Front Page Titles (by Subject) Some Applications of the Time-Preference Theory - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.)
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Some Applications of the Time-Preference Theory - 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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Some Applications of the Time-Preference Theory
Every part of economics is open to intentional misrepresentation and misinterpretation on the part of people eager to excuse or to justify fallacious doctrines underlying their party programs. To prevent such misuse as far as possible it seems expedient to add some explanatory remarks to the exposition of the time-preference theory.
There are schools of thought which flatly deny that men differ with regard to innate characteristics inherited from their ancestors.12 In the opinion of these authors the only difference between the white men of Western civilization and Eskimos is that the latter are in arrears in their progress toward modern industrial civilization. This merely temporal difference of a few thousand years is insignificant when compared with the many hundreds of thousands of years which were absorbed by man’s evolution from the simian state of his apelike forebears to the conditions of present-day Homo sapiens. It does not support the assumption that racial differences prevail between the various specimens of mankind.
Praxeology and economics are foreign to the issues raised by this controversy. But they must take precautionary measures lest they become implicated by partisan spirit in this clash of antagonistic ideas. If those fanatically rejecting the teachings of modern genetics were not entirely ignorant of economics, they would certainly try to turn the time-preference theory to their advantage. They would refer to the circumstance that the superiority of the Western nations consists merely in their having started earlier in endeavors to save and to accumulate capital goods. They would explain this temporal difference by accidental factors, the better opportunity offered by environment.
Against such possible misinterpretations one must emphasize the fact that the temporal head start gained by the Western nations was conditioned by ideological factors which cannot be reduced simply to the operation of environment. What is called human civilization has up to now been a progress from cooperation by virtue of hegemonic bonds to cooperation by virtue of contractual bonds. But while many races and peoples were arrested at an early stage of this movement, others kept on advancing. The eminence of the Western nations consisted in the fact that they succeeded better in checking the spirit of predatory militarism than the rest of mankind and that they thus brought forth the social institutions required for saving and investment on a broader scale. Even Marx did not contest the fact that private initiative and private ownership of the means of production were indispensable stages in the progress from primitive man’s penury to the more satisfactory conditions of nineteenth-century Western Europe and North America. What the East Indies, China, Japan, and the Mohammedan countries lacked were institutions for safeguarding the individual’s rights. The arbitrary administration of pashas, kadis, rajahs, mandarins, and daimios was not conducive to large-scale accumulation of capital. The legal guarantees effectively protecting the individual against expropriation and confiscation were the foundations upon which the unprecedented economic progress of the West came into flower. These laws were not an outgrowth of chance, historical accidents, and geographical environment. They were the product of reason.
We do not know what course the history of Asia and Africa would have taken if these peoples had been left alone. What happened was that some of these peoples were subject to European rule and others—like China and Japan—were forced by the display of naval power to open their frontiers. The achievements of Western industrialism came to them from abroad. They were ready to take advantage of the foreign capital lent to them and invested in their territories. But they were rather slow in the reception of the ideologies from which modern industrialism had sprung. Their assimilation to Western ways of life is superficial.
We are in the midst of a revolutionary process which will very soon do away with all varieties of colonialism. This revolution is not limited to those countries which were subject to the rule of the British, the French and the Dutch. Even nations which without any infringement of their political sovereignty had profited from foreign capital are intent upon throwing off what they call the yoke of foreign capitalists. They are expropriating the foreigners by various devices—discriminatory taxation, repudiation of debts, undisguised confiscation, foreign exchange restrictions. We are on the eve of the complete disintegration of the international capital market. The economic consequences of this event are obvious; its political repercussions are unpredictable.
In order to appreciate the political consequences of the disintegration of the international capital market it is necessary to remember what effects were brought about by the internationalization of the capital market. Under the conditions of the later nineteenth century it did not matter whether or not a nation was prepared and equipped with the required capital in order to utilize adequately the natural resources of its territory. There was practically free access for everybody to every area’s natural wealth. In searching for the most advantageous opportunities for investment, capitalists and promoters were not stopped by national borderlines. As far as investment for the best possible utilization of the known natural resources was concerned, the greater part of the earth’s surface could be considered as integrated into a uniform world-embracing market system. It is true that this result was attained in some areas, like the British and the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, only by colonial regimes and that autochthonous governments of these territories would probably not have created the institutional setting indispensable for the importation of capital. But Eastern and Southern Europe and the Western Hemisphere had of their own accord joined the community of the international capital market.
The Marxians were intent upon indicting foreign loans and investments for the lust for war, conquest, and colonial expansion. In fact the internationalization of the capital market, together with free trade and the freedom of migration, was instrumental in removing the economic incentives to war and conquest. It no longer mattered for a man where the political boundaries of his country were drawn. The entrepreneur and the investor were not checked by them. Precisely those nations which in the age preceding the first World War were paramount in foreign lending and investment were committed to the ideas of peace-loving “decadent” liberalism. Of the foremost aggressor nations Russia, Italy, and Japan were not capital exporters; they themselves needed foreign capital for the development of their own natural resources. Germany’s imperialist adventures were not supported by its big business and finance.13
The disappearance of the international capital market alters conditions entirely. It abolishes the freedom of access to natural resources. If one of the socialist governments of the economically backward nations lacks the capital needed for the utilization of its natural resources, there will be no means to remedy this situation. If this system had been adopted a hundred years ago, it would have been impossible to exploit the oil fields of Mexico, Venezuela, and Iran, to establish the rubber plantations in Malaya or to develop the banana production of Central America. It is illusory to assume that the advanced nations will acquiesce forever in such a state of affairs. They will resort to the only method which gives them access to badly needed raw materials; they will resort to conquest. War is the alternative to freedom of foreign investment as realized by the international capital market.
The inflow of foreign capital did not harm the receiving nations. It was European capital that accelerated considerably the marvelous economic evolution of the United States and the British Dominions. Thanks to foreign capital the countries of Latin America and Asia are today equipped with facilities for production and transportation which they would have had to forego for a very long time if they had not received this aid. Real wage rates and farm yields are higher today in those areas than they would have been in the absence of foreign capital. The mere fact that almost all nations are vehemently asking today for “foreign aid” explodes the fables of the Marxians and the nationalists.
However, the mere lust for imported capital goods does not resuscitate the international capital market. Investment and lending abroad are only possible if the receiving nations are unconditionally and sincerely committed to the principle of private property and do not plan to expropriate the foreign capitalists at a later date. It was such expropriations that destroyed the international capital market.
Intergovernmental loans are no substitute for the functioning of an international capital market. If they are granted on business terms, they presuppose no less than private loans the full acknowledgment of property rights. If they are granted, as is usually the case, as virtual subsidies without any regard for payment of principal and interest, they impose restrictions upon the debtor nation’s sovereignty. In fact such “loans” are for the most part the price paid for military assistance in coming wars. Such military considerations already played an important role in the years in which the European powers prepared the great wars of our age. The outstanding example was provided by the huge sums which the French capitalists, pressed hard by the Government of the Third Republic, lent to Imperial Russia. The Tsars used the capital borrowed for armaments, not for an improvement of the Russian apparatus of production.
The Convertibility of Capital Goods
Capital goods are intermediary steps on the way toward a definite goal. If in the course of the period of production the goal is changed, it is not always possible to use the intermediary products already available for the pursuit of the new goal. Some of the capital goods may become absolutely useless, and all expenditure made in their production appears now as waste. Other capital goods could be utilized for the new project but only after having been subjected to a process of adjustment; it would have been possible to spare the costs required by this alteration if one had from the start aimed at the new goal. A third group of capital goods can be employed for the new process without any alteration; but if it had been known at the time they were produced that they would be used in the new way, it would have been possible to manufacture at smaller cost other goods which could render the same service. Finally there are also capital goods which can be employed for the new project just as well as for the original one.
It would hardly be necessary to mention these obvious facts if it were not essential to refute popular misconceptions. There is no such thing as an abstract or ideal capital that exists apart from concrete capital goods. If we disregard the role cash holding plays in the composition of capital (we will deal with this problem in one of the later sections) we must realize that capital is always embodied in definite capital goods and is affected by everything that happens with regard to them. The value of an amount of capital is a derivative of the value of the capital goods in which it is embodied. The money equivalent of an amount of capital is the sum of the money equivalents of the aggregate of capital goods to which one refers in speaking of capital in the abstract. There is nothing which could be called “free” capital. Capital is always in the form of definite capital goods. These capital goods are better utilizable for some purposes, less utilizable for others, and absolutely useless for still other purposes. Every unit of capital is therefore in some way or other fixed capital, i.e., dedicated to definite processes of production. The businessman’s distinction between fixed capital and circulating capital is a difference of degree, not of kind. Everything that is valid with regard to fixed capital is also valid, although to a smaller degree, with regard to circulating capital. All capital goods have a more or less specific character. Of course, with many of them it is rather unlikely that a change in wants and plans will make them entirely useless.
The more a definite process of production approaches its ultimate end, the closer becomes the tie between its intermediary products and the goal aimed at. Iron is less specific in character than iron tubes, and iron tubes less so than iron machine-parts. The conversion of a process of production becomes as a rule the more difficult, the farther it has been pursued and the nearer it has come to its termination, the turning out of consumers’ goods.
In looking at the process of capital accumulation from its very beginnings one can easily recognize that there cannot be such a thing as free capital. There is only capital embodied in goods of a more specific character and in goods of a less specific character. When the wants or the opinions concerning the methods of want-satisfaction change, the value of the capital goods is altered accordingly. Additional capital goods can come into existence only through making consumption lag behind current production. The additional capital is already in the very moment of its coming into existence embodied in concrete capital goods. These goods had to be produced before they could—as an excess of production overconsumption—become capital goods. The role which the interposition [rendered in earlier editions as “intraposition”] of money plays in the sequence of these events will be dealt with later. Here we need only recognize that even the capitalist whose whole capital consists in money and in claims to money does not own free capital. His funds are tied up with money. They are affected by changes in money’s purchasing power and—as far as they are invested in claims to definite sums of money—also by changes in the debtor’s solvency.
It is expedient to substitute the notion of the convertibility of capital goods for the misleading distinction between fixed and free or circulating capital. The convertibility of capital goods is the opportunity offered to adjust their utilization to a change in the data of production. Convertibility is graduated. It is never perfect, i.e., present with regard to all possible changes in the data. In the case of absolutely specific factors it is entirely absent. As the conversion of capital goods from the employment originally planned to other employments becomes necessary through the emergence of unforeseen changes in the data, it is impossible to speak of convertibility in general without reference to changes in the data which have already occurred or are expected. A radical change in the data could make capital goods previously considered to be easily convertible either not convertible at all or convertible only with difficulty.
It is obvious that in practice the problem of convertibility plays a greater role with goods the serviceability of which consists in rendering a series of services over a period of time than with capital goods the serviceability of which is exhausted by rendering only one service in the process of production. The unused capacity of plants and transportation facilities and the scrapping of equipment which according to the plans underlying its production was designed for longer use are more momentous than the throwing away of fabrics and clothing out of fashion and of physically perishable goods. The problem of convertibility is peculiarly a problem of capital and capital goods only in so far as capital accounting makes it especially visible with regard to capital goods. Essentially it is a phenomenon present also in the case of consumers’ goods which an individual has acquired for his own use and consumption. If the conditions which resulted in their acquisition change, the problem of convertibility becomes actual with them too.
Capitalists and entrepreneurs in their capacity as owners of capital are never perfectly free; they are never on the eve of the first decision and action which will bind them. They are always already engaged in some way or other. Their funds are not outside the social process of production, but invested in definite lines. If they own cash, this is, according to the state of the market, either a sound or an unsound “investment”; but it is always an investment. They have either let slip the right moment for the purchase of concrete factors of production which they must buy sooner or later, or the right moment to buy has not yet come. In the first case their holding of cash is unsound; they have missed an opportunity. In the second case their choice was correct.
Capitalists and entrepreneurs in expending money for the purchase of concrete factors of production value the goods exclusively from the point of view of the anticipated future state of the market. They pay prices adjusted to future conditions as they themselves appraise them today. Errors committed in the past in the production of capital goods available today do not burden the buyer; their incidence falls entirely on the seller. In this sense the entrepreneur who proceeds to buy against money capital goods for future production crosses out the past. His entrepreneurial ventures are not affected by changes which in the past occurred in the valuation and the prices of the factors of production he acquires. In this sense alone one may say that the owner of ready cash owns liquid funds and is free.
The Influence of the Past Upon Action
The more the accumulation of capital goods proceeds, the greater becomes the problem of convertibility. The primitive methods of farmers and handicraftsmen of earlier ages could more easily be adjusted to new tasks than modern capitalist methods. But it is precisely modern capitalism that is faced with rapid changes in conditions. Changes in technological knowledge and in the demand of the consumers as they occur daily in our time make obsolete many of the plans directing the course of production and raise the question whether or not one should pursue the path started on.
The spirit of sweeping innovation may get hold of men, may triumph over the inhibitions of sluggishness and indolence, may incite the slothful slaves of routine to a radical rescission of traditional valuations, and may peremptorily urge people to enter upon new paths leading to new goals. Doctrinaires may try to forget that we are in all our endeavors the heirs of our fathers, and that our civilization, the product of a long evolution, cannot be transformed at one stroke. But however strong the propensity for innovation may be, it is kept in bounds by a factor that forces men not to deviate too hastily from the course chosen by their forebears. All material wealth is a residuum of past activities and is embodied in concrete capital goods of limited convertibility. The capital goods accumulated direct the actions of the living into lines which they would not have chosen if their discretion had not been restricted by binding action accomplished in the past. The choice of ends and of the means for the attainment of these ends is influenced by the past. Capital goods are a conservative element. They force us to adjust our actions to conditions brought about by our own conduct in earlier days and by the thinking, choosing and acting of bygone generations.
We may picture to ourselves the image of how things would be if, equipped with our present knowledge of natural resources, geography, technology, and hygienics, we had arranged all processes of production and manufactured all capital goods accordingly. We would have located the centers of production in other places. We would have populated the earth’s surface in a different way. Some areas which are today densely inhabited and full of plants and farms would be less occupied. We would have assembled more people and more shops and farms in other areas. All establishments would be equipped with the most efficient machines and tools. Each of them would be the size required for the most economical utilization of its capacity of production. In the world of our perfect planning there would be no technological backwardness, no unused capacity to produce, and no avoidable shipping of men or of goods. The productivity of human exertion would far surpass that prevailing in our actual, imperfect state.
The writings of the socialists are full of such utopian fancies. Whether they call themselves Marxian or non-Marxian socialists, technocrats, or simply planners, they are all eager to show us how foolishly things are arranged in reality and how happily men could live if they were to invest the reformers with dictatorial powers. It is, they say, only the inadequacy of the capitalist mode of production that prevents mankind from enjoying all the amenities which could be produced under the contemporary state of technological knowledge.
