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II: Circulation Credit Theory - Ludwig von Mises, On the Manipulation of Money and Credit: Three Treatises on Trade-Cycle Theory 
On the Manipulation of Money and Credit: Three Treatises on Trade-Cycle Theory. Translated and with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves,. Edited by Percy L. Greaves, Jr. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011).
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Circulation Credit Theory
The Banking School Fallacy
If notes are issued by the banks, or if bank deposits subject to check or other claim are opened, in excess of the amount of money kept in the vaults as cover, the effect on prices is similar to that obtained by an increase in the quantity of money. Since these fiduciary media, as notes and bank deposits not backed by metal are called, render the service of money as safe and generally accepted, payable on demand monetary claims, they may be used as money in all transactions. On that account, they are genuine money substitutes. Since they are in excess of the given total quantity of money in the narrower sense, they represent an increase in the quantity of money in the broader sense.
The practical significance of these undisputed and indisputable conclusions in the formation of prices is denied by the Banking School with its contention that the issue of such fiduciary media is strictly limited by the demand for money in the economy. The Banking School doctrine maintains that if fiduciary media are issued by the banks only to discount short-term commodity bills, then no more would come into circulation than were “needed” to liquidate the transactions. According to this doctrine, bank management could exert no influence on the volume of the commodity transactions activated. Purchases and sales from which short-term commodity bills originate would, by this very transaction, already have brought into existence paper credit which can be used, through further negotiation, for the exchange of goods and services. If the bank discounts the bill and, let us say, issues notes against it, that is, according to the Banking School, a neutral transaction as far as the market is concerned. Nothing more is involved than replacing one instrument which is technically less suitable for circulation, the bill of exchange, with a more suitable one, the note. Thus, according to this School, the effect of the issue of notes need not be to increase the quantity of money in circulation. If the bill of exchange is retired at maturity, then notes would flow back to the bank and new notes could enter circulation again only when new commodity bills came into being once more as a result of new business.
The weak link in this well-known line of reasoning lies in the assertion that the volume of transactions completed, as sales and purchases from which commodity bills can derive, is independent of the behavior of the banks. If the banks discount at a lower, rather than at a higher, interest rate, then more loans are made. Enterprises which are unprofitable at 5%, and hence are not undertaken, may be profitable at 4%. Therefore, by lowering the interest rate they charge, banks can intensify the demand for credit. Then, by satisfying this demand, they can increase the quantity of fiduciary media in circulation. Once this is recognized, the Banking Theory’s only argument, that prices are not influenced by the issue of fiduciary media, collapses.
One must be careful not to speak simply of the effects of credit in general on prices, but to specify clearly the effects of “increased credit” or “credit expansion.” A sharp distinction must be made between (1) credit which a bank grants by lending its own funds or funds placed at its disposal by depositors, which we call “commodity credit,” and (2) that which is granted by the creation of fiduciary media, i.e., notes and deposits not covered by money, which we call “circulation credit.”1 It is only through the granting of circulation credit that the prices of all commodities and services are directly affected.
If the banks grant circulation credit by discounting a three month bill of exchange, they exchange a future good—a claim payable in three months—for a present good that they produce out of nothing. It is not correct, therefore, to maintain that it is immaterial whether the bill of exchange is discounted by a bank of issue or whether it remains in circulation, passing from hand to hand. Whoever takes the bill of exchange in trade can do so only if he has the resources. But the bank of issue discounts by creating the necessary funds and putting them into circulation. To be sure, the fiduciary media flow back again to the bank at expiration of the note. If the bank does not give the fiduciary media out again, precisely the same consequences appear as those which come from a decrease in the quantity of money in its broader sense.
Early Effects of Credit Expansion
The fact that in the regular course of banking operations the banks issue fiduciary media only as loans to producers and merchants means that they are not used directly for purposes of consumption.2 Rather, these fiduciary media are used first of all for production, that is to buy factors of production and pay wages. The first prices to rise, therefore, as a result of an increase of the quantity of money in the broader sense, caused by the issue of such fiduciary media, are those of raw materials, semi-manufactured products, other goods of higher orders, and wage rates. Only later do the prices of goods of the first order [consumers’ goods] follow. Changes in the purchasing power of a monetary unit, brought about by the issue of fiduciary media, follow a different path and have different accompanying social side effects from those produced by a new discovery of precious metals or by the issue of paper money. Still in the last analysis, the effect on prices is similar in both instances.
