Front Page Titles (by Subject) Inflation and Deflation; Inflationism and Deflationism - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.)
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Inflation and Deflation; Inflationism and Deflationism - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.) 
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 2.
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Inflation and Deflation; Inflationism and Deflationism
The notions of inflation and deflation are not praxeological concepts. They were not created by economists, but by the mundane speech of the public and of politicians. They implied the popular fallacy that there is such a thing as neutral money or money of stable purchasing power and that sound money should be neutral and stable in purchasing power. From this point of view the term inflation was applied to signify cash-induced changes resulting in a drop in purchasing power, and the term deflation to signify cash-induced changes resulting in a rise in purchasing power.
However, those applying these terms are not aware of the fact that purchasing power never remains unchanged and that consequently there is always either inflation or deflation. They ignore these necessarily perpetual fluctuations as far as they are only small and inconspicuous, and reserve the use of the terms to big changes in purchasing power. Since the question at what point a change in purchasing power begins to deserve being called big depends on personal relevance judgments, it becomes manifest that inflation and deflation are terms lacking the categorial precision required for praxeological, economic, and catallactic concepts. Their application is appropriate for history and politics. Catallactics is free to resort to them only when applying its theorems to the interpretation of events of economic history and of political programs. Moreover, it is very expedient even in rigid catallactic disquisitions to make use of these two terms whenever no misinterpretation can possibly result and pedantic heaviness of expression can be avoided. But it is necessary never to forget that all that catallactics says with regard to inflation and deflation—i.e., big cash-induced changes in purchasing power—is valid also with regard to small changes, although, of course, the consequences of smaller changes are less conspicuous than those of big changes.
The terms inflationism and deflationism, inflationist and deflationist, signify the political programs aiming at inflation and deflation in the sense of big cash-induced changes in purchasing power.
The semantic revolution which is one of the characteristic features of our day has also changed the traditional connotation of the terms inflation and deflation. What many people today call inflation or deflation is no longer the great increase or decrease in the supply of money, but its inexorable consequences, the general tendency toward a rise or a fall in commodity prices and wage rates. This innovation is by no means harmless. It plays an important role in fomenting the popular tendencies toward inflationism.
First of all there is no longer any term available to signify what inflation used to signify. It is impossible to fight a policy which you cannot name. Statesmen and writers no longer have the opportunity of resorting to a terminology accepted and understood by the public when they want to question the expediency of issuing huge amounts of additional money. They must enter into a detailed analysis and description of this policy with full particulars and minute accounts whenever they want to refer to it, and they must repeat this bothersome procedure in every sentence in which they deal with the subject. As this policy has no name, it becomes self-understood and a matter of fact. It goes on luxuriantly.
The second mischief is that those engaged in futile and hopeless attempts to fight the inevitable consequences of inflation—the rise in prices—are disguising their endeavors as a fight against inflation. While merely fighting symptoms, they pretend to fight the root causes of the evil. Because they do not comprehend the causal relation between the increase in the quantity of money on the one hand and the rise in prices on the other, they practically make things worse. The best example was provided by the subsidies granted in the Second World War on the part of the governments of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain to farmers. Price ceilings reduce the supply of the commodities concerned because production involves a loss for the marginal producers. To prevent this outcome the governments granted subsidies to the farmers producing at the highest costs. These subsidies were financed out of additional increases in the quantity of money. If the consumers had had to pay higher prices for the products concerned, no further inflationary effects would have emerged. The consumers would have had to use for such surplus expenditure only money which had already been issued previously. Thus the confusion of inflation and its consequences in fact can directly bring about more inflation.
It is obvious that this new-fangled connotation of the terms inflation and deflation is utterly confusing and misleading and must be unconditionally rejected.
Monetary Calculation and Changes in Purchasing Power
Monetary calculation reckons with the prices of commodities and services as they were determined or would have been determined or presumably will be determined on the market. It is eager to detect price discrepancies and to draw conclusions from such a detection.
Cash-induced changes in purchasing power cannot be taken into account in such calculations. It is possible to put in the place of calculation based on a definite kind of money a a mode of calculating based on another kind of money b. Then the result of the calculation is made safe against adulteration on the part of changes effected in the purchasing power of a; but it can still be adulterated by changes effected in the purchasing power of b. There is no means of freeing any mode of economic calculation from the influence of changes in the purchasing power of the definite kind of money on which it is based.
All results of economic calculation and all conclusions derived from them are conditioned by the vicissitudes of cash-induced changes in purchasing power. In accordance with the rise or fall in purchasing power there emerge between items reflecting earlier prices and those reflecting later prices specific differences; the calculation shows profits or losses which are merely produced by cash-induced changes effected in the purchasing power of money. If we compare such profits or losses with the result of a calculation accomplished on the basis of a kind of money whose purchasing power had been subject to less vehement changes, we can call them imaginary or apparent only. But one must not forget that such statements are only possible as a result of the comparison of calculations carried out in different kinds of money. As there is no such thing as a money with stable purchasing power, such apparent profits and losses are present with every mode of economic calculation, no matter on what kind of money it may be based. It is impossible to distinguish precisely between genuine profits and losses and merely apparent profits and losses.
It is therefore possible to maintain that economic calculation is not perfect. However, nobody can suggest a method which could free economic calculation from these defects or design a monetary system which could remove this source of error entirely.
