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CHAPTER 19: Money, Credit, and Interest - Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit 
The Theory of Money and Credit, trans. H.E. Batson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Money, Credit, and Interest
On the Nature of the Problem
It is the object of this chapter to investigate the connection between the amount of money in circulation and the level of the rate of interest. It has already been shown that variations in the proportion between the quantity of money and the demand for money influence the level of the exchange ratio between money and other economic goods. It now remains for us to investigate whether the variations thus evoked in the prices of commodities affect goods of the first order and goods of higher orders to the same extent. Until now we have considered variations in the exchange ratio between money and consumption goods only and left out of account the exchange ratio between money and production goods. This procedure would seem to be justifiable, for the determination of the value of consumption goods is the primary process and that of the value of production goods is derived from it. Capital goods or production goods derive their value from the value of their prospective products; nevertheless, their value never reaches the full value of these prospective products, but as a rule remains somewhat below it. The margin by which the value of capital goods falls short of that of their expected products constitutes interest; its origin lies in the natural difference of value between present goods and future goods.56 If price variations due to monetary determinants happened to affect production goods and consumption goods in different degrees—and the possibility cannot be dismissed offhand—then they would lead to a change in the rate of interest. The problem suggested by this is identical with a second, although they are usually dealt with separately: Can the rate of interest be affected by the credit policy of the banks that issue fiduciary media? Are banks able to depress the rate of interest charged by them, for those loans that their power to issue fiduciary media enables them to make, until it reaches the limit set by the technical working costs of their lending business? The question that confronts us here is the much discussed question of the gratuitous nature of bank credit.
In lay circles this problem is regarded as long since solved. Money performs its function as a common medium of exchange in facilitating not only the sale of present goods but also the exchange of present goods for future goods and of future goods for present goods. An entrepreneur who wishes to acquire command over capital goods and labor in order to begin a process of production must first of all have money with which to purchase them. For a long time now it has not been usual to transfer capital goods by way of direct exchange. The capitalists advance money to the producers, who then use it for buying means of production and for paying wages. Those entrepreneurs who have not enough of their own capital at their disposal do not demand production goods, but money. The demand for capital takes on the form of a demand for money. But this must not deceive us as to the nature of the phenomenon. What is usually called plentifulness of money and scarcity of money is really plentifulness of capital and scarcity of capital. A real scarcity or plentifulness of money can never be directly perceptible in the community, that is, it can never make itself felt except through its influence on the objective exchange value of money and the consequences of the variations so induced. For since the utility of money depends exclusively upon its purchasing power, which must always be such that total demand and total supply coincide, the community is always in enjoyment of the maximum satisfaction that the use of money can yield.
This was not recognized for a long time and to a large extent it is not recognized even nowadays. The entrepreneur who would like to extend his business beyond the bounds set by the state of the market is prone to complain of the scarcity of money. Every increase in the rate of discount gives rise to fresh complaints about the illiberality of the banks’ methods or about the unreasonableness of the legislators who make the rules that limit their powers of granting credit. The augmentation of fiduciary media is recommended as a universal remedy for all the ills of economic life. Much of the popularity of inflationary tendencies is based on similar ways of thinking. And it is not only laymen who subscribe to such views. Even if experts have been unanimous on this point since the famous arguments of David Hume and Adam Smith,57 almost every year new writers come forward with attempts to show that the size and composition of the stock of capital has no influence on the level of interest, that the rate of interest is determined by the supply of and the demand for credit, and that, without having to raise the rate of interest, the banks would be able to satisfy even the greatest demands for credit that are made upon them, if their hands were not tied by legislative provisions.58
The superficial observer whose insight is not very penetrating will discover many symptoms which seem to confirm the above views and others like them. When the banks-of-issue proceed to raise the rate of discount because their note circulation threatens to increase beyond the legally permissible quantity, then the most immediate cause of their procedure lies in the provisions that have been made by the legislators for the regulation of their right of issue. The general stiffening of the rate of interest in the so-called money market, the market for short-term capital investments, which occurs, or at least should occur, as a consequence of the rise of the discount rate, is therefore, and with a certain appearance of justification, laid to the charge of national banking policy. Still more striking is the procedure of the central banks when they think it beyond their power to bring about the desired general dearness in the money market by merely increasing the bank rate: they take steps which have the immediate object of forcing up the rate of interest demanded by the other national credit-issuing banks in their short-term-loan business. The Bank of England is in the habit in such circumstances of forcing consols on the open market,59 the German Reichsbank of offering Treasury bonds for discount. If these methods are considered by themselves, without account being taken of their function in the market, then it seems reasonable to conclude that legislation and the self-seeking policy of the banks are responsible for the rise in the rate of interest. Inadequate Understanding of the complicated relationships of economic life makes all such legislative provisions appear to be measures in favor of capitalism and against the interest of the producing classes.60
But the defenders of orthodox banking policy have been no happier in their arguments. They evidence no very considerable insight into the problems lying behind such slogans as “protection of the standard” and “control of excessive speculation.” Their prolix discussions are generously garnished with statistical data that are incapable of proving anything, and they devote scrupulous attention to the avoidance of the big questions of theory that constitute the bulk of their subject. It is undeniable that there are some excellent works of a descriptive nature to be found among the huge piles of valueless publications on banking policy of recent years, but it is equally undeniable that with a few honorable exceptions their contribution to theory cannot compare with the literary memorials left by the great controversy of the Currency and Banking Schools.