Changes in the purchasing power of the monetary unit do not directly affect the height of the rate of interest. An indirect influence on the height of the interest rate can take place as a result of the fact that shifts in wealth and income relationships, appearing as a result of the change in the value of the monetary unit, influence savings and, thus, the accumulation of capital. If a depreciation of the monetary unit favors the wealthier members of society at the expense of the poorer, its effect will probably be an increase in capital accumulation since the well-to-do are the more important savers. The more they put aside, the more their incomes and fortunes will grow.
If monetary depreciation is brought about by an issue of fiduciary media, and if wage rates do not promptly follow the increase in commodity prices, then the decline in purchasing power will certainly make this effect much more severe. This is the “forced savings” which is quite properly stressed in recent literature.3 However, three things should not be forgotten. First, it always depends upon the data of the particular case whether shifts of wealth and income, which lead to increased saving, are actually set in motion. Secondly, under circumstances which need not be discussed further here, by falsifying economic calculation, based on monetary bookkeeping calculations, a very substantial devaluation can lead to capital consumption (such a situation did take place temporarily during the recent inflationary period). Thirdly, as advocates of inflation through credit expansion should observe, any legislative measure which transfers resources to the “rich” at the expense of the “poor” will also foster capital formation.
Eventually, the issue of fiduciary media in such manner can also lead to increased capital accumulation within narrow limits and, hence, to a further reduction of the interest rate. In the beginning, however, an immediate and direct decrease in the loan rate appears with the issue of fiduciary media, but this immediate decrease in the loan rate is distinct in character and degree from the later reduction. The new funds offered on the money market by the banks must obviously bring pressure to bear on the rate of interest. The supply and demand for loan money were adjusted at the interest rate prevailing before the issue of any additional supply of fiduciary media. Additional loans can be placed only if the interest rate is lowered. Such loans are profitable for the banks because the increase in the supply of fiduciary media calls for no expenditure except for the mechanical costs of banking (i.e., printing the notes and bookkeeping). The banks can, therefore, undercut the interest rates which would otherwise appear on the loan market, in the absence of their intervention. Since competition from them compels other money lenders to lower their interest charges, the market interest rate must therefore decline. But can this reduction be maintained? That is the problem.
Inevitable Effects of Credit Expansion on Interest Rates
In conformity with Wicksell’s terminology, we shall use “natural interest rate” to describe that interest rate which would be established by supply and demand if real goods were loaned in natura [directly, as in barter] without the intermediary of money. “Money rate of interest” will be used for that interest rate asked on loans made in money or money substitutes. Through continued expansion of fiduciary media, it is possible for the banks to force the money rate down to the actual cost of the banking operations, practically speaking that is almost to zero. As a result, several authors have concluded that interest could be completely abolished in this way. Whole schools of reformers have wanted to use banking policy to make credit gratuitous and thus to solve the “social question.” No reasoning person today, however, believes that interest can ever be abolished, nor doubts but what, if the “money interest rate” is depressed by the expansion of fiduciary media, it must sooner or later revert once again to the “natural interest rate.” The question is only how this inevitable adjustment takes place. The answer to this will explain at the same time the fluctuations of the business cycle.
The Currency Theory limited the problem too much. It only considered the situation that was of practical significance for the England of its time—that is, when the issue of fiduciary media is increased in one country while remaining unchanged in others. Under these assumptions, the situation is quite clear: General price increases at home; hence an increase in imports, a drop in commodity exports; and with this, as notes can circulate only within the country, an outflow of metallic money. To obtain metallic money for export, holders of notes present them for redemption; the metallic reserves of the banks decline; and consideration for their own solvency then forces them to restrict the credit offered.
That is the instant at which the business upswing, brought about by the availability of easy credit, is demonstrated to be illusory prosperity. An abrupt reaction sets in. The “money rate of interest” shoots up; enterprises from which credit is withdrawn collapse and sweep along with them the banks which are their creditors. A long persisting period of business stagnation now follows. The banks, warned by this experience into observing restraint, not only no longer underbid the “natural interest rate” but exercise extreme caution in granting credit.