It is an undeniable fact that the free market has succeeded in developing a currency system which well served all the requirements both of indirect exchange and of economic calculation. The aims of monetary calculation are such that they cannot be frustrated by the inaccuracies which stem from slow and comparatively slight movements in purchasing power. Cash-induced changes in purchasing power of the extent to which they occurred in the last two centuries with metallic money, especially with gold money, cannot influence the result of the businessmen’s economic calculations so considerably as to render such calculations useless. Historical experience shows that one could, for all practical purposes of the conduct of business, manage very well with these methods of calculation. Theoretical consideration shows that it is impossible to design, still less to realize, a better method. In view of these facts it is vain to call monetary calculation imperfect. Man has not the power to change the categories of human action. He must adjust his conduct to them.
Businessmen never deemed it necessary to free economic calculation in terms of gold from its dependence on the fluctuations in purchasing power. The proposals to improve the currency system by adopting a tabular standard based on index numbers or by adopting various methods of commodity standards were not advanced with regard to business transactions and to monetary calculation. Their aim was to provide a less fluctuating standard for long-run loan contracts. Businessmen did not even consider it expedient to modify their accounting methods in those regards in which it would have been easy to narrow down certain errors induced by fluctuations in purchasing power. It would, for instance, have been possible to discard the practice of writing off durable equipment by means of yearly depreciation quotas, invariably fixed as a percentage of the cost of its acquisition. In its place one could resort to the device of laying aside in renewal funds as much as seems necessary to provide the full cost of the replacement at the time when it is required. But business was not eager to adopt such a procedure.
All this is valid only with regard to money which is not subject to rapid, big cash-induced changes in purchasing power. But money with which such rapid and big changes occur loses its suitability to serve as a medium of exchange altogether.
The Anticipation of Expected Changes in Purchasing Power
The deliberations of the individuals which determine their conduct with regard to money are based on their knowledge concerning the prices of the immediate past. If they lacked this knowledge, they would not be in a position to decide what the appropriate height of their cash holdings should be and how much they should spend for the acquisition of various goods. A medium of exchange without a past is unthinkable. Nothing can enter into the function of a medium of exchange which was not already previously an economic good and to which people assigned exchange value already before it was demanded as such a medium.
But the purchasing power handed down from the immediate past is modified by today’s demand for and supply of money. Human action is always providing for the future, be it sometimes only the future of the impending hour. He who buys, buys for future consumption and production. As far as he believes that the future will differ from the present and the past, he modifies his valuation and appraisement. This is no less true with regard to money than it is with regard to all vendible goods. In this sense we may say that today’s exchange value of money is an anticipation of tomorrow’s exchange value. The basis of all judgments concerning money is its purchasing power as it was in the immediate past. But as far as cash-induced changes in purchasing power are expected, a second factor enters the scene, the anticipation of these changes.
He who believes that the prices of the goods in which he takes an interest will rise, buys more of them than he would have bought in the absence of this belief; accordingly he restricts his cash holding. He who believes that prices will drop, restricts his purchases and thus enlarges his cash holding. As long as such speculative anticipations are limited to some commodities, they do not bring about a general tendency toward changes in cash holding. But it is different if people believe that they are on the eve of big cash-induced changes in purchasing power. When they expect that the money prices of all goods will rise or fall, they expand or restrict their purchases. These attitudes strengthen and accelerate the expected tendencies considerably. This goes on until the point is reached beyond which no further changes in the purchasing power of money are expected. Only then does this inclination to buy or to sell stop and do people begin again to increase or to decrease their cash holdings.
But if once public opinion is convinced that the increase in the quantity of money will continue and never come to an end, and that consequently the prices of all commodities and services will not cease to rise, everybody becomes eager to buy as much as possible and to restrict his cash holding to a minimum size. For under these circumstances the regular costs incurred by holding cash are increased by the losses caused by the progressive fall in purchasing power. The advantages of holding cash must be paid for by sacrifices which are deemed unreasonably burdensome. This phenomenon was, in the great European inflations of the ’twenties, called flight into real goods (Flucht in die Sachwerte) or crack-up boom (Katastrophenhausse). The mathematical economists are at a loss to comprehend the causal relation between the increase in the quantity of money and what they call “velocity of circulation.”
The characteristic mark of this phenomenon is that the increase in the quantity of money causes a fall in the demand for money. The tendency toward a fall in purchasing power as generated by the increased supply of money is intensified by the general propensity to restrict cash holdings which it brings about. Eventually a point is reached where the prices at which people would be prepared to part with “real” goods discount to such an extent the expected progress in the fall of purchasing power that nobody has a sufficient amount of cash at hand to pay them. The monetary system breaks down; all transactions in the money concerned cease; a panic makes its purchasing power vanish altogether. People return either to barter or to the use of another kind of money.
The course of a progressing inflation is this: At the beginning the inflow of additional money makes the prices of some commodities and services rise; other prices rise later. The price rise affects the various commodities and services, as has been shown, at different dates and to a different extent.
This first stage of the inflationary process may last for many years. While it lasts, the prices of many goods and services are not yet adjusted to the altered money relation. There are still people in the country who have not yet become aware of the fact that they are confronted with a price revolution which will finally result in a considerable rise of all prices, although the extent of this rise will not be the same in the various commodities and services. These people still believe that prices one day will drop. Waiting for this day, they restrict their purchases and concomitantly increase their cash holdings. As long as such ideas are still held by public opinion, it is not yet too late for the government to abandon its inflationary policy.
