“Austrian” Business Cycle Theory and the Rate of Interest

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In an earlier essay, the present author explained “Austrian” Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) as an analogy to basic price theory, namely the specific law that a price ceiling for a specific good will lead to a shortage of that good. Here we will build on this analogy with an elaboration of what is meant by “the interest rate” with an additional emphasis that stresses the mismatch between the rate of saving and the rate of investing.

The reason for this new elaboration is that ABCT typically concentrates on “the rate of interest”, explaining the business cycle as an effect of “the market rate” of interest falling below “the natural rate”. This has opened “Austrians” up for criticism because any adherence to the pure time preference theory of interest runs into the problem of there being many “natural” rates for different capital goods and so we never know precisely which rate it is that is being undercut by credit expansion1. Moreover we might as well also point out that different borrowers pay a multiplicity of interest rates and that is dependent upon their specific contract so there is no, single “uniform” rate paid by every borrower.

What will be demonstrated here is that, while ABCT’s emphasis on interest rates is valid and is necessary to explain why particularly lengthier, roundabout projects will be engaged in, the most important aspect is that credit expansion simply permits borrowers to access funds for durations that lenders are not willing to lend for and it is this lack of harmony – made clear by our analogy to the results of price fixing – that is the key to unlocking the business cycle.

Robinson Crusoe Economics

In the situation where we have a lone human being (who, for argument’s sake, we shall call John), the fact of scarcity results in the necessity for John to choose which ends he will pursue and which he will discard. There are costs and benefits related to everything he does – such are the logical implications of the action axiom – but exchange of these costs and benefits is unilateral. If John decides to pick apples instead of picking oranges, the benefit he derives from picking apples comes at the cost of picking oranges. He cannot pursue both ends – he therefore exchanges picking oranges for picking apples, albeit unilaterally and in his own mind. This is the nature of basic, simple choices between presently available goods and services.

If John wishes to increase his consumption by investing in capital goods he must also make an exchange, but an exchange of a different nature. At any one moment John will have an array of resources available to him. His basic choice over these resources is whether to consume them now or to invest them to yield consumer goods in the future. It is plainly clear that John cannot do both at the same time – he cannot consume resources and invest them. If he wishes to invest the resources in a capital project that will yield consumer goods in one year’s time then he must be prepared to abstain from the consumption of the resources that he will invest in that project for one year’s time. If the period of investment will be two years then he must be prepared to abstain from consumption for two years, and so on. The precise length of time for which he will abstain from consumption and engage in investment is determined by his relative weighting of the value of time against the value of the quantity of consumer goods yielded – if the quantity of future consumer goods is more valuable to him than the waiting time then he will invest, wait and then enjoy the larger quantity of consumer goods when the investment project reaches its completion; if time is more valuable to him than the additional quantity of future goods then he will not invest but consume the lower available quantity of goods now. The result of such a valuation is summarised simply by the term “time preference”.

Is it possible for John, in his lonely world, to experience the unilateral equivalent of boom and bust? Will he experience a sudden spurt of investment followed by a downturn in his investment activity? The answer is yes, he could, because his capacity to keep on investing is connected solely to his willingness to carry on with the abstinence from consumption of the resources that are required for the investment project to come to fruition. If, half way through his investment project, he changes his mind and his desire for consumption increases so that he must divert resources away from the investment project then he will experience something of a bust – the project must now be liquidated as it has been starved of resources for completion. The viability of the investment project is wholly dependent upon his willingness to abstain from consumption and invest those resources that he could have consumed. The investment therefore turns out to be a malinvestment, unconnected to his consumption/waiting preferences as they are now revealed to be.

Bilateral Exchange

In an economy of more than one person, exchange of a simple good is now bilateral rather than unilateral but it is still based upon the same principles. We make a choice of what to receive in exchange and what to give in exchange. Normally, of course, we give money in exchange rather than a concrete good but we can think of the real cost as being other goods that the money could have bought. If, for example, I only have enough money to buy an apple or an orange and I choose to buy the apple, the cost of me buying the apple is the orange which I could have bought had I not purchased the apple. We can say that I exchanged the orange for the apple, even though the actual physical exchange involved not the orange but, rather, the money that could have been used to purchase it. It is clear, moreover, that I cannot have both the apple and the orange at the same time – or both the apple and the money used to buy it at the same time. I must choose between them because of the eternal condition of scarcity. Only an increase in wealth can alleviate this so that a person is in a position to be able to afford both an apple and an orange.

The market price of a good is the price at which the quantity of the good demanded is equal to the quantity supplied – in other words, it is the price where the number of willing buyers is equal to the number of willing sellers, the level where those who wish to give up in exchange equals the number of those who wish to receive. There is, therefore, not only a harmony of interests at the market price but also the market price regulates the amount of consumption of a certain good that is sustainable by the current level of wealth. Attempts at price controls interfere drastically with this harmony. Artificially lowering the price of, say apples, may, on paper, make it appear as though one now has enough money to buy both an apple and an orange rather than just an apple. The problem, however, is that at the new, sub-market price for apples, the number of willing buyers exceeds the number of willing sellers; the shrunk supply will be bought rapidly by the swollen demand and, therefore, shortages will ensue and there will be no apples left anywhere. This much is standard economic theory. What we can note, however, is that price controls are solely an attempt to allow people to have their cake and eat it – that, whereas at the market price, they could only afford an apple or an orange, the fixed, low price attempts to give them the ability to afford both the apple and the orange at the same time but without any corresponding increase in wealth. On our Robinson Crusoe island we noted that John could not enjoy apples and oranges at the same time because his wealth was insufficient to do this. Any attempt to do so would be at variance with reality and he would end up having to choose between them anyway. Exactly the same law operates in bilateral exchange. Simply trying to forcibly change the prices that emerge in bilateral exchange cannot defy reality and the whole scheme collapses precisely because the objective of providing more and cheaper goods cannot be sustained – you cannot have more of something without increasing wealth. People will find that all of the apples are gone and all that will be left is oranges so they are in the same position as before with only one fruit being available to them, except now without a choice of one or the other. Sustainable trade cannot exist under terms where the suppliers are not willing to offer goods for sale to the demanders.

A further feature of general buying and selling that we might note for our comparison with lending and borrowing that we shall explore in a moment is that every buyer pays the same price as every other buyer and every seller sells for the same price as every other seller. One buyer’s dollars are as good as any other’s and one seller’s good is interchangeable with another’s. In other words, except in cases where there is favouritism or prejudice for the individual personalities, there is insufficient qualitative difference between the different buyers and sellers to make an impact upon price.

Bilateral Investment

On our Robinson Crusoe island we noted that if John wished to increase his consumption in the future he had to abstain from the consumption of resources today in order to use them in investment projects that will yield consumer goods in the future. John’s level of investment was precisely correlated with the amount that he refused to consume and channelled into his project.

In the complex economy, where the abstinence (or saving) on the one hand and the investment on the other is carried out by different people the transaction is effected through the market for lending and borrowing. The market for money loans is actually little different from the sale and purchase of ordinary goods, except that what is being traded and at which prices is a little more difficult to understand. Specifically, what is being traded is not a hard good such as an apple or an orange; rather, it is the purchasing power over resources. A lender, in making a loan to a borrower, transfers his purchasing power over resources today in exchange for the borrower transferring an (at least nominally) higher purchasing power over resources at a point in the future. The market price for these loans – that is, the rate of interest that the borrower pays – is the price at which all willing lenders would be able to lend to all willing borrowers.

There are several key aspects of this market that must be highlighted. First, all loans contracts are for a specific duration which, for argument’s sake, we will say is three years. The lender here must be prepared to sacrifice his purchasing power over resources for three years. During this time, the borrower will use the resources purchased for his investment and will arrange himself to be in a position to transfer back purchasing power in three years’ time. More specifically, what this means is that the lender gives up his power to consume the resources that his purchasing power would afford him and transfers them to a person who wishes to invest them for a three year period that will yield consumer goods at the end of that period, thus earning him an income and the wherewithal to transfer back the purchasing power to the lender. This is the fuel of sustainable growth because the lender relinquishes consumption for exactly the same period as the borrower engages in investment. The basic theory is therefore nothing different from John on the Robinson Crusoe island. Just as John had to abstain from consumption for the duration of his investment project, so too must the lender be prepared to do the same so that the borrower’s project can be completed.

One notable difference of this market when compared to the market for simple, present goods, is that the rate of interest paid by different borrowers will be different rather than uniform for all borrowers. This is because the business of lending money contains an entrepreneurial element. The borrower is making a business decision that his investment will accrue enough income to enable him to pay back the capital and the interest. The lender, wishing to maximise the chance that he will receive his money back, shares this entrepreneurial burden and hence adjusts the rate of interest he charges to different borrowers. The riskiest borrowers – those whose entrepreneurial efforts appear the least likely to succeed – will pay higher rates of interest than the less risky borrowers. There are two possible ways of analysing this. Either we can say that there exists a single market for money loans which, all else being equal, every borrower would pay the same “core” interest rate determined by supply and demand for loanable funds with the difference between the actual rates constituting an entrepreneurial profit and loss element for the lender. Or, we could suggest that the qualitative difference between borrowers creates distinct markets for different categories of lending that attract different rates. In the markets for lending that contain the least risky borrowers the supply of loanable funds will be relatively high so interest charges will be low; in the markets with the most risky borrowers, however, supply will be relatively lower to demand resulting in higher interest charges to these borrowers. We shall use both analyses below although we will conclude with a preference for the latter – that of distinct markets that attract different rates. However, the most important fact that we need to concentrate on is that, whichever analysis we use, all lenders are prepared to fund all borrowers’ enterprises for the duration of their projects under whatever interest rate is agreed and hence these projects can be fully funded to completion.

The fact that the exchange between borrowers and lenders is facilitated by an intermediary – usually a bank – makes little difference to this situation. The bank simply borrows from the lender (or “saver”) at a certain rate and lends to the borrower at a slightly higher rate, the difference between the rates compensating the bank for its efforts in channelling the savings of ordinary people into the profitable projects of borrowers. The key aspect, again, is that there are real funds that can fuel all projects through to their completion under the terms agreed.

Credit Expansion

In order to understand the effects of credit expansion, let us first of all posit the case where a direct lender creates a mismatch with a borrower. Let’s say that a lender is prepared to lend for three years whereas the borrower thinks (erroneously) that he is borrowing for five years. The borrower’s project takes five years to complete and he needs purchasing power over resources for five years as his project will not earn an income to transfer back that purchasing power before five years is up. If, after three years, the lender, wishing to take back his purchasing power for present consumption, calls in the loan the borrower will have a shock. His project is only 3/5ths complete. Only two options are possible. Either the lender must change his priorities and save for the full duration of the investment project; or the borrower must liquidate the investment in order to pay back the lender2. If the latter option is necessary then we have a mini boom-bust between these two individuals; the investment is revealed to be a malinvestment as the borrower was not willing to lend purchasing power over resources for a time sufficient to complete the investment project. In order to create a sustainable investment project the lender must be prepared to advance purchasing power to the borrower for the full duration of the project. If he is not then the project cannot continue.

Now let us examine what happens when an intermediary bank engages in credit expansion and brings about effectively the same thing. The borrower is now a depositor of the bank and the borrower borrows from the bank rather than directly from the lender. Above we cited two possible analyses of the loan market – either there is a “core” rate of interest governed by supply and demand for loanable funds with individual variations in loan contracts representing the entrepreneurial risk that the lender takes; or, there are distinct markets for different types of loan, each of which attracts a different rate. We will use both analyses here.

On the eve of the credit expansion all willing lenders will have lent, through the bank, to all willing borrowers at whatever terms in the individual contracts. The willing lenders will be prepared to lend the funds for exactly the duration of the loans of the willing borrowers. Let us call these fulfilled borrowers Group A. When the bank expands credit, however, it gives the impression to unfulfilled borrowers – let’s call them Group B – that the supply of loanable funds has expanded. Under the first analysis, if the supply of funds expands then the “core” interest rate will reduce as the fresh funds have to find new, willing borrowers as those who were prepared to pay the highest charges have already been loaned to. This brings down the total amount of interest (“core” interest +/- the entrepreneurial charge) that Group B borrowers pay. Before credit expansion a core interest charge of (for example) 10% plus an entrepreneurial element of 5% would have given a Group B borrower a total interest charge of 15%, which may have been too high for him to take out a loan. Now, however, if the effects of credit expansion reduce the “core” interest charge to 5% leaving the entrepreneurial element unchanged then the total rate payable will be 10%, at which rate he may become a willing borrower. Hence the number of willing borrowers begins to expand. Under the second analysis, where there are distinct markets for different loans to different categories of borrower, expanding the volume of credit will expand the number of markets to which funds can be lent. As all of the Group A markets are fully lent to the new funds must seek out new, unfulfilled markets in Group B. This has the effect of bringing down the individual interest rates in these markets. Before credit expansion, the interest rate in these markets was infinitely high as supply in these markets was zero. Now, credit expansion has created supply that moves into these markets and depresses the interest rate to a level at it may reach demand. Hence loans will start to be made in these new markets.

To the present author, the second analysis seems preferential for visualising clearly the reconciliation between ABCT with the multiplicity of interest rates that are paid by borrowers. Indeed, while separating out the “core” rate from the entrepreneurial rate may be easy to conceptualise to a degree3, the idea of lowering rates is less straightforward to perceive when we think of the market as a unified whole. Conceiving them as separate rates in distinct markets which are individually depressed by credit expansion removes this conceptual difficulty4.

Under both analyses however, we can see that increased credit expansion leads to loans at rates that are lower than those that would be paid on the unhampered market. It is important to realise, though, that the contracted interest rates paid by borrowers in Group B – the new borrowers – may actually be higher than the rates paid by Group A. What we may observe is new borrowers in Group B paying what appear to be increasingly higher rates rather than increasingly lower rates. But the crucial point for ABCT is that the rates paid by Group B are lower than those that they would pay on the unhampered market. Such rates do not have to be lower than Groups A’s and thus it is still true to say that, overall, credit expansion has lowered interest rates.

How is it, though, that Group B borrowers, if they may pay higher rates than Group A borrowers, channel these funds into longer, more roundabout investment projects? Wouldn’t the interest rates have to be lower than Group A’s in order to accomplish this? The comparison to Group A’s rate is not relevant, however. It is still the case that extending loans to Group B will cause an overall lengthening of the structure of production as funds that previously were earmarked for consumption will now be channelled into investment5.

However, whatever the duration of a loan and whatever terms on which is it advanced the cardinal fact remains as follows: lenders are not prepared to devote real resources towards the investment projects of the borrowers for the entirety of their duration. Just as in the same way as price controls in our example above tried to give people the ability to have their cake and eat it – afford both one apple and one orange at the same time even though the level of wealth could not sustain these purchases – and just as in the same way that John on the Robinson Crusoe island not consume his resources and invest them at the same time, so too is credit expansion a societal wide attempt to indulge in both consumption and investment simultaneously. The borrower thinks his new money allows him to purchase resources for investment whereas the lender, not having relinquished his purchasing power, thinks that he can still use his original money for consumption. What happens in practice, of course, is that the credit expansion forcibly transfers purchasing power from the lender to the borrower. The increased money supply causes an increase in the prices of capital goods and a relatively weaker increase in the prices of consumer goods. The lender still loses out, therefore, as he must now pay higher prices for the things that he wished to consume – in just the same way as he would lose out from price controls when he sees that the shelves are empty. As the cycle gets underway, higher doses of credit expansion are necessary to maintain purchasing power in the hands of the borrowers as prices rise sharply and inflation premiums begin to be written into loan contracts. Once the inflation gets out of control and the credit expansion is halted or reduced funds are cut off to the borrowers in Group B as they must now rely upon the genuine saving of lenders. But lenders are not prepared to lend real purchasing power under the terms that these borrowers are willing to pay. Thus, starved of resources to complete their projects, Group B borrowers must liquidate their half-finished investments which are now revealed, after the true consumption/saving preference of lenders becomes apparent, to be malinvestments. The bust phase of the cycle therefore sets in.

Conclusion

What we have seen from this analysis, therefore, is that while the “Austrian” claim that “credit” expansion lowers “the interest rate” leading to the business cycle can be elaborated and defended to account for multiple rates paid by multiple borrowers, the primary fact is that lenders are not prepared to lend purchasing power over resources to the borrowers for the duration of their investments. It is this lack of harmony in the use of resources which is the key to understanding the start of the boom and the eventual collapse and this should be the focus of anyone wishing to understand and expound “Austrian” Business Cycle Theory.

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1See, for example, the relatively well known Hayek-Sraffa debate. “Austrian” economist Robert P Murphy has stated that “Austrians”, or at least those who ascribe to the pure time preference theory of interest, are yet to provide a sufficient answer to Sraffa’s objections. Robert P Murphy, Multiple Interest Rates and Austrian Business Cycle Theory, unpublished.

2We are, of course, ignoring the real-world possibility of refinancing.

3Although the length of time may itself be an element that is accounted for in risk.