The older English writers on the theory of the banking system made a determined attempt to apprehend the essence of the problem. The question around which their investigations centered is whether there is a limit to the granting of credit by the banks; it is identical with the question of the gratuitous nature of credit; it is most intimately connected with the problem of interest. During the first four decades of the nineteenth century the Bank of England was able to regulate only to a limited degree the amount of credit granted by varying the rate of discount. Because of the legislative restriction of the rate of interest which was not removed until 1837 it could not raise its rate of discount above five percent; and it never allowed it to fall below four percent.61 At that time the best means it had of adjusting its portfolio to the state of the capital market was the expansion and contraction of its discounting activities. That explains why the old writers on banking theory mostly speak only of increases and diminutions of the note circulation, a mode of expression that was still retained long after the circumstances of the time would have justified reference to rises and falls in the rate of discount. But this does not affect the essence of the matter; in both problems, the only point at issue is whether the banks can grant credit beyond the available amount of capital or not.62
Both parties were agreed in answering this question in the negative. This is not surprising. These English writers had an extraordinarily deep understanding of the nature of economic activities; they combined thorough knowledge of the theoretical literature of their time with an insight into economic life that was based upon their own observations. Their strictly logical training permitted them rapidly and easily to separate essentials from nonessentials and guarded them from mistaking the outer husk of truth for the kernel that it encloses. Their views on the nature of interest might diverge considerably—many of them, in fact, had but the vaguest ideas on this important problem, whose significance was not made explicit until a later stage in the development of the science—but they harbored no doubts that the level of the rate of interest as determined by general economic conditions could certainly not be influenced by an increase or diminution in the quantity of money or other media of payment in circulation, apart from considerations of the increase in the stock of goods available for productive purposes that might be brought about by the diminution of the demand for money.
But beyond this the paths of the two schools diverged. Tooke, Fullarton, and their disciples flatly denied that the banks had any power to increase the amount of their note issue beyond the requirements of business. In their view, the media of payment issued by the banks at any particular time adjust themselves to the requirements of business in such a way that with their assistance the payments that have to be made at that time at a given level of prices can all be settled by the use of the existing quantity of money. As soon as the circulation is saturated, no bank, whether it has the right to issue notes or not, can continue to grant credit except from its own capital or from that of its depositors.63 These views were directly opposed to those of Lord Overstone, Torrens, and others, who started by assuming the possibility of the banks having the power of arbitrarily extending their note issue, and who attempted to determine the way in which the disturbed equilibrium of the market would reestablish itself after such a proceeding.64 The Currency School propounded a theory, complete in itself, of the value of money and the influence of the granting of credit on the prices of commodities and on the rate of interest. Its doctrines were based upon an untenable fundamental view of the nature of economic value; its version of the quantity theory was a purely mechanical one. But the school should certainly not be blamed for this: its members had neither the desire nor the power to rise above the economic doctrine of their time. Within the Currency School’s own sphere of investigation, it was extremely successful. This fact deserves grateful recognition from those who, coming after it, build upon the foundations it laid. This needs particular emphasis in the face of the belittlements of its influence which now appear to be part of the stock contents of all writings on banking theory. The shortcomings exhibited by the system of the Currency School have offered an easy target to the critical shafts of their opponents, and doubtless the adherents of the banking principle deserve much credit for making use of this opportunity. If this had been all that they did, if they had merely announced themselves as critics of the currency principle, no objection could be raised against them on that account. The disastrous thing about their influence lay in their claiming to have created a comprehensive theory of the monetary and banking systems and in their imagining that their obiter dicta on the subject constituted such a theory. For the classical theory whose shortcomings should not be extenuated but whose logical acuteness and deep insight into the complications of the problem are undeniable, they substituted a series of assertions that were not always formulated with precision and often contradicted one another. In so doing they paved the way for that method of dealing with monetary problems that was customary in our science before the labors of Menger began to bear their fruit.65
The fatal error of Fullarton and his disciples was to have overlooked the fact that even convertible banknotes remain permanently in circulation and can then bring about a glut of fiduciary media the consequences of which resemble those of an increase in the quantity of money in circulation. Even if it is true, as Fullarton insists, that banknotes issued as loans automatically flow back to the bank after the term of the loan has passed, still this does not tell us anything about the question whether the bank is able to maintain them in circulation by repeated prolongation of the loan. The assertion that lies at the heart of the position taken up by the Banking School, namely that it is impossible to set and permanently maintain in circulation more notes than will meet the public demand, is untenable; for the demand for credit is not a fixed quantity; it expands as the rate of interest falls, and contracts as the rate of interest rises. But since the rate of interest that is charged for loans made in fiduciary media created expressly for that purpose can be reduced by the banks in the first instance down to the limit set by the marginal utility of the capital used in the banking business, that is, practically to zero, the whole edifice built up by Tooke’s school collapses.
It is not our task to give a historical exposition of the controversy between the two famous English schools, however tempting an enterprise that may be. We must content ourselves with reiterating that the works of the much abused Currency School contain far more in the way of useful ideas and fruitful thoughts than is usually assumed, especially in Germany, where as a rule the school is known merely through the writings of its opponents, such as Tooke and Newmarch’s History of Prices, J. S. Mill’s Principles, and German versions of the banking principle which are deficient in comprehension of the nature of the problems they deal with.
Before proceeding to investigate the influence of the creation of fiduciary media on the determination of the objective exchange value of money and on the level of the rate of interest, we must devote a few pages to the problem of the relationship between variations in the quantity of money and variations in the rate of interest.
The Connection Between Variations in the Ratio Between the Stock of Money and the Demand for Money and Fluctuations in the Rate of Interest
Variations in the ratio between the stock of money and the demand for money must ultimately exert an influence on the rate of interest also; but this occurs in a different way from that popularly imagined. There is no direct connection between the rate of interest and the amount of money held by the individuals who participate in the transactions of the market; there is only an indirect connection operating in a roundabout way through the displacements in the social distribution of income and wealth which occur as a consequence of variations in the objective exchange value of money.
A change in the ratio between the stock of money and the demand for money, and the consequent variations in the exchange ratio between money and other economic goods, can exert a direct influence on the rate of interest only when metallic money is employed and variations arise in the quantity of metal available for industrial purposes. The augmentation or diminution of the quantity of metal available for nonmonetary uses signifies an augmentation or diminution of the national subsistence fund and thus it influences the level of the rate of interest. It is hardly necessary to state that the practical significance of this phenomenon is quite trifling. We may, for example, imagine how small in comparison with the daily accumulation of capital was the increase in the subsistence fund caused by the discoveries of gold in South Africa, or even the increase in the subsistence fund that would have occurred if the whole of the newly mined precious metal had been used exclusively for industrial purposes. But however that may be, all that is important for us is to show that this is a phenomenon that is only connected with nonmonetary avenues of employment of the metal.