But then finally the masses wake up. They become suddenly aware of the fact that inflation is a deliberate policy and will go on endlessly. A breakdown occurs. The crack-up boom appears. Everybody is anxious to swap his money against “real” goods, no matter whether he needs them or not, no matter how much money he has to pay for them. Within a very short time, within a few weeks or even days, the things which were used as money are no longer used as media of exchange. They become scrap paper. Nobody wants to give away anything against them.
It was this that happened with the Continental currency in America in 1781, with the French mandats territoriaux [(French) land-warrants, issued in 1796 by the French Revolutionary Government, supposedly to serve as money] in 1796, and with the German Mark in 1923. It will happen again whenever the same conditions appear. If a thing has to be used as a medium of exchange, public opinion must not believe that the quantity of this thing will increase beyond all bounds. Inflation is a policy that cannot last.
The Specific Value of Money
As far as a good used as money is valued and appraised on account of the services it renders for nonmonetary purposes, no problems are raised which would require special treatment. The task of the theory of money consists merely in dealing with that component in the valuation of money which is conditioned by its function as a medium of exchange.
In the course of history various commodities have been employed as media of exchange. A long evolution eliminated the greater part of these commodities from the monetary function. Only two, the precious metals gold and silver, remained. In the second part of the nineteenth century more and more governments deliberately turned toward the demonetization of silver.
In all these cases what is employed as money is a commodity which is used also for nonmonetary purposes. Under the gold standard, gold is money and money is gold. It is immaterial whether or not the laws assign legal tender quality only to gold coins minted by the government. What counts is that these coins really contain a fixed weight of gold and that every quantity of bullion can be transformed into coins. Under the gold standard the dollar and the pound sterling were merely names for a definite weight of gold, within very narrow margins precisely determined by the laws. We may call such a sort of money commodity money.
A second sort of money is credit money. Credit money evolved out of the use of money-substitutes. It was customary to use claims, payable on demand and absolutely secure, as substitutes for the sum of money to which they gave a claim. (We shall deal with the features and problems of money-substitutes in the next sections.) The market did not stop using such claims when one day their prompt redemption was suspended and thereby doubts about their safety and the solvency of the obligee were raised. As long as these claims had been daily maturing claims against a debtor of undisputed solvency and could be collected without notice and free of expense, their exchange value was equal to their face value; it was this perfect equivalence which assigned to them the character of money-substitutes. Now, as redemption was suspended, the maturity date postponed to an undetermined day, and consequently doubts about the solvency of the debtor or at least about his willingness to pay emerged, they lost a part of the value previously ascribed to them. They were now merely claims, which did not bear interest, against a questionable debtor and falling due on an undefined day. But as they were used as media of exchange, their exchange value did not drop to the level to which it would have dropped if they were merely claims.
One can fairly assume that such credit money could remain in use as a medium of exchange even if it were to lose its character as a claim against a bank or a treasury, and thus would become fiat money. Fiat money is a money consisting of mere tokens which can neither be employed for any industrial purposes nor convey a claim against anybody.
It is not a task of catallactics but of economic history to investigate whether there appeared in the past specimens of fiat money or whether all the sorts of money which were not commodity money were credit money. The only thing that catallactics has to establish is that the possibility of the existence of fiat money must be admitted.
The important thing to be remembered is that with every sort of money, demonetization—i.e., the abandonment of its use as a medium of exchange—must result in a serious fall of its exchange value. What this practically means has become manifest when in the last ninety years the use of silver as commodity money has been progressively restricted.
There are specimens of credit money and fiat money which are embodied in metallic coins. Such money is printed, as it were, on silver, nickel, or copper. If such a piece of fiat money is demonetized, it still retains exchange value as a piece of metal. But this is only a very small indemnification of the owner. It has no practical importance.
The keeping of cash holding requires sacrifices. To the extent that a man keeps money in his pockets or in his balance with a bank, he forsakes the instantaneous acquisition of goods he could consume or employ for production. In the market economy these sacrifices can be precisely determined by calculation. They are equal to the amount of originary interest he would have earned by investing the sum. The fact that a man takes this falling off into account is proof that he prefers the advantages of cash holding to the loss in interest yield.
It is possible to specify the advantages which people expect from keeping a definite amount of cash. But it is a delusion to assume that an analysis of these motives could provide us with a theory of the determination of purchasing power which could do without the notions of cash holding and demand for and supply of money.12 The advantages and disadvantages derived from cash holding are not objective factors which could directly influence the size of cash holdings. They are put on the scales by each individual and weighed against one another. The result is a subjective judgment of value, colored by the individual’s personality. Different people and the same people at different times value the same objective facts in a different way. Just as knowledge of a man’s wealth and his physical condition does not tell us how much he would be prepared to spend for food of a certain nutritive power, so knowledge about data concerning a man’s material situation does not enable us to make definite assertions with regard to the size of his cash holding.
The Import of the Money Relation
The money relation, i.e., the relation between demand for and supply of money, uniquely determines the price structure as far as the reciprocal exchange ratio between money and the vendible commodities and services is involved.