4It is also the case that, even if all else was equal, there would not be one “core” interest rate in the loan market anyway as different lending periods would also attract different rates. Again, the second analysis overcomes this problem as different time periods would constitute individual markets.

5From a simple cost account point of view, the longer a particular business enterprise takes to come to fruition the harder it becomes to fund interest charges on the borrowing that has funded it. An uncompounded interest charge of 10% on a loan of $1m for a project that will last one year will result in a total repayment of $1.1m, something that might be manageable. If the same loan at the same rate was made for ten years, however, the borrower will to pay twice the capital – $2m – back at the maturity date; a cripplingly high cost for even the most profitable of projects. If the interest rate is reduced to 2%, however, the ten-year borrower would only pay back a total of $1.2m, which would be more manageable.

Economic Myths #7 – Government means Harmony

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One of the aspects of capitalism and the free market that the typical lay person finds difficult to comprehend is the fact that the complex structure of work, production, distribution, and trade could possibly take place without some kind of centralised, directing authority in order to co-ordinate everybody’s efforts. Wouldn’t there just be chaos and mal-coordination with everyone trying to make their own, independent plans with no government tiller to steer the giant ship?

This fallacy stems from the belief – accentuated by holistic concepts such aggregate statistics and, indeed, national identities – that “the economy” is some kind of enormous machine that has “input” and requires one operator to “process” the “inputs” into “outputs”. In fact, rather than being one giant, amorphous blob “the economy” is made up of millions and millions of independent unilateral acts of production and two-way trades, many of which will never have anything to do with each other. Indeed, I may sell an apple to my neighbour for 10p in London; another person may sell an orange for 20p to his neighbour in Manchester. Neither of the two pairs of people has ever met, nor need any of them have anything to do with the exchange of the other pair; and yet both exchanges would be regarded as part of “the British economy” in mainstream discourse. Rather than being a top-down operated machine, the economy is a bottom up network of independent transactions – motivated by the ends desired by each and every one of us rather than a bureaucrat – joined only together through the communication of the price system. All of the trades together, stimulated by varying and changing desires and ends that people seek, will have a constant and unceasing influence on the prices that regulate the supply of goods relative to their demand. Ironically, it is precisely because of such complexity that the attempts of any central authority to control and direct it are nothing short of futile – as Ludwig von Mises proved as long ago as the birth of the world’s greatest collectivist experiment, the Soviet Union, in Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.

An oft-heard complaint, particularly from the left, is that “globalisation” and expanding markets has led to a decimation of the local culture and community. All this means, however, is that the market for goods has simply expanded so that one can source one’s needs from pretty much anywhere on the globe. It is still the case that the driving force of demand is not global or holistic – it resides very locally in every individual person’s tastes and desires. Such complaints therefore fail to recognise the irony in calling for a very distant and hardly local entity – the government – to halt globalisation and expanding markets by replacing what individual, local people desire with its own ends.

This myth, of course, goes further than economics and has more than seeped into philosophy as well, stemming from a basic misunderstanding about what is required for the human race to live in peace and harmony. It does not mean that we all need to be pursuing the same ends, following the same plan or singing from the same hymn sheet and we do not need some centralising authority to prevent “discordance” between the actions of one person and another. Rather, what is required is that we can each follow our own plans while not conflicting with the plans of others. This is precisely what private property and the free exchange accomplish. Recognising that all conflicts have their origin in the contest over physical goods, an exclusive right is granted to the first user-producer (or to the recipient of the good in a voluntary exchange) so that he may fulfil his ends without molestation from other people; and other people can use the goods for which they are the first producer-user without interference from him. Any person arguing in favour of “one direction” and “harmony” at the behest of centralised control really means that everyone else’s plans should be overridden by his own – and should be forced to accept them. Indeed every forced, government transaction requires there to be at least one loser, one person who does not want his funds directed to the ends desired by government. Rather than producing harmony what results is merely bitterness and antagonism. Furthermore, aside from the economic chaos that such a system brings, rather than inspiring such qualities as productivity, self-reliance, hard work, prudence, patience and responsibility, the resulting social disorder instils, in their stead, laziness, apathy, conflict, corruption, impatience and cynicism – hardly the human qualities that one would wish to exemplify as the hallmarks of a “peaceful” and “harmonious” society.

True harmony can only be brought about by allowing each and every individual to pursue his own ends with the scarce resources over which he has lawful ownership, while allowing everyone else to do the same – permitting the human race to flourish peacefully and devoid of conflict. Not only does government fail to aid this process, it is the active cause of its destruction – and the sooner we recognise this the closer we will be to building a lasting peace and prosperity.

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Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Three – Consent and Contract

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We will begin our survey of the causative events of legal liability in a libertarian legal system with those that arise from consent because, even though people may view “the law” as being synonymous with wrongs such as crimes and torts, consensual legal relations are, in fact, the most frequent types of social interaction that arise in an individual’s life. The predominant form of legal relations arising from consent is, of course, the contract; a person may enter tens of these contracts every single day by, for example, just purchasing a coffee, a bus ticket, or lunch, whereas most people would scarcely commit a single crime in their entire lives (although the latter becomes less likely in our actual world where governments spill oceans of ink in criminalising, through legislation, even the most innocuous of actions). While any good legal system must have strong proscriptions against horrific acts such as murder and rape, it is the contract that is the primary preoccupation of everyone’s daily lives.

The first question to consider, then, is precisely what is a contract? Although it should be clear that all contracts concern some sort of bilateral arrangement, different legal systems have varying and often elaborate definitions. In English law and in common law systems generally, contracts are agreements or promises made with consideration, that is, some form of good or service that is exchanged (alternatively, deeds can be signed to bind agreements made without consideration). There is, therefore a high degree of freedom of contract with the emphasis of the law being more on the question of the enforceability of the performance specified by the contract. The more prescriptive civil law jurisdictions, on the other hand, are more concerned with the precise rights and obligations that arise as a result of the contract. Further, the bases upon which the legitimacy of contracts rests are also varied and numerous. For example, is it because the promisor intended to be bound in some way, or because the promisee relied upon the promise in order to arrange his affairs in a manner in which he would not have done so but for the promise? Are contracts even promises at all, or are they agreements, and what is the difference? We do not have the space to enter a discussion of the shortcomings of most of these definitions of contracts and their bases of legitimacy1. But for libertarians it should be clear that none of them have much to do with the key concept of property with which all legal relations in a libertarian world are concerned (although the requirement of consideration in English law bears some resemblance to it). What, then, is this essential element of property in contractual relations?

We all know, as “Austrian” economists, that humans act so as to direct scarce resources available to their most highly valued ends. Libertarian theory states that you may do this unilaterally so long as the goods to which you are subjecting your action are ownerless and are, therefore, unvalued by anyone else. We can each arrange ownerless resources to meet our needs in any fashion we like without running into conflicts with other people. However, in a world of interpersonal scarcity, we find ourselves in the position of desiring and coveting the goods that are owned by other people. We would prefer a particular good to be moved to meeting our ends and away from those of the current owner. But libertarian ethics prevents us from unilaterally making goods owned by someone else the object of our action, for then we are invading his property and violating the non-aggression principle. Rather, we have to secure the consent of the owner to move that property from meeting his ends towards meeting ours. The basic purpose of a contract, therefore, is to procure someone else to voluntarily deal with his property in a way other than he is doing so at the moment. It is a method by which we can legitimately secure property that is owned by someone else towards meeting our ends. Contracts are, in effect, extended actions, the extension of gaining consent being necessary in order to overcome the “hurdle” of the title over the property claimed by the existing owner. Normally the securing of this consent requires a “tit for tat” arrangement – “If you will sell me a bar of chocolate, I will pay you 50p”; or “If you pay me £20 I will mow your lawn”. However, this needn’t be so, nor does the initiator of the exchange have to be the one who wishes to get his hands on someone else’s property. As we shall see, gifts are a valid form of contract but in this case it is normally the donor and not the recipient who proposes that a gift should be made.

Why, however, do contracts have the force of law? If they are to be violently enforced then any breach of a contract would necessarily have to be a violation of the non-aggression principle otherwise, in a libertarian world, only non-violent methods of enforcement could be resorted to. The reason is that the contracting party is not just agreeing to do something with his property – rather, he is purporting to grant a title over the property to you. At its fullest extent this may be an exchange of the full title of ownership from him to you, completely extinguishing his title and furnishing you with 100% ownership. However it needn’t necessarily be so – leasehold titles (or the “renting” of durable goods) and easement rights would be valid titles exchanged by contract. Because the owner of property has granted you a title over that property any subsequent interference in that title by him is a breach of your property rights and a violation of the non-aggression principle. Thus, in a libertarian world, it may be enforced by legal sanction.

Contracts, therefore are exchanges, or transfers of title to property. This definition of a contract may be known to readers who are familiar with the “title transfer” theory of contract. Nevertheless there needn’t be a strict “title” to the property in the sense with which this word is understood in contemporary legal systems. It is typical, in economics, to make a distinction between goods on the one hand and services on the other, a good, for example, being an apple that can be eaten whereas a service being, say, a ride in a taxi cab. Legally I would have title to the apple but I would not have title to the taxi cab. Yet all goods are valued for the service that they offer – the apple for the satiating of my hunger and the taxi for its transportation of me from A to B. There is no value inherent in goods, rather the value always springs from the service it is able to achieve in meeting the fulfilment of an end. The distinction arises because “goods” typically service those ends that we can only satisfy from complete ownership – i.e. a title over – and use of the servicing good. I cannot borrow, eat and then return the same apple at a later date – rather, I have to own it in its entirety. “Services”, on the other hand, are those goods that service ends that can be satisfied without complete ownership. Contemporary legal systems do not say that I own or lease a taxi in order to satisfy my end of getting from A to B; nevertheless, I do obtain possession of it for a period of time. Similarly, if I am an employer a legal system would not say that I “own” the labour of my employee. Colloquially, in each case, I might say that I have “hired” a taxi or “hired” my employee but legal systems confer no formal title to either of these things upon me. How libertarian legal systems might unscramble these problems we shall see below.

In order to be the subject of a contract the property exchanged must be alienable from the original owner because transfer of the title requires the abandonment of that good. With the hiring or leasing out of a good the good in its entirety is not, of course, abandoned by the original owner, merely the good’s productive services for the duration of the period of hire. As we shall see labour contracts can be enforced as exchanges of money in return for the performance of the service of labour. Whether or not a person has the ability to entirely alienate from himself the productive services of his body and to transfer them as property (i.e. enter into a contract of slavery) is a contentious area of libertarian theory that we cannot hope to resolve here. Nevertheless we must recognise the fact that libertarian courts will face it as a question.

The contract, therefore, is the execution of the transfer of title from one person to another – it is the instrument that gives it legal recognition. Anything interpreted as being preliminary to an execution of transfer on the part of the transferring party – the promise to transfer, the desire to transfer, the wish to transfer, the hope to transfer, and so on – does not suffice as a contract. It is typical to justify this on the grounds that recognising a promise or statement of desire as a contract would require a person to bind, and thus alienate, his will, something which cannot be done. While may be true, a simpler explanation is that as the statement or promise has not executed transfer of the actual good under consideration, there must, in a libertarian legal system, be some other property that is transferred if there is to be a valid contract. This can only be the thought or desire expressed by the transferring party. But as we noted above, thoughts, feelings, desires and so on are not tangible property and are not capable of ownership. A fortiori they cannot, therefore, be transferred. These thoughts and feelings do, of course, reside in the physical matter of the brain, but aside from the inability to identify and isolate the specific cerebral matter in which these thoughts reside few contracting parties are likely to be intent upon transferring a physical part of their most vital organ. In the absence of any conduct that indicates an actual transfer of tangible property that is the subject of the statement of desire or promise, there will be no contract in a libertarian legal system. Precisely what this conduct will be is for a libertarian courts to decide. This does not mean to say, of course, that promises or expressions of desire do not have moral force even though they lack legal force. We are not stating that a person would not be behaving badly by reneging on his promise; we are merely stating that he may not be subject legal sanction – i.e. the use of force – as a response to this withdrawal. There is also the possibility that agreements masquerading as promises or giving the appearance of promises will be given recognition as contracts by a libertarian court, particularly where the subject matter is clear and unambiguous and the difference turns only on a matter of words. For example, consider the two statements:

“I will transfer £100 to you on Thursday”

“I promise I will transfer £100 to you on Thursday”

The first statement would ordinarily be binding upon the transferring party, the second one would not. However libertarian courts may be loath to dismiss the second as being without legal consequence simply by the insertion of the word “promise”. What has to be remembered is that the entire conduct of the individual is considered and merely because he used the word “promise” does not necessarily mean that he did not intend to action a transfer of title to the £100. For example, if the statement was an off-the-cuff remark then it may be held to be a promise; on the other hand, if it was the conclusion of drawn out negotiations then it may be held to be a binding contract.

It is important to realise that the property need not be in existence or under the legal ownership of the transferring party at the time of contract. If I contract someone to clean my car next week for a sum of money, payable upon completion, I might not have the money now but will do so by the time I come to make payment. Similarly, I might agree to sell someone a car in one month that I do not own now but will be required to arrange for ownership of it before the transfer date. Parties to contracts need to judge, individually, the risk of default involved in entering such contracts. A standard commercial solution that has emerged in our contemporary legal systems is the thirty day credit period where a supplier will transfer a good on day one, will invoice the recipient and the latter will be required to make payment in cash – not existing in the debtor’s possession at the time of the contract – within thirty days. Furthermore, it should be clear that there is no reason why libertarian courts would not recognise transfers taking effect at a future date, so long as the action of the transferring party was interpreted as a statement of transfer and not as mere promise or wish.

Finally, contracts can be oral or written; the difference may, of course, have evidential impacts but as long as the facts of a case are agreed the precise form of the contract makes little difference upon the questions of law.

Types of Contract

Let us therefore investigate the types of situation in which contracts may arise and where a libertarian legal system will be required to interpret and determine the legal outcomes for. There are five such possible situations:

  • The unilateral declaration of transfer of a good (i.e. a “gift”);
  • The exchange of a good for another good;
  • The exchange of a good for the performance of a service;
  • The exchange of a performance of a service for the performance of a service;
  • The unilateral declaration of the performance of a service.

Each of these situations involves the intention to transfer at least a portion of the productive services of property to another individual.

First of all, the gift contract is relatively straightforward – a simple declaration of transfer of property by an individual without any action necessary on the part of the recipient. It is clear in this instance precisely what the property is and who should own it as a result of the transfer – for property is being transferred in a single direction without condition. Even though the receiving party has done nothing he may now (or at a specified date of transfer) consider the title to the property his. He may, of course, refuse, in which case the property would either revert to the transferring party or would simply become abandoned. If, however, the transferring party retain possession of the property it is clear that he has now absconded with what is somebody else’s property – hence he can be compelled by legal remedy – i.e. violent enforcement – to rectify that situation. Possible remedies we shall explore below. Matters become a little more complicated when a good is exchanged in return for another good. There are several ways in which this could, theoretically, take effect. The first is for each party to declare in the contract the transfer of each other’s property, for example, “A hereby transfers to B title to a sum of £100 to B and B hereby transfers to A title to a television set”. Although this could be applied to some situations such a contract appears to be more like two unilateral declarations of transfer (i.e. two simultaneous gifts) than a contract of exchange and this does not correctly interpret the intentions of the parties to the exchange. Few people would suggest that when you buy something in a shop you are “exchanging gifts” as opposed to engaging in mutual trade. People are not simply transferring their property in the hope of getting something back – rather, the transfer of title becomes conditional upon getting something back and title only transfers when something is given back. In other words A will only transfer a sum of £100 to B if B will transfer the title to a television set to A. Very few transactions are physically simultaneous – somebody usually has to transfer their property before they receive the other party’s property in return. Even in a shop when the period of transaction is very short, either the purchaser has to hand over the money before he gets the good or the shopkeeper has to hand over the good before he gets the money. A conditional exchange prevents title to your property passing until the other side fulfils his half of the bargain. Precisely which titles pass and when depends upon the wording of the contract. The contract may specify that B’s transfer to A of the title to a television set will be made upon the transfer of £100 by A to B – in other words, title to the money has to pass first. If B delivers the television set to A in advance then title to the set does not pass; if A defaults, then under this wording the television set is the property which B retains title over (i.e. he gains no title to the money that should have been paid for it). If, on the other hand, A pays in advance then title to the money transfers from A to B immediately and title to the television set transfers from B to A; the television set is now properly A’s and B is required to deliver it. However, if the wording of the contract was the other way round – that A’s transfer to B of the title to money will be made upon the transfer of the television set by B to A – then the situation is reversed and now it is title to the television set that must pass first. If B delivers the television set in advance of payment then it is the £100 that is now his and not the television set; if A pays in advance then he retains title to the £100 until the television set is transferred. Much of this is, of course, theoretical as when it comes to dealing with a defaulting party your primary interest is in pursuing the course of action that gives you the greatest chance of some sort of recovery rather than relentlessly striving after the very property that is yours. Indeed, as we shall see below, most commercial contracts will state the situation that occurs in default by specifying precisely which title exchanges will occur in all possible actions of each party (if person A pays, outcome X will result; if person A does not pay, outcome Y will result, etc.) Nevertheless this theoretical clarity is important for understanding the foundations of the libertarian law of contract and how it is fundamentally based upon the concept of property. Furthermore, we might say that the hire of durable goods – including the leasing of land – falls under this category. The good is not transferred in its entirety but the degree and length of possession transferred is significant enough to confer a leasehold title to the property upon the recipient.

