production of goods, which could draw in the whole economic system . . . such a disproportionality can arise only when, at some decisive point, the price structure does not base itself upon the play of only free competition, so that some arbitrary influence becomes possible.

    Kuznets himself criticizes the Austrian theory from his empiricist, anti-cause and effect-standpoint, and also erroneously considers this theory to be "static."

  5. This is the "pure time preference theory" of the rate of interest; it can be found in Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949); in Frank A. Fetter, Economic Principles (New York: Century, 1915), and idem, "Interest Theories Old and New," American Economic Review (March, 1914): 68-92.

  6. "Banks," for many purposes, include also savings and loan associations, and life insurance companies, both of which create new money via credit expansion to business. See below for further discussion of the money and banking question.

  7. On the structure of production, and its relation to investment and bank credit, see F.A. Hayek, Prices and Production (2nd ed., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1935); Mises, Human Action; and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, "Positive Theory of Capital," in Capital and Interest (South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian Press, 1959), vol. 2.

  8. "Inflation" is here defined as an increase in the money supply not consisting of an increase in the money metal.

  9. This "Austrian" cycle theory settles the ancient economic controversy on whether or not changes in the quantity of money can affect the rate of interest. It supports the "modern" doctrine that an increase in the quantity of money lowers the rate of interest (if it first enters the loan market); on the other hand, it supports the classical view that, in the long run, quantity of money does not affect the interest rate (or can only do so if time preferences change). In fact, the depression-readjustment is the market's return to the desired free-market rate of interest.

  10. It is often maintained that since business firms can find few profitable opportunities in a depression, business demand for loans falls off, and hence loans and money supply will contract. But this argument overlooks the fact that the banks, if they want to, can purchase securities, and thereby sustain the money supply by increasing their investments to compensate for dwindling loans. Contractionist pressure therefore always stems from banks and not from business borrowers.

  11. Banks are "inherently bankrupt" because they issue far more warehouse receipts to cash (nowadays in the form of "deposits" redeemable in cash on demand) than they have cash available. Hence, they are always vulnerable to bank runs. These runs are not like any other business failures, because they simply consist of depositors claiming their own rightful property, which the banks do not have. "Inherent bankruptcy," then, is an essential feature of any "fractional reserve" banking system. As Frank Graham stated:

    The attempt of the banks to realize the inconsistent aims of lending cash, or merely multiplied claims to cash, and still to represent that cash is available on demand is even more preposterous than . . . eating one's cake and counting on it for future consumption. . . . The alleged convertibility is a delusion dependent upon the right's not being unduly exercised.

    Frank D. Graham, "Partial Reserve Money and the 100% Proposal," American Economic Review (September, 1936): 436.

  12. In a gold standard country (such as America during the 1929 depression), Austrian economists accepted credit contraction as a perhaps necessary price to pay for remaining on gold. But few saw any remedial virtues in the deflation process itself.

  13. Some readers may ask: why doesn't credit contraction lead to malinvestment, by causing overinvestment in lower-order goods and underinvestment in higher-order goods, thus reversing the consequences of credit expansion? The answer stems from the Austrian analysis of the structure of production. There is no arbitrary choice of investing in lower or higher-order goods. Any increased investment must be made in the higher-order goods, must lengthen the structure of production. A decreased amount of investment in the economy simply reduces higher-order capital. Thus, credit contraction will cause not excess of investment in the lower orders, but simply a shorter structure than would otherwise have been established.

  14. In a gold standard economy, credit contraction is limited by the total size of the gold stock.

  15. In recent years, particularly in the literature on the "under-developed countries," there has been a great deal of discussion of government "investment." There can be no such investment, however. "Investment" is defined as expenditures made not for the direct satisfaction of those who make it, but for other, ultimate consumers. Machines are produced not to serve the entrepreneur, but to serve the ultimate consumers, who in turn remunerate the entrepreneurs. But government acquires its funds by seizing them from private individuals; the spending of the funds, therefore, gratifies the desires of government officials. Government officials have forcibly shifted production from satisfying private consumers to satisfying themselves; their spending is therefore pure consumption and can by no stretch of the term be called "investment." (Of course, to the extent that government officials do not realize this, their "consumption" is really waste-spending.)

  16. For more on the problems of fractional-reserve banking, see below.

  17. See W.H. Hutt, "The Significance of Price Flexibility," in Henry Hazlitt, ed., The Critics of Keynesian Economics (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1960), pp. 390-92.