The fundamental error involved in this rationalistic romanticism is the misconception of the character of the capital goods available and of their scarcity. The intermediary products available today were manufactured in the past by our ancestors and by ourselves. The plans which guided their production were an outgrowth of the then prevailing ideas concerning ends and technological procedures. If we consider aiming at different ends and choosing different methods of production, we are faced with an alternative. We must either leave unused a great part of the capital goods available and start afresh producing modern equipment, or we must adjust our production processes as far as possible to the specific character of the capital goods available. The choice rests, as it always does in the market economy, with the consumers. Their conduct in buying or not buying settles the issue. In choosing between old tenements and new ones equipped with all the gadgets of comfort, between railroad and motorcar, between gas and electric light, between cotton and rayon goods, between silk and nylon hosiery, they implicitly choose between a continued employment of previously accumulated capital goods and their scrapping. When an old building which could still be inhabited for years is not prematurely demolished and replaced by a modern house because the tenants are not prepared to pay higher rents and prefer to satisfy other wants instead of living in more comfortable homes, it is obvious how present consumption is influenced by conditions of the past.
The fact that not every technological improvement is instantly applied in the whole field is not more conspicuous than the fact that not everybody throws away his old car or his old clothes as soon as a better car is on the market or new patterns become fashionable. In all such things people are motivated by the scarcity of goods available.
A new machine, more efficient than those used previously, is constructed. Whether or not the plants equipped with the old, less efficient machines will discard them in spite of the fact that they are still utilizable and replace them by the new model depends on the degree of the new machine’s superiority. Only if this superiority is great enough to compensate for the additional expenditure required, is the scrapping of the old equipment economically sound. Let p be the price of the new machine, q the price that can be realized by selling the old machine as scrap iron, a the cost of producing one unit of product by the old machine, b the cost of producing one unit of product by the new machine without taking into account the costs required for its purchase. Let us further assume that the eminence of the new machine consists merely in a better utilization of raw material and labor employed and not in manufacturing a greater quantity of products and that thus the annual output z remains unchanged. Then the replacement of the old machine by the new one is advantageous if the yield z(a − b) is large enough to make good for the expenditure of p − q. We may disregard the writing off of depreciation in assuming that the annual quotas are not greater for the new machine than for the old one. The same considerations hold true also for the transfer of an already existing plant from a place in which conditions of production are less favorable to a location offering more favorable conditions.
Technological backwardness and economic inferiority are two different things and must not be confused. It can happen that a production aggregate which from a merely technological point of view appears outclassed is in a position to compete successfully with aggregates better equipped or located at more favorable sites. The degree of the superiority provided by the technologically more efficient equipment or by the more propitious location as compared with the surplus expenditure required for the transformation decides the issue. This relation depends on the convertibility of the capital goods concerned.
The distinction between technological perfection and economic expediency is not, as romantic engineers would have us believe, a feature of capitalism. It is true that only economic calculation as possible solely in a market economy gives the opportunity to establish all the computations required for the cognition of the relevant facts. A socialist management would not be in a position to ascertain the state of affairs by arithmetical methods. It would therefore not know whether or not what it plans and puts into operation is the most appropriate procedure to employ the means available for the satisfaction of what it considers to be the most urgent of the still unsatisfied wants of the people. But if it were in a position to calculate, it would not proceed in a way different from that of the calculating businessman. It would not squander scarce factors of production for the satisfaction of wants deemed less urgent if this would prevent the satisfaction of more urgent wants. It would not hurry to scrap still utilizable production facilities if the investment required would impair the expansion of the production of more urgently needed goods.
If one takes the problem of convertibility into proper account, one can easily explode many widespread fallacies. Take, for instance, the infant industries argument advanced in favor of protection. Its supporters assert that temporary protection is needed in order to develop processing industries in places in which natural conditions for their operation are more favorable or, at least, no less favorable than in the areas in which the already established competitors are located. These older industries have acquired an advantage by their early start. They are now fostered by a merely historical, accidental, and manifestly “irrational” factor. This advantage prevents the establishment of competing plants in areas the conditions of which give promise of becoming able to produce more cheaply than, or at least as cheaply as, the old ones. It may be admitted that protection for infant industries is temporarily expensive. But the sacrifices made will be more than repaid by the gains to be reaped later.
The truth is that the establishment of an infant industry is advantageous from the economic point of view only if the superiority of the new location is so momentous that it outweighs the disadvantages resulting from the abandonment of nonconvertible and nontransferable capital goods invested in the already established plants. If this is the case, the new plants will be able to compete successfully with the old ones without any aid given by the government. If it is not the case, the protection granted to them is wasteful, even if it is only temporary and enables the new industry to hold its own at a later period. The tariff amounts virtually to a subsidy which the consumers are forced to pay as a compensation for the employment of scarce factors of production for the replacement of still utilizable capital goods to be scrapped and the withholding of these scarce factors from other employments in which they could render services valued higher by the consumers. The consumers are deprived of the opportunity to satisfy certain wants because the capital goods required are directed toward the production of goods which were already available to them in the absence of tariffs.
There prevails a universal tendency for all industries to move to those locations in which the potentialities for production are most propitious. In the unhampered market economy this tendency is slowed down as much as due consideration to the inconvertibility of scarce capital goods requires. This historical element does not give a permanent superiority to the old industries. It only prevents the waste originating from investments which bring about unused capacity of still utilizable production facilities on the one hand and a restriction of capital goods available for the satisfaction of unsatisfied wants on the other hand. In the absence of tariffs the migration of industries is postponed until the capital goods invested in the old plants are worn out or become obsolete by technological improvements which are so momentous as to necessitate their replacement by new equipment. The industrial history of the United States provides numerous examples of the shifting, within the boundaries of the country, of centers of industrial production which was not fostered by any protective measures on the part of the authorities. The infant industries argument is no less spurious than all the other arguments advanced in favor of protection.
Another popular fallacy refers to the alleged suppression of useful patents. A patent is a legal monopoly granted for a limited number of years to the inventor of a new contrivance. At this point we are not concerned with the question whether or not it is a good policy to grant such exclusive privileges to inventors.14 We have to deal only with the assertion that “big business” misuses the patent system to withhold from the public benefits it could derive from technological improvement.
In granting a patent to an inventor the authorities do not investigate the invention’s economic significance. They are concerned merely with the priority of the idea and limit their examination to technological problems. They deal with the same impartial scrupulousness with an invention which revolutionizes a whole industry and with some trifling gadget, the uselessness of which is obvious. Thus patent protection is provided to a vast number of quite worthless inventions. Their authors are ready to overrate the importance of their contribution to the progress of technological knowledge and build exaggerated hopes upon the material gain it could bring them. Disappointed, they grumble about the absurdity of an economic system that deprives the people of the benefit of technological progress.
The conditions under which it is economical to substitute new improved equipment for still utilizable older tools have been pointed out above. If these conditions are absent, it does not pay, either for private enterprise in a market economy or for the socialist management of a totalitarian system, to adopt the new technological process immediately. The new machinery to be produced for new plants, the expansion of already existing plants and the replacement of old equipment torn out will be effected according to the new design. But the still utilizable equipment will not be scrapped. The new process will be adopted only step by step. The plants equipped with the old devices are for some time still in a position to stand the competition of those equipped with the new ones. Those questioning the correctness of this statement should ask themselves whether they always throw away their vacuum cleaners or radio sets as soon as better models are offered for sale.
It does not make any difference in this regard whether the new invention is or is not protected by a patent. A firm that has acquired a license has already expended money for the new invention. If it nonetheless does not adopt the new method, the reason is that its adoption does not pay. It is of no avail that the government-created monopoly which the patent provides prevents competitors from applying it. What counts alone is the degree of superiority secured by the new invention as against old methods. Superiority means reduction in the cost of production per unit or such an improvement in the quality of the product that buyers are ready to pay adequately higher prices. The absence of a sufficient degree of superiority to make the cost of transformation profitable is proof of the fact that consumers are more intent upon acquiring other goods than upon enjoying the benefits of the new invention. It is the consumers with whom the ultimate decision rests.
Superficial observers sometimes fail to see these facts because they are deluded by the practice of many big enterprises of acquiring the rights granted by a patent in their field regardless of its usefulness. This practice stems from various considerations:
If an invention is so superior to the old processes that it makes the old equipment obsolete and peremptorily demands its immediate replacement by new machines, the transformation will be effected no matter whether the privilege conferred by the patent is in the hands of the owners of the old equipment or of an independent firm. The assertions to the contrary are based on the assumption that not only the inventor and his attorneys but also all people already active in the field of production concerned or prepared to enter into it if an opportunity is offered to them fail entirely to grasp the importance of the invention. The inventor sells his rights to the old firm for a trifle because no one else wants to acquire them. And this old firm is also too dull to see the advantage that it could derive from the application of the invention.
Now, it is true that a technological improvement cannot be adopted if people are blind to its usefulness. Under a socialist management the incompetence or stubbornness of the officers in charge of the department concerned would be enough to prevent the adoption of a more economical method of production. The same is the case with regard to inventions in fields dominated by the government. The most conspicuous examples are provided by the failure of eminent military experts to comprehend the significance of new devices. The great Napoleon did not recognize the help which steamboats could give to his plans to invade Great Britain; both Foch and the German general staff underestimated on the eve of the first World War the importance of aviation, and later the eminent pioneer of air power, General Billy Mitchell, had very unpleasant experiences. But things are entirely different in the orbit in which the market economy is not hampered by bureaucratic narrow-mindedness. There, a tendency to overrate rather than to underestimate the potentialities of an innovation prevails. The history of modern capitalism shows innumerable instances of abortive attempts to push innovations which proved futile. Many promoters have paid heavily for unfounded optimism. It would be more realistic to blame capitalism for its propensity to overvalue useless innovations than for its alleged suppression of useful innovations. It is a fact that large sums have been wasted for the purchase of quite useless patent rights and for fruitless ventures to apply them in practice.
It is absurd to speak of an alleged bias of modern big business against technological improvement. The great corporations spend huge sums in the search for new processes and new devices.
Those lamenting an alleged suppression of inventions on the part of free enterprise must not think that they have proved their case by referring to the fact that many patents are either never utilized at all or only used after a long delay. It is manifest that numerous patents, perhaps the far greater number of them, are quite useless. Those alleging suppression of useful innovations do not cite a single instance of such an innovation’s being unused in the countries protecting it by a patent while it is used by the Soviets—no respecters of patent privileges.
The limited convertibility of capital goods plays an important role in human geography. The present distribution of human abodes and industrial centers over the earth’s surface is to a certain degree determined by historical factors. The fact that definite sites were chosen in a distant past is still operative. There prevails, it is true, a universal tendency for people to move to those areas which offer the most propitious potentialities for production. However, this tendency is restrained not only by institutional factors, such as migration barriers. A historical factor also plays a momentous role. Capital goods of limited convertibility have been invested in areas which, from the point of view of our present knowledge, offer less favorable opportunities. Their immobilization counteracts the tendency to locate plants, farms, and dwelling places according to the state of our contemporary information about geography, geology, plant and animal physiology, climatology, and other branches of science. Against the advantages of moving toward sites offering better physical opportunities one must weigh the disadvantages of leaving unused capital goods of limited convertibility and transferability.
Thus the degree of convertibility of the supply of capital goods available affects all decisions concerning production and consumption. The smaller the degree of convertibility, the more realization of technological improvement is delayed. Yet it would be absurd to refer to this retarding effect as irrational and antiprogressive. To consider, in planning action, all the advantages and disadvantages expected and to weigh them against one another is a manifestation of rationality. Not the soberly calculating businessman, but the romantic technocrat is to blame for a delusive incomprehension of reality. What slows down technological improvement is not the imperfect convertibility of capital goods, but their scarcity. We are not rich enough to renounce the services which still utilizable capital goods could provide. The fact that a supply of capital goods is available does not check progress; it is, on the contrary, the indispensable condition of any improvement and progress. The heritage of the past embodied in our supply of capital goods is our wealth and the foremost means of further advancement in well-being. It is true we would be still better off if our ancestors and we ourselves in our past actions had succeeded in better anticipating the conditions under which we must act today. The cognizance of this fact explains many phenomena of our time. But it does not cast any blame upon the past nor does it show any imperfection inherent in the market economy.
Accumulation, Maintenance and Consumption of Capital
Capital goods are intermediary products which in the further course of production activities are transformed into consumers’ goods. All capital goods, including those not called perishable, perish either in wearing out their serviceableness in the performance of production processes or in losing their serviceableness, even before this happens, through a change in the market data. There is no question of keeping a stock of capital goods intact. They are transient.
The notion of wealth constancy is an outgrowth of deliberate planning and acting. It refers to the concept of capital as applied in capital accounting, not to the capital goods as such. The idea of capital has no counterpart in the physical universe of tangible things. It is nowhere but in the minds of planning men. It is an element in economic calculation. Capital accounting serves one purpose only. It is designed to make us know how our arrangement of production and consumption acts upon our power to satisfy future wants. The question it answers is whether a certain course of conduct increases or decreases the productivity of our future exertion.
The intention of preserving the available supply of capital goods in full power or of increasing it could also direct the actions of men who did not have the mental tool of economic calculation. Primitive fishermen and hunters were certainly aware of the difference between maintaining their tools and devices in good shape and serviceableness and wearing them out without providing for adequate replacements. An old-fashioned peasant, committed to traditional routine and ignorant of accountancy, knows very well the significance of maintaining intact his live and dead stock. Under the simple conditions of a stationary or slowly progressing economy it is feasible to operate successfully even in the absence of capital accounting. There the maintenance of a by and large unchanged supply of capital goods can be effected either by current production of pieces destined to replace those worn out or by the accumulation of a fund of consumers’ goods which makes it possible to devote effort at a later time toward the replacement of such capital goods without being forced to restrict consumption temporarily. But a changing industrial economy cannot do without economic calculation and its fundamental concepts of capital and income.
Conceptual realism has muddled the comprehension of the concept of capital. It has brought about a mythology of capital.15 An existence has been attributed to “capital,” independent of the capital goods in which it is embodied. Capital, it is said, reproduces itself and thus provides for its own maintenance. Capital, says the Marxian, hatches out profit. All this is nonsense.
Capital is a praxeological concept. It is a product of reasoning, and its place is in the human mind. It is a mode of looking at the problems of acting, a method of appraising them from the point of view of a definite plan. It determines the course of human action and is, in this sense only, a real factor. It is inescapably linked with capitalism, the market economy.
The capital concept is operative as far as men in their actions let themselves be guided by capital accounting. If the entrepreneur has employed factors of production in such a way that the money equivalent of the products at least equals the money equivalent of the factors expended, he is in a position to replace the capital goods expended by new capital goods the money equivalent of which equals the money equivalent of those expended. But the employment of the gross proceeds, their allotment to the maintenance of capital, consumption, and the accumulation of new capital is always the outcome of purposive action on the part of the entrepreneurs and capitalists. It is not “automatic”; it is by necessity the result of deliberate action. And it can be frustrated if the computation on which it is based was vitiated by negligence, error, or misjudgment of future conditions.
Additional capital can be accumulated only by saving, i.e., a surplus of production over consumption. Saving may consist in a restriction of consumption. But it can also be brought about, without a further restriction in consumption and without a change in the input of capital goods, by an increase in net production. Such an increase can appear in different ways:
If the surpluses thus brought about are employed as additional investment, they further increase future net proceeds. Then it becomes possible to expand consumption without prejudice to the supply of capital goods available and the productivity of labor.