Given this, should not the third type of situation – the transfer of a good in exchange for the performance of a service – fall into the second? As we outlined above, all services depend upon property to carry them out and the recipient of the service is, in effect, hiring the property for the duration of the period of time in which the service is performed – a ride in a taxi being a good example. However, unlike the lease of land, we never say that a person gains title to a taxi and its driver even though in theory we might say that he should so gain. The reason is likely to be precisely as we stated in part one – that legal rules and principles are determined not only by what should be applied in theory but by that which accords with custom, tradition and practical expedience. The rights which result from conflicts arising from scarcity are only those rights that people demand; no one demands rights over goods that are not scarce because there is no conflict over these goods. Where the goods are scarce, however, we must remember that the enforcement of titles and ownership rights, followed by any subsequent remedial action, is itself costly and burdensome. There will, therefore, always be a category of scarce goods where the economic benefit is low and the cost of recovery high so that the conferring of formal titles would be wasteful. It is reasonable to speculate that services fall into this category. A ride in a taxi is of such short duration, the economic benefit minor, and with dozens of rides being carried out for different people every day, people are not willing to demand the security of a formal title in order to resolve any arising conflict. If, on the other hand, taxi rides were to become crucial to welfare or desperately scarce then formal titles may become worthwhile for this purpose. A more likely scenario is if someone wishes to hire a taxi for a number of days in order ferry important guests to and from various functions in which case a formal hire title may be necessary. The same phenomenon will be in operation when the goods providing the services are not delegated exclusively to the possession of the beneficiary. A professional accountant, for example, may deal with dozens of clients from his single office and may switch back and forth between work for a number of them in a single day. Working out a system of titles in such a case would be not only arduous and costly but close to impossible.

In the absence, therefore, of a formal title to the goods providing the service what security is available to the recipient of the service? If he is transferring a good in exchange for the service it is likely that courts recognise this contract as a conditional transfer of the good – for example, A will transfer £5 if B gives him a ride in the taxi. If A does not get his taxi ride then he keeps his money, i.e. title to the money does not pass to B until the journey is complete, regardless of when payment is actually made. This latter aspect is especially important for services that are delivered over a long period of time such as a development or consultancy. Down payments or deposits will be required so that the developer can fund his operations for the period of service but should he fail to deliver then the contracting party can sue for return of the funds as the latter remain his property.

Matters become a little more difficult in the fourth type of situation – that of a performance of a service in return for the performance of a service. For example, A will mow B’s lawn if B gives A a ride in B’s taxi cab. Other examples might be more extensive – A will provide B with consultancy services for a year if B will provide A with IT services. Such contracts are, again, conditional exchanges from which the recipients benefit except that no formal title to property passes. In pure theory no contract should be recognised in this situation because of the lack of the property element. Nevertheless, we can analyse some of the considerations a libertarian legal system may have to face in determining the outcomes of these situations. First, we can say that, as we explained above, the absence of intention to transfer formal titles demonstrates that the parties place a relatively low value on gaining the outcome. It might not matter, for instance, if A mows B’s lawn once but does not gain his taxi ride. In most cases these situations are likely to be cases where the parties are not dealing at arms’ length but are, rather, friends or relatives and where a resulting legal remedy is not intended. In English contract law there is a separate doctrine of “intention to create legal relations” that has led to many problems where the exchange of goods has not been recognised as a contract because the familiarity between the parties has been held to preclude any legal remedy. This is not relevant under libertarian law where the intention to exchange titles to property is an intention to create legal relations and where the exchange of a service for a service manifestly demonstrates an intention not to create such relations. The conferring of a property title demonstrates in the parties the desire for the security of the legitimacy to use force in order to gain the fulfilment of their ends. Where this is absent and there are no formal property dealings then it is reasonable for a court to conclude that such security was not required. Parties always have the option of concluding their arrangements with formal, enforceable titles if they deem the outcome of the contract to be valuable enough; where they do not then they should not expect the remedy of violent enforcement to come to their aid. Libertarian courts will therefore have no problem in recognising contracts between parties who are not dealing at arm’s length (i.e friends and relatives) where titles to property are transferred and any separate doctrine of intention to create legal relations is redundant. Where the provision of services is extended or gives the appearance of having a high monetary value libertarian courts may be willing to recognise an exchange of title if the performance of the service appears to give de facto exclusivity or possession to the recipient over the property that executes it. Again, we must stress that it is the entire conduct of the parties to the agreement that matters and not simply the words that are on the face of the contract (so, in other words, a knowledgeable party could not try to take advantage of an ignorant party by calling what is a transfer of title the performance of a service). Nevertheless, the granting of contractual liability in such cases is likely to be very limited in scope.

It follows from this that the fifth type of situation – the unilateral declaration of a performance of a service – also cannot be an enforceable contract. With regards to both the fourth and fifth situations we can see that any application of contract law to this situation would result in the most innocuous of agreements and declarations falling within the ambit of enforceable contracts. “I will help you with the shopping this afternoon”; “I will meet you in town at 7pm”; “I will clean the bathroom on Sunday”. Absent any demonstrable intention to create titles over property that perform these services the law has no business in these situations.

Breach of Contract and Contractual Remedies

While the focus on this series of essays is on the grounds on which legal liability is recognised and not on legal remedies, it is nevertheless appropriate to consider precisely what the law may compel a contracting party to do in the event that he defaults or breaches a contract. The first and, from the point of view of the receiving party, most ideal outcome is specific performance – full and final delivery of the property that is transferred by the contract. The property belongs to the receiving party and he has the right to compel its transfer. But once again, legal principles will be formed with regards to practical expediency as well as pure theory. Legal proceedings and legal recovery are, as we mentioned above, costly in their own right and very often the path pursued will be that which gives the greatest chance of recovery for the recipient with the lowest cost. In the first place, specific performance may not be available at all where the property has ceased to exist, or has been damaged or altered, a situation which is most likely in the case of perishable goods. In cases where the property has been transferred to a third party, or its location has moved considerably, the cost of recovery may render specific performance difficult and expensive3. In most cases where the property in its original form is no longer in the debtor’s possession, the easier outcome will be to sue for compensation or what has been come to be known in contemporary legal systems as damages – the monetary equivalent of the property that was due. Especially if there are proceeds from the sale of the property to a third party this might provide the greatest chance of recovery. Alternatively, the court may order seizure of other goods in the debtor’s possession to be sold for their monetary value in order to pay the necessary compensation. In English law there are several rationales for why damages should be paid and at least one of them will be prominent in a single case. First, to pay the so-called “reliance interest” of the recipient – i.e. so that the contract is effectively rescinded or “unscrambled” as a result of the breach and someone gets back what they put into the bargain; secondly, to pay the “expectation interest” – that which the receiving party expected to gain from the deal; and finally, restitutionary damages attempt to disgorge from the breaching party any profit he made as a result of the breach. Libertarian law largely transcends these categories. A party is entitled to recover the property that it is legally his as a result of the contract and nothing more; failing this, he may receive its monetary equivalent in damages. On occasions when he is the party receiving the property he will get what he hoped to gain; where he is the party transferring property he will get back what he originally had. Restitutionary cases may be more complex as, properly considered, they are really a part of the wider category of punitive damages. Any punitive or exemplary damages are unlikely to be awarded in the absence of an intention to breach a contract that renders the default as an act of fraud, a consideration we shall explore below.

Under the rule that a person is entitled to recover from a breach of contract only the property that is legally his as a result of that agreement, it should be clear that in most cases “consequential loss” or recovery of further expenditure incurred as a result of the contract is not available to the plaintiff. For example, a person hires an architect to design a building in return for a sum of £100K, and a further £500K is spent on building materials and hiring other services. Before the project can be completed the architect breaches his contract and the project is forced to a halt. The plaintiff can only recover from the architect the £100K paid across to him in return for his architectural services; he cannot recover the £500K spent on reliance of the architect’s performance. The additional £500K forms no part of the property specified in the contract with the architect. In these cases, the likely initiative taken by informed parties, at least, is to arrange the transfer of titles to property to account for all possible actions of each party. The contract with the architect might therefore state “A transfers to B £100K if B performs architectural services for A for project X; if B does not perform architectural services for A for project X then B will transfer to A 50% of the costs incurred by A for project X”. It is always possible, therefore, for parties to structure the property arrangements to account for any envisaged scenario. A court will then interpret the contract against the facts in order to determine and enforce a property arrangement in the result of default or dispute. It should be clear that this also permits penalty clauses – usually precluded in English contract law – to be established in contracts. The contract with the architect could quite easily have said that B will transfer to A 200% of the costs of project X incurred by A in the event that A fails to perform his services. The insertion and acceptance of such clauses in contracts merely indicates the value that is placed on performance by each party and their eagerness to get their hands on each other’s property. Such arrangements are entirely consistent with libertarian property principles.

In sum, based upon both the considerations of theory and of practical expediency, we might state therefore that, under libertarian contract law, a contracting party has a primary obligation to pay the property that is the subject of the contract, and a secondary obligation to pay compensatory damages as an equivalent. This is subject to the further consideration of how, precisely, libertarian courts will classify the status of a defaulting debtor – is he, for example, a thief of what is now the property of the other contracting party and, thus, a criminal who should be subjected to some sort of punishment? Or does he bear something resembling civil liability in our contemporary legal systems and need only furnish compensation? Part of this difficulty stems from the classification of wrongs – that is, for a libertarian, breaches of the non-aggression principle – into crimes or torts. Rothbard, for example, practically abolishes the distinction, upgrading what in contemporary legal systems are described as “torts” (invasions of person and property) to “crimes”, and dismissing altogether the current legal categorisation of crimes as wrongs against the state4. However he then has to admit that all defaulting contractual parties, regardless of the circumstances, are “thieves” who have “stolen” the property of the other party. Faced with the conclusion that a defaulting debtor, who has been unable to pay because of mere hardship or unfortunate circumstances, should be thrown into debtors’ prison he merely states that this would be “beyond proportional punishment”5. This creates the confusing possibility that different legal responses can flow from the same grounds of legal liability. It is conceptually clearer, however, to recognise varying grounds of liability which individually begat uniform responses. As we shall argue in part four of our series there is a case to be made for retaining the distinction between criminal and tortious liability based upon the intention (as objectively viewed by the court) of the defaulting party. If his conduct indicates that he deliberately intended to abscond with the property that he owes (i.e. is a fraudster) then he should be regarded as a criminal and subject to higher sanction. If, on the other hand, he has done his level best to make ends meet and defaults simply because of poor business choices then it is more likely that he would be subject to the equivalent of civil liability. Libertarian legal systems are likely to recognise that it would be a travesty of justice to equate the two situations, and may go further and acknowledge gradations of liability between the two extremes. Unreliable and bad with financial affairs a person may be but this does mean that he should be branded as a dishonest thief who cares for nothing more than himself.

It is at this point where we can return to the consideration of punitive and restitutionary damages. Where a person has not intended to be in the position of being unable to pay the property to the debtor then these damages would clearly be unavailable. Similarly where the property under dispute was a small part of a much larger operation with legitimate property that earned a profit, it would be unjust to disgorge the entirety of the profit from the debtor. More difficult, however, is where the intention of the defaulting party has been to defraud the property owner or where the property has uniquely and with little aid earned a profit for the debtor. In these cases libertarian courts might recognise a punitive or restitutionary element in accordance with an accepted theory of punishment that is compatible with libertarian principles. Consideration of this is beyond the scope of this essay, but we must acknowledge its possibility. Finally, there is also the possibility that fraud or theft might void the entire contractual arrangement and the case will simply be one of a unilateral breach of the non-aggression principle by the defaulting party, i.e. a simply wrong rather than a breach of contract.

Minor Considerations

We can conclude this survey of the law of consent by turning our attention towards some minor considerations.

First of all, there should be no problem with third parties enforcing their rights to property that they acquire as a result of a contract between two other people. For example, A may agree with B that A will pay C £100 if B transfers a television set to A. If B so transfers the television set then title to the £100 is now properly C’s and C can sue for its delivery.

Second is the “problem” of so-called unfair contract terms. These are usually exclusion clauses that relieve the debtor of any excessive burden of liability in the event of a default. In principle there is nothing unjust, from a libertarian point of view, of such clauses if they are agreed to in the contract. All that they would do is specify with objective certainty where the property rights would lie should events X, Y or Z occur. From an economic view, such certainty is designed to avoid the costs of litigating or arbitrating a dispute should the debtor fail to perform. Thus we might say that such clauses grease the wheels of commerce so that every party knows where they stand in the event of a default and the result of every outcome can be ascertained. Particularly if the debtor is a large and complex concern such a corporation, open-ended or uncertain liability in just a single case may bring operations to a complete halt if that case is representative of the corporation’s entire customer base. There is, of course, the possibility that large and knowledgeable parties will include or exclude all manner of terms in the “small print” of a large contract in order to burden the other party. The only tool available to a libertarian court in order to strike these terms from the contract is to find that they were not incorporated as terms in the first place – i.e. they did not form part of the contract at all. Other than that such terms, in a libertarian world, will be subject to legal sanction. This does not mean, however, that there is absolutely no regulation at all of burdensome contractual liability. We are simply saying that the law – the enforcement of rights through violent measures – has no part of it. We must remember that law, legislation and force are the ways of the statist and that this is precisely what we wish to avoid in a libertarian world. Only those acts that breach the non-aggression principle may be subject to the force of law. Where acts do not do this – such as the inclusion of “unfair” terms in a freely accepted contract – then there are plenty of ways of regulating this through voluntary trade. The first is the competition of the marketplace itself. Traders whose standard terms are too harsh will lose out to those who offer laxer terms. Secondly, there is every possibility that contractual scrutiny will be undertaken by private consumer watchdogs and ratings agencies who will refuse to accredit or will otherwise highlight companies who fail to moderate their standard terms of contract. Regulation, in a libertarian world, does not take the form of force and violence but, rather, through better informing you of the options that you can choose. A libertarian legal system will not relieve you of your personal responsibility by voiding a contract that you entered freely but now deem to be “unfair”.

In this vein we can also consider misrepresentation. It should be clear that any representation that induces a party to enter a contract must itself be a term of the contract to the extent that it specifies the nature of the property being transferred. For example, X is induced to buy a washing machine from Y as a result of the inducement that it would “last ten years”. If it only lasts five years, then what can X do? In order to sue for a return of his money, the contract would have to specify that the property transferred was “a washing machine that would last ten years”. If the machine lasts only five years then Y has defaulted as he did not deliver the property that was the subject of the contract. On the other hand, if the contract only purported to transfer “a washing machine” then X has no remedy as a washing machine is precisely what he got. The fact that he relied upon Y’s statement that the machine would last ten years is irrelevant. Of course, guarantees, warranties and other collateral arrangements would serve to protect X in this situation and are perfectly compatible with a libertarian legal order.

Finally, space precludes us from considering many other interesting areas – such as implied terms (i.e. good faith), mistake, frustration of contract, and so on. However what we have expounded should be the general foundations of contract in a libertarian society.

View the video version of this post.

1For a detailed description and analysis of bases of contractual enforceability, see Randy E Barnett, A Consent Theory of Contract, 86 CLMLR 269.

2See Murray N Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, pp. 134-5.

3If the property has been transferred to a third party then a court may, of course, compel the third party to return the property to its rightful owner. Space precludes us from examining the justice of this outcome in detail here. Suffice it to say here that an individual cannot transfer to another person title to property that the former does not possess in the first place. Hence the third party receives no valid title.

4See Rothbard, p. 51, note 1; Murray N Rothbard, Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution, Cato Journal 2, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 55-99, reprinted in Economic Controversies, pp. 367-418, at p. 409.

5Rothbard, Ethics, p. 144.

 

Time Preference and Human Action

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The role of time preference in human action can be a difficult subject to grasp correctly. This essay will seek to resolve some common misunderstandings that are essential before one can consider the full implications of the concept in economics. First of all we shall attempt to correct a few particular errors or myths before explaining the true, praxeological foundations of time preference.

Classes of Goods

The first misunderstanding we must address is that the concept of time preference is nearly always expressed with the statement “present goods are more valuable than future goods”. However such a formulation is only shorthand at the very best as it violates some well accepted and understood truths with which “Austrians” are well acquainted and have no difficulty in applying to other concepts. Humans do not have any relation at all to whole categories of goods in their physical embodiment – all of the gold, all of the iron, all of the bread in the world and so on. Rather, humans only act in relation to specific quantities, or units, of goods in order to meet their ends and it is these specific quantities to which value is imputed. Hence the so-called paradox of value – i.e. why a diamond, a seemingly trivial ornate luxury, is more expensive than a bottle of water, which is essential for life – was solved after having confounded the classical economists. The categories “present goods” and “future goods” are precisely this kind of holistic, indiscrete and meaningless concept that has no relevance to action. No human ever acts in relation to all of the present goods in the world, nor to all of the future goods. Rather, we have to examine the precise circumstances in action from which this shorthand derives.