If the money relation remains unchanged, neither an inflationary (expansionist) nor a deflationary (contractionist) pressure on trade, business, production, consumption, and employment can emerge. The assertions to the contrary reflect the grievances of people reluctant to adjust their activities to the demands of their fellow men as manifested on the market. However, it is not on account of an alleged scarcity of money that prices of agricultural products are too low to secure to the submarginal farmers proceeds of the amount they would like to earn. The cause of these farmers’ distress is that other farmers are producing at lower costs.
An increase in the quantity of goods produced, other things being unchanged, must bring about an improvement in people’s conditions. Its consequence is a fall in the money prices of the goods the production of which has been increased. But such a fall in money prices does not in the least impair the benefits derived from the additional wealth produced. One may consider as unfair the increase in the share of the additional wealth which goes to the creditors, although such criticisms are questionable as far as the rise in purchasing power has been correctly anticipated and adequately taken into account by a negative price premium.13 But one must not say that a fall in prices caused by an increase in the production of the goods concerned is the proof of some disequilibrium which cannot be eliminated otherwise than by increasing the quantity of money. Of course, as a rule every increase in production of some or of all commodities requires a new allocation of factors of production to the various branches of business. If the quantity of money remains unchanged, the necessity of such a reallocation becomes visible in the price structure. Some lines of production become more profitable, while in others profits drop or losses appear. Thus the operation of the market tends to eliminate these much discussed disequilibria. It is possible by means of an increase in the quantity of money to delay or to interrupt this process of adjustment. It is impossible either to make it superfluous or less painful for those concerned.
If the government-made cash-induced changes in the purchasing power of money resulted only in shifts of wealth from some people to other people, it would not be permissible to condemn them from the point of view of catallactics’ scientific neutrality. It is obviously fraudulent to justify them under the pretext of the commonweal or public welfare. But one could still consider them as political measures suitable to promote the interests of some groups of people at the expense of others without further detriment. However, there are still other things involved.
It is not necessary to point out the consequences to which a continued deflationary policy must lead. Nobody advocates such a policy. The favor of the masses and of the writers and politicians eager for applause goes to inflation. With regard to these endeavors we must emphasize three points. First: Inflationary or expansionist policy must result in overconsumption on the one hand and in malinvestment on the other. It thus squanders capital and impairs the future state of want-satisfaction.14 Second: The inflationary process does not remove the necessity of adjusting production and reallocating resources. It merely postpones it and thereby makes it more troublesome. Third: Inflation cannot be employed as a permanent policy because it must, when continued, finally result in a breakdown of the monetary system.
A retailer or innkeeper can easily fall prey to the illusion that all that is needed to make him and his colleagues more prosperous is more spending on the part of the public. In his eyes the main thing is to impel people to spend more. But it is amazing that this belief could be presented to the world as a new social philosophy. Lord Keynes and his disciples make the lack of the propensity to consume responsible for what they deem unsatisfactory in economic conditions. What is needed, in their eyes, to make men more prosperous is not an increase in production, but an increase in spending. In order to make it possible for people to spend more, an “expansionist” policy is recommended.
This doctrine is as old as it is bad. Its analysis and refutation will be undertaken in the chapter dealing with the trade cycle.15
Claims to a definite amount of money, payable and redeemable on demand, against a debtor about whose solvency and willingness to pay there does not prevail the slightest doubt, render to the individual all the services money can render, provided that all parties with whom he could possibly transact business are perfectly familiar with these essential qualities of the claims concerned: daily maturity as well as undoubted solvency and willingness to pay on the part of the debtor. We may call such claims money-substitutes, as they can fully replace money in an individual’s or a firm’s cash holding. The technical and legal features of the money-substitutes do not concern catallactics. A money-substitute can be embodied either in a banknote or in a demand deposit with a bank subject to check (“check-book money” or deposit currency), provided the bank is prepared to exchange the note or the deposit daily free of charge against money proper. Token coins are also money-substitutes, provided the owner is in a position to exchange them at need, free of expense and without delay, against money. To achieve this it is not required that the government be bound by law to redeem them. What counts is the fact that these tokens can be really converted free of expense and without delay. If the total amount of token coins issued is kept within reasonable limits, no special provisions on the part of the government are necessary to keep their exchange value at par with their face value. The demand of the public for small change gives everybody the opportunity to exchange them easily against pieces of money. The main thing is that every owner of a money-substitute is perfectly certain that it can, at every instant and free of expense, be exchanged against money.
If the debtor—the government or a bank—keeps against the whole amount of money-substitutes a 100% reserve of money proper, we call the money-substitute a money-certificate. The individual money-certificate is—not necessarily in a legal sense, but always in the catallactic sense—a representative of a corresponding amount of money kept in the reserve. The issuing of money-certificates does not increase the quantity of things suitable to satisfy the demand for money for cash holding. Changes in the quantity of money-certificates therefore do not alter the supply of money and the money relation. They do not play any role in the determination of the purchasing power of money.
If the money reserve kept by the debtor against the money-substitutes issued is less than the total amount of such substitutes, we call that amount of substitutes which exceeds the reserve fiduciary media. As a rule it is not possible to ascertain whether a concrete specimen of money-substitutes is a money-certificate or a fiduciary medium. A part of the total amount of money-substitutes issued is usually covered by a money reserve held. Thus a part of the total amount of money-substitutes issued is money-certificates, the rest fiduciary media. But this fact can only be recognized by those familiar with the bank’s balance sheets. The individual banknote, deposit, or token coin does not indicate its catallactic character.