Now as far as the monetary function is concerned, a long discussion is not necessary to show that everything here depends on whether or not the additional quantity of money is employed uniformly for procuring production goods and consumption goods. If an additional quantity of money were to increase the demand both for consumption goods and for the corresponding goods of higher order in exactly the same proportion or if the withdrawal from circulation of a quantity of money were to diminish these demands in exactly the same proportion, then there could be no question of such variations having a permanent effect on the level of the rate of interest.
We have seen that displacements in the distribution of income and property constitute an essential consequence of fluctuations in the objective exchange value of money. But every variation in the distribution of income and property entails variations in the rate of interest also. It is not a matter of indifference whether a total income of a million kronen is distributed among a thousand persons in such a way that a hundred persons get 2,800 kronen each and nine hundred persons 800 kronen each or in such a way that each of the thousand persons gets 1,000 kronen. Generally speaking, individuals with large incomes make better provision for the future than individuals with small incomes. The smaller an individual’s income is, the greater is the premium which he sets on present goods in comparison with future goods. Conversely increased prosperity means increased provision for the future and higher valuation of future goods.66
Variations in the ratio between the stock of money and the demand for money can permanently influence the rate of interest only through the displacements in the distribution of property and income that they evoke. If the distribution of income and property is modified in such a way as to increase capacity for saving, then eventually the ratio between the value of present goods and future goods must be modified in favor of the latter. In fact, one of the elements that help to determine the rate of interest, the level of the national subsistence fund, is necessarily altered by the increase of savings. The greater the fund of means of subsistence in a community, the lower the rate of interest.67 It follows immediately from this that particular variations in the ratio between the stock of money and the demand for money cannot be always accredited with the same effects on the level of the rate of interest; for example, it cannot be asserted that an increase in the stock of money causes the rate of interest to fall and a diminution of the stock of money causes it to rise. Whether the one or the other consequence occurs always depends on whether the new distribution of property is more or less favorable to the accumulation of capital. But this circumstance may be different in each individual case, according to the relative quantitative weight of the particular factors composing it. Without knowledge of the actual data it is impossible to say anything definite about it.
These are the long-run effects on the rate of interest caused by variations in the ratio between the total demand for money and the total stock of it. They come about in consequence of displacements in the distribution of income and property evoked by fluctuations in the objective exchange value of money, and are as permanent as these fluctuations. But during the period of transition there occur other variations in the rate of interest that are only of a transitory nature. Reference has already been made to the fact that the general economic consequences of variations in the exchange value of money arise in part from the fact that the variations do not appear everywhere simultaneously and uniformly, but start from a particular point and only spread gradually throughout the market. So long as this process is going on, differential profits or differential losses occur, which are in fact the source from which the variations in the distribution of income and property arise. As a rule, it is the entrepreneurs who are first affected. If the objective exchange value of money falls, the entrepreneur gains; for he will still be able to meet part of his expenses of production at prices that do not correspond to the higher price level, while, on the other hand, he will be able to dispose of his product at a price that is in accordance with the variation that has meanwhile occurred. If the objective exchange value of money rises, the entrepreneur loses; for he will only be able to secure for his products a price in accordance with the fall in the price level, while his expenses of production must still be met at the higher prices. In the first case, the incomes of entrepreneurs will rise during the transition period; in the second case, they will fall. This cannot fail to have an influence on the rate of interest. An entrepreneur who is making bigger profits will be prepared if necessary to pay a higher rate of interest, and the competition of other would-be borrowers, who are attracted by the same prospect of increased profits, will make payment of the higher rate necessary. The entrepreneur with whom business is bad will only be able to pay a lower rate of interest and the pressure of competition will oblige lenders to be content with the lower rate. Thus a falling value of money goes hand in hand with a rising rate of interest, and a rising value of money with a falling rate of interest. This lasts as long as the movement of the objective exchange value of money continues. When this ceases, then the rate of interest is reestablished at the level dictated by the general economic situation.68
Thus, variations in the rate of interest do not occur as immediate consequences of variations in the ratio between the demand for money and the stock of it; they are only produced by the displacements in the social distribution of property that accompany the fluctuations in the objective exchange value of money that the variations in the ratio between the stock of money and the demand for it evoke. Moreover, the oft-repeated question of the precise connection between variations in the objective exchange value of money and variations in the rate of interest betrays an unfortunate confusion of ideas. The variations in the relative valuations of present goods and future goods are not different phenomena from the variations in the objective exchange value of money. Both are part of a single transformation of existing economic conditions, determined in the last resort by the same factors. In now devoting to it the consideration it deserves, we atone for a negligence and fill a gap in the argument contained in our second part.
The Connection Between the Equilibrium Rate and the Money Rate of Interest
An increase in the stock of money in the broader sense caused by an issue of fiduciary media means a displacement of the social distribution of property in favor of the issuer. If the fiduciary media are issued by the banks, then this displacement is particularly favorable to the accumulation of capital, for in such a case the issuing body employs the additional wealth that it receives solely for productive purposes, whether directly by initiating and carrying through a process of production or indirectly by lending to producers. Thus, as a rule, the fall in the rate of interest in the loan market, which occurs as the most immediate consequence of the increase in the supply of present goods that is due to an issue of fiduciary media, must be in part permanent; that is, it will not be wiped out by the reaction that is afterward caused by the diminution of the property of other persons. There is a high degree of probability that extensive issues of fiduciary media by the banks represent a strong impulse toward the accumulation of capital and have consequently contributed to the fall in the rate of interest.