  18. I am indebted to Mr. Rae C. Heiple, II, for pointing this out to me.

  19. Could government increase the investment-consumption ratio by raising taxes in any way? It could not tax only consumption even if it tried; it can be shown (and Prof. Harry Gunnison Brown has gone a long way to show) that any ostensible tax on "consumption" becomes, on the market, a tax on incomes, hurting saving as well as consumption. If we assume that the poor consume a greater proportion of their income than the rich, we might say that a tax on the poor used to subsidize the rich will raise the saving-consumption ratio and thereby help cure a depression. On the other hand, the poor do not necessarily have higher time preferences than the rich, and the rich might well treat government subsidies as special windfalls to be consumed. Furthermore, Harold Lubell has maintained that the effects of a change in income distribution on social consumption would be negligible, even though the absolute proportion of consumption is greater among the poor. See Harry Gunnison Brown, "The Incidence of a General Output or a General Sales Tax," Journal of Political Economy (April, 1939): 254-62; Harold Lubell, "Effects of Redistribution of Income on Consumers' Expenditures," American Economic Review (March, 1947): 157-70.

  20. Advocacy of any governmental policy must rest, in the final analysis, on a system of ethical principles. We do not attempt to discuss ethics in this book. Those who wish to prolong a depression, for whatever reason, will, of course, enthusiastically support these government interventions, as will those whose prime aim is the accretion of power in the hands of the state.

  21. For the classic treatment of hyperinflation, see Costantino Bresciani- Turroni, The Economics of Inflation (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1937).

  22. See Mises, Human Action, pp. 429-45, and Theory of Money and Credit (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953).

  23. When gold — formerly the banks' reserves — is transferred to a newly established Central Bank, the latter keeps only a fractional reserve, and thus the total credit base and potential monetary supply are enlarged. See C.A. Phillips, T.F. McManus, and R.W. Nelson, Banking and the Business Cycle (New York: Macmillan, 1937), pp. 24ff.

  24. Many "state banks" were induced to join the FRS by patriotic appeals and offers of free services. Even the banks that did not join, however, are effectively controlled by the System, for, in order to obtain paper money, they must keep reserves in some member bank.

  25. The average reserve requirements of all banks before 1913 was estimated at approximately 21 percent. By mid-1917, when the FRS had fully taken shape, the average required ratio was 10 percent. Phillips et al. estimate that the inherent inflationary impact of the FRS (pointed out in footnote 23) increased the expansive power of the banking system three-fold. Thus, the two factors (the inherent impact, and the deliberate lowering of reserve requirements) combined to inflate the monetary potential of the American banking system six-fold as a result of the inauguration of the FRS. See Phillips, et al., Banking and the Business Cycle, pp. 23ff.

  26. The horrors of "wildcat banking" in America before the Civil War stemmed from two factors, both due to government rather than free banking: (1) Since the beginnings of banking, in 1814 and then in every ensuing panic, state governments permitted banks to continue operating, making and calling loans, etc. without having to redeem in specie. In short, banks were privileged to operate without paying their obligations. (2) Prohibitions on interstate branch banking (which still exist), coupled with poor transportation, prevented banks from promptly calling on distant banks for redemption of notes.

  27. Mises, Human Action, p. 440.

  28. A common analogy states that banks simply count on people not redeeming all their property at once, and that engineers who build bridges operate also on the principle that not everyone in a city will wish to cross the bridge at once. But the cases are entirely different. The people crossing a bridge are simply requesting a service; they are not trying to take possession of their lawful property, as are the bank depositors. A more fitting analogy would defend embezzlers who would never have been caught if someone hadn't fortuitously inspected the books. The crime comes when the theft or fraud is committed, not when it is finally revealed.

  29. Perhaps a libertarian legal system would consider "general deposit warrants" (which allow a warehouse to return any homogeneous good to the depositor) as "specific deposit warrants," which, like bills of lading, pawn tickets, dock-warrants, etc. establish ownership to specific, earmarked objects. As Jevons stated, "It used to be held as a general rule of law, that any present grant or assignment of goods not in existence is without operation." See W. Stanley Jevons, Money and the Mechanism of Exchange (London: Kegan Paul, 1905), pp. 207-12. For an excellent discussion of the problems of a fractional-reserve money, see Amasa Walker, The Science of Wealth (3rd ed., Boston: Little, Brown, 1867), pp. 126-32, esp. pp. 139-41.

  30. Some writers make a great to-do over the legal fiction that the Federal Reserve System is "owned" by its member banks. In practice, this simply means that these banks are taxed to help pay for the support of the Federal Reserve. If the private banks really "own" the Fed, then how can its officials be appointed by the government, and the "owners" compelled to "own" the Federal Reserve Board by force of government statute? The Federal Reserve Banks should simply be regarded as governmental agencies.