The Price Premium
In order to complete this interpretation, we must, first of all, consider the price premium. As the banks start to expand the circulation credit, the anticipated upward movement of prices results in the appearance of a positive price premium. Even if the banks do not lower the actual interest rate any more, the gap widens between the “money interest rate” and the “natural interest rate” which would prevail in the absence of their intervention. Since loan money is now cheaper to acquire than circumstances warrant, entrepreneurial ambitions expand.
New businesses are started in the expectation that the necessary capital can be secured by obtaining credit. To be sure, in the face of growing demand, the banks now raise the “money interest rate.” Still they do not discontinue granting further credit. They expand the supply of fiduciary media issued, with the result that the purchasing power of the monetary unit must decline still further. Certainly the actual “money interest rate” increases during the boom, but it continues to lag behind the rate which would conform to the market, i.e., the “natural interest rate” augmented by the positive price premium.
So long as this situation prevails, the upswing continues. Inventories of goods are readily sold. Prices and profits rise. Business enterprises are overwhelmed with orders because everyone anticipates further price increases and workers find employment at increasing wage rates. However, this situation cannot last forever!
Malinvestment of Available Capital Goods
The “natural interest rate” is established at that height which tends toward equilibrium on the market. The tendency is toward a condition where no capital goods are idle, no opportunities for starting profitable enterprises remain unexploited and the only projects not undertaken are those which no longer yield a profit at the prevailing “natural interest rate.” Assume, however, that the equilibrium, toward which the market is moving, is disturbed by the interference of the banks. Money may be obtained below the “natural interest rate.” As a result businesses may be started which weren’t profitable before, and which become profitable only through the lower than “natural interest rate” which appears with the expansion of circulation credit.
Here again, we see the difference which exists between a drop in purchasing power, caused by the expansion of circulation credit, and a loss of purchasing power, brought about by an increase in the quantity of money. In the latter case [i.e., with an increase in the quantity of money in the narrower sense] the prices first affected are either (1) those of consumers’ goods only or (2) the prices of both consumers’ and producers’ goods. Which it will be depends on whether those first receiving the new quantities of money use this new wealth for consumption or production. However, if the decrease in purchasing power is caused by an increase in bank created fiduciary media, then it is the prices of producers’ goods which are first affected. The prices of consumers’ goods follow only to the extent that wages and profits rise.
Since it always requires some time for the market to reach full “equilibrium,” the “static” or “natural”4 prices, wage rates and interest rates never actually appear. The process leading to their establishment is never completed before changes occur which once again indicate a new “equilibrium.” At times, even on the unhampered market, there are some unemployed workers, unsold consumers’ goods and quantities of unused factors of production, which would not exist under “static equilibrium.” With the revival of business and productive activity, these reserves are in demand right away. However, once they are gone, the increase in the supply of fiduciary media necessarily leads to disturbances of a special kind.
In a given economic situation, the opportunities for production, which may actually be carried out, are limited by the supply of capital goods available. Roundabout methods of production can be adopted only so far as the means for subsistence exist to maintain the workers during the entire period of the expanded process. All those projects, for the completion of which means are not available, must be left uncompleted, even though they may appear technically feasible—that is, if one disregards the supply of capital. However, such businesses, because of the lower loan rate offered by the banks, appear for the moment to be profitable and are, therefore, initiated. However, the existing resources are insufficient. Sooner or later this must become evident. Then it will become apparent that production has gone astray, that plans were drawn up in excess of the economic means available, that speculation, i.e., activity aimed at the provision of future goods, was misdirected.
In recent years, considerable significance has been attributed to the fact that “forced savings,” which may appear as a result of the drop in purchasing power that follows an increase of fiduciary media, lead to an increase in the supply of capital. The subsistence fund is made to go farther, due to the fact that (1) the workers consume less because wage rates tend to lag behind the rise in the prices of commodities, and (2) those who reap the advantage of this reduction in the workers’ incomes save at least a part of their gain. Whether “forced savings” actually appear depends, as noted above, on the circumstances in each case. There is no need to go into this any further.