Capital is always accumulated by individuals or groups of individuals acting in concert, never by the Volkswirtschaft or the society.16 It may happen that while some actors are accumulating additional capital, others are at the same time consuming capital previously accumulated. If these two processes are equal in amount, the sum of the capital funds available in the market system remains unaltered and it is as if no change in the total amount of capital goods available had occurred. The accumulation of additional capital on the part of some people merely removes the necessity of shortening the period of production of some processes. But no further adoption of processes with a longer period of production becomes feasible. If we look at affairs from this angle we may say that a transfer of capital took place. But one must guard oneself against confusing this notion of capital transfer with the conveyance of property from one individual or group of individuals to others.
The sale and purchase of capital goods and the loans granted to business are not as such capital transfer. They are transactions which are instrumental in conveying the concrete capital goods into the hands of those entrepreneurs who want to employ them for the performance of definite projects. They are only ancillary steps in the course of a long-range sequence of acts. Their composite effect decides the success or failure of the whole project. But neither profit nor loss directly brings about either capital accumulation or capital consumption. It is the way in which those in whose fortune profit or loss occurs arrange their consumption that alters the amount of capital available.
Capital transfer can be effected both without and with a conveyance in the ownership of capital goods. The former is the case when one man consumes capital while another man independently accumulates capital in the same amount. The latter is the case if the seller of capital goods consumes the proceeds while the buyer pays the price out of a nonconsumed—saved—surplus of net proceeds over consumption.
Capital consumption and the physical extinction of capital goods are two different things. All capital goods sooner or later enter into final products and cease to exist through use, consumption, wear and tear. What can be preserved by an appropriate arrangement of consumption is only the value of a capital fund, never the concrete capital goods. It may sometimes happen that acts of God or man-made destruction result in so great an extinction of capital goods that no possible restriction of consumption can bring about in a short time a replenishment of the capital funds to its previous level. But what brings about such a depletion is always the fact that the net proceeds of current production devoted to the maintenance of capital are not sufficiently large.
The Mobility of the Investor
The limited convertibility of the capital goods does not immovably bind their owner. The investor is free to alter the investment of his funds. If he is able to anticipate the future state of the market more correctly than other people, he can succeed in choosing only investments whose price will rise and in avoiding investments whose price will drop.
Entrepreneurial profit and loss emanate from the dedication of factors of production to definite projects. Stock exchange speculation and analogous transactions outside the securities market determine on whom the incidence of these profits and losses shall fall. A tendency prevails to make a sharp distinction between such purely speculative ventures and genuinely sound investment. The distinction is one of degree only. There is no such thing as a nonspeculative investment. In a changing economy action always involves speculation. Investments may be good or bad, but they are always speculative. A radical change in conditions may render bad even investments commonly considered perfectly safe.
Stock speculation cannot undo past action and cannot change anything with regard to the limited convertibility of capital goods already in existence. What it can do is to prevent additional investment in branches and enterprises in which, according to the opinion of the speculators, it would be misplaced. It points the specific way for a tendency, prevailing in the market economy, to expand profitable production ventures and to restrict the unprofitable. In this sense the stock exchange becomes simply “the market,” the focal point of the market economy, the ultimate device to make the anticipated demand of the consumers supreme in the conduct of business.
The mobility of the investor manifests itself in the phenomenon misleadingly called capital flight. Individual investors can go away from investments which they consider unsafe provided that they are ready to take the loss already discounted by the market. Thus they can protect themselves against anticipated further losses and shift them to people who are less realistic in their appraisal of the future prices of the goods concerned. Capital flight does not withdraw inconvertible capital goods from the lines of their investment. It consists merely in a change of ownership.
It makes no difference in this regard whether the capitalist “flees” into another domestic investment or into a foreign investment. One of the main objectives of foreign exchange control is to prevent capital flight into foreign countries. However, foreign exchange control only succeeds in preventing the owners of domestic investments from restricting their losses by exchanging in time a domestic investment they consider unsafe for a foreign investment they consider safe.
If all or certain classes of domestic investment are threatened by partial or total expropriation, the market discounts the unfavorable consequences of this policy by an adequate change in their prices. When this happens, it is too late to resort to flight in order to avoid being victimized. Only those investors can come off with a small loss who are keen enough to forecast the disaster at a time when the majority is still unaware of its approach and its significance. Whatever the various capitalists and entrepreneurs may do, they can never make inconvertible capital goods mobile and transferable. While this, at least, is admitted by and large with regard to fixed capital, it is denied with regard to circulating capital. It is asserted that a businessman can export products and fail to reimport the proceeds. People do not see that an enterprise cannot continue its operations when deprived of its circulating capital. If a businessman exports his own funds employed for the current purchase of raw materials, labor, and other essential requirements, he must replace them by funds borrowed. The grain of truth in the fable of the mobility of circulating capital is the fact that it is possible for an investor to avoid losses menacing his circulating capital independently of the avoidance of such losses menacing his fixed capital. However, the process of capital flight is in both instances the same. It is a change in the person of the investor. The investment itself is not affected; the capital concerned does not emigrate.
Capital flight into a foreign country presupposes the propensity of foreigners to exchange their investments abroad against those in the country from which capital flees. A British capitalist cannot flee from his British investments if no foreigner buys them. It follows that capital flight can never result in the much talked about deterioration of the balance of payments. Neither can it make foreign exchange rates rise. If many capitalists—whether British or foreign—want to get rid of British securities, a drop in their prices will ensue. But it will not affect the exchange ratio between the sterling and foreign currencies.
The same is valid with regard to capital invested in ready cash. The owner of French francs who anticipates the consequences of the French government’s inflationary policy can either flee into “real goods” by the purchase of goods or into foreign exchange. But he must find people who are ready to take francs in exchange. He can flee only as long as there are still people left who appraise the future of the franc more optimistically than he himself does. What makes commodity prices and foreign exchange rates rise is not the conduct of those ready to give away francs, but the conduct of those refusing to take them except at a low rate of exchange.
Governments pretend that in resorting to foreign exchange restrictions to prevent capital flight they are motivated by consideration of the nation’s vital interests. What they really bring about is contrary to the material interests of many citizens without any benefit to any citizen or to the phantom of the Volkswirtschaft. If there is inflation going on in France, it is certainly not to the advantage either of the nation as a whole or of any citizen that all the disastrous consequences should affect Frenchmen only. If some Frenchmen were to unload the burden of these losses on foreigners by selling them French banknotes or bonds redeemable in such banknotes, a part of these losses would fall upon foreigners. The manifest outcome of the prevention of such transactions is to make some Frenchmen poorer without making any Frenchmen richer. From the nationalist point of view this hardly seems desirable.
Popular opinion finds something objectionable in every possible aspect of stock market transactions. If prices are rising, the speculators are denounced as profiteers who appropriate to themselves what by rights belongs to other people. If prices drop, the speculators are denounced for squandering the nation’s wealth. The profits of the speculators are vilified as robbery and theft at the expense of the rest of the nation. It is insinuated that they are the cause of the public’s poverty. It is customary to draw a distinction between this dishonest bounty of the jobbers and the profits of the manufacturer who does not merely gamble but supplies the consumers. Even financial writers fail to realize that stock exchange transactions produce neither profits nor losses, but are only the consummation of profits and losses arising in trading and manufacturing. These profits and losses, the outgrowth of the buying public’s approval or disapproval of the investments effected in the past, are made visible by the stock market. The turnover on the stock market does not affect the public. It is, on the contrary, the public’s reaction to the mode in which investors arranged production activities that determines the price structure of the securities market. It is ultimately the consumers’ attitude that makes some stocks rise, others drop. Those not saving and investing neither profit nor lose on account of fluctuations in stock exchange quotations. The trade on the securities market merely decides which investors shall earn profits and which shall suffer losses.17
Money and Capital; Saving and Investment
Capital is computed in terms of money and represents in such accounting a definite sum of money. But capital can also consist of amounts of money. As capital goods also are exchanged and as such exchanges are effected under the same conditions as the exchange of all other goods, here too indirect exchange and the use of money become peremptory. In the market economy no participant can forego the advantages which cash holding conveys. Not only in their capacity as consumers, but also in their capacity as capitalists and entrepreneurs, individuals are under the necessity of keeping cash holdings.
Those who have seen in this fact something puzzling and contradictory have been misled by a misconstruction of monetary calculation and capital accounting. They attempt to assign to capital accounting tasks which it can never achieve. Capital accounting is a mental tool of calculating and computing suitable for individuals and groups of individuals acting in the market economy. Only in the frame of monetary calculation can capital become computable. The sole task that capital accounting can perform is to show to the various individuals acting within a market economy whether the money equivalent of their funds devoted to acquisitive action has changed and to what extent. For all other purposes capital accounting is quite useless.
If one tries to ascertain a magnitude called the volkswirtschaftliche capital or the social capital as distinct both from the acquisitive capital of various individuals and from the meaningless concept of the sum of the various individuals’ acquisitive capital funds, then, of course, one is troubled by a spurious problem. What is the role of money, one asks, in such a concept of social capital? One discovers a momentous difference between capital as seen from the individual’s point of view and as seen from the standpoint of society. However, this whole reasoning is utterly fallacious. It is obviously contradictory to eliminate reference to money from the computation of a magnitude which cannot be computed otherwise than in terms of money. It is nonsensical to resort to monetary calculation in an attempt to ascertain a magnitude which is meaningless in an economic system in which there cannot be any money and no money prices for factors of production. As soon as our reasoning passes beyond the frame of a market society, it must renounce every reference to money and money prices. The concept of social capital can only be thought of as a collection of various goods. It is impossible to compare two collections of this type otherwise than by declaring that one of them is more serviceable in removing the uneasiness felt by the whole of society than the other. (Whether or not such a comprehensive judgment can be pronounced by any mortal man is another question.) No monetary expression can be applied to such collections. Monetary terms are void of any meaning in dealing with the capital problems of a social system in which there is no market for factors of production.
In recent years economists have paid special attention to the role cash holding plays in the process of saving and capital accumulation. Many fallacious conclusions have been advanced about this role.
If an individual employs a sum of money not for consumption but for the purchase of factors of production, saving is directly turned into capital accumulation. If the individual saver employs his additional savings for increasing his cash holding because this is in his eyes the most advantageous mode of using them, he brings about a tendency toward a fall in commodity prices and a rise in the monetary unit’s purchasing power. If we assume that the supply of money in the market system does not change, this conduct on the part of the saver will not directly influence the accumulation of capital and its employment for an expansion of production.18 The effect of our saver’s saving, i.e., the surplus of goods produced over goods consumed, does not disappear on account of his hoarding. The prices of capital goods do not rise to the height they would have attained in the absence of such hoarding. But the fact that more capital goods are available is not affected by the striving of a number of people to increase their cash holdings. If nobody employs the goods—the nonconsumption of which brought about the additional saving—for an expansion of his consumptive spending, they remain as an increment in the amount of capital goods available, whatever their prices may be. The two processes—increased cash holding of some people and increased capital accumulation—take place side by side.
A drop in commodity prices, other things being equal, causes a drop in the money equivalent of the various individuals’ capital. But this is not tantamount to a reduction in the supply of capital goods and does not require an adjustment of production activities to an alleged impoverishment. It merely alters the money items to be applied in monetary calculation.
Now let us assume that an increase in the quantity of credit money or of fiat money or credit expansion produces the additional money required for an expansion of the individuals’ cash holdings. Then three processes take their course independently: a tendency toward a fall in commodity prices brought about by the increase in the amount of capital goods available and the resulting expansion of production activities, a tendency toward a fall in prices brought about by an increased demand of money for cash holding, and finally a tendency toward a rise in prices brought about by the increase in the supply of money (in the broader sense). The three processes are to some extent synchronous. Each of them brings about its particular effects which, according to the circumstances, may be intensified or weakened by the opposite effects originating from one of the other two. But the main thing is that the capital goods resulting from the additional saving are not destroyed by the coincident monetary changes—changes in the demand for and the supply of money (in the broader sense). Whenever an individual devotes a sum of money to saving instead of spending it for consumption, the process of saving agrees perfectly with the process of capital accumulation and investment. It does not matter whether the individual saver does or does not increase his cash holding. The act of saving always has its counterpart in a supply of goods produced and not consumed, of goods available for further production activities. A man’s savings are always embodied in concrete capital goods.
The idea that hoarded money is a barren part of the total amount of wealth and that its increase causes shrinkage in that part of wealth that is devoted to production is correct only to the extent that the rise in the monetary unit’s purchasing power results in the employment of additional factors of production for the mining of gold and in the transfer of gold from industrial to monetary employment. But this is brought about by the striving after increased cash holdings and not by saving. Saving, in the market economy, is possible only through abstention from the consumption of a part of income. The individual saver’s employment of his savings for hoarding influences the determination of money’s purchasing power, and may thus reduce the nominal amount of capital, i.e., its money equivalent; it does not render any part of the accumulated capital sterile.
The Phenomenon of Interest
It has been shown that time preference is a category inherent in every human action. Time preference manifests itself in the phenomenon of originary interest, i.e., the discount of future goods as against present goods.
Interest is not merely interest on capital. Interest is not the specific income derived from the utilization of capital goods. The correspondence between three factors of production—labor, capital, and land—and three classes of income—wages, profit, and rent—as taught by the classical economists is untenable. Rent is not the specific revenue from land. Rent is a general catallactic phenomenon; it plays in the yield of labor and capital goods the same role it plays in the yield of land. Furthermore there is no homogeneous source of income that could be called profit in the sense in which the classical economists applied this term. Profit (in the sense of entrepreneurial profit) and interest are no more characteristic of capital than they are of land.
The prices of consumers’ goods are by the interplay of the forces operating on the market apportioned to the various complementary factors cooperating in their production. As the consumers’ goods are present goods, while the factors of production are means for the production of future goods, and as present goods are valued higher than future goods of the same kind and quantity, the sum thus apportioned, even in the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy, falls behind the present price of the consumers’ goods concerned. This difference is the originary interest. It is not specifically connected with any of the three classes of factors of production which the classical economists distinguished. Entrepreneurial profit and loss are produced by changes in the data and the resulting price changes which occur in the passing of the period of production.
Naïve reasoning does not see any problem in the current revenue derived from hunting, fishing, cattle breeding, forestry, and agriculture. Nature generates deer, fish, and cattle and makes them grow, causes the cows to give milk and the chickens to lay eggs, the trees to put on wood and to bear fruit, and the seeds to shoot into ears. He who has a title to appropriate for himself this recurring wealth enjoys a steady income. Like a stream which continually carries new water, the “stream of income” flows continually and conveys again and again new wealth. The whole process appears as a natural phenomenon. But for the economist a problem is presented in the determination of prices for land, cattle, and all the rest. If future goods were not bought and sold at a discount as against present goods, the buyer of land would have to pay a price which equals the sum of all future net revenues and which would leave nothing for a current reiterated income.