Present Ends and Future Ends

Secondly we must realise that an understanding of time preference cannot come about from any comparison of present ends with future ends, that is, ends that must be met now compared to ends that must be met at some point in the future. Economic laws are only true when they conform to the ceteris paribus rule – that all else is equal. In understanding an economic phenomenon, it is necessary to hold all independent variables constant and to alter only the dependent variable under examination. With time preference, the variable under examination is goods, the means used to extinguish an end, and more specifically the time at which they become available. In testing this variable and making alterations to whether a good takes effect in the present or the future, the end itself, another variable, must remain constant. To talk of present ends and future ends in trying to understand time preference, however, is to make an alteration to a variable other than the one that is under examination. It is to change both the nature of the good and the nature of the end simultaneously, the equivalent of trying to understand the effects of an increase in the quantity demanded while also varying the quantity of supply. If demand was to rise beyond the valuation of the marginal buyer yet supply was to rise beyond the valuation of the marginal seller at an equal rate then price would, all else being equal, remain constant. One would derive from this the conclusion that an increase in demand has no effect upon price, which is clearly incorrect. With time preference, therefore, the examination is to determine the difference between the ability of a present good and a future good to satisfy the same end.

To elaborate on this point, a human has needs that arise at different times, some in the present and some in the future, depending on the length of his period of provision. He may, for example, realise that he needs to satisfy his hunger not only today but also tomorrow, the next day, next week and so on. However, humans themselves exist only in the present and all decisions, choices and actions must be made in the present – not tomorrow, not next week and not next year – and the ends to which they strive must all be ends that exist now. Simply because a need takes effect in the future and may be described as a “future need” does not mean, praxeologically, that it is a future end – end being a category of action that can exist only in the present. Therefore all ends that are sought after must take a place in a human’s rank of values now, and the urgency of their satisfaction will be determined by that rank. For example, I may know that I need to satisfy my hunger today and also that I will have to satisfy my hunger tomorrow. I have two loaves of bread now, one of which I devote to satisfying my hunger now so I eat it now; the other I direct towards the end of satisfying my hunger tomorrow so I store it in a bread bin. Or, in place of the latter, I may arrange to acquire a second loaf of bread tomorrow rather than having one available immediately. However one of these ends is not a present end of satisfying my hunger now and the other a future end of satisfying my hunger tomorrow. I can only make choices and decisions that lead to actions now, in the present, as I do not exist in the future. Therefore all ends must be expressed as present ends. The two ends are, therefore, correctly described as follows: the end of satisfying my hunger now; and the end of providing for the satisfaction of my hunger tomorrow. For the first end, the relevant action is eating the first loaf of bread today. For the second, it is directing the second loaf into the bread bin for storage (or arranging for the acquisition of the second loaf tomorrow). Both ends are therefore present ends met through present actions and if the second end is sufficiently high in my value rankings then it will need to be fulfilled now also and the stored loaf bread, or the expected acquisition of a second loaf of bread, is fulfilling this end now. Crucially, however, the importance that each end may have could be higher or lower than the other. There is no necessity for the second loaf of bread, simply because it will feed me tomorrow, to be less valuable than the first. If I am desperately hungry today then the first end, satisfying my hunger today, may be very high on my rank of values and the second end may be low. Alternatively, if I believe that tomorrow will bring excruciating hardship then the end of providing for tomorrow might be the highest end and the one with which I will be preoccupied. Solely because one end concerns the present and the other the future does not automatically mean that the end concerning the future is a less valuable and provides any explanation of time preference. And there is, consequently, no necessity for the second loaf of bread to be ranked lower in value than the first. Indeed, if providing for tomorrow was the more important end then if one loaf of bread was to vanish this loss would be shifted to the least valuable end – hence I would go hungry today and use the remaining loaf to eat tomorrow.

This analysis explains why, at any present moment in time, a set of fireworks for July 4th may be more valuable than the same set for May 4th; or why ice cream in winter is less valuable than ice cream the following summer; or why someone may engage in plain saving without any expectation of interest. Indeed it is quite conceivable that someone on May 4th would exchange a set of fireworks in return for acquiring the very same set (or even a set with a lower quantity or quality) back on July 4th. The understanding of time preference does not come from situations where the goods are available either now or in the future and where the ends also take effect at varying points of time also. Rather, it comes from those situations where the ends must be met now but where the goods are available at different points in time. In short, we are comparing the ability of a good available today with a good available at a point in the future to satisfy the same end.

Psychology and Physiology

Related to the previous discussion is the fact that psychological and physiological explanations of time preference are not sufficient to establish the necessary truth of the phenomenon. The notion that people may underestimate their future needs, that they may care less about the future than the present, or that their aging bodies will simply be less capable of enjoying satisfaction in the future may all be true but they needn’t necessarily be so. Further, much of this would again be varying the end rather than the type of good. Moreover as we shall see further below, the fact of uncertainty is not sufficient to explain time preference either. Rather, our investigation will concern why time preference arises praxeologically. In other words, what is it about action that causes the law of time preference to arise as a necessary result?

Goods and Serviceability

A step forward towards understanding the difference between a present unit of a good and a future unit of the same good is the difference between their serviceability. All goods derive their value from the ends that they service. Ends are ranked in order of urgency, that is a human will devote goods to fulfilling his most highly valued end first, the second highest next, and so on. As goods to fulfil ends are always scarce, any devotion of a good to one end involves the foregoing of other ends. Where goods can be devoted to either end A or to end B, for example, B will be foregone if the value of attaining A with the goods is ranked higher. Where a particular good is able to accomplish the fulfilment of an end alone (or in combination with very few other goods – there will always, at the very least, be labour) we can derive two things. First, as the good will be sharing its service towards the fulfilment of an end with very few other goods, close to the full value of the end will be imputed to the good. Secondly, because so few other goods have to be used to fulfil the end then there are more goods to be devoted to other ends, hence there are fewer ends that need to be foregone in the pursuit of this, most urgent end. Hence this latter end will be relatively more highly valued. Let’s say, for example, that there are five ends, A, B, C, D, and E, and that there are five goods a’, b’, c’, d’ and e’ to service these ends. If good a’ can service end A without any use of the remaining goods then this leaves all of these goods to service ends B-E. Not only will good a’ be accorded the full value of end A, but the relative value of end A and compared to ends B-E is high. We may say, in this instance, that the good possesses a high degree of serviceability. Where, however, a good requires a higher number of complementary goods to fulfil an end then a lower value will be imputed to that particular good as the full value of the end must now be imputed to a greater number of goods; furthermore, the necessary devotion of more goods towards fulfilling the end will mean that a greater number of other ends will have to be foregone. For example, if good a’ was not able to fulfil end A alone but, rather, needed to act in concert with goods b’-e’, then all of the ends B-E would have to be foregone in the pursuit of end A. While end A may be the highest individually valued end, losing all of these other ends will serve to reduce its relative value and, indeed, the cost may be so great that end A will simply be abandoned.

Let us examine this first of all by exploring an analogy to time, which is distance. Let us say that I strive towards the end of quenching my thirst and that this is my most highly valued end so that I want to act to fulfil it immediately. If I have a bottle of water right next to me that will satisfy this end then, ignoring the cost of labour, the value of the bottle of water will equate to that of the end itself1. The bottle of water has served to fulfil this end with a high degree of serviceability as it has not required the use of any other goods in order to accomplish its task. This means that more goods are left over for the fulfilment of other ends. So let us then say that, as I have easily fulfilled that end, I have a second end of going to pick apples for the day. I then, having had my first end fulfilled, can proceed merrily with the fulfilment of my second with the remaining stock of goods available. And having proceeded with this second end I may have more goods left over for the pursuit of a third end of baking bread. However, what if, in a second scenario, I still desire the same end of quenching my thirst but now the bottle is not right next to me but is ten miles away? This bottle is the same, physically homogenous resource as the bottle that was right next to me but if the distance of ten miles makes, in my mind, an appreciable difference what now is the value of the bottle? The distance means that an appreciable cost must be borne in order to utilise the bottle, costs that are not shared by the utilisation of this bottle in scenario one, rendering the bottle in the second scenario with a lesser degree of serviceability. These costs, clearly, are those that must be borne in order to transport the bottle to me or me to the bottle. Because of this necessity of transportation, complementary goods must now be brought in order to service the end. But these goods were goods that could have been devoted to ends other than quenching my thirst – namely, picking apples and baking bread. The lower serviceability of the bottle means that, in order to utilise it, additional ends to which means could have been devoted now have to be foregone. From this we can derive two conclusions. First, the degree of remoteness caused by distance means that the bottle in scenario two must share its fulfilment of the end with a greater number of goods compared to the bottle in scenario one. The lower capability of the distant bottle in scenario two means that the value of the end of quenching my thirst must be imputed to a greater number of goods2. The value of the bottle in scenario two, therefore, must be discounted accordingly. Secondly, the loss of the other ends – picking apples and baking bread – serves to impose a relatively lower value on the end of quenching my thirst. If this loss becomes too great – i.e that I am not prepared to forego the loss of picking apples and baking bread in order to quench my thirst – then the then the latter end will simply be abandoned and the bottle will cease to have value (or it may be earmarked for a lower valued end to which it may be more suited). In either case in scenario two – whether I proceed to bring the distant bottle to me or I abandon the end of quenching my thirst entirely – the value of the distant bottle in scenario two is lower than that of the bottle right next to me in scenario one.

It is this kind of understanding that is the foundation of an explanation for the phenomenon of time preference – a present unit of a good has greater serviceability in satisfying an end than a future unit of the same good. We will now explore this in detail.

Time and Serviceability

Although analogous, the remoteness of time presents a challenge more difficult than that of distance and there are some important differences. Whereas with distance, the lower value of the distant good could be explained by the option of foregoing lesser valued ends in order to overcome it, an acting human does not necessarily have this luxury with time. Nothing can be done to “speed up” time and its passage must be borne at a constant rate. We therefore have to look to the particulars of action that we touched upon earlier to explain why “remoteness” in time causes an otherwise equally serviceable unit of a good to have lower value.

An action is the result of a choice to satisfy ends with means available. But as we noted above human exists only in the present and must live through the present before the future arrives. A person cannot act in the future; he has to do so in the present. All decisions are therefore present decisions to act towards present means towards present ends. In other words, the very fact that a human acts at all means that he wants an end to be extinguished now or soon, not in the future or later – to act always means to meet an end sooner rather than later. The contrary position – to seek satisfaction in the future – is antithetical to action for if a person desires to meet an end later rather than sooner then he would never act. The present could pass without action but as soon as the later period of time came around it would itself then become the present and the person would be faced with the same conundrum – he would, at that moment, either have to act (in which case he would revert to preferring satisfaction sooner rather than later) or delay action again, in which case he would never act. The logic of action therefore requires sooner satisfaction rather than later. Indeed, even where the action concerned may not bring satisfaction for a long period of time, to begin the action is to demonstrate a preference for the satisfaction of the end to be brought closer in time. It follows also that the end to which action is directed first must be the one that is, in the eyes of the acting human, in the most urgent need of fulfilment, i.e. it is the highest valued end.

What does this mean for the value of a present unit versus the value of a future unit of a good? All goods, as we know, derive their value from the ends that they satisfy. If a human acts now in relation to a good – say a bottle of water – in order to achieve the end of extinguishing his thirst it means that, now, at this moment, this end is his most highly valued end and the good must be accorded (in the absence of other appreciable costs) the same value as the end. To act now means that this end must be fulfilled now, or at least brought closer in time to fulfilment. However, if we take the same moment in time – the present – but remove the good from present availability and move it to a future availability then what does this entail for action? It means that the most highly valued end at that moment cannot be fulfilled by that good. It completely lacks any serviceability towards this end compared to the serviceability of the presently available good. One of several things may happen as a result. If the end is to be satisfied now, substitute present goods must be found. These, however, must be drawn from the satisfaction of other ends and the urgency of these ends must be reweighed against the urgency of satisfying the human’s thirst in light of the fact that the present bottle of water is no longer available. It is quite conceivable that the end would be either abandoned entirely or satisfaction of it would be delayed – in either case it necessarily ceases to be the most valuable end. As other ends now become the object of action so they become more valuable and hence, the future good reduces in value accordingly3. Furthermore, if the end is either abandoned or satisfied by substitutes, the future bottle of water may be earmarked for a lesser valued end such as providing for tomorrow’s thirst – the end being necessarily lesser not because it takes effect in the future but because it is not the most valuable end to be met at the moment when quenching my thirst is most pressing, the very moment when the relevant valuation under scrutiny is occurring.  In all of these cases – substitution, abandonment, delay and direction of the good to a lower valued end – the future bottle of water derives a lower value than the present bottle of water. It is these facts, arising from the logic of action, that is the cause of the phenomenon of time preference, the future bottle being imputed with a discount to reflect its lower utility. We can therefore state the law of time preference as being as follows: a unit of a good that is available to satisfy an end immediately (or sooner) will be more valuable than a unit of a good that can only satisfy the same end in the future (or later).

We can also understand from this why there are gradations of serviceability of future goods – for example, a present unit of a good may be more valuable than a unit available one year from now, a unit one year from now more valuable than a unit two years from now, a unit available in two years more than one in three, and so on. For if the logic of action is to bring ends closer to their satisfaction the nearer in time a good is to that satisfaction the lighter will be the discount applied. If, for instance, a person chooses to delay satisfaction, then the lower that satisfaction will slip down the rankings the longer it must remain unfulfilled, as the cause of that delay is, by necessity, a decision to devote action to other, more highly valued ends in the meantime. The very fact of delay implies a lower value as to act is to place a higher valuation on the object of action now and to seek satisfaction now or sooner where as to not act or delay action is the precise opposite. From this we can also understand the capitalised value of durable goods – why, for instance, uses that are delivered in future slices of time incur a heavier discount the further they stretch into the future. For, at the moment of valuation, each separate use of the durable good must seek out its ability to fulfil an ever diminishing pool of ends that a human holds, each end reducing in value until they are dissipated. Hence the reason why land that is, for all intents and purposes, a permanent good that can yield utility for all eternity, trades for a finite price – to the extent that the remotest future uses can fulfil any end the human holds at all they will be of such infinitely small value as to be negligible.

What if a person deliberately and constantly decides not to act? Do we not here have a definitive example of where a person can persistently prefer future satisfaction? Not at all. To not act is itself an action that must have an end to fulfil. If so, whatever end this may be – peaceful meditation, reflection, or the strength gained through the bearing of hardship – it is more important than the end that some other present good could satisfy. To continue delaying, for example, the quenching of my thirst by not opening a bottle of water doesn’t mean that I prefer a future bottle of water to the present bottle of water. It simply means that not drinking is more valuable than drinking. As soon as, however, drinking becomes my most valuable end it would be the case that the present bottle of water would be more valuable than a future bottle of water in satisfying that end. The situation of choosing not to act therefore has no bearing on the phenomenon of time preference.

Finally, what about the situation where, for example, my most highly valued end is to provide for next week’s hunger and I want to ensure that this is met now, either by storing goods now or by arranging, now, for their acquisition next week? I have an apple available now but it will rot before next week comes and will not fulfil this end. An apple that becomes available next week however, will not be rotten and will fulfil the end. Surely, therefore, we now have a clear case of where a future unit of the same good is able to better satisfy the same end more than a present unit and won’t, in this instance, the future unit be accorded a higher value? Unfortunately not, because the fact that the present apple will rot imposes upon it a qualitative difference from the apple that will not. In other words, an apple that is rotten before the end is fulfilled is not the same good as an apple that is not rotten before the end is fulfilled. We are therefore altering a variable other than the one under examination and hence we can conclude nothing about the latter from such a situation.

Human Appreciation of Time

It must be emphasised that the difference in the elapse of time between the availability of a present unit of a good and a future unit is determined praxeologically. All actions do, of course, take place through time and all goods are remote in time to different degrees. If I decide to drink a bottle of water I first of all have to pick it up, open it and then bring it to my mouth, all of which has to occur through time. But in order to have any relevance in economics the difference has to be appreciated by the human – there has to be a conscious awareness of its passage. With the opening of the bottle all of the actions may happen so quickly that, in my mind, they are praxeologically simultaneous and I therefore impute no lower value to the unopened bottle sitting on the table to the water that I am swallowing and enjoying. On the other hand, the passage of a week before I can drink the water would probably make a lot of difference, especially if I had no other access to water in that time. Further still we can see that £100 received in five minutes will probably not be valued lower than £100 received in this very instant, whereas £100 received in one year’s time would be valued markedly lower. Moreover it should be obvious that it will never occur with units of free goods – a unit of present air is just as valueless as a unit of future air.