The issue of money-certificates does not increase the funds which the bank can employ in the conduct of its lending business. A bank which does not issue fiduciary media can only grant commodity credit, i.e., it can only lend its own funds and the amount of money which its customers have entrusted to it. The issue of fiduciary media enlarges the bank’s funds available for lending beyond these limits. It can now not only grant commodity credit, but also circulation credit, i.e., credit granted out of the issue of fiduciary media.
While the quantity of money-certificates is indifferent, the quantity of fiduciary media is not. The fiduciary media affect the market phenomena in the same way as money does. Changes in their quantity influence the determination of money’s purchasing power and of prices and—temporarily—also of the rate of interest.
Earlier economists applied a different terminology. Many were prepared to call the money-substitutes simply money, as they are fit to render the services money renders. However, this terminology is not expedient. The first purpose of a scientific terminology is to facilitate the analysis of the problems involved. The task of the catallactic theory of money—as differentiated from the legal theory and from the technical disciplines of bank management and accountancy—is the study of the problems of the determination of prices and interest rates. This task requires a sharp distinction between money-certificates and fiduciary media.
The term credit expansion has often been misinterpreted. It is important to realize that commodity credit cannot be expanded. The only vehicle of credit expansion is circulation credit. But the granting of circulation credit does not always mean credit expansion. If the amount of fiduciary media previously issued has consummated all its effects upon the market, if prices, wage rates, and interest rates have been adjusted to the total supply of money proper plus fiduciary media (supply of money in the broader sense), granting of circulation credit without a further increase in the quantity of fiduciary media is no longer credit expansion. Credit expansion is present only if credit is granted by the issue of an additional amount of fiduciary media, not if banks lend anew fiduciary media paid back to them by the old debtors.
The Limitation on the Issuance of Fiduciary Media
People deal with money-substitutes as if they were money because they are fully confident that it will be possible to exchange them at any time without delay and without cost against money. We may call those who share in this confidence and are therefore ready to deal with money-substitutes as if they were money, the clients of the issuing banker, bank, or authority. It does not matter whether or not this issuing establishment is operated according to the patterns of conduct customary in the banking business. Token coins issued by a country’s treasury are money-substitutes too, although the treasury as a rule does not enter the amount issued into its accounts as a liability and does not consider this amount a part of the national debt. It is no less immaterial whether or not the owner of a money-substitute has an actionable claim to redemption. What counts is whether the money-substitute can really be exchanged against money without delay and cost.16
Issuing money-certificates is an expensive venture. The banknotes must be printed, the token coins minted; a complicated accounting system for the deposits must be organized; the reserves must be kept in safety; then there is the risk of being cheated by counterfeit banknotes and checks. Against all these expenses stands only the slight chance that some of the banknotes issued may be destroyed and the still slighter chance that some depositors may forget their deposits. Issuing money-certificates is a ruinous business if not connected with issuing fiduciary media. In the early history of banking there were banks whose only operation consisted in issuing money-certificates. But these banks were indemnified by their clients for the costs incurred. At any rate, catallactics is not interested in the purely technical problems of banks not issuing fiduciary media. The only interest that catallactics takes in money-certificates is the connection between issuing them and the issuing of fiduciary media.
While the quantity of money-certificates is catallactically unimportant, an increase or decrease in the quantity of fiduciary media affects the determination of money’s purchasing power in the same way as do changes in the quantity of money. Hence the question of whether there are or are not limits to the increase in the quantity of fiduciary media has fundamental importance.
If the clientele of the bank includes all members of the market economy, the limit to the issue of fiduciary media is the same as that drawn to the increase in the quantity of money. A bank which is, in an isolated country or in the whole world, the only institution issuing fiduciary media and the clientele of which comprises all individuals and firms, is bound to comply in its conduct of affairs with two rules:
First: It must avoid any action which could make the clients—i.e., the public—suspicious. As soon as the clients begin to lose confidence, they will ask for the redemption of the banknotes and withdraw their deposits. How far the bank can go on increasing its issues of fiduciary media without arousing distrust, depends on psychological factors.
Second: It must not increase the amount of fiduciary media at such a rate and with such speed that the clients get the conviction that the rise in prices will continue endlessly at an accelerated pace. For if the public believes that this is the case, they will reduce their cash holdings, flee into “real” values, and bring about the crack-up boom. It is impossible to imagine the approach of this catastrophe without assuming that its first manifestation consists in the evanescence of confidence. The public will certainly prefer exchanging the fiduciary media against money to fleeing into real values, i.e., to the indiscriminate buying of various commodities. Then the bank must go bankrupt. If the government interferes by freeing the bank from the obligation of redeeming its banknotes and of paying back the deposits in compliance with the terms of the contract, the fiduciary media become either credit money or fiat money. The suspension of specie [metallic money, usually gold or silver] payments entirely changes the state of affairs. There is no longer any question of fiduciary media, of money-certificates, and of money-substitutes. The government enters the scene with its government-made legal tender laws. The bank loses its independent existence; it becomes a tool of government policies, a subordinate office of the treasury.
The catallactically most important problems of the issuance of fiduciary media on the part of a single bank, or of banks acting in concert, the clientele of which comprehends all individuals, are not those of the limitations drawn to the amount of their issuance. We will deal with them in Chapter 20, devoted to the relations between the quantity of money and the rate of interest.