One thing must be clearly stated at this point: there is no direct arithmetical relationship between an increase or decrease in the issue of fiduciary media on the one hand and the reduction or increase in the rate of interest which this indirectly brings about through its effects on the social distribution of property on the other hand. This would follow merely from the circumstance that there is no direct relationship between the redistribution of property and the differences in the way in which the existing stock of goods in the community is employed. The redistribution of property causes individual economic agents to take different decisions from those they would otherwise have taken. They deal with the goods at their disposal in a different way; they allocate them differently between present (consumptive) employment and future (productive) employment. This may give rise to an alteration in the size of the national subsistence fund if the alterations in the uses to which the goods are put by the individual economic agents do not offset one another but leave a surplus in the one direction or the other This alteration in the size of the national subsistence fund is the most immediate cause of the variation which occurs in the rate of interest; and since, as has been shown, it is by no means unequivocally determined by the extent and direction of the fluctuation in the stock of money in the broader sense, but depends upon the whole social distributive structure, no direct relationship can be established between the variations in the stock of money in the broader sense and the variations in the rate of interest. In fact it is obvious that however great the increase in the stock of money in the broader sense might be, whether it occurred by way of an increase in fiduciary media or by way of an increase in the stock of money in the narrower sense, the rate of interest could never be reduced to zero. That could take place only if the displacements that occurred increased the national subsistence fund to such an extent that all possibilities of increasing production by engaging in more productive “roundabout” methods of production were exhausted. This would mean that in all branches of production the time that elapsed between the commencement of production and the enjoyment of the product was not taken into consideration, and production was carried so far that the prices of the products were only just sufficient to pay an equal return to the primary factors in each employment. In particular, as far as very durable goods are concerned, this would mean that their quantity and durability would be tremendously increased, until the prices of their services fell so low that they would only just provide for the amortization of the investments. It is impossible to conceive of the extent to which, for example, the supply of houses would have to be increased for their annual rental value to fall to a sum which would only just give a total return equal to their original cost by the time when their lengthened lives came to an end. Where the lifetime of a good can be almost indefinitely increased under conditions of decreasing cost, the result is that its services will become practically free goods. It seems hardly likely that a rigid proof could be given to show that the increase in the size of the national subsistence fund that may follow a redistribution of property could never go so far as this. But we have sufficient capacity for estimating the quantities involved without this unobtainable precise proof. As regards the displacements in the distribution of property that are evoked by an increase in the circulation of fiduciary media, it seems that we might go still further and safely assert that it can in no circumstances be very considerable. Although we cannot prove this in any way, whether deductively or inductively, it nevertheless appears a reasonable assertion to make. And we may content ourselves with that; for we do not intend to base any kind of further argument on such an undemonstrable proposition.
The question to which we now turn is the following: It is indisputable that the banks are able to reduce the rate of interest on the credit they grant down to any level above their working expenses (for example, the cost of manufacturing the notes, the salaries of their staffs, etc.). If they do this, the force of competition obliges other lenders to follow their example. Accordingly, it would be entirely within the power of the banks to reduce the rate of interest down to this limit, provided that in so doing they did not set other forces in motion which would automatically reestablish the rate of interest at the level determined by the circumstances of the capital market, that is, the market in which present goods and future goods are exchanged for one another The problem that is before us is usually referred to by the catch-phrase “gratuitous nature of credit.” It is the chief problem in the theory of banking.
It is a problem whose great theoretical and practical importance has often been overlooked. The chief responsibility for this belongs to the not altogether fortunate manner in which it has been formulated. At the present time, the problem of the gratuitous nature of bank credit does not appear to be a very practical issue, and since the inclination toward questions of pure theory is hardly prominent among the economists of our day it is a problem that has been much neglected. Yet, if the way in which the problem is stated is modified only a little the unjustifiability of neglecting it becomes obvious, even from the point of view of those who are only concerned with the needs of everyday life. A new issue of fiduciary media, as we have seen, indirectly gives rise to a variation in the rate of interest by causing displacements in the social distribution of income and property. But the new fiduciary media coming on to the loan market have also a direct effect on the rate of interest. They are an additional supply of present goods and consequently they tend to cause the rate of interest to fall. The connection between these two effects on the rate of interest is not obvious. Is there a force that brings both into harmony or not? It is probable in the highest degree that the increase in the supply of fiduciary media in the market in which present goods are exchanged for future goods at first exerts a stronger influence than the displacement of the social distribution which occurs as a consequence of it. Does the matter remain at that stage? Is the immediate reduction of interest which indubitably follows the increase of fiduciary media definitive or not?
Until now, the treatment that this problem has met with at the hands of economists has fallen a long way short of its importance. Its real nature has for the most part been misunderstood; and where the problem was incorrectly stated to start with, it was natural that the subsequent attempts at its solution should not have been successful. But even the few theories in which the essence of the problem has been correctly apprehended have fallen into error in their efforts to solve it.
To one group of writers, the problem appeared to offer little difficulty. From the circumstance that it is possible for the banks to reduce the rate of interest in their bank-credit business down to the limit set by their working costs, these writers thought it permissible to deduce that credit can be granted gratuitously or, more correctly, almost gratuitously. In drawing this conclusion, their doctrine implicitly denies the existence of interest. It regards interest as com pensation for the temporary relinquishing of money in the broader sense—a view, indeed, of insurpassable naivety. Scientific critics have been perfectly justified in treating it with contempt; it is scarcely worth even cursory mention. But it is impossible to refrain from pointing out that these very views on the nature of interest hold an important place in popular opinion, and that they are continually being propounded afresh and recommended as a basis for measures of banking policy.69
No less untenable is the attitude of orthodox scientific opinion toward the problem. Orthodox scientific opinion, following in this the example set by the adherents of the banking principle, is content to question the problem’s existence. In fact, it cannot do otherwise. If the opinion is held that the quantity of fiduciary media in circulation can never exceed the demand—in the sense defined above—the conclusion necessarily follows that the banks have not the ability to grant credit gratuitously. Of course, they might not exact any reimbursement or compensation beyond the prime costs of the loans granted by them. But doing this would not fundamentally change the matter, except that the profits from the issue of fiduciary media that the banks would otherwise receive themselves would now go to the benefit of the borrowers. And since, according to this view, it does not lie in the power of the banks arbitrarily to increase the quantity of fiduciary media in circulation, the limitation of the issue of these would leave only small scope for the influence of their discount policy on the general rate of interest. It follows that only insignificant differences could arise between the rate of interest charged by credit-issuing banks and that determined by the general economic situation for other credit transactions.