Does this fact mean that our analysis of time preference is circular? That we are explaining the fact that humans appreciate time by the fact that humans appreciate time? Not at all, for what we are trying to explain is why a future unit of a good must necessarily be of lower value than a present unit of a good. In other words, using a human’s appreciation of the factor of time as a given, we are concluding from the logic of action that time preference must always be in favour of a present good ahead of a future good. We are not begging the question by reaching this conclusion.

Uncertainty

Time preference has often been explained by the fact that the period of time that elapses between now and the availability of the future unit of the good is fraught with uncertainty – that because the future is always uncertain a person does not know whether the future unit will, in fact, become serviceable and hence this risk possibly serves to discount the utility of the future good. This uncertainty has two sources – a) uncertain future circumstances; b) the uncertainty of the future good actually becoming available. While it is true that uncertainty pervades all human action and that, generally, the longer the period of time that must elapse before an action is complete the greater the uncertainty, it is not in and of itself the cause of time preference. Even if uncertainty was reduced to the point of negligibility, to act now would still mean to prefer satisfaction now rather than later. A good that becomes available in the future must still either be the cause of the delay of satisfaction of the end, or, in the event that the end is satisfied with substitute goods, seek to fulfil a lower valued end or not end at all. In all cases the value of the future good would diminish.

This does not mean that uncertainty is redundant in a complete understanding of time preference; the height of uncertainty could certainly affect the rate of a person’s time preference as it imposes a psychic cost on a human which will affect the valuation of either the delayed end or the new end which a future good could satisfy. In other words, the fact of uncertainty would cause these ends to diminish further in value at the present moment in time, this further reduction being imputed back to the future good. But so too could total certainty serve to increase time preference. If, for example, it was certain that the world would be destroyed tomorrow time preference, far from falling as a result of the certain future, would rise to an astronomical height, with a heavy discount applying to goods that may become available as little as an hour into the future. On the other hand, if there was only a reduced chance of the world being destroyed the discount might be a little lighter. The effects of uncertainty are not therefore uniform upon the phenomenon of time preference and as an explanation of its ultimate cause it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Exchange between Present and Future Goods

If what we have concluded above is true, that a unit of a future good must be less valuable than a unit of a present good, in which circumstances would a person exchange a present unit for a future unit? After all, we see this every day, mostly clearly in the lending of money at interest and almost certainly engage in the practice ourselves. What is it that could entice us to regard a future good as more valuable?

The key to understanding this is that, compared to our scenarios above, there must be an alteration to the serviceability of the future good that, in the eyes of the acting human, serves to increase its value above that of the present good. It cannot be the case that the same unit of a good available in the future is more valuable than the same unit available right now. What, therefore, is this alteration in serviceability to the future good? The answer should be familiar to us. Nearly always it is an increase the quantity of the future good while the quantity of the present good remains constant. So with the lending of money, for example, the present good may be £100 but the future good for which is exchanged may be £110. £110 has greater serviceability in terms of quantity compared to the £100, however the £100 has greater serviceability in terms of time compared to the £110. A human has to decide which of these two imbalances is of greater value to him. Typically we say that if he prefers a larger unit of a future good to a smaller unit of a present good he possesses “low time preference”. Conversely, if he prefers a smaller unit of a present good to a larger unit of a future good he is said to have “high time preference”. While this is useful shorthand for determining whether a person will have a propensity to save and invest rather than spend and consume (or indeed, when judging the direction of a society’s economic development), it does not tell us the whole picture. For to express a high or low time preference by trading present goods for future goods is an exchange like any other and a high value attached to the good received in exchange must correspond with a low value attached to the good given up in exchange. If, therefore, someone has a low time preference he must, conversely, have what we may term a relatively high “quantity preference” – the increased quantity of the future good being more valuable to him than the end that must be delayed, abandoned or met through substitutes today in order to receive it. On the other hand, if a person has high time preference he has a relatively low quantity preference, preferring to meet an end now with a smaller quantity of a good rather than delay it, abandon it or meet it through substitutes. We might say, therefore, that time preference and quantity preference are negatively correlated.

The concept of time preference is not necessarily limited to a single, homogenous good. It would, for example, be possible to exchange a quantity of present apples for a quantity of future oranges. In this case, while it would not be possible to determine a “rate” between the two quantities exchanged in the way that we can express an interest rate, we can say that a present apple would fetch in exchange a greater number of present oranges than a future apple. Or, conversely, a present orange could be sold for more present apples than a future orange could. There is also the possibility of a qualitative difference as opposed to a quantitative difference. A present apple may, for example, fetch a quantity of the ripest and most luxuriant present oranges whereas a future apple may only fetch the same quantity of lower grade, bog standard present oranges. All of these possibilities are expressions of the law that a present unit of a good is more valuable than a future unit of the same good.

Conclusion

What we have determined, therefore, is that the common expression “present goods are more valuable than future goods” is, at best useful shorthand that can muddy the waters when determining the fundamental truth. Neither also does an understanding of time preference arise from psychological considerations nor from the fact of uncertainty. Rather it is the logic of action itself that means a present unit of a good must always be more valuable than a future unit of a good when comparing their abilities to satisfy the same end. Only an advantageous change in the serviceability of the future good – such as an increase in its quantity – can serve to render the future good more valuable than the present good.

We have not explored the further implications of time preference in economics – particularly its role in interest and the business cycle, which is of great import to “Austrians”. However, a clear understanding of the fundamentals of the phenomenon should serve to enable one to tackle these difficult questions.

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1We are, of course, assuming that the bottle cannot be substituted in the event that it is lost in order to avoid the implications upon value that substitution has.

2Exactly the same would be true if, for example, the bottle was, as in scenario one, right next to me, but is now of an appreciably different quality or quantity (i.e. appreciable to the extent that the end cannot be satisfied to the same degree). Once again its serviceability, its power, as judged by my mind, to extinguish an end is diminished and other goods must be brought in to fully satisfy the end.

3It is of course true that in the case of the possibility of substitution the value of the present bottle of water would equate to that of the substitute goods and not from the end of quenching my thirst but this has no bearing upon our analysis of the relatively lower value of the future good as compared with that of the present good.

Land and Natural Resources Part Two – Trade and Exchange

1 Comment

In part one of this two-part series of essays we explored the utility, value, profits and losses that are associated with a single human’s action in relation to land and natural resources. In this second part we will now turn to a consideration of the same in a world where there are multiple humans and the economy is a complex one of trade and exchange of these resources.

Land Settlement in the Complex Economy

Where we have a world of many humans each of them are, at birth, in the same position as our lone human at his birth. They are gifted their own bodies, their standing room and a set of free goods that they do not need to make the object of their action in order to derive utility from. Every action thereafter will be taken at a cost with the object of receiving a gain that will outweigh that cost. To reiterate again these costs and gains must be estimated in advance and so every action is only speculative; there is no certainty that an action will, in fact, yield a gain. In a world of trade and exchange land and its product will trade for money and so these gains and costs will, likewise, be estimated not in terms of land’s physical product but in terms of the money that they will fetch in exchange. Now, therefore, leaving aside mental appreciations such as aesthetics or personal value attached to specific areas of land such as one’s home, we are not talking about merely psychic profits and losses but the actual revenue and outflow of money from operations with natural resources. In other words, how can one make money from using natural resources and how can we categorise the components of this income?

The first, if seemingly trite, observation concerning an unsettled plot of land is that no one has estimated the land as being valuable. In other words no one yet believes that the revenue to be gained from settling this land will outweigh the cost of doing so. Existing settlements or other prospects are deemed to be more valuable than settling the plot in question. The prices of the scarce resources that will be devoted towards settling the plot are being bid up by other potential uses and people estimate that the yield from the land will not be sufficient to cover these costs. Where, therefore, one human decides to settle land it will be because he, uniquely, decides that this land will, in fact, yield a definite gain and that everyone else is in error in leaving the land fallow. Let us again take the example of Plot A, demonstrating now the gains and costs not in terms of physical product but in terms of money. There are only three possibilities:

  1. Plot A will make a profit;
  2. Plot A will break even;
  3. Plot A will make a loss.

Let us examine each of these possibilities in turn, assuming again that the prevailing rate of interest will apply a 10% discount to the gross yield in each year. In scenario 1, we will take the gross yield to be £200K per year with the costs amounting to £100K per year. We can illustrate the net gain as follows in Figure A:

Figure A

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        (Discount)          Net

1          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£10K)              £90K

2          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£20K)              £80K

3          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£30K)              £70K

4          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£40K)              £60K

5          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£50K)              £50K

6          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£60K)              £40K

7          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£70K)              £30K

8          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£80K)              £20K

9          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£90K)              £10K

10         £200K               £100K               £100K               (£100K)            £0K

The result of this has been a net profit for the land settlor. The land has actually turned out to yield more monetary income than was estimated by everyone else. In other words, everybody else was incorrect in estimating that the land would not produce an end that is more highly valued than some alternative. Rather, the product of the land is more highly valued than other ends to which the scarce factors of production could have been allocated and this value will be imputed back to the land itself so we can say that the land will have a capitalised value equal to the sum of the final column which, in this instance, is £450K. We will return to this again shortly but before that we shall examine scenarios two and three. In the former, it should be obvious that there will be no net gain at all. Let us illustrate this by assuming that the land will still yield £200K per year but now costs have risen to an equal amount:

Figure B

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        (Discount)          Net

1          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

2          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

3          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

4          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

5          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

6          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

7          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

8          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

9          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

10         £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)               £0K

In this instance what is produced is exactly what is paid out in costs and there was, therefore, absolutely no point in settling the land. While there has not been a loss and the settlor is not in any worse position than he was before, there has also been no gain and the entire operation has been pointless. What about scenario three? Now let’s assume that costs remain at £200K but that now the land only yields £100K of gross income:

Figure C

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        (Discount)          Net

1          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £10K                 (£90K)

2          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £20K                 (£80K)

3          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £30K                 (£70K)

4          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £40K                 (£60K)

5          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £50K                 (£50K)

6          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £60K                 (£40K)

7          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £70K                 (£30K)

8          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £80K                 (£20K)

9          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £90K                 (£10K)

10         £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £100K              (£0K)

Here the settlement was entirely erroneous and will result in year after year of net losses for the settlor. He estimated incorrectly that the yield from the land would be sufficient to cover the costs and, in fact, there were more valuable uses to which these costs could have been devoted. The entire operation has been a waste and the land will simply be abandoned1.

Let us now turn back to scenario one where the land yielded a profit. We noted that the settlor realises a gain upon the realisation that the land will produce a yield the value of which exceeds that of its costs. Once again, as in part one, we must emphasise that this gain is earned not by the “productivity of the land” or its “natural powers”. The land was only doing that which it is under the orders of the laws of physics to do. Rather the earnings, the net income, are wholly the reward of the decision of the settlor to turn that land into productive use, a decision that resulted from his judgment that the land would yield more than its costs, an outcome that was, furthermore, clouded with uncertainty. Everyone else was free to make the same decision and to settle the land first but nobody did. To the extent, therefore, that a person earns a net income from productive use on the land it is only because this person, uniquely, has realised that devoting scarce resources to its settlement and use will yield a stream of utility that is more valuable to consumers than that which existed before. It was his decision that created the increase in value with the resulting flow of productive services, and it is to this aspect that the net income flows.

If this is doubted then we should consider the situation of the evenly rotating economy where all revenues equal cost. In other words there is trade and activity but all the utility of what is received from an action equals exactly the utility of that which is foregone. So if the produce of land yields £200K per year then the landowner will have to pay precisely £200K per year in costs2. If this was the way the world worked then it should be clear that there is no room at all for uncertainty and for decision making. If it is certain that there is no realisation of value, that nothing could ever be made better, then there is no premium to be put on the making of judgments that results in decisions. Net income disappears precisely because there is no need for these aspects. It is only because we live in a world where things can be made better and that this betterment is shrouded in uncertainty that a judgment must be exercised in order to realise it. Good judgments that direct the scarce resources available to a stream of utility that is more preferable than that given up are rewarded with net income. Bad judgments which waste those resources on ends that are not preferred are penalised with losses.

What about, for the sake of completion, a world where things could be made better but that the improvement is certain? That if we made a decision we would know for sure that the outcome would exactly be as intended so that, in other words, everyone’s judgment would exactly predict what would happen. If this was so then everyone’s judgment and everyone’s decisions would be exactly the same. A person can only profit from a decision because everyone else has underestimated the value of the yield from a productive activity, this underestimation resulting in an underbidding for the productive resources that are devoted to that activity. If, however, everyone knew the outcome then there would be no underbidding at all and all costs of production would be bid up fully to the height of the revenue of the resulting product. Hence, there would be no net income.

Therefore our conclusion can only be that the realisation of value is a product of superior human judgment.

Going back to our landowner does he now realise a constant, year on year net income from his ownership of the land? Unfortunately for him he does not. For the £450K worth of net income, representing the capitalised value of the land, is was he earns now and correspondingly takes its place in his rank of values now. It must therefore be ranked alongside other actions which could be more or less valuable now and while he hangs onto the land he always bears the opportunity cost of foregoing other actions. In the case of our lone human in part one this was the result of having to decide whether to continue to produce on the current plot of land or whether to stop and move to an alternative piece of land. In the complex economy, however, the decision that must constantly be assessed and remade is whether to hang onto the land or to sell it to a purchaser. Let us examine the ramifications of this necessity.

Trade of Land

In the first place, let us assume that the net present value of the land – £450K – is not only correct but that also all entrepreneurs know that it is correct and that this is certain. In other words the precise yields from and costs of production on the land are as they are in Figure A above and everyone knows that there will be no deviation from this schedule. What this means is that the purchase price will be bid up to exactly this net present value – £450K – with all potential suitors offering not a penny more and not a penny less. The decision for the landowner is a very simple one – to carry on with production of the land and wait for the fruits of its productivity; or to sell and to accept the present value of this future yield now in cash. The result of this is to impose upon our landowner an opportunity cost that completely wipes out any continuing net gains in income. As he can take the present value of the yield in cash the foregoing of this opportunity through holding onto the land will leave him only with interest from the future yields, i.e. the difference in value of the future yields when they mature and the capitalised value of the land now.

In reality, however, the situation is much different. Rather than everyone knowing the future yields of land they constantly have to be estimated. As we said in part one there are at least four factors that affect this:

a)     Direct costs of farming a plot will change from year after year and must be estimated in advance of their occurrence;

b)     Opportunity costs will change from year after year and, likewise, must be estimated;

c)      The gross yield of a plot of land is not certain in advance; rather, factors such as the weather, seed quality and soil deterioration will intervene;

d)     The discount to be applied to future gains is dependent upon the individual’s time preference rate which is subject to change.

To this we may add one more:

e)     The precise end to which the land is devoted also has to be decided. Should it be used for farming, for the building of a factory, or for building houses? Which of these streams of utility is most valuable to the customers who will provide the revenue?

Every entrepreneur, therefore, including the present land owner must constantly assess and estimate the effect on the productivity of the land by these aspects and this list is not necessarily exhaustive. Having estimated the future yield, each entrepreneur will discount it to a net present value resulting in a price that he is willing to pay for the land now3. Let us look at the mechanics of this fact in situations that lead to a profitable outcome for our landowner. Let’s say that there are three entrepreneurs, A, B and C, of whom our current landowner is entrepreneur A. Each engages in his estimation and calculates the following net present values of the land:

A        £450K

B        £350K

C        £250K

In this instance every other entrepreneur estimates the net present value of the land as being lower than the estimate of A. As A estimates that there is more to be gained from holding onto the land and selling its produce at a later period in time than from selling the land now then he will refuse to sell the land to the highest bidder which is B. If A is correct and the land yields a produce that is more than the estimate of the next highest bidding entrepreneur (let’s say that A’s estimate is precisely correct) then what is the analysis of A’s income? As his opportunity cost was to sell the land for £350K and earn interest on this sum, his actual outcome has been to hold onto the land and earn interest on a sum of £450K. The difference between these two will therefore form a net income – an income that A received solely because he estimated the produce of the land as being higher than that of rival entrepreneurs. Examining each of our criteria a) through to e) above he could have done this a number of ways and, in practice, a combination of them will always be active:

a)     A more accurately estimated the costs of farming the land as being lower than the estimates of B or C; or the methods that A chose in farming the land were less costly than those that B or C would have employed. A’s economy therefore conserved scarce resources to be released for employment towards the fulfilment of other ends.

b)     A accurately estimated that the other opportunities available to him would yield a lower (if any) net income than holding onto the land;

c)      A more accurately predicted the conditions of farming than B or C; the latter might have erroneously predicted more unfavourable farming conditions which led to their lower estimates;

d)     This is a little more complex and will be examined when we discuss land hoarding and speculation (below). Suffice it to say that A may have more accurately estimated the future societal rate of time preference than B or C and hence the discount to be applied to the future yields;

e)     And finally, A might have devoted the land to an end that is more valuable in the eyes of consumers than B or C would have done and thus the consumers were willing to pay a higher amount for its produce than for the produce that B or C might have churned out from the same land4.