Nevertheless, establishing the existence of “forced savings” does not mean that bank expansion of circulation credit does not lead to the initiation of more roundabout production than available capabilities would warrant. To prove that, one must be able to show that the banks are only in a position to depress the “money interest rate” and expand the issue of fiduciary media to the extent that the “natural interest rate” declines as a result of “forced savings.” This assumption is simply absurd and there is no point in arguing it further. It is almost inconceivable that anyone should want to maintain it.
What concerns us is the problem brought about by the banks, in reducing the “money rate of interest” below the “natural rate.” For our problem, it is immaterial how much the “natural interest rate” may also decline under certain circumstances and within narrow limits, as a result of this action by the banks. No one doubts that “forced savings” can reduce the “natural interest rate” only fractionally, as compared with the reduction in the “money interest rate” which produces the “forced savings.”5
The resources which are claimed for the newly initiated longer time consuming methods of production are unavailable for those processes where they would otherwise have been put to use. The reduction in the loan rate benefits all producers, so that all producers are now in a position to pay higher wage rates and higher prices for the material factors of production. Their competition drives up wage rates and the prices of the other factors of production. Still, except for the possibilities already discussed, this does not increase the size of the labor force or the supply of available goods of the higher order. The means of subsistence are not sufficient to provide for the workers during the extended period of production. It becomes apparent that the proposal for the new, longer, roundabout production was not adjusted with a view to the actual capital situation. For one thing, the enterprises realize that the resources available to them are not sufficient to continue their operations. They find that “money” is scarce.
That is precisely what has happened. The general increase in prices means that all businesses need more funds than had been anticipated at their “launching.” More resources are required to complete them. However, the increased quantity of fiduciary media loaned out by the banks is already exhausted. The banks can no longer make additional loans at the same interest rates. As a result, they must raise the loan rate once more for two reasons. In the first place, the appearance of the positive price premium forces them to pay higher interest for outside funds which they borrow. Then also, they must discriminate among the many applicants for credit. Not all enterprises can afford this increased interest rate. Those which cannot run into difficulties.
A Habit-forming Policy
Now, in extending circulation credit, the banks do not proceed by pumping a limited dosage of new fiduciary media into circulation and then stop. They expand the fiduciary media continuously for some time, sending, so to speak, after the first offering, a second, third, fourth, and so on. They do not simply undercut the “natural interest rate” once, and then adjust promptly to the new situation. Instead they continue the practice of making loans below the “natural interest rate” for some time. To be sure, the increasing volume of demands on them for credit may cause them to raise the “money rate of interest.” Yet, even if the banks revert to the former “natural rate,” the rate which prevailed before their credit expansion affected the market, they still lag behind the rate which would now exist on the market if they were not continuing to expand credit. This is because a positive price premium must now be included in the new “natural rate.” With the help of this new quantity of fiduciary media, the banks now take care of the businessmen’s intensified demand for credit. Thus, the crisis does not appear yet. The enterprises using more roundabout methods of production, which have been started, are continued. Because prices rise still further, the earlier calculations of the entrepreneurs are realized. They make profits. In short, the boom continues.
The Inevitable Crisis and Cycle
The crisis breaks out only when the banks alter their conduct to the extent that they discontinue issuing any more new fiduciary media and stop undercutting the “natural interest rate.” They may even take steps to restrict circulation credit. When they actually do this, and why, is still to be examined. First of all, however, we must ask ourselves whether it is possible for the banks to stay on the course upon which they have embarked, permitting new quantities of fiduciary media to flow into circulation continuously and proceeding always to make loans below the rate of interest which would prevail on the market in the absence of their interference with newly created fiduciary media.
If the banks could proceed in this manner, with businesses improving continually, could they then provide for lasting good times? Would they then be able to make the boom eternal?
They cannot do this. The reason they cannot is that inflationism carried on ad infinitum is not a workable policy. If the issue of fiduciary media is expanded continuously, prices rise ever higher and at the same time the positive price premium also rises. (We shall disregard the fact that consideration for (1) the continually declining monetary reserves relative to fiduciary media and (2) the banks’ operating costs must sooner or later compel them to discontinue the further expansion of circulation credit.) It is precisely because, and only because, no end to the prolonged “flood” of expanding fiduciary media is foreseen that it leads to still sharper price increases and, finally, to a panic in which prices and the loan rate move erratically upward.