At this point of our investigations we have to scrutinize the problem of the coexistence of a multiplicity of independent banks. Independence means that every bank in issuing fiduciary media follows its own course and does not act in concert with other banks. Coexistence means that every bank has a clientele which does not include all members of the market system. For the sake of simplicity we will assume that no individual or firm is a client of more than one bank. It would not affect the result of our demonstration if we were to assume that there are also people who are clients of more than one bank and people who are not clients of any bank.
The question to be raised is not whether or not there are limits to the issuance of fiduciary media on the part of such independently coexisting banks. As there are even limits to the issuance of fiduciary media on the part of a unique bank the clientele of which comprises all people, it is obvious that there are such limits for a multiplicity of independently coexisting banks too. What we want to show is that for such a multiplicity of independently coexisting banks the limits are narrower than those drawn for a single bank with an unlimited clientele.
We assume that within a market system several independent banks have been established in the past. While previously only money was in use, these banks have introduced the use of money-substitutes a part of which are fiduciary media. Each bank has a clientele and has issued a certain quantity of fiduciary media which are kept as money-substitutes in the cash holdings of various clients. The total quantity of the fiduciary media as issued by the banks and absorbed by the cash holdings of their clients has altered the structure of prices and the monetary unit’s purchasing power. But these effects have already been consummated and at present the market is no longer stirred by any movements generated from this past credit expansion.
But now, we assume further, one bank alone embarks upon an additional issue of fiduciary media while the other banks do not follow suit. The clients of the expanding bank—whether its old clients or new ones acquired on account of the expansion—receive additional credits, they expand their business activities, they appear on the market with an additional demand for goods and services, they bid up prices. Those people who are not clients of the expanding bank are not in a position to afford these higher prices; they are forced to restrict their purchases. Thus there prevails on the market a shifting of goods from the nonclients to the clients of the expanding bank. The clients buy more from the nonclients than they sell to them; they have more to pay to the nonclients than they receive from them. But money-substitutes issued by the expanding bank are not suitable for payments to nonclients, as these people do not assign to them the character of money-substitutes. In order to settle the payments due to nonclients, the clients must first exchange the money-substitutes issued by their own—viz., the expanding bank—against money. The expanding bank must redeem its banknotes and pay out its deposits. Its reserve—we suppose that only a part of the money-substitutes it had issued had the character of fiduciary media—dwindles. The instant approaches in which the bank will—after the exhaustion of its money reserve—no longer be in a position to redeem the money-substitutes still current. In order to avoid insolvency it must as soon as possible return to a policy of strengthening its money reserve. It must abandon its expansionist methods.
This reaction of the market to a credit expansion on the part of a bank with a limited clientele has been brilliantly described by the Currency School. The special case dealt with by the Currency School referred to the coincidence of credit expansion on the part of one country’s privileged central bank or of all banks of one country and of a nonexpansionist policy on the part of the banks of other countries. Our demonstration covers the more general case of the coexistence of a multiplicity of banks with different clientele as well as the most general case of the existence of one bank with a limited clientele in a system in which the rest of the people do not patronize any bank and do not consider any claims as money-substitutes. It does not matter, of course, whether one assumes that the clients of a bank live neatly separated from those of the other banks in a definite district or country or whether they live side by side with those of the other banks. These are merely differences in the data not affecting the catallactic problems involved.
A bank can never issue more money-substitutes than its clients can keep in their cash holdings. The individual client can never keep a larger portion of his total cash holding in money-substitutes than that corresponding to the proportion which his turnover with other clients of his bank bears to his total turnover. For considerations of convenience he will, as a rule, remain far below this maximum proportion. Thus a limit is drawn to the issue of fiduciary media. We may admit that everybody is ready to accept in his current transactions indiscriminately banknotes issued by any bank and checks drawn upon any bank. But he deposits without delay with his own bank not only the checks but also the banknotes of banks of which he is not himself a client. In the further course his bank settles its accounts with the bank engaged. Thus the process described above comes into motion.
A lot of nonsense has been written about a perverse predilection of the public for banknotes issued by dubious banks. The truth is that, except for small groups of businessmen who were able to distinguish between good and bad banks, banknotes were always looked upon with distrust. It was the special charters which the governments granted to privileged banks that slowly made these suspicions disappear. The often advanced argument that small banknotes come into the hands of poor and ignorant people who cannot distinguish between good and bad notes cannot be taken seriously. The poorer the recipient of a banknote is and the less familiar he is with bank affairs, the more quickly will he spend the note and the more quickly will it return, by way of retail and wholesale trade, to the issuing bank or to people conversant with banking conditions.
It is very easy for a bank to increase the number of people who are ready to accept loans granted by credit expansion and paid out in an amount of money-substitutes. But it is very difficult for any bank to enlarge its clientele, that is, the number of people who are ready to consider these claims as money-substitutes and to keep them as such in their cash holdings. To enlarge this clientele is a troublesome and slow process, as is the acquisition of any kind of good will. On the other hand, a bank can lose its clientele very quickly. If it wants to preserve it, it must never permit any doubt about its ability and readiness to discharge all its liabilities in due compliance with the terms of the contract. A reserve must be kept large enough to redeem all banknotes which a holder may submit for redemption. Therefore no bank can content itself with issuing fiduciary media only; it must keep a reserve against the total amount of money-substitutes issued and thus combine issuing fiduciary media and money-certificates.