Let us say that having witnessed A’s burst of productivity, B and C revise their estimations of the land’s capabilities. For argument’s sake, A maintains his estimate at the previous level:

A        £450K

B        £550K

C        £350K

Here what should be clear is that A now has the opportunity to sell the land for a net present value that is greater than his estimate of the same. He believes that B has overestimated its productivity and will incur a loss if he purchases for that sum. A therefore cashes in by selling to B and earns interest on the sum of £550K. To his horror, however, B finds that the land only yields a present value of £450K and hence he earns interest on this lower sum. It would have been better for B to have foregone the purchase and held onto the cash, earning interest on £550K instead of £450K. The difference between these two therefore represents B’s loss and A’s profit. The loss of B has accrued to a bad decision, a decision to devote the scarce resources available to an end that was less productive than that estimated. The reader can examine our criteria a) – e) above in order to speculate upon the source of B’s error, but the important point is this: where there is a net income it results from diverting the scarce resources to an end more highly valued than that estimated by other entrepreneurs. A loss is made when resources are devoted to an end that is less highly valued than that estimated by the same. Good decisions and beneficial use of scarce resources therefore yield a reward – a net income, a profit. Bad decisions and the waste of resources are punished with losses. Net income therefore flows to good decision-making ability and it is this ability alone – not any productive power of the land or any virtue of its ownership – that commands a premium in the marketplace5.

Now we shall turn to situations in which A’s decisions make a loss. Let us return to the first set of estimations:

A        £450K

B        £350K

C        £250K

A, obviously, will again choose to hold onto the land. But let’s say that in this scenario the land only yields £300K’s worth of income. It would have been better to have sold to B and made a presently valued profit of £50K rather than hold onto to the land and lose that opportunity. A’s decision was erroneous and this error was met with a loss. What about the second set of valuations?

A        £450K

B        £550K

C        £350K

Again A will sell to B in this scenario. A thinks that B is a fool in this scenario for thinking that he (B) can ever ring out £550K’s worth of productivity from the land and A congratulates himself for having made a handsome profit. But what if the land actually yields a presently valued income of £650K? In this instance, therefore, it would have been better for A to have held onto the land and carried on production. Instead he sold it and the passing up of this opportunity imposes a loss upon him.

What we realise, therefore, is that all present and prospective landowners constantly bear the burden of having to assess the future income from land. Present landowners have to determine whether the future income will outweigh the purchase prices offered by prospective buyers. The latter have to determine whether they can offer a purchase price that is outweighed by the future income. Those that make the most accurate decisions in this challenge are those that devote the scarce resources available to their most highly valued ends. They took the decision to direct their resources in this way in the face of uncertainty while nobody else did. The result is a net profit.

We should also add here that good decisions and good decision-making ability are determined relatively not absolutely – the profitable entrepreneur only has to be more accurate than the next entrepreneur. For example, let’s say that the land would yield a net present income of £650K and the following entrepreneurs estimate it as follows:

A        £450K

B        £350K

C        £250K

In this case it is obvious that A will hold onto the land and earn a net income when the yield of the land turns out to be worth a present value of £650K. But what if the estimations were as follows?

A        £450K (same as before)

B        £550K

C        £250K (same as before)

Here A will make the choice to sell to B. Yet even though his choice was derived from the same estimation as in the previous scenario, he now incurs a loss as it would have been better for him to have held onto the land and earn interest on £650K than to have taken £550K in cash. Looking at that same scenario from the buyer’s perspective, B now earns the profit. But what if there was a third set of valuations as follows?

A        £450K (same as before)

B        £550K (same as before)

C        £600K

Now, the profit maker is C. Therefore, even though the judgments that underpinned the decisions of A and B remained constant, the entry of a more accurate entrepreneur meant that the latter earned the profit and they did not. It is, therefore, the most relatively accurate decision in directing scarce resources to their ends that is rewarded. Clearly the same will also be true from the loss-maker’s point of view – a judgment that once was loss-making will become profitable if other entrepreneurs lose their accurate foresight.

Profit, therefore, can only be made when a person renders a valuable service that no one else is able to do. If entrepreneurial foresight becomes more prevalent and accurate its supply increases and, just like any other good, as supply increases then, all else being equal, the price it can command must diminish. If a piece of land yields £650K per year and the most accurate prospective purchaser bids £450K for it that he will earn a net present income of £200K. If, however, the market is suddenly flooded with entrepreneurial talent then each entrepreneur will bid up the land successively towards its mark of £650K. If an entrepreneur would bid £630K for the land then there is a chance for another, more accurate one, to bid, say, £640K. But the entry of a further, still more accurate entrepreneur could raise the purchase price to £645K with profit diminishing to a mere £5K. The extension of this situation would obviously be where every entrepreneur values the land exactly correctly and everyone would bid precisely £650K for it, with any chance of net income disappearing entirely. The existence of net income is therefore negatively correlated with the prevalence of good decision-making ability and as soon as the latter is abundant it ceases to command a high premium and profit comes close to disappearing.

In part one we questioned whether it was possible for luck to influence a person’s net gain. Could, for example, one buy or sell a piece of land having absolutely no idea whether it will yield a net income ahead of the purchase price? Or, alternatively, could one sell a piece of land without a single clue as to whether he is selling it for more than it is worth? In other words couldn’t someone just yield a profit by gambling rather than through any special entrepreneurial talent? If one makes a net income on these occasions then it states one of two things. First, as we said in part one, to consign one’s fate to luck is itself a decision and to the extent that it is more profitable than a carefully considered decision then it is the best decision. Secondly, if one makes a profit from gambling then it is still the case that resources were directed to an end that was more highly valued by consumers than that estimated by other entrepreneurs. In short, the gambler’s guess was better than anyone else’s decision and in its absence the economy would be worse off. It is the realisation of value that is rewarded, whatever the method through which it is achieved. It is just that in our world luck plays a very minor role in reaching this goal whereas good decision-making ability is most often needed.

Speculation and Hoarding

With all of this in mind let us now turn our attention to the speculation and hoarding of land. Land owners are often accused of sitting on fallow land and earning year on year profits while this land could be used for the fulfilment of vitally needed ends6. Can we square these facts?

The first question we have to address is why does fallow land have any capitalised value at all? If it isn’t being used for anything then how is it generating any value whatsoever? The answer to this can only be that, in the estimations of entrepreneurs, the land will not yield any valuable utility from a stream of production now but will, rather, yield the same from production that is begun in the future. Say, for example, that if entrepreneurs estimate that additional housing capacity is not required now but will be required in, say, ten years then the land’s ability to meet this end at that point in the future will be imputed back to the land itself and it will trade for a capitalised value. Obviously the discount applied to a utility only taking effect at such a far off point will impose a cumulatively heavy toll, but there would still be a capitalised value. Entrepreneurs therefore have to decide not only what to devote land towards but precisely when to do it and it is the differences of these estimations that permit one to earn a net income from the hoarding of land.

Let us say that A purchases a plot of land now with the intention to hold onto it without development and is able to earn a net income on this operation. There are two aspects to the explanation of this outcome. First, if all entrepreneurs are agreed as to when is the most suitable time to develop the land is then A can only make a profit if he more accurately estimates the value of the yields that result once this time is reached and the land is developed. This is essentially no different from what we discussed above – the only difference is that the first act of production will not be now but at some point in the future. But secondly, if entrepreneurs are not in agreement over when the most suitable time to develop the land is then A can make a profit by more accurately estimating this suitable time. Let’s say, for example, that the five entrepreneurs would develop the land after the respective intervals have elapsed following purchase and their estimations of the present value of the yields are as follows. Let us also assume, for simplicity’s sake, that each is correct in the estimation of what the land would yield after these intervals:

A        5 years         £600K

B        4 years         £500K

C        3 years         £450K

D        2 years         £210K

E        1 year           £130K

What this means is that E believes that the most productive use of the land will arrive after only one year and that he won’t, therefore, gain more than a present value of £130K by waiting either longer or shorter. D believes that two years is the correct period to wait and any longer or shorter will never achieve as high an income as £210K, presently valued. And so on for C, B and A. The latter, however, is the most accurate and he is the one who will purchase the land (in this case, offering only slightly more than the discounted value of B’s estimate in order to price B out of the market) and he will earn a profit. The effect of A’s action is to withhold the land from development that would otherwise occur too early and thus its direction to an end that is less valuable to consumers is prevented; rather the land is released for development right at the precise time when it is needed for fulfilling the most pressing end. A of course might be “incorrect” in an absolute sense – perhaps had he waited another year still (so six years in total) the land might have yielded a present value of £700K. But as the relatively most accurate entrepreneur he is the one who yielded the profit. Had another person, F, come along and bid £650K then A would not have earned that profit.

Related to this is the height of the societal time preference rate which determines the interest rate. As we said earlier, all future utility from land is discounted according to the prevailing rate of interest. But this too is subject to fluctuation and must be estimated, a point we noted earlier. If time preference lowers then the discount to be applied to future yields of land will diminish and hence the capitalised value of land will rise. On the other hand if time preference rises then the discount will be increased and the capitalised value of land will fall, its promise of future utility being less valuable to consumers. In practice this phenomenon tends to go hand in hand with the fact that land may yield its most valuable end not now but sometime in the future. For land is the ultimate remote good out of which capital goods must be furnished and increased demand for it is almost synonymous with a lowering of the societal time preference rate and a desire to engage in more roundabout methods of production and the creation of economic growth. The estimation, therefore, by entrepreneurs that land will yield a more valuable use not now but in the future also translates into estimating that the societal rate of time preference will be lower.

The allocation of resources across time is also one of the most difficult activities which must be faced by the present landowner, let alone a prospective purchaser. A failure to estimate how much to produce and when to do so has the potential to cause serious losses. The capitalised value of a copper mine, for example, will, as we know, represent the discounted value of all of the future copper that will be extracted from that mine. The choice of how much copper to mine this year is made not only in the face of current costs such as labour, equipment etc. but also the mine owner must consider the fact that any extraction of copper now will mean that there is less copper to be had in the future. If the mine owner extracts copper now then this will cause a write down in the capitalised value of the land as, the copper having been extracted, a portion of it is no longer there to provide for future utility. Whether or not the mine owner successfully allocates copper to the present or to the future depends on the relationship of the revenue from selling copper now on the one hand to the height of the write down on the other. If, having accounted for all other costs, the revenue he receives from selling a portion of the copper today is higher than the write down then this means that the present value of copper sold has a higher value than the same copper would have done had it been left under the ground. Therefore the quantity of copper that the mine owner brought to market was in line with the preferences of consumers and copper was not wasted by being mined too soon. On the other hand, if the value of the write down is higher than the revenue that is received then this means that the copper that is brought to market would have had a higher present value had it been left under the ground to be preserved for a future use. The copper was brought to market and supplied too early and consumers were not willing to devote it to an end today that is more valuable than an end at some point in the future. In short, the copper has been wasted and the resulting loss will penalise the mine owner for this oversight. It is for this reason why capitalism and free exchange provides the best method of conserving resources as the profit and loss system entices entrepreneurs to deploy them precisely when they can meet their most valuable ends.

Taxation of Land

It follows from the analysis in both parts of this series of essays that any attempt by the government to tax the proceeds from land must fall upon one of the three streams of income:

  1. Costs;
  2. Interest;
  3. Entrepreneurial Profit and Loss.

If costs are the target then clearly this just raises the cost per unit of productivity from the land. Within this category will fall all taxes on labour, direct taxes on the costs such as sales taxes, and the taxes that must be borne by suppliers. If, though, interest is the target then this has the effect of increasing the discount from future yields of land. The relative attractiveness of future goods will therefore decline and so too will any engagement in roundabout methods of production that lead to economic growth. Finally, a tax on entrepreneurial profit and loss will penalise the decision-making ability that directs resources to their most highly valued ends. There will, therefore be relatively less inclination to seek out the most valuable ends coupled with relatively more wasting of land as the lack of scrupulousness means that the land ends up being devoted to less urgent ends7.

All taxation on land will simply magnify the costs and reduce the gains. But it is important to stress its effect on our third category of income above, which relates to the entrepreneurial aspect of land ownership. The purpose of the analysis in these two essays has been to demonstrate that regardless of any natural qualities of the land or resource in question every decision and every action – even just holding onto the land – entails a cost that may outweigh its gain. Net gains from land ownership can only be had by demonstrating a relative entrepreneurial talent. They cannot be gained simply by owning land and sitting on one’s backside – there is no category of “unearned” or free income from land ownership that is ripe for taxation and there is no form of taxation that will be neutral on productivity.

At the beginning of part one, we stated that every action has a cost and a gain, the magnitude of each being uncertain. The only free or unearned “income” that a person ever has is his own body and standing room at the moment that he is born. Not only did we indicate in part one that these cannot be considered as “gains” as such but if one is adamant that unearned income should be taxed away then it follows that the only logical proposal to enact that policy is to tax birth. Is any advocate of the taxation of unearned income expecting to be able to propose such levy and, at the same time, to be taken seriously?

Conclusion

What we have sought to demonstrate in this two part series of essays is how an acting human can realise utility, gains, benefits, profits, losses and value from his actions in relation to land, including its use and its trade. We have concluded that the gross yield is directed to three sources – compensation for costs, interest, and entrepreneurial profit and loss. Finally we concluded that attempt to levy a tax on any one of these must have the effect of raising costs and decreasing gains, leading to a relative wasting of land.

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1Alternatively, if the landowner was locked into the operation and had to suffer the repeated losses, the only way he could escape would be to transfer the land to someone else. But who would want to do this? Who would want to take on the burden of a loss-bearing piece of land? The only way that it could happen is if the current land owner was to compensate the purchaser for the future losses – in other words he would have to pay someone the net present value of each year’s loss, the sum of which is that of the last column in figure C – £450K. The interest earned on this sum will compensate the new landowner for the maturity value of the losses (£100K) as each year comes round. This situation is not unusual if you consider the possibility of an enthusiastic entrepreneur taking on burdensome and lengthy obligations to third parties in relation to the operation on the land.

2In most descriptions of the evenly rotating economy there would still be discounting as the costs are incurred at a period of time before the vending of the final product. Indeed one of the advantages of this imaginary construction is that it is able to explain the phenomenon of interest as being distinct from entrepreneurial profit and loss. If the land yields £200K then, applying a discount rate of 10% per annum, costs that are incurred one year earlier will amount to £180K.

3For the sake of simplicity we will ignore the effects upon price of bartering and assume that each purchaser would pay a purchase price equal to his valuation of the land.

4It might also be the case, of course, that A is simply a more productive labourer than B or C and can farm more produce per acre. But any gain in income from this aspect accrues not to A’s entrepreneurial decision-making ability but rather to the remuneration for his labour and this additional income would be categorised in the “costs” column of an analysis of the gross income from the land rather than in the “net income” column.

5We are not intending the words “good”, “bad”, “reward” and “punishment” to imply any moral evaluation of an entrepreneur’s actions; rather, the terms should be appreciated only to the extent that people prefer making profits to losses.

6The recent accusations of the leader of the UK Labour Party, Ed Miliband, were of precisely that.

7In practice, taxes on interest and profit and loss amount to the same thing as it is not possible to separate them from an accounting point of view.

Speculation

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One of the most vilified activities associated with the capitalist economy is that of speculation. Even in a world where managers of large multinational firms and wealthy shareholders are denigrated as evil, greedy and exploitative, the full brunt of the most concentrated ire is directed towards the class of persons branded as speculators. Indeed they are a convenient scapegoat for a whole host of (often contradictory) symptoms of an ill economy or financial system – rising prices, falling prices, volatility of prices, inflating bubbles, bursting bubbles, price gouging, supply shortages ad infinitum. Even successful investors and their mentors – Warren Buffett and Benjamin Graham respectively, for instance – are keen to point out how their methods differ from speculation and reserve the word for describing arbitrary, capricious, and undisciplined trading. More than any other aspect of the free market, then, it would appear that speculation is in need of the most detailed clarification and defence. What will be elaborated is that speculation is endemic not only to all exchange, trade, business, production, etc. but also to the very nature of human action itself. Further, following an explanation of the different ways in which it is possible to speculate, it will be demonstrated that no principled distinction can be made between anyone who tries to “buy low and sell high” and that perceived differences that are used as grounds for criticism are instead based on the relative difficulty in visualising the true economic effects of some speculative activities.

Valuation and Human Action

Humans act because they wish to direct the scarce resources at their disposal to and end that is more highly valued than the alternative use to which those resources may be put. If this was not true humans would not act. All human activity, whether it is brushing one’s teeth or purchasing a bag of groceries right up to selling a house or trading billions of dollars worth of securities on the financial markets are all carried out because the acting individuals perceive that the value of the outcome is higher than the value of the alternative. I brush my teeth because the act, I believe, will produce clean teeth that I value more highly than doing something else while retaining dirty teeth. I buy the groceries because I value them more highly than the money I am using to pay for them and other things that I could have bought. I buy a house or securities on the financial markets for the same reason.