Suppose the banks still did not want to give up the race? Suppose, in order to depress the loan rate, they wanted to satisfy the continuously expanding desire for credit by issuing still more circulation credit? Then they would only hasten the end, the collapse of the entire system of fiduciary media. The inflation can continue only so long as the conviction persists that it will one day cease. Once people are persuaded that the inflation will not stop, they turn from the use of this money. They flee then to “real values,” foreign money, the precious metals, and barter.
Sooner or later, the crisis must inevitably break out as the result of a change in the conduct of the banks. The later the crack-up comes, the longer the period in which the calculation of the entrepreneurs is misguided by the issue of additional fiduciary media. The greater this additional quantity of fiduciary money, the more factors of production have been firmly committed in the form of investments which appeared profitable only because of the artificially reduced interest rate and which prove to be unprofitable now that the interest rate has again been raised. Great losses are sustained as a result of misdirected capital investments. Many new structures remain unfinished. Others, already completed, close down operations. Still others are carried on because, after writing off losses which represent a waste of capital, operation of the existing structure pays at least something.
The crisis, with its unique characteristics, is followed by stagnation. The misguided enterprises and businesses of the boom period are already liquidated. Bankruptcy and adjustment have cleared up the situation. The banks have become cautious. They fight shy of expanding circulation credit. They are not inclined to give an ear to credit applications from schemers and promoters. Not only is the artificial stimulus to business, through the expansion of circulation credit, lacking, but even businesses which would be feasible, considering the capital goods available, are not attempted because the general feeling of discouragement makes every innovation appear doubtful. Prevailing “money interest rates” fall below the “natural interest rates.”
When the crisis breaks out, loan rates bound sharply upward because threatened enterprises offer extremely high interest rates for the funds to acquire the resources, with the help of which they hope to save themselves. Later, as the panic subsides, a situation develops, as a result of the restriction of circulation credit and attempts to dispose of large inventories, causing prices [and the “money interest rate”] to fall steadily and leading to the appearance of a negative price premium. This reduced rate of loan interest is adhered to for some time, even after the decline in prices comes to a standstill, when a negative price premium no longer corresponds to conditions. Thus, it comes about that the “money interest rate” is lower than the “natural rate.” Yet, because the unfortunate experiences of the recent crisis have made everyone uneasy, the incentive to business activity is not as strong as circumstances would otherwise warrant. Quite a time passes before capital funds, increased once again by savings accumulated in the meantime, exert sufficient pressure on the loan interest rate for an expansion of entrepreneurial activity to resume. With this development, the low point is passed and the new boom begins.
[1. ][For further explanation of the distinction between “commodity credit” and “circulation credit” see mises’s 1946 essay “The Trade Cycle and Credit Expansion,” reprinted below, pp. 187ff., especially pp. 191–192.—Ed.]
[2. ][In 1928, when this paper was written, fiduciary media were issued only by discounting what Mises called commodity bills, or short-term ninety days or less) bills of exchange endorsed by a buyer and a seller and constituting a lien on the goods sold.—Ed.]
[3. ]Albert Hahn and Joseph Schumpeter have given me credit for the expression “forced savings” or “compulsory savings.” See Hahn’s article on “Credit” in Handwörterbuch der Staatswissenschaften (4th ed., Vol. V, p. 951) and Schumpeter’s The Theory of Economic Development (2nd German language ed., 1926; [English trans., Harvard Univ. Press, 1934, p. 109n.]). To be sure, I described the phenomenon in 1912 in the first German language edition of The Theory of Money and Credit [see English translation (Yale, 1953) , pp. 208ff. and 347ff., (Liberty Fund, 1981), pp. 238ff., 368ff.]. However, I do not believe the expression itself was actually used there.
[4. ]In the language of Knut Wicksell and the Classical economists.
[5. ]I believe this should be pointed out here again, although I have exhausted everything to be said on the subject [see above pp. 107–108] and in The Theory of Money and Credit [(Yale, 1953), pp. 361ff.; (Liberty Fund, 1981), pp. 400ff.]. Anyone who has followed the discussions of recent years will realize how important it is to stress these things again and again.