The yearly recurring proceeds of the owners of land and cattle are not marked by any characteristic which would catallactically distinguish them from the proceeds stemming from produced factors of production which are used up sooner or later in the processes of production. The power of disposal over a piece of land is the control of this field’s cooperation in the production of all the fruit which can ever be grown on it, and the power of disposal over a mine is the control of its cooperation in the extraction of all the minerals which can ever be brought to the surface from it. In the same way the ownership of a machine or a bale of cotton is the control of its cooperation in the manufacture of all goods which are produced with its cooperation. The fundamental fallacy implied in all the productivity and use approaches to the problem of interest was that they traced back the phenomenon of interest to these productive services rendered by the factors of production. However, the serviceableness of the factors of production determines the prices paid for them, not interest. These prices exhaust the whole difference between the productivity of a process aided by a definite factor’s cooperation and that of a process lacking this cooperation. The difference between the sum of the prices of the complementary factors of production and the products which emerges even in the absence of changes in the market data concerned, is an outcome of the higher valuation of present goods as compared with future goods. As production goes on, the factors of production are transformed or ripen into present goods of a higher value. This increment is the source of specific proceeds flowing into the hands of the owners of the factors of production, of originary interest.
The owners of the material factors of production—as distinct from the pure entrepreneurs of the imaginary construction of an integration of catallactic functions—harvest two catallactically different items: the prices paid for the productive cooperation of the factors they control on the one hand and interest on the other hand. These two things must not be confused. It is not permissible to refer, in the explanation of interest, to the services rendered by the factors of production in the turning out of products.
Interest is a homogeneous phenomenon. There are no different sources of interest. Interest on durable goods and interest on consumption-credit are like other kinds of interest an outgrowth of the higher valuation of present goods as against future goods.
Originary interest is the ratio of the value assigned to want-satisfaction in the immediate future and the value assigned to want-satisfaction in remote periods of the future. It manifests itself in the market economy in the discount of future goods as against present goods. It is a ratio of commodity prices, not a price in itself. There prevails a tendency toward the equalization of this ratio for all commodities. In the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy the rate of originary interest is the same for all commodities.
Originary interest is not “the price paid for the services of capital.”1 The higher productivity of more time-consuming roundabout methods of production which is referred to by Böhm-Bawerk and by some later economists in the explanation of interest does not explain the phenomenon. It is, on the contrary, the phenomenon of originary interest that explains why less time-consuming methods of production are resorted to in spite of the fact that more time-consuming methods would render a higher output per unit of input. Moreover, the phenomenon of originary interest explains why pieces of usable land can be sold and bought at finite prices. If the future services which a piece of land can render were to be valued in the same way in which its present services are valued, no finite price would be high enough to impel its owner to sell it. Land could neither be bought nor sold against definite amounts of money, nor bartered against goods which can render only a finite number of services. Pieces of land would be bartered only against other pieces of land. A superstructure that can yield during a period of ten years an annual revenue of one hundred dollars would be priced (apart from the soil on which it is built) at the beginning of this period at one thousand dollars, at the beginning of the second year at nine hundred dollars, and so on.
Originary interest is not a price determined on the market by the interplay of the demand for and the supply of capital or capital goods. Its height does not depend on the extent of this demand and supply. It is rather the rate of originary interest that determines both the demand for and the supply of capital and capital goods. It determines how much of the available supply of goods is to be devoted to consumption in the immediate future and how much to provision for remoter periods of the future.
People do not save and accumulate capital because there is interest. Interest is neither the impetus to saving nor the reward or the compensation granted for abstaining from immediate consumption. It is the ratio in the mutual valuation of present goods as against future goods.
The loan market does not determine the rate of interest. It adjusts the rate of interest on loans to the rate of originary interest as manifested in the discount of future goods.
Originary interest is a category of human action. It is operative in any valuation of external things and can never disappear. If one day the state of affairs were to return which was actual at the close of the first millennium of the Christian era when some people believed that the ultimate end of all earthly things was impending, men would stop providing for future secular wants. The factors of production would in their eyes become useless and worthless. The discount of future goods as against present goods would not vanish. It would, on the contrary, increase beyond all measure. On the other hand, the fading away of originary interest would mean that people do not care at all for want-satisfaction in nearer periods of the future. It would mean that they prefer to an apple available today, tomorrow, in one year or in ten years, two apples available in a thousand or ten thousand years.
We cannot even think of a world in which originary interest would not exist as an inexorable element in every kind of action. Whether there is or is not division of labor and social cooperation and whether society is organized on the basis of private or of public control of the means of production, originary interest is always present. In a socialist commonwealth its role would not differ from that in the market economy.
Böhm-Bawerk has once for all unmasked the fallacies of the naïve productivity explanations of interest, i.e., of the idea that interest is the expression of the physical productivity of factors of production. However, Böhm-Bawerk has himself based his own theory to some extent on the productivity approach. In referring in his explanation to the technological superiority of more time-consuming, roundabout processes of production, he avoids the crudity of the naïve productivity fallacies. But in fact he returns, although in a subtler form, to the productivity approach. Those later economists who, neglecting the time-preference idea, have stressed exclusively the productivity idea contained in Böhm-Bawerk’s theory cannot help concluding that originary interest must disappear if men were one day to reach a state of affairs in which no further lengthening of the period of production could bring about a further increase in productivity.2 This is, however, utterly wrong. Originary interest cannot disappear as long as there is scarcity and therefore action.
As long as the world is not transformed into a land of Cockaigne, men are faced with scarcity and must act and economize; they are forced to choose between satisfaction in nearer and in remoter periods of the future because neither for the former nor for the latter can full contentment be attained. Then a change in the employment of factors of production which withdraws such factors from their employment for want-satisfaction in the nearer future and devotes them to want-satisfaction in the remoter future must necessarily impair the state of satisfaction in the nearer future and improve it in the remoter future. If we were to assume that this is not the case, we should become embroiled in insoluble contradictions. We may at best think of a state of affairs in which technological knowledge and skill have reached a point beyond which no further progress is possible for mortal men. No new processes increasing the output per unit of input can henceforth be invented. But if we suppose that some factors of production are scarce, we must not assume that all processes which—apart from the time they absorb—are the most productive ones are fully utilized, and that no process rendering a smaller output per unit of input is resorted to merely because of the fact that it produces its final result sooner than other, physically more productive processes. Scarcity of factors of production means that we are in a position to draft plans for the improvement of our well-being the realization of which is unfeasible because of the insufficient quantity of the means available. It is precisely the unfeasibility of such desirable improvements that constitutes the element of scarcity. The reasoning of the modern supporters of the productivity approach is misled by the connotations of Böhm-Bawerk’s term roundabout methods of production and the idea of technological improvement which it suggests. However, if there is scarcity, there must always be an unused technological opportunity to improve the state of well-being by a lengthening of the period of production in some branches of industry, regardless of whether or not the state of technological knowledge has changed. If the means are scarce, if the praxeological correlation of ends and means still exists, there are by logical necessity unsatisfied wants with regard both to nearer and to remoter periods of the future. There are always goods the procurement of which we must forego because the way that leads to their production is too long and would prevent us from satisfying more urgent needs. The fact that we do not provide more amply for the future is the outcome of a weighing of satisfaction in nearer periods of the future against satisfaction in remoter periods of the future. The ratio which is the outcome of this valuation is originary interest.
In such a world of perfect technological knowledge a promoter drafts a plan A according to which a hotel in picturesque, but not easily accessible, mountain districts and the roads leading to it should be built. In examining the practicability of this plan he discovers that the means available are not sufficient for its execution. Calculating the prospects of the profitability of the investment, he comes to the conclusion that the expected proceeds are not great enough to cover the costs of material and labor to be expended and interest on the capital to be invested. He renounces the execution of project A and embarks instead upon the realization of another plan, B. According to plan B the hotel is to be erected in a more easily accessible location which does not offer all the advantages of the picturesque landscape which plan A had selected, but in which it can be built either with lower costs of construction or finished in a shorter time. If no interest on the capital invested were to enter into the calculation, the illusion could arise that the state of the market data—supply of capital goods and the valuations of the public—allows for the execution of plan A. However, the realization of plan A would withdraw scarce factors of production from employments in which they could satisfy wants considered more urgent by the consumers. It would mean a manifest malinvestment, a squandering of the means available.
A lengthening of the period of production can increase the quantity of output per unit of input or produce goods which cannot be produced at all within a shorter period of production. But it is not true that the imputation of the value of this additional wealth to the capital goods required for the lengthening of the period of production generates interest. If one were to assume this, one would relapse into the crassest errors of the productivity approach, irrefutably exploded by Böhm-Bawerk. The contribution of the complementary factors of production to the result of the process is the reason for their being considered as valuable; it explains the prices paid for them and is fully taken into account in the determination of these prices. No residuum is left that is not accounted for and could explain interest.
It has been asserted that in the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy no interest would appear.3 However, it can be shown that this assertion is incompatible with the assumptions on which the construction of the evenly rotating economy is based.
We begin with the distinction between two classes of saving: plain saving and capitalist saving. Plain saving is merely the piling up of consumers’ goods for later consumption. Capitalist saving is the accumulation of goods which are designed for an improvement of production processes. The aim of plain saving is later consumption; it is merely postponement of consumption. Sooner or later the goods accumulated will be consumed and nothing will be left. The aim of capitalist saving is first an improvement in the productivity of effort. It accumulates capital goods which are employed for further production and are not merely reserves for later consumption. The boon derived from plain saving is later consumption of the stock not instantly consumed but accumulated for later use. The boon derived from capitalist saving is the increase of the quantity of goods produced or the production of goods which could not be produced at all without its aid. In constructing the image of an evenly rotating (static) economy, economists disregard the process of capital accumulation; the capital goods are given and remain, as, according to the underlying assumptions, no changes occur in the data. There is neither accumulation of new capital through saving, nor consumption of capital available through a surplus of consumption over income, i.e., current production minus the funds required for the maintenance of capital. It is now our task to demonstrate that these assumptions are incompatible with the idea that there is no interest.
There is no need to dwell, in this reasoning, upon plain saving. The objective of plain saving is to provide for a future in which the saver could possibly be less amply supplied than in the present. Yet, one of the fundamental assumptions characterizing the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy is that the future does not differ at all from the present, that the actors are fully aware of this fact and act accordingly. Hence, in the frame of this construction, no room is left for the phenomenon of plain saving.
It is different with the fruit of capitalist saving, the accumulated stock of capital goods. There is in the evenly rotating economy neither saving and accumulation of additional capital goods nor eating up of already existing capital goods. Both phenomena would amount to a change in the data and would thus disturb the even rotation of such an imaginary system. Now, the magnitude of saving and capital accumulation in the past—i.e., in the period preceding the establishment of the evenly rotating economy—was adjusted to the height of the rate of interest. If—with the establishment of the conditions of the evenly rotating economy—the owners of the capital goods were no longer to receive any interest, the conditions which were operative in the allocation of the available stocks of goods to the satisfaction of wants in the various periods of the future would be upset. The altered state of affairs requires a new allocation. Also in the evenly rotating economy the difference in the valuation of want-satisfaction in various periods of the future cannot disappear. Also in the frame of this imaginary construction, people will assign a higher value to an apple available today as against an apple available in ten or a hundred years. If the capitalist no longer receives interest, the balance between satisfaction in nearer and remoter periods of the future is disarranged. The fact that a capitalist has maintained his capital at just 100,000 dollars was conditioned by the fact that 100,000 present dollars were equal to 105,000 dollars available twelve months later. These 5,000 dollars were in his eyes sufficient to outweigh the advantages to be expected from an instantaneous consumption of a part of this sum. If interest payments are eliminated, capital consumption ensues.
This is the essential deficiency of the static system as Schumpeter depicts it. It is not sufficient to assume that the capital equipment of such a system has been accumulated in the past, that it is now available to the extent of this previous accumulation and is henceforth unalterably maintained at this level. We must also assign in the frame of this imaginary system a role to the operation of forces which bring about such a maintenance. If one eliminates the capitalist’s role as receiver of interest, one replaces it by the capitalist’s role as consumer of capital. There is no longer any reason why the owner of capital goods should abstain from employing them for consumption. Under the assumptions implied in the imaginary construction of static conditions (the evenly rotating economy) there is no need to keep them in reserve for rainy days. But even if, inconsistently enough, we were to assume that a part of them is devoted to this purpose and therefore withheld from current consumption, at least that part of capital will be consumed which corresponds to the amount that capitalist saving exceeds plain saving.4
If there were no originary interest, capital goods would not be devoted to immediate consumption and capital would not be consumed. On the contrary, under such an unthinkable and unimaginable state of affairs there would be no consumption at all, but only saving, accumulation of capital, and investment. Not the impossible disappearance of originary interest, but the abolition of payment of interest to the owners of capital, would result in capital consumption. The capitalists would consume their capital goods and their capital precisely because there is originary interest and present want-satisfaction is preferred to later satisfaction.
Therefore there cannot be any question of abolishing interest by any institutions, laws, or devices of bank manipulation. He who wants to “abolish” interest will have to induce people to value an apple available in a hundred years no less than a present apple. What can be abolished by laws and decrees is merely the right of the capitalists to receive interest. But such decrees would bring about capital consumption and would very soon throw mankind back into the original state of natural poverty.
The Height of Interest Rates
In plain saving and in the capitalist saving of isolated economic actors the difference in the valuation of want-satisfaction in various periods of the future manifests itself in the extent to which people provide in a more ample way for nearer than for remoter periods of the future. Under the conditions of a market economy the rate of originary interest is, provided the assumptions involved in the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy are present, equal to the ratio of a definite amount of money available today and the amount available at a later date which is considered as its equivalent.
The rate of originary interest directs the investment activities of the entrepreneurs. It determines the length of waiting time and of the period of production in every branch of industry.
People often raise the question of which rate of interest, a “high” or a “low,” stimulates saving and capital accumulation more and which less. The question makes no sense. The lower the discount attached to future goods is, the lower is the rate of originary interest. People do not save more because the rate of originary interest rises, and the rate of originary interest does not drop on account of an increase in the amount of saving. Changes in the originary rates of interest and in the amount of saving are—other things, especially the institutional conditions, being equal—two aspects of the same phenomenon. The disappearance of originary interest would be tantamount to the disappearance of consumption. The increase of originary interest beyond all measure would be tantamount to the disappearance of saving and any provision for the future.
The quantity of the available supply of capital goods influences neither the rate of originary interest nor the amount of further saving. Even the most plentiful supply of capital need not necessarily bring about either a lowering of the rate of originary interest or a drop in the propensity to save. The increase in capital accumulation and the per capita quota of capital invested which is a characteristic mark of economically advanced nations does not necessarily either lower the rate of originary interest or weaken the propensity of individuals to make additional savings. People are, in dealing with these problems, for the most part misled by comparing merely the market rates of interest as they are determined on the loan market. However, these gross rates are not merely expressive of the height of originary interest. They contain, as will be shown later, other elements besides, the effect of which accounts for the fact that the gross rates are as a rule higher in poorer countries than in richer ones.
It is generally asserted that, other things being equal, the better individuals are supplied for the immediate future, the better they provide for wants for the remoter future. Consequently, it is said, the amount of total saving and capital accumulation within an economic system depends on the arrangement of the population into groups of different income levels. In a society with approximate income equality there is, it is said, less saving than in a society in which there is more inequality. There is a grain of truth in such observations. However, they are statements about psychological facts and as such lack the universal validity and necessity inherent in praxeological statements. Moreover, the other things the equality of which they presuppose comprehend the various individuals’ valuations, their subjective value judgment in weighing the pros and cons of immediate consumption and of postponement of consumption. There are certainly many individuals whose behavior they describe correctly, but there also are other individuals who act in a different way. The French peasants, although for the most part people of moderate wealth and income, were in the nineteenth century widely known for their parsimonious habits, while wealthy members of the aristocracy and heirs of huge fortunes amassed in commerce and industry were no less renowned for their profligacy.