It was a serious blunder to believe that the reserve’s task is to provide the means for the redemption of those banknotes the holders of which have lost confidence in the bank. The confidence which a bank and the money-substitutes it has issued enjoy is indivisible. It is either present with all its clients or it vanishes entirely. If some of the clients lose confidence, the rest of them lose it too. No bank issuing fiduciary media and granting circulation credit can fulfill the obligations which it has taken over in issuing money-substitutes if all clients are losing confidence and want to have their banknotes redeemed and their deposits paid back. This is an essential feature or weakness of the business of issuing fiduciary media and granting circulation credit. No system of reserve policy and no reserve requirements as enforced by the laws can remedy it. All that a reserve can do is to make it possible for the bank to withdraw from the market an excessive amount of fiduciary media issued. If the bank has issued more banknotes than its clients can use in doing business with other clients, it must redeem such an excess.
The laws which compelled the banks to keep a reserve in a definite ratio of the total amount of deposits and of banknotes issued were effective in so far as they restricted the increase in the amount of fiduciary media and of circulation credit. They were futile as far as they aimed at safeguarding, in the event of a loss of confidence, the prompt redemption of the banknotes and the prompt payment on deposits.
The Banking School failed entirely in dealing with these problems. It was confused by a spurious idea according to which the requirements of business rigidly limit the maximum amount of convertible banknotes that a bank can issue. They did not see that the demand of the public for credit is a magnitude dependent on the banks’ readiness to lend, and that banks which do not bother about their own solvency are in a position to expand circulation credit by lowering the rate of interest below the market rate. It is not true that the maximum amount which a bank can lend if it limits its lending to discounting short-term bills of exchange resulting from the sale and purchase of raw materials and half-manufactured goods is a quantity uniquely determined by the state of business and independent of the bank’s policies. This quantity expands or shrinks with the lowering or raising of the rate of discount. Lowering the rate of interest is tantamount to increasing the quantity of what is mistakenly considered as the fair and normal requirements of business.
The Currency School gave a quite correct explanation of the recurring crises as they upset English business conditions in the ’thirties and ’forties of the nineteenth century. There was credit expansion on the part of the Bank of England and the other British banks and bankers, while there was no credit expansion, or at least not to the same degree, in the countries with which Great Britain traded. The external drain occurred as the necessary consequence of this state of affairs. Everything that the Banking School advanced in order to refute this theory was vain. Unfortunately, the Currency School erred in two respects. It never realized that the remedy it suggested, namely strict legal limitation of the amount of banknotes issued beyond the specie reserve, was not the only one. It never gave a thought to the idea of free banking. The second fault of the Currency School was that it failed to recognize that deposits subject to check are money-substitutes and, as far as their amount exceeds the reserve kept, fiduciary media, and consequently no less a vehicle of credit expansion than are banknotes. It was the only merit of the Banking School that it recognized that what is called deposit currency is a money-substitute no less than banknotes. But except for this point, all the doctrines of the Banking School were spurious. It was guided by contradictory ideas concerning money’s neutrality; it tried to refute the quantity theory of money by referring to a deus ex machina, the much talked about hoards, and it misconstrued entirely the problems of the rate of interest.
It must be emphasized that the problem of legal restrictions upon the issuance of fiduciary media could emerge only because governments had granted special privileges to one or several banks and had thus prevented the free evolution of banking. If the governments had never interfered for the benefit of special banks, if they had never released some banks from the obligation, incumbent upon all individuals and firms in the market economy, to settle their liabilities in full compliance with the terms of the contract, no bank problem would have come into being. The limits which are drawn to credit expansion would have worked effectively. Considerations of its own solvency would have forced every bank to cautious restraint in issuing fiduciary media. Those banks which would not have observed these indispensable rules would have gone bankrupt, and the public, warned through damage, would have become doubly suspicious and reserved.
The attitudes of the European governments with regard to banking were from the beginning insincere and mendacious. The pretended solicitude for the nation’s welfare, for the public in general, and for the poor ignorant masses in particular was a mere blind. The governments wanted inflation and credit expansion, they wanted booms and easy money. Those Americans who twice succeeded in doing away with a central bank were aware of the dangers of such institutions; it was only too bad that they failed to see that the evils they fought were present in every kind of government interference with banking. Today even the most bigoted étatists cannot deny that all the alleged evils of free banking count little when compared with the disastrous effects of the tremendous inflations which the privileged and government-controlled banks have brought about.
It is a fable that governments interfered with banking in order to restrict the issue of fiduciary media and to prevent credit expansion. The idea that guided governments was, on the contrary, the lust for inflation and credit expansion. They privileged banks because they wanted to widen the limits that the unhampered market draws to credit expansion or because they were eager to open to the treasury a source of revenue. For the most part both of these considerations motivated the authorities. They were convinced that the fiduciary media are an efficient means of lowering the rate of interest, and asked the banks to expand credit for the benefit of both business and the treasury. Only when the undesired effects of credit expansion became visible, were laws enacted to restrict the issue of banknotes—and sometimes also of deposits—not covered by specie. The establishment of free banking was never seriously considered precisely because it would have been too efficient in restricting credit expansion. For rulers, writers, and the public were unanimous in the belief that business has a fair claim to a “normal” and “necessary” amount of circulation credit and that this amount could not be attained under free banking.17
Many governments never looked upon the issuance of fiduciary media from a point of view other than that of fiscal concerns. In their eyes the foremost task of the banks was to lend money to the treasury. The money-substitutes were favorably considered as pacemakers for government-issued paper money. The convertible banknote was merely a first step on the way to the nonredeemable banknote. With the progress of statolatry and the policy of interventionism these ideas have become general and are no longer questioned by anybody. No government is willing today to give any thought to the program of free banking because no government wants to renounce what it considers a handy source of revenue. What is called today financial war preparedness is merely the ability to procure by means of privileged and government-controlled banks all the money a warring nation may need. Radical inflationism, although not admitted explicitly, is an essential feature of the economic ideology of our age.