We have already had an opportunity of finding out where the error in this argument lies. The quantity of fiduciary media flowing from the banks into circulation is admittedly limited by the number and extent of the requests for discounting that the banks receive. But the number and extent of these requests are not independent of the credit policy of the banks; by reducing the rate of interest charged on loans, it is possible for the banks indefinitely to increase the public demand for credit. And since the banks—as even the most orthodox disciples of Tooke and Fullarton cannot deny—can meet all these demands for credit, they can extend their issue of fiduciary media arbitrarily. For obvious reasons an individual bank is not in a position to do this so long as its competitors act otherwise; but there seems to be no reason why all the credit-issuing banks in an isolated community, or in the whole world, taken together could not do this by uniform procedure. If we imagine an isolated community in which there is only a single credit-issuing bank in business, and if we further assume (what indeed is obvious) that the fiduciary media issued by it enjoy general confidence and are freely employed in business as money substitutes, then the weakness of the assertions of the orthodox theory of banking is most clear In such a situation there are no other limits to the bank’s issue of fiduciary media than those which it sets itself.
But even the Currency School has not treated the problem in a satisfactory manner It would appear—exhaustive historical investigation might perhaps lead to another conclusion—that the Currency School was merely concerned to examine the consequences of an inflation of fiduciary media in the case of the coexistence of several independent groups of banks in the world, starting from the assumption that these groups of banks did not all follow a uniform and parallel credit policy. The case of a general increase of fiduciary media, which for the first half of the nineteenth century had scarcely any immediate practical importance, was not included within the scope of its investigations. Thus it did not even have occasion to consider the most important aspect of the problem. What is necessary for clearing up this important problem still remains to be done; for even Wicksell’s most noteworthy attempt cannot be said to have achieved its object. But at least it has the merit of having stated the problem clearly.
Wicksell distinguishes between the natural rate of interest (natürliche Kapitalzins), or the rate of interest that would be determined by supply and demand if actual capital goods were lent without the mediation of money, and the money rate of interest (Geldzins), or the rate of interest that is demanded and paid for loans in money or money substitutes. The money rate of interest and the natural rate of interest need not necessarily coincide, since it is possible for the banks to extend the amount of their issues of fiduciary media as they wish and thus to exert a pressure on the money rate of interest that might bring it down to the minimum set by their costs. Nevertheless, it is certain that the money rate of interest must sooner or later come to the level of the natural rate of interest, and the problem is to say in what way this ultimate coincidence is brought about.70 Up to this point Wicksell commands assent; but his further argument provokes contradiction.
According to Wicksell, at every time and under all possible economic conditions there is a level of the average money rate of interest at which the general level of commodity prices no longer has any tendency to move either upward or downward. He calls it the normal rate of interest; its level is determined by the prevailing natural rate of interest, although, for certain reasons which do not concern our present problem, the two rates need not coincide exactly. When, he says, from any cause whatever, the average rate of interest is below this normal rate, by any amount, however small, and remains at this level, a progressive and eventually enormous rise of prices must occur “which would naturally cause the banks sooner or later to raise their rates of interest.”71 Now, so far as the rise of prices is concerned, this may be provisionally conceded. But it still remains inconceivable why a general rise in commodity prices should induce the banks to raise their rates of interest. It is clear that there may be a motive for this in the regulations, whether legislative or established by mercantile custom, that limit the circulation of fiduciary media; or necessary consideration of the procedure of other banks might have the same sort of effect. But if we start with the assumption, as Wicksell does, that only fiduciary media are in circulation and that the quantity of them is not legislatively restricted, so that the banks are entirely free to extend their issues of them, then it is impossible to see why rising prices and an increasing demand for loans should induce them to raise the rate of interest they charge for loans. Even Wicksell can think of no other reason for this than that since the requirements of business for gold coins and banknotes becomes greater as the price level rises, the banks do not receive back the whole of the sums they have lent, part of them remaining in the hands of the public; and that the bank reserves are consequently depleted while the total liabilities of the banks increase; and that this must naturally induce them to raise their rate of interest.72 But in this argument Wicksell contradicts the assumption that he takes as the starting point of his investigation. Consideration of the level of its cash reserves and their relation to the liabilities arising from the issue of fiduciary media cannot concern the hypothetical bank that he describes. He seems suddenly to have forgotten his original assumption of a circulation consisting exclusively of fiduciary media, on which assumption, at first, he rightly laid great weight.
Wicksell incidentally makes cursory mention of a second limit to the circulation of fiduciary media. He thinks that the banks that charge a lower rate of interest than that which corresponds to the average level of the natural rate of interest encounter a limit which is set by the employment of the precious metals for industrial purposes. If the purchasing power of money is too low it discourages the production of gold but increases, ceteris paribus, the industrial consumption of gold, and the deficiency which would arise as soon as consumption began to exceed production has to be made up from the bank reserves.73 This is perfectly true when metallic money is employed; an increase of fiduciary media must be stopped before the reduction of the objective exchange value of money that it brings about absorbs the value arising from the monetary employment of the metal. As soon as the objective exchange value of money had sunk below the value of the metal in industrial uses, every further loss in value (which, of course, would also affect the purchasing power of the money substitutes in the same degree), would send all those who needed the metal for industrial purposes to the counters of the banks as their cheapest source of supply. The banks would not be able to extend their issue any further since it would be possible for their customers to make a profit simply by the exchange of fiduciary media for money; all fiduciary media issued beyond the given limit would return immediately to the banks.74
But demonstrating this does not bring us a step nearer to the solution of our problem. The mechanism, by which a further issue of fiduciary media is restricted as soon as the falling objective exchange value of the material from which the money is made has reached the level set by its industrial employment, is, of course, effective only in the case of commodity money; in the case of credit money, it is effective only when the embodied claim refers to commodity money. And it is never effective in the case of fiat money. Of greater importance is a second factor: this limit is a distant one, so that even when it is eventually effective it still leaves considerable scope for an increase in the issue of fiduciary media. But it by no means follows from this that it remains possible for the banks to reduce the rate of interest on loans as much as they like within these wide limits; as the following argument will attempt to prove.