It is therefore impossible to formulate any praxeological theorem concerning the relation of the amount of capital available in the whole nation or to individual people on the one hand and the amount of saving or capital consumption and the height of the originary rate of interest on the other hand. The allocation of scarce resources to want-satisfaction in various periods of the future is determined by value judgments and indirectly by all those factors which constitute the individuality of the acting man.
Originary Interest in the Changing Economy
So far we have dealt with the problem of originary interest under certain assumptions: that the turnover of goods is effected by the employment of neutral money; that saving, capital accumulation, and the determination of interest rates are not hampered by institutional obstacles; and that the whole economic process goes on in the frame of an evenly rotating economy. We shall drop the first two of these assumptions in the following chapter. Now we want to deal with originary interest in a changing economy.
He who wants to provide for the satisfaction of future needs must correctly anticipate these needs. If he fails in this understanding of the future, his provision will prove less satisfactory or totally futile. There is no such thing as an abstract saving that could provide for all classes of want-satisfaction and would be neutral with regard to changes occurring in conditions and valuations. Originary interest can therefore in the changing economy never appear in a pure unalloyed form. It is only in the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy that the mere passing of time matures originary interest; in the passage of time and with the progress of the process of production more and more value accrues, as it were, to the complementary factors of production; with the termination of the process of production the lapse of time has generated in the price of the product the full quota of originary interest. In the changing economy during the period of production there also arise synchronously other changes in valuations. Some goods are valued higher than previously, some lower. These alterations are the source from which entrepreneurial profits and losses stem. Only those entrepreneurs who in their planning have correctly anticipated the future state of the market are in a position to reap, in selling the products, an excess over the costs of production (inclusive of net originary interest) expended. An entrepreneur who has failed in his speculative understanding of the future can sell his products, if at all, only at prices which do not cover completely his expenditures plus originary interest on the capital invested.
Like entrepreneurial profit and loss, interest is not a price, but a magnitude which is to be disengaged by a particular mode of computation from the price of the products of successful business operations. The gross difference between the price at which a commodity is sold and the costs expended in its production (exclusive of interest on the capital invested) was called profit in the terminology of British classical economics.5 Modern economics conceives this magnitude as a complex of catallactically disparate items. The excess of gross receipts over expenditures which the classical economists called profit includes the price for the entrepreneur’s own labor employed in the process of production, interest on the capital invested, and finally entrepreneurial profit proper. If such an excess has not been reaped at all in the sale of the products, the entrepreneur not only fails to get profit proper, he receives neither an equivalent for the market value of the labor he has contributed nor interest on the capital invested.
The breaking down of gross profit (in the classical sense of the term) into managerial wages, interest, and entrepreneurial profit is not merely a device of economic theory. It developed, with progressing perfection in business practices of accountancy and calculation, in the field of commercial routine independently of the reasoning of the economists. The judicious and sensible businessman does not attach practical significance to the confused and garbled concept of profit as employed by the classical economists. His notion of costs of production includes the potential market price of his own services contributed, the interest paid on capital borrowed, and the potential interest he could earn, according to the conditions of the market, on his own capital invested in the enterprise by lending it to other people. Only the excess of proceeds over the costs so calculated is in his eyes entrepreneurial profit.6
The precipitation of entrepreneurial wages from the complex of all the other items included in the profit concept of classical economics presents no particular problem. It is more difficult to sunder entrepreneurial profit from originary interest. In the changing economy interest stipulated in loan contracts is always a gross magnitude out of which the pure rate of originary interest must be computed by a particular process of computation and analytical repartition. It has been shown already that in every act of lending, even apart from the problem of changes in the monetary unit’s purchasing power, there is an element of entrepreneurial venture. The granting of credit is necessarily always an entrepreneurial speculation which can possibly result in failure and the loss of a part or of the total amount lent. Every interest stipulated and paid in loans includes not only originary interest but also entrepreneurial profit.
This fact for a long time misled the attempts to construct a satisfactory theory of interest. It was only the elaboration of the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy that made it possible to distinguish precisely between originary interest and entrepreneurial profit and loss.
The Computation of Interest
Originary interest is the outgrowth of valuations unceasingly fluctuating and changing. It fluctuates and changes with them. The custom of computing interest pro anno is merely commercial usage and a convenient rule of reckoning. It does not affect the height of the interest rates as determined by the market.
The activities of the entrepreneurs tend toward the establishment of a uniform rate of originary interest in the whole market economy. If there turns up in one sector of the market a margin between the prices of present goods and those of future goods which deviates from the margin prevailing in other sectors, a trend toward equalization is brought about by the striving of businessmen to enter those sectors in which this margin is higher and to avoid those in which it is lower. The final rate of originary interest is the same in all parts of the market of the evenly rotating economy.
The valuations resulting in the emergence of originary interest prefer satisfaction in a nearer period of the future to satisfaction of the same kind and extent in a remoter period of the future. Nothing would justify the assumption that this discounting of satisfaction in remoter periods progresses continuously and evenly. If we were to assume this, we would imply that the period of provision is infinite. However, the mere fact that individuals differ in their provision for future needs and that even to the most provident actor provision beyond a definite period appears supererogatory, forbids us to think of the period of provision as infinite.
The usages of the loan market must not mislead us. It is customary to stipulate a uniform rate of interest for the whole duration of a loan contract7 and to apply a uniform rate in computing compound interest. The real determination of interest rates is independent of these and other arithmetical devices of interest computation. If the rate of interest is unalterably fixed by contract for a period of time, intervening changes in the market rate of interest are reflected in corresponding changes in the prices paid for the principal, due allowance being made for the fact that the amount of principal to be paid back at the maturity of the loan is unalterably stipulated. It does not affect the result whether one calculates with an unchanging rate of interest and changing prices of the principal or with changing interest rates and an unchanging amount of the principal, or with changes in both magnitudes.
The terms of a loan contract are not independent of the stipulated duration of the loan. Not only because those components of the gross rate of market interest which made it deviate from the rate of originary interest are affected by differences in the duration of the loan, but also on account of factors which bring about changes in the rate of originary interest, loan contracts are valued and appraised differently according to the duration of the loan stipulated.
Interest, Credit Expansion, and the Trade Cycle
In the market economy in which all acts of interpersonal exchange are performed by the intermediary of money, the category of originary interest manifests itself primarily in the interest on money loans.
It has been pointed out already that in the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy the rate of originary interest is uniform. There prevails in the whole system only one rate of interest. The rate of interest on loans coincides with the rate of originary interest as manifested in the ratio between prices of present and of future goods. We may call this rate the neutral rate of interest.
The evenly rotating economy presupposes neutral money. As money can never be neutral, special problems arise.
If the money relation—i.e., the ratio between the demand for and the supply of money for cash holding—changes, all prices of goods and services are affected. These changes, however, do not affect the prices of the various goods and services at the same time and to the same extent. The resulting modifications in the wealth and income of various individuals can also alter the data determining the height of originary interest. The final state of the rate of originary interest to the establishment of which the system tends after the appearance of changes in the money relation, is no longer that final state toward which it had tended before. Thus, the driving force of money has the power to bring about lasting changes in the final rate of originary interest and neutral interest.
Then there is a second, even more momentous, problem which, of course, may also be looked upon as another aspect of the same problem. Changes in the money relation may under certain circumstances first affect the loan market in which the demand for and the supply of loans influence the market rate of interest on loans, which we may call the gross money (or market) rate of interest. Can such changes in the gross money rate cause the net rate of interest included in it to deviate lastingly from the height which corresponds to the rate of originary interest, i.e., the difference between the valuation of present and future goods? Can events on the loan market partially or totally eliminate originary interest? No economist will hesitate to answer these questions in the negative. But then a further problem arises: How does the interplay of the market factors readjust the gross money rate to the height conditioned by the rate of originary interest?
These are great problems. These were the problems economists tried to solve in discussing banking, fiduciary media and circulation credit, credit expansion, gratuitousness or nongratuitousness of credit, the cyclical movements of trade, and all other problems of indirect exchange.
The Entrepreneurial Component in the Gross Market Rate of Interest
The market rates of interest on loans are not pure interest rates. Among the components contributing to their determination there are also elements which are not interest. The moneylender is always an entrepreneur. Every grant of credit is a speculative entrepreneurial venture, the success or failure of which is uncertain. The lender is always faced with the possibility that he may lose a part or the whole of the principal lent. His appraisal of this danger determines his conduct in bargaining with the prospective debtor about the terms of the contract.
There can never be perfect safety either in moneylending or in other classes of credit transactions and deferred payments. Debtors, guarantors, and warrantors may become insolvent; collateral and mortgages may become worthless. The creditor is always a virtual partner of the debtor or a virtual owner of the pledged and mortgaged property. He can be affected by changes in the market data concerning them. He has linked his fate with that of the debtor or with the changes occurring in the price of the collateral. Capital as such does not bear interest; it must be well employed and invested not only in order to yield interest; but also lest it disappear entirely. The dictum pecunia pecuniam parere non potest (money cannot beget money) is meaningful in this sense, which, of course, differs radically from the sense which ancient and medieval philosophers attached to it. Gross interest can be reaped only by creditors who have been successful in their lending. If they earn any net interest at all, it is included in a yield which contains more than merely net interest. Net interest is a magnitude which only analytical thinking can extract from the gross proceeds of the creditor.
The entrepreneurial component included in the creditor’s gross proceeds is determined by all those factors which are operative in every entrepreneurial venture. It is, moreover, codetermined by the legal and institutional setting. The contracts which place the debtor and his fortune or the collateral as a buffer between the creditor and the disastrous consequences of malinvestment of the capital lent, are conditioned by laws and institutions. The creditor is less exposed to loss and failure than the debtor only in so far as this legal and institutional framework makes it possible for him to enforce his claims against refractory debtors. There is, however, no need for economics to enter into a detailed scrutiny of the legal aspects involved in bonds and debentures, preferred stock, mortgages, and other kinds of credit transactions.
The entrepreneurial component is present in all species of loans. It is customary to distinguish between consumption or personal loans on the one hand, and productive or business loans on the other. The characteristic mark of the former class is that it enables the borrower to spend expected future proceeds. In acquiring a claim to a share in these future proceeds, the lender becomes virtually an entrepreneur, as in acquiring a claim to a share in the future proceeds of a business. The particular uncertainty of the outcome of his lending consists in the uncertainty about these future proceeds.
It is furthermore customary to distinguish between private and public loans, i.e., loans to governments and subdivisions of governments. The particular uncertainty inherent in such loans concerns the life of secular power. Empires may crumble and governments may be overthrown by revolutionaries who are not prepared to assume responsibility for the debts contracted by their predecessors. That there is, besides, something basically vicious in all kinds of long-term government debts, has been pointed out already.1
Over all species of deferred payments hangs, like the sword of Damocles, the danger of government interference. Public opinion has always been biased against creditors. It identifies creditors with the idle rich and debtors with the industrious poor. It abhors the former as ruthless exploiters and pities the latter as innocent victims of oppression. It considers government action designed to curtail the claims of the creditors as measures extremely beneficial to the immense majority at the expense of a small minority of hard-boiled usurers. It did not notice at all that nineteenth-century capitalist innovations have wholly changed the composition of the classes of creditors and debtors. In the days of Solon the Athenian, of ancient Rome’s agrarian laws, and of the Middle Ages, the creditors were by and large the rich and the debtors the poor. But in this age of bonds and debentures, mortgage banks, saving banks, life insurance policies, and social security benefits, the masses of people with more moderate income are rather themselves creditors. On the other hand, the rich, in their capacity as owners of common stock, of plants, farms, and real estate, are more often debtors than creditors. In asking for the expropriation of creditors, the masses are unwittingly attacking their own particular interests.
With public opinion in this state, the creditor’s unfavorable chance of being harmed by anticreditor measures is not balanced by a favorable chance of being privileged by antidebtor measures. This unbalance would bring about a unilateral tendency toward a rise of the entrepreneurial component contained in the gross rate of interest if the political danger were limited to the loan market, and would not in the same way affect today all kinds of private ownership of the means of production. As things are in our day, no kind of investment is safe against the political dangers of anticapitalistic measures. A capitalist cannot reduce the vulnerability of his wealth by preferring direct investment in business to lending his capital to business or to the government.
The political risks involved in moneylending do not affect the height of originary interest; they affect the entrepreneurial component included in the gross market rate. In the extreme case—i.e., in a situation in which the impending nullification of all contracts concerning deferred payments is expected—they would cause the entrepreneurial component to increase beyond all measure.2
The Price Premium as a Component of the Gross Market Rate of Interest
Money is neutral if the cash-induced changes in the monetary unit’s purchasing power affect at the same time and to the same extent the prices of all commodities and services. With neutral money, a neutral rate of interest would be conceivable, provided there were no deferred payments. If there are deferred payments and if we disregard the entrepreneurial position of the creditor and the ensuing entrepreneurial component in the gross rate of interest, we must furthermore assume that the eventuality of future changes in purchasing power is taken into account in stipulating the terms of the contract. The principal is to be multiplied periodically by the index number and thus to be increased or decreased in accordance with the changes that have come to pass in purchasing power. With the adjustment of the principal, the amount from which the rate of interest is to be calculated changes too. Thus, this rate is a neutral rate of interest.
With neutral money, neutralization of the rate of interest could also be attained by another stipulation, provided the parties are in a position to anticipate correctly the future changes in purchasing power. They could stipulate a gross rate of interest containing an allowance for such changes, a percentile addendum to, or subtrahendum from, the rate of originary interest. We may call this allowance the—positive or negative—price premium. In the case of a quickly progressing deflation, the negative price premium could not only swallow the whole rate of originary interest, but even reverse the gross rate into a minus quantity, an amount charged to the creditor’s account. If the price premium is correctly calculated, neither the creditor’s nor the debtor’s position is affected by intervening changes in purchasing power. The rate of interest is neutral.
However, all these assumptions are not only imaginary, they cannot even hypothetically be thought of without contradiction. In the changing economy, the rate of interest can never be neutral. In the changing economy, there is no uniform rate of originary interest; there only prevails a tendency toward the establishment of such uniformity. Before the final state of originary interest is attained, new changes in the data emerge which divert anew the movement of interest rates toward a new final state. Where everything is unceasingly in flux, no neutral rate of interest can be established.
In the world of reality all prices are fluctuating and acting men are forced to take full account of these changes. Entrepreneurs embark upon business ventures and capitalists change their investments only because they anticipate such changes and want to profit from them. The market economy is essentially characterized as a social system in which there prevails an incessant urge toward improvement. The most provident and enterprising individuals are driven to earn profit by readjusting again and again the arrangement of production activities so as to fill in the best possible way the needs of the consumers, both those needs of which the consumers themselves are already aware and those latent needs of the satisfaction of which they have not yet thought themselves. These speculative ventures of the promoters revolutionize afresh each day the structure of prices and thereby also the height of the gross market rate of interest.