But even at the time liberalism enjoyed its highest prestige and governments were more eager to preserve peace and well-being than to foment war, death, destruction, and misery, people were biased in dealing with the problems of banking. Outside of the Anglo-Saxon countries public opinion was convinced that it is one of the main tasks of good government to lower the rate of interest and that credit expansion is the appropriate means for the attainment of this end.
Great Britain was free from these errors when in 1844 it reformed its bank laws. But the two shortcomings of the Currency School vitiated this famous act. On one hand, the system of government interference with banking was preserved. On the other hand, limits were placed only on the issuance of banknotes not covered by specie. The fiduciary media were suppressed only in the shape of banknotes. They could thrive as deposit currency.
In carrying the idea implied in the Currency Theory to its full logical conclusion, one could suggest that all banks be forced by law to keep against the total amount of money-substitutes (banknotes plus demand deposits) a 100 per cent money reserve. This is the core of Professor Irving Fisher’s 100 per cent plan. But Professor Fisher combined his plan with his proposals concerning the adoption of an index-number standard. It has been pointed out already why such a scheme is illusory and tantamount to open approval of the government’s power to manipulate purchasing power according to the appetites of powerful pressure groups. But even if the 100 per cent reserve plan were to be adopted on the basis of the unadulterated gold standard, it would not entirely remove the drawbacks inherent in every kind of government interference with banking. What is needed to prevent any further credit expansion is to place the banking business under the general rules of commercial and civil laws compelling every individual and firm to fulfill all obligations in full compliance with the terms of the contract. If banks are preserved as privileged establishments subject to special legislative provisions, the tool remains that governments can use for fiscal purposes. Then every restriction imposed upon the issuance of fiduciary media depends upon the government’s and the parliament’s good intentions. They may limit the issuance for periods which are called normal. The restriction will be withdrawn whenever a government deems that an emergency justifies resorting to extraordinary measures. If an administration and the party backing it want to increase expenditure without jeopardizing their popularity through the imposition of higher taxes, they will always be ready to call their impasse an emergency. Recourse to the printing press and to the obsequiousness of bank managers willing to oblige the authorities regulating their conduct of affairs is the foremost means of governments eager to spend money for purposes for which the taxpayers are not ready to pay higher taxes.
Free banking is the only method available for the prevention of the dangers inherent in credit expansion. It would, it is true, not hinder a slow credit expansion, kept within very narrow limits, on the part of cautious banks which provide the public with all information required about their financial status. But under free banking it would have been impossible for credit expansion with all its inevitable consequences to have developed into a regular—one is tempted to say normal—feature of the economic system. Only free banking would have rendered the market economy secure against crises and depressions.
Looking backward upon the history of the last two centuries, one cannot help realizing that the blunders committed by liberalism in handling the problems of banking were a deadly blow to the market economy. There was no reason whatever to abandon the principle of free enterprise in the field of banking. The majority of liberal politicians simply surrendered to the popular hostility against money-lending and interest taking. They failed to realize that the rate of interest is a market phenomenon which cannot be manipulated ad libitum by the authorities or by any other agency. They adopted the superstition that lowering the rate of interest is beneficial and that credit expansion is the right means of attaining such cheap money. Nothing harmed the cause of liberalism more than the almost regular return of feverish booms and of the dramatic breakdown of bull markets followed by lingering slumps. Public opinion has become convinced that such happenings are inevitable in the unhampered market economy. People did not conceive that what they lamented was the necessary outcome of policies directed toward a lowering of the rate of interest by means of credit expansion. They stubbornly kept to these policies and tried in vain to fight their undesired consequences by more and more government interference.
[12. ]Such an attempt was made by Greidanus, The Value of Money (London, 1932), pp. 197 ff.
[13. ]About the relations of the market rate of interest and changes in purchasing power, cf. below, Chapter 20.
[14. ]Cf. below, pp. 564–65.
[15. ]Cf. below, pp. 548–65.
[16. ]It is furthermore immaterial whether or not the laws assign to the money-substitutes legal tender quality. If these things are really dealt with by people as money-substitutes and are therefore money-substitutes and equal in purchasing power to the respective amount of money, the only effect of the legal tender quality is to prevent malicious people from resorting to chicanery for the mere sake of annoying their fellow men. If, however, the things concerned are not money-substitutes and are traded at a discount below their face value, the assignment of legal tender quality is tantamount to an authoritarian price ceiling, the fixing of a maximum price for gold and foreign exchange and of a minimum price for the things which are no longer money-substitutes but either credit money or fiat money. Then the effects appear which Gresham’s Law describes.
[17. ]The notion of “normal” credit expansion is absurd. Issuance of additional fiduciary media, no matter what its quantity may be, always sets in motion those changes in the price structure the description of which is the task of the theory of the trade cycle. Of course, if the additional amount issued is not large, neither are the inevitable effects of the expansion.