The Influence of the Interest Policy of the Credit-issuing Banks on Production
Assuming uniformity of procedure, the credit-issuing banks are able to extend their issues indefinitely. It is within their power to stimulate the demand for capital by reducing the rate of interest on loans, and, except for the limits mentioned above, to go so far in this as the cost of granting the loans permits. In doing this they force their competitors in the loan market, that is all those who do not lend fiduciary media which they have created themselves, to make a corresponding reduction in the rate of interest also. Thus the rate of interest on loans may at first be reduced by the credit-issuing banks almost to zero. This, of course, is true only under the assumption that the fiduciary media enjoy the confidence of the public so that if any requests are made to the banks for liquidation of the promise of prompt cash redemption which constitutes the nature of fiduciary media, it is not because the holders have any doubts as to their soundness. Assuming this, the only possible reason for the withdrawal of deposits or the presentation of notes for redemption is the existence of a demand for money for making payments to persons who do not belong to the circle of customers of the individual banks. The banks need not necessarily meet such demands by paying out money; the fiduciary media of those banks among whose customers are those persons to whom the banks’ own customers wish to make payments are equally serviceable in this case. Thus there ceases to be any necessity for the banks to hold a redemption fund consisting of money; its place may be taken by a reserve fund consisting of the fiduciary media of other banks. If we imagine the whole credit system of the world concentrated in a single bank, it will follow that there is no longer any presentation of notes or withdrawal of deposits; in fact, the whole demand for money in the narrower sense may disappear. These suppositions are not at all arbitrary. It has already been shown that the circulation of fiduciary media is possible only on the assumption that the issuing bodies enjoy the full confidence of the public, since even the dawning of mistrust would immediately lead to a collapse of the house of cards that comprises the credit circulation. We know, furthermore, that all credit-issuing banks endeavor to extend their circulation of fiduciary media as much as possible, and that the only obstacles in their way nowadays are legal prescriptions and business customs concerning the covering of notes and deposits, not any resistance on the part of the public. If there were no artificial restriction of the credit system at all, and if the individual credit-issuing banks could agree to parallel procedure, then the complete cessation of the use of money would only be a question of time. It is, therefore, entirely justifiable to base our discussion on the above assumption.
Now, if this assumption holds good, and if we disregard the limit that has already been mentioned as applying to the case of metallic money, then there is no longer any limit, practically speaking, to the issue of fiduciary media; the rate of interest on loans and the level of the objective exchange value of money is then limited only by the banks’ running costs—a minimum, incidentally which is extraordinarily low. By making easier the conditions on which they will grant credit, the banks can extend their issue of fiduciary media almost indefinitely. Their doing so must be accompanied by a fall in the objective exchange value of money. The course taken by the depreciation that is a consequence of the issue of fiduciary media by the banks may diverge in some degree from that which it takes in the case of an increase of the stock of money in the narrower sense, or from that which it takes when the fiduciary media are issued otherwise than by banks; but the essence of the process remains the same. For it is a matter of indifference whether the diminution in the objective exchange value of money begins with the mine owners, with the government which issues fiat money credit money, or token coins, or with the undertakings that have the newly issued fiduciary media placed at their disposal by way of loans.
Painful consideration of the question whether fiduciary media really could be indefinitely augmented without awakening the mistrust of the public would be not only supererogatory, but otiose. For the problems of theory that we are dealing with, it is a question that has scarcely any significance. We are not conducting our investigation in order to show that the objective exchange value of money and the rate of interest on loans could be reduced almost to zero; but in order to disclose the consequences that arise from the divergence (which we have shown to be possible) between the money rate and the natural rate of interest. For this reason, it is also a matter of indifference to us, as we have just shown, that under a system of commodity money the fiduciary media cannot continue to be augmented after the objective exchange value of the money is reduced to the level determined by the industrial employment of the metal.
If it is possible for the credit-issuing banks to reduce the rate of interest on loans below the rate determined at the time by the whole economic situation (Wicksell’s natürliche Kapitalzins or natural rate of interest), then the question arises of the particular consequences of a situation of this kind. Does the matter rest there, or is some force automatically set in motion which eliminates this divergence between the two rates of interest? It is a striking thing that this problem, which even at a first glance cannot fail to appear extremely interesting, and which moreover under more detailed examination proves to be one of the greatest importance for comprehension of many of the processes of modern economic life, has until now hardly been dealt with seriously at all.
We shall not say anything further here of the effects of an increased issue of fiduciary media on the determination of the objective exchange value of money; they have already been dealt with exhaustively. Our task now is merely to discover the general economic consequences of any conceivable divergence between the natural and money rates of interest, given uniform procedure on the part of the credit-issuing banks. We obviously need only consider the case in which the banks reduce the rate of interest below the natural rate. The opposite case, in which the rate of interest charged by the banks is raised above the natural rate, need not be considered; if the banks acted in this way, they would simply withdraw from the competition of the loan market, without occasioning any other noteworthy consequences.
The level of the natural rate of interest is limited by the productivity of that lengthening of the period of production which is just justifiable economically and of that additional lengthening of the period of production which is just not justifiable; for the interest on the unit of capital upon whose aid the lengthening depends must always amount to less than the marginal return of the justifiable lengthening and to more than the marginal return of the unjustifiable lengthening. The period of production which is thus defined must be of such a length that exactly the whole available subsistence fund is necessary on the one hand and sufficient on the other for paying the wages of the laborers throughout the duration of the productive process. For if it were shorter, all the workers could no longer be provided for throughout its whole course, and the consequence would be an urgent offer of the unemployment economic factors which could not fail to bring about a transformation of the existing arrangement.75 Now if the rate of interest on loans is artificially reduced below the natural rate as established by the free play of the forces operating in the market, then entrepreneurs are enabled and obliged to enter upon longer processes of production. It is true that longer roundabout processes of production may yield an absolutely greater return than shorter processes; but the return from them is relatively smaller, since although continual lengthening of the capitalistic process of production does lead to continually increasing returns, after a certain point is reached the increments themselves are of decreasing amount.76 Thus it is possible to enter upon a longer roundabout process of production only if this smaller additional productivity will still pay the entrepreneur. So long as the rate of interest on loans coincides with the natural rate, it will not pay him; to enter upon a longer period of production would involve a loss. On the other hand, a reduction of the rate of interest on loans must necessarily lead to a lengthening of the average period of production. It is true that fresh capital can be employed in production only if new roundabout processes are started. But every new roundabout process of production that is started must be more roundabout than those already started; new roundabout processes that are shorter than those already started are not available, for capital is of course always invested in the shortest available roundabout processes of production, because they yield the greatest returns. It is only when all the short roundabout processes of production have been appropriated that capital is employed in the longer ones.