He who expects a rise in certain prices enters the loan market as a borrower and is ready to allow a higher gross rate of interest than he would allow if he were to expect a less momentous rise in prices or no rise at all. On the other hand, the lender, if he himself expects a rise in prices, grants loans only if the gross rate is higher than it would be under a state of the market in which less momentous or no upward changes in prices are anticipated. The borrower is not deterred by a higher rate if his project seems to offer such good chances that it can afford higher costs. The lender would abstain from lending and would himself enter the market as an entrepreneur and bidder for commodities and services if the gross rate of interest were not to compensate him for the profits he could reap this way. The expectation of rising prices thus has the tendency to make the gross rate of interest rise, while the expectation of dropping prices makes it drop. If the expected changes in the price structure concern only a limited group of commodities and services, and are counterbalanced by the expectation of an opposite change in the prices of other goods, as is the case in the absence of changes in the money relation, the two opposite trends by and large counterpoise each other. But if the money relation is sensibly altered and a general rise or fall in the prices of all commodities and services is expected, one tendency carries on. A positive or negative price premium emerges in all deals concerning deferred payments.3
The role of the price premium in the changing economy is different from that we ascribed to it in the hypothetical and unrealizable scheme developed above. It can never entirely remove, even as far as credit operations alone are concerned, the effects of changes in the money relation; it can never make interest rates neutral. It cannot alter the fact that money is essentially equipped with a driving force of its own. Even if all actors were to know correctly and completely the quantitative data concerning the changes in the supply of money (in the broader sense) in the whole economic system, the dates on which such changes were to occur and what individuals were to be first affected by them, they would not be in a position to know beforehand whether and to what extent the demand for money for cash holding would change and in what temporal sequence and to what extent the prices of the various commodities would change. The price premium could counterpoise the effects of changes in the money relation upon the substantial importance and the economic significance of credit contracts only if its appearance were to precede the occurrence of the price changes generated by the alteration in the money relation. It would have to be the result of a reasoning by virtue of which the actors try to compute in advance the date and the extent of such price changes with regard to all commodities and services which directly or indirectly count for their own state of satisfaction. However, such computations cannot be established because their performance would require a perfect knowledge of future conditions and valuations.
The emergence of the price premium is not the product of an arithmetical operation which could provide reliable knowledge and eliminate the uncertainty concerning the future. It is the outcome of the promoters’ understanding of the future and their calculations based on such an understanding. It comes into existence step by step as soon as first a few and then successively more and more actors become aware of the fact that the market is faced with cash-induced changes in the money relation and consequently with a trend oriented in a definite direction. Only when people begin to buy or to sell in order to take advantage of this trend, does the price premium come into existence.
It is necessary to realize that the price premium is the outgrowth of speculations anticipating changes in the money relation. What induces it, in the case of the expectation that an inflationary trend will keep on going, is already the first sign of that phenomenon which later, when it becomes general, is called “flight into real values” and finally produces the crack-up boom and the crash of the monetary system concerned. As in every case of the understanding of future developments, it is possible that the speculators may err, that the inflationary or deflationary movement will be stopped or slowed down, and that prices will differ from what they expected.
The increased propensity to buy or to sell, which generates the price premium, affects as a rule short-term loans sooner and to a greater extent than long-term loans. As far as this is the case, the price premium affects the market for short-term loans first, and only later, by virtue of the concatenation of all parts of the market, also the market for long-term loans. However, there are instances in which a price premium in long-term loans appears independently of what is going on with regard to short-term loans. This was especially the case in international lending in the days in which there was still a live international capital market. It happened occasionally that lenders were confident with regard to the short-term development of a foreign country’s national currency; in short-term loans stipulated in this currency there was no price premium at all or only a slight one. But the appraisal of the long-term aspects of the currency concerned was less favorable, and consequently in long-term contracts a considerable price premium was taken into account. The result was that long-term loans stipulated in this currency could be floated only at a higher rate than the same debtor’s loans stipulated in terms of gold or a foreign currency.
We have shown one reason why the price premium can at best practically deaden, but never eliminate entirely, the repercussions of cash-induced changes in the money relation upon the content of credit transactions. (A second reason will be dealt with in the next section.) The price premium always lags behind the changes in purchasing power because what generates it is not the change in the supply of money (in the broader sense), but the—necessarily later-occurring—effects of these changes upon the price structure. Only in the final state of a ceaseless inflation do things become different. The panic of the currency catastrophe, the crack-up boom, is not only characterized by a tendency for prices to rise beyond all measure, but also by a rise beyond all measure of the positive price premium. No gross rate of interest, however great, appears to a prospective lender high enough to compensate for the losses expected from the progressing drop in the monetary unit’s purchasing power. He abstains from lending and prefers to buy himself “real” goods. The loan market comes to a stand-still.
The Loan Market
The gross rates of interest as determined on the loan market are not uniform. The entrepreneurial component which they always include varies according to the peculiar characteristics of the specific deal. It is one of the most serious shortcomings of all historical and statistical studies devoted to the movement of interest rates that they neglect this factor. It is useless to arrange data concerning interest rates of the open market or the discount rates of the central banks in time series. The various data available for the construction of such time series are incommensurable. The same central bank’s rate of discount meant something different in various periods of time. The institutional conditions affecting the activities of various nations’ central banks, their private banks, and their organized loan markets are so different, that it is entirely misleading to compare the nominal interest rates without paying full regard to these diversities. We know a priori that, other things being equal, the lenders are intent upon preferring high interest rates to low ones, and the debtors upon preferring low rates to high ones. But these other things are never equal. There prevails upon the loan market a tendency toward the equalization of gross interest rates for loans for which the factors determining the height of the entrepreneurial component and the price premium are equal. This knowledge provides a mental tool for the interpretation of the facts concerning the history of interest rates. Without the aid of this knowledge, the vast historical and statistical material available would be merely an accumulation of meaningless figures. In arranging time series of the prices of certain primary commodities, empiricism has at least an apparent justification in the fact that the price data dealt with refer to the same physical object. It is a spurious excuse indeed as prices are not related to the unchanging physical properties of things, but to the changing values which acting men attach to them. But in the study of interest rates, even this lame excuse cannot be advanced. Gross interest rates as they appear in reality have nothing else in common than those characteristics which catallactic theory sees in them. They are complex phenomena and can never be used for the construction of an empirical or a posteriori theory of interest. They can neither verify nor falsify what economics teaches about the problems involved. They constitute, if carefully analyzed with all the knowledge economics conveys, invaluable documentation for economic history; they are of no avail for economic theory.
It is customary to distinguish the market for short-term loans (money market) from the market for long-term loans (capital market). A more penetrating analysis must even go further in classifying loans according to their duration. Besides, there are differences with regard to the legal characteristics which the terms of the contract assign to the lender’s claim. In short, the loan market is not homogeneous. But the most conspicuous differences arise from the entrepreneurial component included in the gross rates of interest. It is this that people refer to when asserting that credit is based on trust or confidence.
The connexity between all sectors of the loan market and the gross rates of interest determined on them is brought about by the inherent tendency of the net rates of interest included in these gross rates toward the final state of originary interest. With regard to this tendency, catallactic theory is free to deal with the market rate of interest as if it were a uniform phenomenon, and to abstract from the entrepreneurial component which is necessarily always included in the gross rates and from the price premium which is occasionally included.
The prices of all commodities and services are at any instant moving toward a final state. If this final state were ever to be reached, it would show in the ratio between the prices of present goods and future goods the final state of originary interest. However, the changing economy never reaches the imaginary final state. New data emerge again and again and divert the trend of prices from the previous goal of their movement toward a different final state to which a different rate of originary interest may correspond. In the rate of originary interest there is no more permanence than in prices and wage rates.
Those people whose provident action is intent upon adjusting the employment of the factors of production to the changes occurring in the data—viz., the entrepreneurs and promotors—base their calculations upon the prices, wage rates, and interest rates as determined on the market. They discover discrepancies between the present prices of the complementary factors of production and the anticipated prices of the products minus the market rate of interest, and are eager to profit from them. The role which the rate of interest plays in these deliberations of the planning businessman is obvious. It shows him how far he can go in withholding factors of production from employment for want-satisfaction in nearer periods of the future and in dedicating them to want-satisfaction in remoter periods. It shows him what period of production conforms in every concrete case to the difference which the public makes in the ratio of valuation between present goods and future goods. It prevents him from embarking upon projects the execution of which would not agree with the limited amount of capital goods provided by the saving of the public.
It is in influencing this primordial function of the rate of interest that the driving force of money can become operative in a particular way. Cashinduced changes in the money relation can under certain circumstances affect the loan market before they affect the prices of commodities and of labor. The increase or decrease in the supply of money (in the broader sense) can increase or decrease the supply of money offered on the loan market and thereby lower or raise the gross market rate of interest although no change in the rate of originary interest has taken place. If this happens, the market rate deviates from the height which the state of originary interest and the supply of capital goods available for production would require. Then the market rate of interest fails to fulfill the function it plays in guiding entrepreneurial decisions. It frustrates the entrepreneur’s calculation and diverts his actions from those lines in which they would in the best possible way satisfy the most urgent needs of the consumers.
Then there is a second important fact to realize. If, other things being equal, the supply of money (in the broader sense) increases or decreases and thus brings about a general tendency for prices to rise or to drop, a positive or negative price premium would have to appear and to raise or lower the gross rate of market interest. But if such changes in the money relation affect first the loan market, they bring about just the opposite changes in the configuration of the gross market rates of interest. While a positive or negative price premium would be required to adjust the market rates of interest to the changes in the money relation, gross interest rates are in fact dropping or rising. This is the second reason why the instrumentality of the price premium cannot entirely eliminate the repercussions of cash-induced changes in the money relation upon the content of contracts concerning deferred payments. Its operation begins too late, it lags behind the changes in purchasing power, as has been shown above. Now we see that under certain circumstances the forces that push in the opposite direction manifest themselves sooner on the market than an adequate price premium.
The Effects of Changes in the Money Relation Upon Originary Interest
Like every change in the market data, changes in the money relation can possibly influence the rate of originary interest. According to the advocates of the inflationist view of history, inflation by and large tends to increase the earnings of the entrepreneurs. They reason this way: Commodity prices rise sooner and to a steeper level than wage rates. On the one hand, wage earners and salaried people, classes who spend the greater part of their income for consumption and save little, are adversely affected and must accordingly restrict their expenditures. On the other hand, the proprietary strata of the population, whose propensity to save a considerable part of their income is much greater, are favored; they do not increase their consumption in proportion, but also increase their savings. Thus in the community as a whole there arises a tendency toward an intensified accumulation of new capital. Additional investment is the corollary of the restriction of consumption imposed upon that part of the population which consumes the much greater part of the annual produce of the economic system. This forced saving lowers the rate of originary interest. It accelerates the pace of economic progress and the improvement in technological methods.
It is true that such forced saving can originate from an inflationary movement and occasionally did so originate in the past. In dealing with the effects of changes in the money relation upon the height of interest rates, one must not neglect the fact that such changes can under certain circumstances really alter the rate of originary interest. But several other facts must be taken into account, too.
First one must realize that forced saving can result from inflation, but need not necessarily. It depends on the particular data of each instance of inflation whether or not the rise in wage rates lags behind the rise in commodity prices. A tendency for real wage rates to drop is not an inescapable consequence of a decline in the monetary unit’s purchasing power. It could happen that nominal wage rates rise more or sooner than commodity prices.4
Furthermore, it is necessary to remember that the greater propensity of the wealthier classes to save and to accumulate capital is merely a psychological and not a praxeological fact. It could happen that these people to whom the inflationary movement conveys additional proceeds do not save and invest their boon but employ it for an increase in their consumption. It is impossible to predict with the apodictic definiteness which characterizes all theorems of economics, in what way those profiting from the inflation will act. History can tell us what happened in the past. But it cannot assert that it must happen again in the future.
It would be a serious blunder to neglect the fact that inflation also generates forces which tend toward capital consumption. One of its consequences is that it falsifies economic calculation and accounting. It produces the phenomenon of illusory or apparent profits. If the annual depreciation quotas are determined in such a way as not to pay full regard to the fact that the replacement of worn-out equipment will require higher costs than the amount for which it was purchased in the past, they are obviously insufficient. If in selling inventories and products the whole difference between the price spent for their acquisition and the price realized in the sale is entered in the books as a surplus, the error is the same. If the rise in the prices of stocks and real estate is considered as a gain, the illusion is no less manifest. What makes people believe that inflation results in general prosperity is precisely such illusory gains. They feel lucky and become openhanded in spending and enjoying life. They embellish their homes, they build new mansions and patronize the entertainment business. In spending apparent gains, the fanciful result of false reckoning, they are consuming capital. It does not matter who these spenders are. They may be businessmen or stock jobbers. They may be wage earners whose demand for higher pay is satisfied by the easygoing employers who think that they are getting richer from day to day. They may be people supported by taxes which usually absorb a great part of the apparent gains.
Finally, with the progress of inflation more and more people become aware of the fall in purchasing power. For those not personally engaged in business and not familiar with the conditions of the stock market, the main vehicle of saving is the accumulation of savings deposits, the purchase of bonds and life insurance. All such savings are prejudiced by inflation. Thus saving is discouraged and extravagance seems to be indicated. The ultimate reaction of the public, the “flight into real values,” is a desperate attempt to salvage some debris from the ruinous breakdown. It is, viewed from the angle of capital preservation, not a remedy, but merely a poor emergency measure. It can, at best, rescue a fraction of the saver’s funds.
The main thesis of the champions of inflationism and expansionism is thus rather weak. It may be admitted that in the past inflation sometimes, but not always, resulted in forced saving and an increase in capital available. However, this does not mean that it must produce the same effects in the future too. On the contrary, one must realize that under modern conditions the forces driving toward capital consumption are more likely to prevail under inflationary conditions than those driving toward capital accumulation. At any rate, the final effect of such changes upon saving, capital, and the originary rate of interest depends upon the particular data of each instance.
The same is valid, with the necessary changes, with regard to the analogous consequences and effects of a deflationist or restrictionist movement.
The Gross Market Rate of Interest as Affected by Inflation and Credit Expansion
Whatever the ultimate effects of an inflationary or deflationary movement upon the height of the rate of originary interest may be, there is no correspondence between them and the temporary alterations which a cashinduced change in the money relation can bring about in the gross market rate of interest. If the inflow of money and money-substitutes into the market system or the outflow from it affects the loan market first, it temporarily disarranges the congruity between the gross market rates of interest and the rate of originary interest. The market rate rises or drops on account of the decrease or increase in the amount of money offered for lending, with no correlation to changes in the originary rate of interest which in the later course of events can possibly occur from the changes in the money relation. The market rate deviates from the height determined by that of the originary rate of interest, and forces come into operation which tend to adjust it anew to the ratio which corresponds to that of originary interest. It may happen that in the period of time which this adjustment requires, the height of originary interest varies, and this change can also be caused by the inflationary or deflationary process which brought about the deviation. Then the final rate of originary interest determining the final market rate toward which the readjustment tends is not the same rate which prevailed on the eve of the disarrangement. Such an occurrence may affect the data of the process of adjustment, but it does not affect its essence.
The phenomenon to be dealt with is this: The rate of originary interest is determined by the discount of future goods as against present goods. It is essentially independent of the supply of money and money-substitutes, notwithstanding the fact that changes in the supply of money and money-substitutes can indirectly affect its height. But the gross market rate of interest can be affected by changes in the money relation. A readjustment must take place. What is the nature of the process which brings it about?