However all valuation is ex-ante, that is we must decide what the valuations of our outcomes are before we act. We do not act out all of the different things we could do with our resources and then cherry-pick the one that actually yields the most valuable outcome. Rather we have to anticipate that the resources chosen and the method of our action will actually bring about the end that is sought and that this end will indeed have the value that we believe it will have. In short, we speculate on the outcome of our actions and all of our actions are, therefore, speculative.

Different actions have differing degrees of speculation, particularly when we have experience of the outcome. Most people will be fairly confident as to the results of brushing their teeth, both in terms of the physical product and the value it has. It’s not likely that after the act of brushing the teeth will be in a condition we did not expect, nor are we likely to regret what we have done and wish we had done something else. Further we are not likely to have undervalued the outcome ex-ante and end up wishing that we had devoted even more resources to produce more of the outcome. Other actions, however, are less certain. When a person buys a new product from the grocery store he doesn’t necessarily know whether the enjoyment of the taste and the satiation of hunger will outweigh the money spent on it. In order to mitigate this uncertainty he may at first be reluctant to devote too many resources to it, perhaps only displaying a willingness to purchase it when its price is reduced. After he has eaten it he may feel that he made a satisfactory trade and that he is glad that he purchased the good for the amount of money he gave up; alternatively the meal may be so ghastly that he deeply regrets the experiment and, if he could go back in time, would keep the money and not buy the product. However another possibility is that it might be so enjoyable that he regrets not having spent more money on the good and that the other uses to which he devoted another part of his money ended up being wasted as a result.

The point, though, is that all valuation of our actions is made ex-ante and that they are, therefore, speculative. Even with a commonly repeated act such as brushing one’s teeth there is no certainty. What if the time you devoted to brushing your teeth caused you to miss something important on the television and that, if you had your time again, you could go back and leave the brushing until after the show had finished? Speculation is, therefore, not only an essential and undeniable aspect of human action, one that we are immutably bound to using, but the very generator of human action itself – it is the impulse of our belief that we are moving on to something better with each act that causes us to act. It is no exaggeration to say, therefore, that speculation is at the heart of the nature of human living. Everyone is a speculator.

Market Participants and Exchange

Having established, therefore, that speculation is the anticipation of value arising from an action that is greater than that which preceded the action, let us narrow our focus to where speculation is typically used as nomenclature for these activities of valuation – the marketplace. But are we to crown only those traders who stare at price charts on six computer screens all day as “speculators” or is the scope of the definition much wider?

The “free market” (a much-abused term usually deployed by those opposed to it to signify disconnection from and lack of control by “ordinary” people) is an abstraction for people, individuals, voluntarily buying and selling. But why do they buy and sell, or to use a more precise phrase, why do they exchange? Here we come to a second important law of human action – that in order for two individuals to exchange goods, each must value the good that he receives more highly than the good he gives up. If A owns good a’, B owns good b’ and they agree with each other to exchange these two goods then it must be because A values good b’ more highly than he values good a’ and B values good a’ more highly than he values good b’. If this was not true why would the exchange happen? If the good you wished to acquire you viewed as equal in value to the good that you give you up why bother to exchange it? If it is of equal value what are you gaining from the action? Any doubts about this truth can easily be purged by considering one’s own experiences. You work to earn money but you cannot eat money and it cannot provide you with shelter, clothing, etc. At some point you need to buy goods that will remedy these deficiencies and you do this because the goods become more valuable for you than the money. Conversely the vendor of the goods wants your money more than he wants the goods.

It follows therefore that if market participants are attempting to gain value through trade, and the value can only be anticipated in the way that was outlined above then aren’t all market participants speculating? Aren’t we all expecting that what we gain from an exchange will be of greater value than that which we gave up but live with the fact that our expectation might either turn out to be true, turn out to be really true to the extent that we wished we’d exchanged more or turn out to be so untrue that we really wished we had not made the exchange? Everyone in the marketplace is therefore a speculator and all market transactions are speculations – speculations on what is gained in exchange will be more valuable than what is given up.

Let us concentrate, however, on the market participants who buy and sell, i.e. the relationship of exchange does not end with their purchases as in the case of a consumer. Consumers, after all, are expecting psychic gain. When a consumer purchases a steak he is expecting the enjoyment gained from eating it to be greater than the money he gains from it. With other market participants, however, the goods they exchange are not for their final enjoyment – they are to be bought with the desire to sell them again in due course. Here we have the starkest and simplest way of determining a gain in value from an exchange – that the price at which you bought a good is lower than the price at which you sell it. All market participants other than consumers aim at this end. And once again the participants can only expect that the good will sell at a price higher than the price at which it was bought. All market participants are, therefore, speculators and the object of their speculation is the variation in price of an economic good. It does not matter who you are – a corner shop, a restaurant, a bank, a large multinational firm, a derivatives trader – all speculate that the price at which they purchase the factors of production will be lower than the price at which they sell the final article to their customers. Price movement, therefore, is king to the speculator.

Prices

It is an economic law that the market price is a function of the supply of an economic good and its demand. If the market price is at a level where the quantity of the good that is demanded is equal to its supply then the price is said to be at the equilibrium price, or the “clearing” price. As the quantity demanded equals the quantity supplied all willing market participants – buyers and sellers – are satisfied at this price. All of the willing buyers go home with however many units of the good they wished to buy and all the willing sellers go home with however many units of money they wished to sell for.

It follows, therefore, that if there is a change in supply or demand then one set of people must become unsatisfied. If, at the current price, demand increases but supply remains constant there are now, suddenly, not enough willing sellers to supply the goods to all of the willing buyers. The result is that price must rise to a point at which the willingly supplied stock can be rationed to the sudden influx of new willing buyers at the old price. Conversely if supply increases but demand remains equal then price must fall to a level at which the increased supply can find new, willing buyers who were not prepared to pay the higher price.

Disequilibrium in the relationship between supply and demand therefore causes prices to change. It is the ongoing and varying disequilibrium that causes the price movements in goods that we commonly associate with speculators – in stocks, bonds, currencies, commodities, real estate etc. But the currents of supply and demand are common to all prices, even those that appear to hardly change at all from day to day.

As we already established a speculator in the marketplace is a person who “speculates” on the prices of goods – he believes that the price which he pays for a good today will be lower than the price that he is able to sell it for in the future. But, as we just explained, this can only happen if there is disequilibrium in the relationship between supply and demand. What follows, therefore, is an important, applied economic law that is seldom realised by even the market participants themselves: that anyone who buys goods in the marketplace with the desire to sell them at a higher price at a later date is necessarily intending to buy at a price level where demand already or shortly will exceed supply, necessitating a rise in price, and to sell them either when price reaches equilibrium or when supply exceeds demand. All persons who buy and sell aim to do so at these points. All market participants are therefore speculators on the disequilibrium between supply and demand. There are no exceptions to this law – every investor, entrepreneur, manager, businessman, capitalist, shopkeeper, distributor, agent, anyone you can think of who wants to “buy low” and “sell high” must and can only find the places where demand and supply are in disequilibrium. It follows that the buying and selling where the disequilibrium is greatest will yield the most handsome profit margins.

Methods of Speculating

We are now getting closer to the area where the most common grumbles about the act of speculation lie – that the speculator just buys something, sits on his rear end, waits for the price to rise and then sells it. “But what on earth has he done?!” cries the typical lament. “What value has he contributed? How has he improved the situation at all and why should I pay this person a ludicrously high profit?!” Such vitriol is usually reserved for certain types of market occupation – investors, bankers, middle men, and agents for example. But we must remember that all market participants are speculators and so there is more than one way of anticipating where and how the supply and demand for a good will change. Further, as will be demonstrated, all speculators, in whichever occupation they are working, must, if they are successful, add value.

What, then, are the methods of speculating? What is the focus of the individual speculator when he is buying low and selling high? They are one of three things – that the speculator must either a) transform the good into another good, b) change the location of the good or c) change the time of an economic good. Little needs to be said about a) except that it always involves a material transformation of a combination of goods into the final good; b) is effected  by transporting the good from one location to another; and c) by buying it, withholding it from circulation and selling it at a later date.

In practice, of course, it is an economic fiction to treat these aspects entirely separately; for a start all methods of speculation must take place through time. Further we could argue that a change of time or a change of location is also a change of form – that, for example, oranges in Florida are a different economic good from oranges in London, or that Christmas trees at the height of summer are a different good from Christmas trees on December 25th. However from the point of view of the physical actions and preoccupations of the speculator they are separable and analytically different methods of speculating. How then do these methods of speculation take advantage of changes in supply and demand?

If a speculator transforms an economic good then he takes pre-existing goods and turns them into another good, a finished product for sale. It is easy to envisage this as almost every manufacturer fits into this category, whether he is a sole trader or a large factory. A carpenter takes wood, tools, varnish and his labour and produces may be a table or a chair. A printer takes plain paper, ink, staples or binding fluid, and labour and turns out a book. A car plant or plane manufacturer takes hundreds of factors of production in order to turn out their products. Such transformation can take place with previously produced goods or with land (in the economic sense). The carpenter’s wood, for example, has already been transformed from a tree into a plank, whereas a farmer has to take land, seeds, water sunshine and labour and turn them into crops. Further, the transformation is not limited to tangible goods but also to services. A taxi driver will take a vehicle, fuel, a payment meter, his labour and produce with them a journey for a customer. Nothing physical that the customer can hold in his hand results, but the factors have combined to yield a valuable, intangible good.

How is it, then, that a transformation produces the all important increase in value, indicated by aiming for selling the produced good at a price higher than the price of the individual factors? It can only be by buying factors that are in low demand relative to supply and transforming them into a good that is in high demand relative to supply. The several economic effects of this service are important. First, it discovers an economic inefficiency that is ripe for correction – factors that are used to produce a good that is highly valued are, in and of themselves, relative undervalued. The larger the profit margin the greater the extent of this disequilibrium. Secondly, such a discrepancy means that the factors, because of their cheapness, will be directed towards production processes with less valuable ends and will be conserved with less zeal. Hence factors that could be used to produce a highly valued end are, in and of themselves, being wasted on lesser ends. When the speculator begins to buy these factors he creates for them an additional demand. This additional demand drives up their prices, rendering them too costly for other, less valuable ends and diverting them instead to the more valuable ends. Hence resources are no longer wasted. Finally this discovery of the discrepancy and its subsequent correction, yielding a large profit margin, will encourage competitors to enter the field. Thus, the factors will be bid up even more thus driving their price up further while the supply of the finished product will increase, hence lowering its price in turn. Profit margins therefore decrease as the increasing cost of factors approaches the decreasing selling price of the final good. Investment will continue to increase and the industry to expand until profit margins no longer justify it and funds are attracted to other projects whose discrepancies and imbalances have now become relatively more pressing. Hence speculation – the discovery of imbalances between demand and supply – prevents the waste of resources by identifying wide profit margins and closing them. As result the scarce factors of production are directed to their most highly valued end. And this is the essence of economic efficiency, getting the greatest value out of scarce resources1.

However, there is no guarantee that the speculator’s buying prices will be higher than his selling prices. Just as the consumer does not know in advance whether the new product he bought from the grocery store will end up being worth the money spent, so too does the speculator not know whether the price of the good he sells will be higher than that of the goods that he combined to produce it. It may be that his customers are satisfied with the product and will purchase it at a modest premium, in which case he identified a discrepancy in the market but it was relatively minor. He has provided a service but the factors of production clearly have very competitive alternative ends into which they could be drawn, otherwise their price would have been lower and the profit margin higher. The speculator has therefore done an important service, but not one of tremendous magnitude. Alternatively the customers may be absolutely delighted with the new product and rush to buy it as quickly as possible. Demand is so high that the speculator can barely keep up with orders and the only way to ration the existing stock is to raise the price. The increase in price will, therefore, increase profit margins. Hence the speculator here has identified a very wide and serious imbalance in the economy, a pressing and urgent desire of his customers for a product whose factors were highly under-utilised. Or, the undesired outcome, the speculator finds that he cannot sell his finished product for more than the factors of production and that he therefore makes a loss. He has, erroneously, diverted factors that were in high demand relative to supply and transformed them into something lower in demand relative to supply. Hence the factors have been wasted as the high demand for these factors indicates that there were more pressing needs to which they could be diverted. However, the waste is quickly cut short because no market participant wishes to or even can sustain losses. At some point, even if he persists with the loss making enterprise, there will a come a time when he runs out of money. He therefore loses the ability to continue to divert resources to wasteful ends and his proven lack of talent for speculation eliminates him from that role in the economy. The successful speculators however, in gaining profit, are able to command more resources than they were before. Their successful identification of where to divert the scarce factors of production means that they are trusted with being able to do so again with more. But if they make one error in identifying the desires of the consumers they will begin to make losses. They must therefore be continually successful in identifying the most pressing needs of valuable economic resources.

As we have already said speculation is necessarily forward looking – the anticipation that the value yielded by an act is greater than that of what persisted before. When it comes to the speculator who buys and sells goods what we see is that the valuation runs in a direction reverse to that of the sequence of events. The first speculator in what could be a very long chain of production is motivated by the valuation of the final consumer (who may not appear to buy for many months or even years) that is expressed through the chain by the valuations of all the other speculating intermediaries and directly by the particular speculator who will purchase his product from him. All speculators are, therefore, acting ultimately in the service of the final consumer by ensuring that scarce resources are directed to their most pressing needs.

Having explained the economic effects of speculation with reference to speculators who transform economic goods the remaining categories can be elaborated relatively swiftly. However with transformation it is relatively straightforward to visualise the productivity of the speculator; indeed the word speculator is seldom associated with what are perceived as routine businesses. This, as we have shown, is a misunderstanding as all actions are speculative and calculably so when they involve buying in order to sell for money. However with speculators who change either the location or the time of a good understanding of precisely what is going on becomes more obscure, resulting in the perception that either these types of speculator are either adding no value or, worse, are actively destructive and exploitative. These beliefs will be demonstrated to be false.

With the speculator who changes the location of an economic good we have the first case of the dreaded middleman – the agent, the dealer, the distributor and the marketer. These people buy an economic good, do absolutely nothing to change it and then sell it for a higher price, so the argument goes. If however, they are not adding value then it raises the question of why people are willing to pay the mark-up. Are the speculators simply ripping people off or is there a genuine reason why they are able to sell their goods for higher than the price at which they bought them?

Let us take the example of the distributor. He buys goods in one location, transports them to another and sells them at the latter. But why is he able to sell them at a higher price at the final location? Going back to our analysis of prices it can only be because the goods at the original location are in lower demand relative to supply whereas the goods at the final location are in higher demand relative to supply. In other words the speculator has identified an imbalance in the market – goods at one location are plentiful and lowly valued relative to another location and the speculator steps in to correct this imbalance. This is straightforward to perceive with goods that can only be manufactured or produced at certain locations on the Earth either because of climate or because of the ease of access to raw materials. Let us assume that a certain good, oranges, can only be produced in Spain. At that place there is a very heavy supply of the oranges as the crop ripens – baskets and baskets of them are stacked up in the groves. Oranges may be so abundant that they exchange for pennies and people devote their use to meet all sorts of ends – eating, juicing, garnishing, animal feed etc. However at other places on Earth – let’s say, London – oranges are not produced at all and are in very short supply. Consequently they trade for a very high price and as soon as someone gets his hands on an orange he will conserve it and take extra care to make sure he devotes it to his most highly valued use (lets say eating). It is unlikely that you would find Londoners using this rare fruit as animal feed.

The actions of the speculator who steps in in this case differ in no way at all from the speculator who transforms goods. His buying action will drive up prices in Spain that curbs the relatively wasteful uses to which oranges are directed; his selling action will drive prices down in London, allowing more people to enjoy the fruit and to devote it to a wider number of uses than they could before. The height of his profit is determined by and will demonstrate the height of the economic imbalance between the two locations, encouraging competitors to also enter the field and continue the buying in Spain and the selling in London, thus reducing profits. This will continue until the return no longer justifies the costs of transportation2. Therefore just as where the transforming speculator brought about a unity in price between the factors of production and the final product the speculator in location brings about a uniform price for goods across all places (less transportation costs). Thus economic resources are not just channelled to their most highly valued form but also they are transported to their most highly valued location.

Economically the speculator in location is no different from the speculator in form its just that the focus of his operation, his expertise, is location and not form and it is, hence, analytically easier to deal with them in these categories. However he does take factors – oranges in Spain, wooden crates, trucks, fuel and labour – and transforms them into oranges in London and the latter is really a different good from the original. Hence he has produced a good in a different form except that this is not evident from the physical quality of the final good. It is this obscurity that leads to questioning over the added value of this type of speculator’s activity.

It could also be said that a further benefit of the speculator is that he eases the burden of the previous producer. For example, by buying the oranges from the farmer the speculator relieves the latter of having to find a market for his product. The farmer receives a definite price now rather than having to, himself, arrange for transportation, marketing and whatever else in order to sell his product elsewhere on the planet. He can therefore concentrate his time and resources on farming the oranges. The car manufacturer sells to a dealer so the latter then takes on the burden of having to sell them to consumers. The same is true also of those who change the form of goods – the carpenter relieves the lumberjack from having to fashion the wood into tables and chairs; the goldsmith does need to learn how to fashion jewellery as the jeweller will buy the gold from him and do it instead. Hence the more speculators there are trying to analyse differences between buying and selling prices in different markets then the greater becomes the extent of the division of labour – each market participant only needs to concentrate on and consider a very small section of the entire economy and may be completely unaware of where his factors came from and where his final product will end up. Such specialisation leads to enormously greater productivity and, indeed, is the very raison d’être of the extent to which humans have, at least in some parts of the world, achieved a standard of living far in excess of that when they first walked the Earth.