A lengthening of the period of production is only practicable, however, either when the means of subsistence have increased sufficiently to support the laborers and entrepreneurs during the longer period or when the wants of producers have decreased sufficiently to enable them to make the same means of subsistence do for the longer period. Now it is true that an increase of fiduciary media brings about a redistribution of wealth in the course of its effects on the objective exchange value of money which may well lead to increased saving and a reduction of the standard of living. A depreciation of money, when metallic money is employed, may also lead directly to an increase in the stock of goods in that it entails a diversion of some metal from monetary to industrial uses. So far as these factors enter into consideration, an increase of fiduciary media does cause a diminution of even the natural rate of interest, as we could show if it were necessary. But the case that we have to investigate is a different one. We are not concerned with a reduction in the natural rate of interest brought about by an increase in the issue of fiduciary media, but with a reduction below this rate in the money rate charged by the banks, inaugurated by the credit-issuing banks and necessarily followed by the rest of the loan market. The power of the banks to do such a thing has already been demonstrated.
The situation is as follows: despite the fact that there has been no increase of intermediate products and there is no possibility of lengthening the average period of production, a rate of interest is established in the loan market which corresponds to a longer period of production; and so, although it is in the last resort inadmissible and impracticable, a lengthening of the period of production promises for the time to be profitable. But there cannot be the slightest doubt as to where this will lead. A time must necessarily come when the means of subsistence available for consumption are all used up although the capital goods employed in production have not yet been transformed into consumption goods. This time must come all the more quickly inasmuch as the fall in the rate of interest weakens the motive for saving and so slows up the rate of accumulation of capital. The means of subsistence will prove insufficient to maintain the laborers during the whole period of the process of production that has been entered upon. Since production and consumption are continuous, so that every day new processes of production are started upon and others completed, this situation does not imperil human existence by suddenly manifesting itself as a complete lack of consumption goods; it is merely expressed in a reduction of the quantity of goods available for consumption and a consequent restriction of consumption. The market prices of consumption goods rise and those of production goods fall.
This is one of the ways in which the equilibrium of the loan market is reestablished after it has been disturbed by the intervention of the banks. The increased productive activity that sets in when the banks start the policy of granting loans at less than the natural rate of interest at first causes the prices of production goods to rise while the prices of consumption goods, although they rise also, do so only in a moderate degree, namely, only insofar as they are raised by the rise in wages. Thus the tendency toward a fall in the rate of interest on loans that originates in the policy of the banks is at first strengthened. But soon a countermovement sets in: the prices of consumption goods rise, those of production goods fall. That is, the rate of interest on loans rises again, it again approaches the natural rate.
This countermovement is now strengthened by the fact that the increase of the stock of money in the broader sense that is involved in the increase in the quantity of fiduciary media reduces the objective exchange value of money. Now, as has been shown, so long as this depreciation of money is going on, the rate of interest on loans must rise above the level that would be demanded and paid if the objective exchange value of money remained unaltered.77
At first the banks may try to oppose these two tendencies that counteract their interest policy by continually reducing the rate of interest charged for loans and forcing fresh quantities of fiduciary media into circulation. But the more they thus increase the stock of money in the broader sense, the more quickly does the value of money fall, and the stronger is its countereffect on the rate of interest. However much the banks may endeavor to extend their credit circulation, they cannot stop the rise in the rate of interest. Even if they were prepared to go on increasing the quantity of fiduciary media until further increase was no longer possible (whether because the money in use was metallic money and the limit had been reached below which the purchasing power of the money-and-credit unit could not sink without the banks being forced to suspend cash redemption, or whether because the reduction of the interest charged on loans had reached the limit set by the running costs of the banks), they would still be unable to secure the intended result. For such an avalanche of fiduciary media, when its cessation cannot be foreseen, must lead to a fall in the objective exchange value of the money-and-credit unit to the paniclike course of which there can be no bounds.78 Then the rate of interest on loans must also rise in a similar degree and fashion.
Thus the banks will ultimately be forced to cease their endeavors to underbid the natural rate of interest. That ratio between the prices of goods of the first order and of goods of higher orders which is determined by the state of the capital market and has been disturbed merely by the intervention of the banks will be approximately reestablished, and the only remaining trace of the disturbance will be a general increase in the objective exchange value of money due to factors emanating from the monetary side. A precise reestablishment of the old price ratios between production goods and consumption goods is not possible, on the one hand because the intervention of the banks has brought about a redistribution of property, and on the other hand because the automatic recovery of the loan market involves certain of the phenomena of a crisis, which are signs of the loss of some of the capital invested in the excessively lengthened roundabout processes of production. It is not practicable to transfer all the production goods from those uses that have proved unprofitable to other avenues of employment; a part of them cannot be withdrawn and must therefore either be left entirely unused or at least be used less economically. In either case there is a loss of value. Let us, for example, suppose that an artificial extension of bank credit is responsible for the establishment of an enterprise which only yields a net profit of four percent. So long as the rate of interest on loans was four and one-half percent, the establishment of such a business could not be thought of; we may suppose that it has been made possible by a fall to a rate of three and one-half percent which has followed an extension of the issue of fiduciary media. Now let us assume the reaction to begin, in the way described above. The rate of interest on loans rises to four and one-half percent again. It will no longer be profitable to conduct this enterprise. Whatever may now occur, whether the business is stopped entirely or whether it is carried on after the entrepreneur has decided to make do with the smaller profits, in either case—not merely from the individual point of view, but also from that of the community—there has been a loss of value. Economic goods which could have satisfied more important wants have been employed for the satisfaction of less important; only insofar as the mistake that has been made can be rectified by diversion into another channel can loss be prevented.