In this section we are concerned only with inflation and credit expansion. For the sake of simplicity we assume that the whole additional amount of money and money-substitutes flows into the loan market and reaches the rest of the market only via the loans granted. This corresponds precisely to the conditions of an expansion of circulation credit.5 Our scrutiny thus amounts to an analysis of the process caused by credit expansion.
In dealing with this analysis, we must refer again to the price premium. It has been mentioned already that at the very beginning of a credit expansion no positive price premium arises. A price premium cannot appear until the additional supply of money (in the broader sense) has already begun to affect the prices of commodities and services. But as long as credit expansion goes on and additional quantities of fiduciary media are hurled on the loan market, there continues a pressure upon the gross market rate of interest. The gross market rate would have to rise on account of the positive price premium which, with the progress of the expansionist process, would have to rise continually. But as credit expansion goes on, the gross market rate continues to lag behind the height at which it would cover both originary interest plus the positive price premium.
It is necessary to stress this point because it explodes the customary methods according to which people distinguish between what they consider low and high rates of interest. It is usual to take into account merely the arithmetical height of the rates or the trend which appears in their movement. Public opinion has definite ideas about a “normal” rate, something between 3 and 5 per cent. When the market rate rises above this height or when the market rates—without regard to their arithmetical ratio—are rising above their previous height, people believe that they are right in speaking of high or rising interest rates. As against these errors, it is necessary to emphasize that under the conditions of a general rise in prices (drop in the monetary unit’s purchasing power) the gross market rate of interest can be considered as unchanged with regard to conditions of a period of a by and large unchanging purchasing power only if it includes a by and large adequate positive price premium. In this sense, the German Reichsbank’s discount rate of 90 per cent was, in the fall of 1923, a low rate—indeed a ridiculously low rate—as it considerably lagged behind the price premium and did not leave anything for the other components of the gross market rate of interest. Essentially the same phenomenon manifests itself in every instance of a prolonged credit expansion. Gross market rates of interest rise in the further course of every expansion, but they are nonetheless low as they do not correspond to the height required by the expected further general rise in prices.
In analyzing the process of credit expansion, let us assume that the economic system’s process of adjustment to the market data and of movement toward the establishment of final prices and interest rates is disturbed by the appearance of a new datum, namely, an additional quantity of fiduciary media offered on the loan market. At the gross market rate which prevailed on the eve of this disturbance, all those who were ready to borrow money at this rate, due allowance being made for the entrepreneurial component in each case, could borrow as much as they wanted. Additional loans can be placed only at a lower gross market rate. It does not matter whether this drop in the gross market rate expresses itself in an arithmetical drop in the percentage stipulated in the loan contracts, or whether the nominal interest rates remain unchanged and the expansion manifests itself in the fact that at these rates loans are negotiated which would not have been made before on account of the height of the entrepreneurial component to be included. Such an outcome too amounts to a drop in gross market rates and brings about the same consequences.
A drop in the gross market rate of interest affects the entrepreneur’s calculation concerning the chances of the profitability of projects considered. Along with the prices of the material factors of production, wage rates, and the anticipated future prices of the products, interest rates are items that enter into the planning businessman’s calculation. The result of this calculation shows the businessman whether or not a definite project will pay. It shows him what investments can be made under the given state of the ratio in the public’s valuation of future goods as against present goods. It brings his actions into agreement with this valuation. It prevents him from embarking upon projects the realization of which would be disapproved by the public because of the length of the waiting time they require. It forces him to employ the available stock of capital goods in such a way as to satisfy best the most urgent wants of the consumers.
But now the drop in interest rates falsifies the businessman’s calculation. Although the amount of capital goods available did not increase, the calculation employs figures which would be utilizable only if such an increase had taken place. The result of such calculations is therefore misleading. They make some projects appear profitable and realizable which a correct calculation, based on an interest rate not manipulated by credit expansion, would have shown as unrealizable. Entrepreneurs embark upon the execution of such projects. Business activities are stimulated. A boom begins.
The additional demand on the part of the expanding entrepreneurs tends to raise the prices of producers’ goods and wage rates. With the rise in wage rates, the prices of consumers’ goods rise too. Besides, the entrepreneurs are contributing a share to the rise in the prices of consumers’ goods as they too, deluded by the illusory gains which their business accounts show, are ready to consume more. The general upswing in prices spreads optimism. If only the prices of producers’ goods had risen and those of consumers’ goods had not been affected, the entrepreneurs would have become embarrassed. They would have had doubts concerning the soundness of their plans, as the rise in costs of production would have upset their calculations. But they are reassured by the fact that the demand for consumers’ goods is intensified and makes it possible to expand sales in spite of rising prices. Thus they are confident that production will pay, notwithstanding the higher costs it involves. They are resolved to go on.
Of course, in order to continue production on the enlarged scale brought about by the expansion of credit, all entrepreneurs, those who did expand their activities no less than those who produce only within the limits in which they produced previously, need additional funds as the costs of production are now higher. If the credit expansion consists merely in a single, not repeated injection of a definite amount of fiduciary media into the loan market and then ceases altogether, the boom must very soon stop. The entrepreneurs cannot procure the funds they need for the further conduct of their ventures. The gross market rate of interest rises because the increased demand for loans is not counterpoised by a corresponding increase in the quantity of money available for lending. Commodity prices drop because some entrepreneurs are selling inventories and others abstain from buying. The size of business activities shrinks again. The boom ends because the forces which brought it about are no longer in operation. The additional quantity of circulation credit has exhausted its operation upon prices and wage rates. Prices, wage rates, and the various individuals’ cash holdings are adjusted to the new money relation; they move toward the final state which corresponds to this money relation, without being disturbed by further injections of additional fiduciary media. The rate of originary interest which is coordinated to this new structure of the market acts with full momentum upon the gross market rate of interest. The gross market rate is no longer subject to disturbing influences exercised by cash-induced changes in the supply of money (in the broader sense).
The main deficiency of all attempts to explain the boom—viz., the general tendency to expand production and of all prices to rise—without reference to changes in the supply of money or fiduciary media, is to be seen in the fact that they disregard this circumstance. A general rise in prices can only occur if there is either a drop in the supply of all commodities or an increase in the supply of money (in the broader sense). Let us, for the sake of argument, admit for the moment that the statements of these nonmonetary explanations of the boom and the trade cycle are correct. Prices advance and business activities expand although no increase in the supply of money has occurred. Then very soon a tendency toward a drop in prices must arise, the demand for loans must increase, the gross market rates of interest must rise, and the short-lived boom comes to an end. In fact, every nonmonetary trade-cycle doctrine tacitly assumes—or ought logically to assume—that credit expansion is an attendant phenomenon of the boom.6 It cannot help admitting that in the absence of such a credit expansion no boom could emerge and that the increase in the supply of money (in the broader sense) is a necessary condition of the general upward movement of prices. Thus on close inspection the statements of the nonmonetary explanations of cyclical fluctuations shrink to the assertion that credit expansion, while an indispensable requisite of the boom, is in itself alone not sufficient to bring it about and that some further conditions are required for its appearance.
Yet, even in this restricted sense, the teachings of the nonmonetary doctrines are vain. It is evident that every expansion of credit must bring about the boom as described above. The boom-creating tendency of credit expansion can fail to come only if another factor simultaneously counterbalances its growth. If, for instance, while the banks expand credit, it is expected that the government will completely tax away the businessmen’s “excess” profits or that it will stop the further progress of credit expansion as soon as “pump-priming” will have resulted in rising prices, no boom can develop. The entrepreneurs will abstain from expanding their ventures with the aid of the cheap credits offered by the banks because they cannot expect to increase their gains. It is necessary to mention this fact because it explains the failure of the New Deal’s pump-priming measures and other events of the ’thirties.
The boom can last only as long as the credit expansion progresses at an ever-accelerated pace. The boom comes to an end as soon as additional quantities of fiduciary media are no longer thrown upon the loan market. But it could not last forever even if inflation and credit expansion were to go on endlessly. It would then encounter the barriers which prevent the boundless expansion of circulation credit. It would lead to the crack-up boom and the breakdown of the whole monetary system.
The essence of monetary theory is the cognition that cash-induced changes in the money relation affect the various prices, wage rates, and interest rates neither at the same time nor to the same extent. If this unevenness were absent, money would be neutral; changes in the money relation would not affect the structure of business, the size and direction of production in the various branches of industry, consumption, and the wealth and income of the various strata of the population. Then the gross market rate of interest too would not be affected—either temporarily or lastingly—by changes in the sphere of money and circulation credit. The fact that such changes can modify the rate of originary interest is caused by the changes which this unevenness brings about in the wealth and income of various individuals. The fact that, apart from these changes in the rate of originary interest, the gross market rate is temporarily affected is in itself a manifestation of this unevenness. If the additional quantity of money enters the economic system in such a way as to reach the loan market only at a date at which it has already made commodity prices and wage rates rise, these immediate temporary effects upon the gross market rate of interest will be either slight or entirely absent. The gross market rate of interest is the more violently affected, the sooner the inflowing additional supply of money or fiduciary media reaches the loan market.
When under the conditions of credit expansion the whole amount of the additional money-substitutes is lent to business, production is expanded. The entrepreneurs embark either upon lateral expansion of production (viz., the expansion of production without lengthening the period of production in the individual industry) or upon longitudinal expansion (viz., the lengthening of the period of production). In either case, the additional plants require the investment of additional factors of production. But the amount of capital goods available for investment has not increased. Neither does credit expansion bring about a tendency toward a restriction of consumption. It is true, as has been pointed out above in dealing with forced saving, that in the further progress of the expansion a part of the population will be compelled to restrict its consumption. But it depends on the particular conditions of each instance of credit expansion whether this forced saving of some groups of the people will overcompensate the increase in consumption on the part of other groups and will thus result in a net increase in the total amount of saving in the whole market system. At any rate, the immediate consequence of credit expansion is a rise in consumption on the part of those wage earners whose wages have risen on account of the intensified demand for labor displayed by the expanding entrepreneurs. Let us for the sake of argument assume that the increased consumption of these wage earners favored by the inflation and the forced saving of other groups prejudiced by the inflation are equal in amount and that no change in the total amount of consumption has occurred. Then the situation is this: Production has been altered in such a way that the length of waiting time has been extended. But the demand for consumers’ goods has not dropped so as to make the available supply last for a longer period. Of course, this fact results in a rise in the prices of consumers’ goods and thus brings about the tendency toward forced saving. However, this rise in the prices of consumers’ goods strengthens the tendency of business to expand. The entrepreneurs draw from the fact that demand and prices are rising the inference that it will pay to invest and to produce more. They go on and their intensified activities bring about a further rise in the prices of producers’ goods, in wage rates, and thereby again in the prices of consumers’ goods. Business booms as long as the banks are expanding credit more and more.
On the eve of the credit expansion all those production processes were in operation which, under the given state of the market data, were deemed profitable. The system was moving toward a state in which all those eager to earn wages would be employed and all nonconvertible factors of production would be employed to the extent that the demand of the consumers and the available supply of nonspecific material factors and of labor would permit. A further expansion of production is possible only if the amount of capital goods is increased by additional saving, i.e., by surpluses produced and not consumed. The characteristic mark of the credit-expansion boom is that such additional capital goods have not been made available. The capital goods required for the expansion of business activities must be withdrawn from other lines of production.
We may call p the total supply of capital goods available on the eve of the credit expansion, and g the total amount of consumers’ goods which these p could, over a definite period of time, make available for consumption without prejudice to further production. Now the entrepreneurs, enticed by credit expansion, embark upon the production of an additional quantity of g3 of goods of the same kind which they already used to produce, and of a quantity of g4 of goods of a kind not produced by them before. For the production of g3 a supply of p3 of capital goods is needed, and for the production of g4 a supply of p4. But as, according to our assumptions, the amount of capital goods available has remained unaltered, the quantities p3 and p4 are lacking. It is precisely this fact that distinguishes the “artificial” boom created by credit expansion from a “normal” expansion of production which only the addition of p3 and p4 to p can bring about.
Let us call r that amount of capital goods which, out of the gross proceeds of production over a definite period of time, must be reinvested for the replacement of those parts of p used up in the process of production. If r is employed for such replacement, one will be in a position to turn out g again in the following period of time; if r is withheld from this employment, p will be reduced by r, and p − r will turn out in the following period of time only g − a. We may further assume that the economic system affected by credit expansion is a progressing system. It produced “normally,” as it were, in the period of time preceding the credit expansion a surplus of capital goods p1 + p2. If no credit expansion had intervened, p1 would have been employed for the production of an additional quantity of g1 of the kind of goods produced previously, and p2 for the production of the supply of g2 of a kind of goods not produced before. The total amount of capital goods which are at the entrepreneurs’ disposal and with regard to which they are free to make plans is r + p1 + p2. However, deluded by the cheap money, they act as if r + p1 + p2 + p3 + p4 were available and as if they were in a position to produce not only g + g1 + g2, but beyond this also g3 + g4. They outbid one another in competing for a share of a supply of capital goods which is insufficient for the realization of their overambitious plans.
The ensuing boom in the prices of producers’ goods may at the beginning outrun the rise in the prices of consumer’s goods. It may thus bring about a tendency toward a fall in the originary rate of interest. But with further progress of the expansionist movement the rise in the prices of the consumers’ goods will outstrip the rise in the prices of producers’ goods. The rise in wages and salaries and the additional gains of the capitalists, entrepreneurs, and farmers, although a great part of them is merely apparent, intensify the demand for consumers’ goods. There is no need to enter into a scrutiny of the assertion of the advocates of credit expansion that the boom can, by means of forced saving, really increase the total supply of consumers’ goods. At any rate, it is certain that the intensified demand for consumers’ goods affects the market at a time when the additional investments are not yet in a position to turn out their products. The gulf between the prices of present goods and those of future goods widens again. A tendency toward a rise in the rate of originary interest is substituted for the tendency toward the opposite which may have come into operation at the earlier stages of the expansion.
This tendency toward a rise in the rate of originary interest and the emergence of a positive price premium explain some characteristics of the boom. The banks are faced with an increased demand for loans and advances on the part of business. The entrepreneurs are prepared to borrow money at higher gross rates of interest. They go on borrowing in spite of the fact that banks charge more interest. Arithmetically, the gross rates of interest are rising above their height on the eve of the expansion. Nonetheless, they lag catallactically behind the height at which they would cover originary interest plus entrepreneurial component and price premium. The banks believe that they have done all that is needed to stop “unsound” speculation when they lend on more onerous terms. They think that those critics who blame them for fanning the flames of the boom-frenzy of the market are wrong. They fail to see that in injecting more and more fiduciary media into the market they are in fact kindling the boom. It is the continuous increase in the supply of the fiduciary media that produces, feeds, and accelerates the boom. The state of the gross market rates of interest is only an outgrowth of this increase. If one wants to know whether or not there is credit expansion, one must look at the state of the supply of fiduciary media, not at the arithmetical state of interest rates.
It is customary to describe the boom as overinvestment. However, additional investment is only possible to the extent that there is an additional supply of capital goods available. As, apart from forced saving, the boom itself does not result in a restriction but rather in an increase in consumption, it does not procure more capital goods for new investment. The essence of the credit-expansion boom is not overinvestment, but investment in wrong lines, i.e., malinvestment. The entrepreneurs employ the available supply of r + p1 + p2 as if they were in a position to employ a supply of r + p1 + p2 + p3 + p4. They embark upon an expansion of investment on a scale for which the capital goods available do not suffice. Their projects are unrealizable on account of the insufficient supply of capital goods. They must fail sooner or later. The unavoidable end of the credit expansion makes the faults committed visible. There are plants which cannot be utilized because the plants needed for the production of the complementary factors of production are lacking; plants the products of which cannot be sold because the consumers are more intent upon purchasing other goods which, however, are not produced in sufficient quantities; plants the construction of which cannot be continued and finished because it has become obvious that they will not pay.
The erroneous belief that the essential feature of the boom is overinvestment and not malinvestment is due to the habit of judging conditions merely according to what is perceptible and tangible. The observer notices only the malinvestments which are visible and fails to recognize that these establishments are malinvestments only because of the fact that other plants—those required for the production of the complementary factors of production and those required for the production of consumers’ goods more urgently demanded by the public—are lacking. Technological conditions make it necessary to start an expansion of production by expanding first the size of the plants producing the goods of those orders which are farthest removed from the finished consumers’ goods. In order to expand the production of shoes, clothes, motorcars, furniture, houses, one must begin with increasing the production of iron, steel, copper, and other such goods. In employing the supply of r + p1 + p2 which would suffice for the production of a + g1 + g2 as if it were r + p1 + p2 + p3 + p4 and would suffice for the production of a + g1 + g2 + g3 + g4, one must first engage in increasing the output of those products and structures which for physical reasons are first required. The whole entrepreneurial class is, as it were, in the position of a master-builder whose task it is to erect a building out of a limited supply of building materials. If this man overestimates the quantity of the available supply, he drafts a plan for the execution of which the means at his disposal are not sufficient. He oversizes the groundwork and the foundations and only discovers later in the progress of the construction that he lacks the material needed for the completion of the structure. It is obvious that our master-builder’s fault was not overinvestment, but an inappropriate employment of the means at his disposal.
It is no less erroneous to believe that the events which resulted in the crisis amounted to an undue conversion of “circulating” capital into “fixed” capital. The individual entrepreneur, when faced with the credit stringency of the crisis, is right in regretting that he has expended too much for an expansion of his plant and for the purchase of durable equipment; he would have been in a better situation if the funds used for these purposes were still at his disposal for the current conduct of business. However, raw materials, primary commodities, half-finished manufactures and foodstuffs are not lacking at the turning point at which the upswing turns into the depression. On the contrary, the crisis is precisely characterized by the fact that these goods are offered in such quantities as to make their prices drop sharply.
The foregoing statements explain why an expansion in the production facilities and the production of the heavy industries, and in the production of durable producers’ goods, is the most conspicuous mark of the boom. The editors of the financial and commercial chronicles were right when—for more than a hundred years—they looked upon production figures of these industries as well as of the construction trades as an index of business fluctuations. They were only mistaken in referring to an alleged overinvestment.
Of course, the boom affects also the consumers’ goods industries. They too invest more and expand their production capacity. However, the new plants and the new annexes added to the already existing plants are not always those for the products of which the demand of the public is most intense. They may well have agreed with the whole plan aiming at the production of r + g1 + g2 + g3 + g4. The failure of this oversized plan discloses their inappropriateness.
A sharp rise in commodity prices is not always an attending phenomenon of the boom. The increase of the quantity of fiduciary media certainly always has the potential effect of making prices rise. But it may happen that at the same time forces operating in the opposite direction are strong enough to keep the rise in prices within narrow limits or even to remove it entirely. The historical period in which the smooth working of the market economy was again and again interrupted through expansionist ventures was an epoch of continuous economic progress. The steady advance in the accumulation of new capital made technological improvement possible. Output per unit of input was increased and business filled the markets with increasing quantities of cheap goods. If the synchronous increase in the supply of money (in the broader sense) had been less plentiful than it really was, a tendency toward a drop in the prices of all commodities would have taken effect. As an actual historical event credit expansion was always embedded in an environment in which powerful factors were counteracting its tendency to raise prices. As a rule the resultant of the clash of opposite forces was a preponderance of those producing a rise in prices. But there were some exceptional instances too in which the upward movement of prices was only slight. The most remarkable example was provided by the American boom of 1926–29.7
The essential features of a credit expansion are not affected by such a particular constellation of the market data. What induces an entrepreneur to embark upon definite projects is neither high prices nor low prices as such, but a discrepancy between the costs of production, inclusive of interest on the capital required, and the anticipated prices of the products. A lowering of the gross market rate of interest as brought about by credit expansion always has the effect of making some projects appear profitable which did not appear so before. It actuates business to employ r + p1 + p2 as if it were r + p1 + p2 + p3 + p4. It necessarily brings about a structure of investment and production activities which is at variance with the real supply of capital goods and must finally collapse. That sometimes the price changes involved are laid against a background of a general tendency toward a rise in purchasing power and do not convert this tendency into its manifest opposite but only into something which may by and large be called price stability, modifies merely some accessories of the process.
However conditions may be, it is certain that no manipulations of the banks can provide the economic system with capital goods. What is needed for a sound expansion of production is additional capital goods, not money or fiduciary media. The credit expansion boom is built on the sands of banknotes and deposits. It must collapse.
The breakdown appears as soon as the banks become frightened by the accelerated pace of the boom and begin to abstain from further expansion of credit. The boom could continue only as long as the banks were ready to grant freely all those credits which business needed for the execution of its excessive projects, utterly disagreeing with the real state of the supply of factors of production and the valuations of the consumers. These illusory plans, suggested by the falsification of business calculation as brought about by the cheap money policy, can be pushed forward only if new credits can be obtained at gross market rates which are artificially lowered below the height they would reach at an unhampered loan market. It is this margin that gives them the deceptive appearance of profitability. The change in the banks’ conduct does not create the crisis. It merely makes visible the havoc spread by the faults which business has committed in the boom period.
Neither could the boom last endlessly if the banks were to cling stubbornly to their expansionist policies. Any attempt to substitute additional fiduciary media for nonexisting capital goods (namely, the quantities p3 and p4) is doomed to failure. If the credit expansion is not stopped in time, the boom turns into the crack-up boom; the flight into real values begins, and the whole monetary system founders. However, as a rule, the banks in the past have not pushed things to extremes. They have become alarmed at a date when the final catastrophe was still far away.8
As soon as the afflux of additional fiduciary media comes to an end, the airy castle of the boom collapses. The entrepreneurs must restrict their activities because they lack the funds for their continuation on the exaggerated scale. Prices drop suddenly because these distressed firms try to obtain cash by throwing inventories on the market dirt cheap. Factories are closed, the continuation of construction projects in progress is halted, workers are discharged. As on the one hand many firms badly need money in order to avoid bankruptcy, and on the other hand no firm any longer enjoys confidence, the entrepreneurial component in the gross market rate of interest jumps to an excessive height.
Accidental institutional and psychological circumstances generally turn the outbreak of the crisis into a panic. The description of these awful events can be left to the historians. It is not the task of catallactic theory to depict in detail the calamities of panicky days and weeks and to dwell upon their sometimes grotesque aspects. Economics is not interested in what is accidental and conditioned by the individual historical circumstances of each instance. Its aim is, on the contrary, to distinguish what is essential and necessary from what is merely adventitious. It is not interested in the psychological aspects of the panic, but only in the fact that a credit-expansion boom must unavoidably lead to a process which everyday speech calls the depression. It must realize that the depression is in fact the process of readjustment, of putting production activities anew in agreement with the given state of the market data: the available supply of factors of production, the valuations of the consumers, and particularly also the state of originary interest as manifested in the public’s valuations.
These data, however, are no longer identical with those that prevailed on the eve of the expansionist process. A good many things have changed. Forced saving and, to an even greater extent, regular voluntary saving may have provided new capital goods which were not totally squandered through malinvestment and overconsumption as induced by the boom. Changes in the wealth and income of various individuals and groups of individuals have been brought about by the unevenness inherent in every inflationary movement. Apart from any causal relation to the credit expansion, population may have changed with regard to figures and the characteristics of the individuals comprising them; technological knowledge may have advanced, demand for certain goods may have been altered. The final state to the establishment of which the market tends is no longer the same toward which it tended before the disturbances created by the credit expansion.
Some of the investments made in the boom period appear, when appraised with the sober judgment of the readjustment period, no longer dimmed by the illusions of the upswing, as absolutely hopeless failures. They must simply be abandoned because the current means required for their further exploitation cannot be recovered in selling their products; this “circulating” capital is more urgently needed in other branches of want-satisfaction; the proof is that it can be employed in a more profitable way in other fields. Other malinvestments offer somewhat more favorable chances. It is, of course, true that one would not have embarked upon putting capital goods into them if one had correctly calculated. The inconvertible investments made on their behalf are certainly wasted. But as they are inconvertible, a fait accompli, they present further action with a new problem. If the proceeds which the sale of their products promises are expected to exceed the costs of current operation, it is profitable to carry on. Although the prices which the buying public is prepared to allow for their products are not high enough to make the whole of the inconvertible investment profitable, they are sufficient to make a fraction, however small, of the investment profitable. The rest of the investment must be considered as expenditure without any offset, as capital squandered and lost.
If one looks at this outcome from the point of view of the consumers, the result is, of course, the same. The consumers would be better off if the illusions created by the easy-money policy had not enticed the entrepreneurs to waste scarce capital goods by investing them for the satisfaction of less urgent needs and thereby withholding them from lines of production in which they would have satisfied more urgent needs. But as things are now, they cannot but put up with what is irrevocable. They must for the time being renounce certain amenities which they could have enjoyed if the boom had not engendered malinvestment. But, on the other hand, they can find partial compensation in the fact that some enjoyments are now available to them which would have been beyond their reach if the smooth course of economic activities had not been disturbed by the orgies of the boom. It is slight compensation only, as their demand for those other things which they do not get because of inappropriate employment of capital goods is more intense than their demand for these “substitutes,” as it were. But it is the only choice left to them as conditions and data are now.
The final outcome of the credit expansion is general impoverishment. Some people may have increased their wealth; they did not let their reasoning be obfuscated by the mass hysteria, and took advantage in time of the opportunities offered by the mobility of the individual investor. Other individuals and groups of individuals may have been favored, without any initiative of their own, by the mere time lag between the rise in the prices of the goods they sell and those they buy. But the immense majority must foot the bill for the malinvestments and the overconsumption of the boom episode.
One must guard oneself against a misinterpretation of this term impoverishment. It does not necessarily mean impoverishment when compared with the conditions that prevailed on the eve of the credit expansion. Whether or not an impoverishment in this sense takes place depends on the particular data of each case; it cannot be predicated apodictically by catallactics. What catallactics has in mind when asserting that impoverishment is an unavoidable outgrowth of credit expansion is impoverishment as compared with the state of affairs which would have developed in the absence of credit expansion and the boom. The characteristic mark of economic history under capitalism is unceasing economic progress, a steady increase in the quantity of capital goods available, and a continuous trend toward an improvement in the general standard of living. The pace of this progress is so rapid that, in the course of a boom period, it may well outstrip the synchronous losses caused by malinvestment and overconsumption. Then the economic system as a whole is more prosperous at the end of the boom than it was at its very beginning; it appears impoverished only when compared with the potentialities which existed for a still better state of satisfaction.
[12. ]About the Marxian attack against genetics, cf. T. D. Lysenko, Heredity and Variability (New York, 1945). A critical appraisal of the controversy is provided by J. R. Baker, Science and the Planned State (New York, 1945), pp. 71–76.
[13. ]Cf. Mises, Omnipotent Government (New Haven, 1944), p. 99 and the books quoted there.
[14. ]Cf. above, pp. 385–86, and below, pp. 680–81.
[15. ]Cf. Hayek, “The Mythology of Capital,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, L (1936), 223 ff.
[16. ]The state and the municipalities, in the market economy, are also merely actors representing concerted action on the part of definite groups of individuals.
[17. ]The popular doctrine that the stock exchange “absorbs” capital and money is critically analyzed and entirely refuted by F. Machlup, The Stock Market, Credit and Capital Formation, trans. by V. Smith (London, 1940), pp. 6–153.
[18. ]Indirectly capital accumulation is affected by the changes in wealth and incomes which every instance of cash-induced change in the purchasing power of money brings about.
[1. ]This is the popular definition of interest as, for instance, given by Ely, Adams, Lorenz, and Young, Outlines of Economics (3d ed. New York, 1920), p. 493.
[2. ]Cf. Hayek, “The Mythology of Capital,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, L (1936), 223 ff. However Professor Hayek has since partly changed his point of view. (Cf. his article “Time-Preference and Productivity, a Reconsideration,” Economica, XII , 22–25.) But the idea criticized in the text is still widely held by economists.
[3. ]Cf. J. Schumpeter, The Theory of Economic Development, trans. by R. Opie (Cambridge, 1934), pp. 34–46, 54.
[4. ]Cf. Robbins, “On a Certain Ambiguity in the Conception of Stationary Equilibrium,” The Economic Journal, XL (1930), 211 ff.
[5. ]Cf. R. Whately, Elements of Logic (9th ed. London, 1848), pp. 354 ff.; E. Cannan, A History of the Theories of Production and Distribution in English Political Economy from 1776 to 1848 (3d ed. London, 1924), pp. 189 ff.
[6. ]But, of course, the present-day intentional confusion of all economic concepts is conducive to obscuring this distinction. Thus, in the United States, in dealing with the dividends paid by corporations people speak of “profits.”
[7. ]There are, of course, also deviations from this usage.
[1. ]Cf. above, pp. 226–28.
[2. ]The difference between this case (case b) and the case of the expected end of all earthly things dealt with on p. 527 (case a) is this: in case a originary interest increases beyond all measure because future goods become entirely worthless; in case b originary interest does not change while the entrepreneurial component increases beyond all measure.
[3. ]Cf. Irving Fisher, The Rate of Interest (New York, 1907), pp. 77 ff.
[4. ]We are dealing here with conditions on an unhampered labor market. About the argument advanced by Lord Keynes, see below, pp. 777 and 792–93.
[5. ]About the “long-wave” fluctuations, see below, p. 575.
[6. ]Cf. G. v. Haberler, Prosperity and Depression (new ed. League of Nations’ Report, Geneva, 1939), p. 7.
[7. ]Cf. M. N. Rothbard, America’s Great Depression (Princeton, 1963).
[8. ]One should not fall prey to the illusion that these changes in the credit policies of the banks were caused by the bankers’ and the monetary authorities’ insight into the unavoidable consequences of a continued credit expansion. What induced the turn in the banks’ conduct was certain institutional conditions to be dealt with further below, on pp. 796–97. Among the champions of economics some private bankers were prominent; in particular, the elaboration of the early form of the theory of business fluctuations, the Currency Theory, was for the most part an achievement of British bankers. But the management of central banks and the conduct of the various governments’ monetary policies was as a rule entrusted to men who did not find any fault with boundless credit expansion and took offense at every criticism of their expansionist ventures.