Credit and Economic Crises
Our theory of banking, like that of the currency principle, leads ultimately to a theory of business cycles. It is true that the Currency School did not inquire thoroughly into even this problem. It did not ask what consequences follow from the unrestricted extension of credit on the part of the credit-issuing banks; it did not even inquire whether it was possible for them permanently to depress the natural rate of interest. It set itself more modest aims and was content to ask what would happen if the banks in one country extended the issue of fiduciary media more than those of other countries. Thus it arrived at its doctrine of the “external drain” and at its explanation of the English crises that had occurred up to the middle of the nineteenth century.
If our doctrine of crises is to be applied to more recent history, then it must be observed that the banks have never gone as far as they might in extending credit and expanding the issue of fiduciary media. They have always left off long before reaching this limit, whether because of growing uneasiness on their own part and on the part of all those who had not forgotten the earlier crises, or whether because they had to defer to legislative regulations concerning the maximum circulation of fiduciary media. And so the crises broke out before they need have broken out. It is only in this sense that we can interpret the statement that it is apparently true after all to say that restriction of loans is the cause of economic crises, or at least their immediate impulse; that if the banks would only go on reducing the rate of interest on loans they could continue to postpone the collapse of the market. If the stress is laid upon the word postpone, then this line of argument can be assented to without more ado. Certainly, the banks would be able to postpone the collapse; but nevertheless, as has been shown, the moment must eventually come when no further extension of the circulation of fiduciary media is possible. Then the catastrophe occurs, and its consequences are the worse and the reaction against the bull tendency of the market the stronger, the longer the period during which the rate of interest on loans has been below the natural rate of interest and the greater the extent to which roundabout processes of production that are not justified by the state of the capital market have been adopted.
[56. ]The fact that I have followed the terminology and method of attack of Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of interest throughout this chapter does not imply that I am an adherent of that theory or am able to regard it as a satisfactory solution of the problem. But the present work does not afford scope for the exposition of my own views on the problem of interest; that must be reserved for a special study, which I hope will appear in the not too distant future. In such circumstances I have had no alternative but to develop my argument on the basis of Böhm-Bawerk’s theory. Böhm-Bawerk’s great achievement is the foundation of the work of all those who until now have dealt with the problem of interest since his time, and may well be the foundation of the work of those who will do so in the future. He was the first to clear the way that leads to understanding of the problem; he was the first to make it possible systematically to relate the problem of interest to that of the value of money.
[57. ]See Hume, Essays, ed. Frowde (London), pp. 303 ff.; Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Cannan’s ed. (London, 1930), vol. 2, pp. 243 ff.; see also J. S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy (London, 1867), pp. 296 f.
[58. ]See, for example, Georg Schmidt, Kredit und Zins (Leipzig, 1910), pp. 38 ff.
[59. ]The transaction is conducted by the bank selling part of its consols “for money” and buying them back immediately “on account.” The on-account price is higher, because it contains a large part of the interest that is almost due; the margin between the two prices represents the compensation that the bank pays for the loan. The cost that this entails is made up for by the fact that the bank now gets a larger proportion of the lending business. See Jaffé, Das englische Bankwesen, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1910), p. 250.
[60. ]See, for example, Arendt, Geld—Bank—Börse (Berlin, 1907), p. 19.
[61. ]See Gilbart, The History, Principles and Practice of Banking, rev. ed. (London, 1904), vol. 1, p. 98.
[62. ]See Wicksell, Geldzins und Güterpreise (Jena, 1898), p. 74. Indeed, even the writers of that period do frequently deal with the problem of a change in the rate of interest; see, for example, Tooke, An Inquiry into the Currency Principle (London, 1844), p. 224.
[63. ]See Tooke, An Inquiry into the Currency Principle (London, 1844), pp. 121 ff.; Fullarton, On the Regulation of Currencies, 2d ed. (London, 1845), pp. 82 ff.; Wilson, Capital, Currency and Banking (London, 1847), pp. 67 ff. Wagner follows the train of thought of these writers in his Die Geld- und Kredittheorie der Peelschen Bankakte, pp. 135 ff.
[64. ]See Torrens, The Principles and Practical Operation of Sir Robert Peel’s Act of 1844 Explained and Defended, 2d ed. (London, 1857), pp. 57 ff.; Overstone, Tracts and Other Publications on Metallic and Paper Currency (London, 1858), passim.
[65. ]See Wicksell, op. cit., pp. 1 ff.
[66. ]See Fisher, The Rate of Interest (New York, 1907), pp. 94 f.
[67. ]See Böhm-Bawerk, Kapital und Kapitalzins, p. 622.
[68. ]See Fisher and Brown, The Purchasing Power of Money (New York, 1911), pp. 58 ff.
[69. ]See, for instance, the most recent literature on the German banking reform; for example, the above-cited work by Schmidt (see p. 379 n. 3). An historical study would have to examine the extent to which Law, Cieszkowski, Proudhon, Macleod, and others, are to be regarded as inventors and adherents of this doctrine.
[70. ]See Wicksell, op. cit., pp. v ff.
[71. ]See ibid., pp. v ff., III; also “The Influence of the Rate of Interest on Prices,” Economic Journal 18 (1907): 213 ff.
[72. ]See Wicksell, “The Influence of the Rate of Interest,” p. 215.
[73. ]See Wicksell, Geldzins und Güterpreise, pp. 104 f.
[74. ]See Walras, Études d’économie politique appliquée (Lausanne, 1898), pp. 345 f.
[75. ]See Böhm-Bawerk, op. cit., pp. 611 ff.
[76. ]Ibid., pp. 151 ff.
[77. ]The fact that the two movements occur in opposite directions, so that they cancel one another, had been emphasized by Mill (Principles, pp. 391 ff.) in order to show that the increase in the rate of interest caused by inflation would be counteracted by the circumstance that the additional quantity of notes, if issued by the banks (and the additional quantity of gold so far as it was used productively), have a reducing effect on the bank rate of interest.
[78. ]See p. 259-60 above.