Finally let us turn our attention towards the speculator who changes the time of an economic good. Here lies the, apparently, most lazy and undeserving of all speculators – the person who buys something, holds it then sells it a higher price while having added nothing of any value whatsoever. Such a point of view again overlooks an analysis of supply and demand3. If the speculator buys at a time when prices are low it must be because the demand for the good is low relative to its supply. Nevertheless the speculator is anticipating that demand will rise at a point in the future, a point that will cause prices to rise and allow him to sell at a profit. If the speculator is correct, therefore, then it means that the good in question will become, in the eyes of the consumers, scarcer than it was before. Something that today is relatively valueless will tomorrow become desperately sought after. The speculator’s buying actions therefore serves to remove the good from circulation at a point when demand is low. This removal prevents it from being wasted by a diversion to a less urgent use today when it will be needed for a more urgent use tomorrow. Once prices have risen as a result of the anticipated increase in demand, the speculator releases the good for sale on the market again, but now only those that most value the good will be willing to pay the higher price. Hence the resource will be devoted to its more urgent uses. Speculators in time therefore conserve resources in times of plenty and release them in times of scarcity. It is almost exactly like the squirrel who, during the summer and the autumn when nuts and fruits are in abundance, abstains from consumption of a part of them and stores them away. Come the winter and the spring when these goods are scarce he has plenty to consume that he would not have had but for his saving and storage. Indeed, seasonal products or products that have a long period of production (the longer the production period the more uncertain the final selling price of the good) are those that are ripest for speculation in time. The general effect of this speculative activity on the market is a reversion of prices to the average. If we assume, for the sake of simplicity, a constant demand for wheat during the year, at harvest time there is plenty of wheat to satisfy this demand and so prices will be very low. Wheat will be so cheap that people will gobble it up and devote it to minor and un-pressing needs on account of its abundance. However in the winter wheat will be very scarce and will therefore command a high price. There will not be enough to go around and what little there is will be devoted only to the most urgent needs. However in summer the speculator, by introducing additional buying pressure when prices are low, will drive prices up towards the average annual price and in winter, by introducing selling pressure when prices are high, will push prices back down to the average. The result, therefore, is a stable, annual price for wheat throughout the entire year in spite of the seasonal variations in supply. This is why consumers are able to pay the same price throughout the year for grocery products that are produced with seasonal factors of production.

Similarly to other forms of speculation the height of the difference between the buying and the selling prices determines the scale of the economic imbalance, most noticeably after poor harvests. In these years speculative action, reaping handsome profits because the price rises so high, serves to conserve what little of the crop there is for those who need it most urgently.

Of course those speculators who behave contrary to what supply and demand are doing – those who sell when prices are low and hence drive down the price even further when the good is in hot supply, or those who buy when prices are high thus choking off even the most willing buyers from being able to purchase the good – will quickly lose funds and go bust, ending their short reign of destructive buying and selling. For no speculator, in the long run, can change the ultimate direction of prices; every speculator who buys at some point has to sell. His buying pressure that raises prices today will become selling pressure that lowers them again tomorrow. The overall price and its movement can only be determined by original supply of a good by its producers and the final demand by its consumers. The alleged volatility of prices and bubble formations that are allegedly caused by speculative activity will be dealt with below.

A further benefit of speculation in time is the correction of momentary price discrepancies. A seller offers a good for sale at a price below the market clearing price where demand outstrips supply. The speculator purchases the good and offers it for resale at the market price, pocketing the difference as profit. By purchasing at the lower price the speculator ensures that sub-marginal buyers are not able to get their hands on it and divert it to less urgent uses; by selling it at the higher price he conserves the good for the marginal and supra-marginal buyers who will divert it to more urgent uses. Conversely a buyer may offer to buy a good for higher than the market price where supply exceeds demand. Here the speculator will short sell the good, borrowing it and selling it at the higher price before buying it back at the market price and returning it to the lender. This means that sub-marginal sellers are not able to sell their goods ahead of the marginal and supra-marginal sellers, ensuring that the former cannot crowd the market with wasteful surpluses that will find no buyer at the high price.

It should be clear that the speculators’ profits in cases of momentary price discrepancies are funded entirely by the erroneously dealing sellers who sell too low or the erroneous buyers who buy too high. They must bear the penalty for trading at a price level where supply and demand are not in equilibrium. Those buyers and sellers who are prepared to trade at the market price do not suffer at all; indeed buyers are benefited by the prevention of a shortage of stock resulting from prices below equilibrium and sellers by the prevention of surplus stock resulting from prices higher than equilibrium. Of course if the speculator himself is on the wrong side of these trades then he is the one who is punished with losses. If he, for example, suspects that the current price is below the market price whereas it is in fact at or above the market price, he will buy and then attempt to sell at an even higher price. But at this price there are few, if any buyers, willing to purchase all of the stock from sellers who are willing to sell at this level. The only way the speculator can compete with the other sellers is to lower his price until all the stock can be sold at a level that fills every demand to buy. Depending on how erroneous his original price was he may break even or suffer a loss. Repeated losses will deplete the speculator’s funds until he has no wherewithal to speculate further and he is prevented from causing any more distorting activity on the market.

A final benefit is similar to that of the service that the speculator in location provides the orange grower – by finding a market for the product the latter is relieved of the risk and burden of having to do so and can concentrate on farming the product. Similar concerns face those who sell goods with a length of production that is relatively long and which may in and of itself be fraught with uncertainty. Once again crops are a good example. The farmer has to begin production and incur expenditure on factors in the spring whereas he will not reap the harvest and make an income until six to nine months later, during which any number of intervening events could occur that will affect the amount and quality of the final good. In steps the speculator who will, say, at the start of the growing season offer a definite price to the farmer for his whole crop, regardless of how it turns out at the end of the harvest. The speculator, of course, believes that the final crop will be of a quality and quantity that will enable him to earn a profit on what he paid to the farmer. The farmer, in turn, is willing to forego this profit so that he can purchase factors of production and begin work safely with the knowledge that the costs will be covered by a fixed amount of revenue in the future. Hence the risk of future prices is transferred from the farmer to the speculator.

Financial Traders

The financial trader is the speculator in time par excellence. He will buy financial securities that are claims upon real assets, withdraw them from circulation and sell them again for a higher price. Everything essential that needs to be known about this type of individual has been covered in the previous discussion. Nevertheless as the financial speculator in particular is the least understood and most vilified of all market participants some additional elaboration would be beneficial.

The consumer, as discussed above, bases his buying decisions upon whether the object of his purchase gives him greater satisfaction that the sum of money with which he parts for it. His gain is a psychic profit, one that cannot be measured or demonstrated but one that is, in his own mind, either satisfied greatly, somewhat or not at all. It follows therefore that his buying decision is dependent upon the quality of the good that he buys – if it is food it needs to have a nutritional value and taste the benefit of which exceeds the cost that was paid for it. But what of the person who sells it to him? If you are a fishmonger is it your preoccupation (aside from providing advice and recommendations or from utilising a degree of empathy with your customers) that salmon is delicious and nutritious and will provide a great deal of benefit if consumed? Or are you more concerned with the fact that consumers are willing to buy it at the price you offer and, in order to meet this demand, are you not concentrating on where you can source it at the lowest possible cost? A café owner doesn’t care whether coffee is good, bad, or ugly nor does a carpenter care about whether tables and chairs are nice to sit on; indeed both may utterly abhor the products that they produce. The focus of their operations is to recognise that consumers demand these things and they meet these demands by purchasing the factors of their production at the lowest possible cost, raising the price for these factors and hence choking off their diversion to less urgent desires of the consumers. What emerges therefore is a symbiotic relationship where the desire to earn profits on the part of the trader is harmonised with the desire of the consumer to acquire a good that will satisfy him.

If we turn, however, to the financial markets the same relationship is present between what we might call pure financial traders and investors. The latter is inherently concerned with whether the capital goods which he purchases will best serve the needs of consumers. If he must decide whether to invest in either companies A, B or C he must determine which of them (if any) is utilising (or will utilise) its assets in the best possible way in order to fulfil the demand of its customers. Even though, therefore, the investor is, like all market participants, a speculator in supply and demand and ultimately derives his entrepreneurial profit from imbalances between the two, there is an inherently qualitative dimension to his operation, similar to that of the consumer himself.

The market capitalisation of a company represents the discounted value of the company’s future profits – that is the present value of all of the future profits, necessarily discounted because a good available today is of higher value than the same good available at some point in the future. If you were to buy a whole company what you have really bought and what you are really paying for is the entire future profits of the company discounted to reflect the fact that you cannot enjoy these profits today but must wait for their generation at some future date.

However, the medium of such investment activity is normally financial securities – stocks and bonds being the most obvious and prolific – which are merely ways of scattering the ownership of a company across many different investors, each of whom owns a portion of the company’s future profits4. However these securities are themselves traded on an independent market and markets, as we know, are formed by the demand of buyers and the supply of sellers. There is, therefore, a supply and demand for ownership of these “pieces” of companies. This supply and demand is driven by investors and their views of whether a particular company will best serve the needs of consumers. It follows, therefore, that if a great number of investors believe that a company will be particularly illustrious and successful in performing this function the demand for its securities will be very high relative to their supply. If however, the investors believe the contrary – that the company is wasteful and has little or no prospect of earning a profit – there will be an eager rush to sell its shares and hence demand will be very low relative to supply. This is what, proximately, causes some share prices to be “high” and others “low” – the opinion of investors of whether the company concerned will generate future profits. Notice that this market operates entirely independently of the operations of the company itself; although the share price should, theoretically, follow the success of the company, they can and do diverge because investors change their minds as to the ability of the company to generate future profits. All this proves is that the investment operation is speculative – that it is looking forward to a future state that is uncertain and that this future state may turn out very differently from that which was hypothesised5.

There is, therefore, an investors’ market where people will buy not consumer goods like meat, bread or coffee but securities in companies. But this market operates just like the consumers’ market and it is wholly based on the supply and demand for the products that are traded. If coffee is suddenly demanded very highly then in step the speculators – caring not of the reasons for the consumers’ desires – who buy, and hence bid up the prices of, the factors of coffee production to ensure that less urgent needs are choked off from their use in order to ensure that they can be devoted to this very pressing need of the consumers that has emerged. But exactly the same happens on the market for securities. In just the same way that consumer demand for coffee might rise because they believe it to be delicious and nutritious, so too at any one time investors might increase their demand for shares of Company A on the belief that A has a strong prospect of earning future profits.

In, therefore, steps our financial speculator. In just the same way as the speculator in consumer products has to speculate on the demand and supply of these products, so too does the financial speculator speculate on the demand and supply – of the investors – for financial securities. In just the same way that the café cares not for the underlying qualities of coffee but only for the fact that it is in heavy demand, so too does the financial speculator care little for the qualitative prospects of the company from which the security is derived to earn future profits; he cares simply for the security’s supply and demand driven by investors. He will buy the security if he believes that, at this price level, demand for the security outstrips supply leading to an inevitable price rise; in other words, if investors who believe that the company will generate good future profits outnumber those investors who do not. He will sell the security when it reaches a price level where supply and demand are in equilibrium, or he will short sell if he believes that the supply of the security is in excess of its demand, i.e. if investors who believe the company will generate good future profits are outnumbered by those who do not.

It follows, therefore, that the majority of investors may be totally erroneous as to their opinions of the company; they may all want to buy a complete turkey of a company in the mistaken belief that it will be handsomely profitable, or, alternatively, they may sell the golden goose. The financial speculator cares not about whether these companies really have an underlying ability or lack thereof to generate future profits; his focus is entirely on whether the investors believe that they do and the consequential supply and demand that is generated for the securities6.

What economic benefits does such a speculator achieve? More or less they are identical to those of all other speculators. If the speculator predicts that demand for a security will be very high then not all of the investors who wish to buy can do so at the current price. The speculator’s additional buying will therefore cause a price rise that occurs sooner than it would otherwise have done so. In the same way that bidding up the factors of production diverts their use from less urgent needs, so too will the financial speculator begin to choke off demand from incompetents – not merely dabblers and gamblers or those with insufficient funds to purchase at the higher price but also those who are less certain or have been less scrupulous in forming their belief that the company is a worthwhile investment. The rise in price therefore reserves the supply of the security for the investors whose belief in the company’s prospects to earn returns is so strong and committed that they believe that even a purchase at this higher price is justified and will be covered by these future returns. It is to these people whom the speculator will sell. Conversely, when the speculator believes that supply of a security is in excess of demand – i.e. that the majority of investors believe that the company will not, at this security price, earn a future profit that justifies it – he will short sell it. As not all willing sellers can sell at this high price due to the lack of demand, the speculator’s actions in driving down the price will again choke off the less competent sellers – those who are less certain or have been less scrupulous in forming their belief that the company is a turkey – and the resulting fall in price to where demand is higher means that investors whose belief in the lack of the company’s prospects to earn returns is strong can now find a demand to sell to. It is from these people whom the speculator will buy to cover his short sale and, indeed, his aim – if he is to achieve the highest profit – is to buy from the very last of these investors, when the price movement is necessarily at the lowest it will go.

In sum, therefore, the financial speculator provides the committed investor, the one most dedicated to directing resources to where they are most urgently desired by the consumers, a supply of securities when the latter wishes to buy and a demand for them when he wishes to sell. There is, therefore, no substantive difference between the relationship of a shop with a customer and a financial speculator with an investor. It is merely that the service of the financial speculator, by ensuring that security prices most quickly reflect the underlying supply and demand, is not to directly channel resources to where they are most urgently needed but to facilitate the ability of the investors to do so.

It should be clear that the most lucrative investment operation is one that takes note of this speculative ability. For if one wishes to make the highest profit it pays to combine the two operations – by a) finding those companies that will best meet the needs of consumers and generate the highest profits, and b) whose securities are trading at a price where demand is far in excess of supply and hence are due for an inevitable price rise. It is for this reason that the famous philosophy of value investing – buying the most profitable companies at prices below that at which the investor believes represents their discounted profit stream – is so successful. Indeed, it is analogous to a consumer being able to buy at wholesale rather than retail prices – you are buying the same value but at a lower price hence the differential between the price and your reward is greater. As the first chapter to one introduction to value investing is titled, “Buy Stocks like Steaks…On Sale”7.

Charting, “Gambling” and Asset Bubbles

Let us conclude by laying to rest some additional myths associated with the financial trader. The speculator’s primary tool of price charts and its associated array of mathematical studies that are derivatives of price (used in methods that are collectively known as “technical analysis”) lead the casual observer to declare that all speculators do is follow a few patterns or look at a few studies and then repeat this over and over in order to rake in huge and “unjust” profits. But to assume this is to make the cardinal error of treating human activity like that of unconscious matter, that when any pattern or mathematical progression repeats it signifies a buy or sell signal that, unfailingly, will produce profits. Such nonsense detracts from the central task of the speculator, one that has been stressed over and over in the above – to find imbalances in the relationship between supply and demand. All he is doing, just like any other speculator, is finding the prices where supply and demand are in the largest disequilibrium except that he finds these areas by interpreting price charts. There is nothing technical or mathematical about this process; it is, rather, an entrepreneurial skill just like any other. Every profitable trader knows that there is not a single technical or mathematical study that, taken alone, will yield consistent profitable trading activity; indeed it is the fastest way to run down a trading account. Rather, the speculator learns what supply and demand imbalances tend to look like on a price chart and he trades only in these areas. But he knows that human action is not uniform and repetitive and he does not expect every instance of his analysis to provide the same result. Rather, he condenses his interpretative techniques to a handful of rules that he applies with a probabilistic approach to discovering where supply and demand are most in disequilibrium, risking a small percentage of his funds by stopping out of a trade in cases where he is wrong. The most skilled traders can keep such losses to a minimum to the extent that they simply become a cost of doing business; indeed with proper risk-management skills that ensure his losses are small and his profitable trades are large his interpretative methods may even allow him to make losses on more occasions than he makes profits. But regardless of his precise win/loss ratio recognition of the fact that a trading method does not work one-hundred percent of the time (a point on which all successful traders will agree) proves that there is nothing about trading from charts that can be scientifically or quantatively determined. The only science is in the fact that disequilibrium in supply and demand causes prices to rise or fall; interpreting where these points lie on a price chart is a rare, entrepreneurial skill.

Nor can it be said that financial traders are “gamblers”, that is that their returns are based on pure luck. The point of this essay has been to demonstrate that all market participants are speculators, they all, fundamentally, are doing the same thing regardless of their specific methods and preoccupations, and the economic effects of their actions are always the same. There is, therefore, no way in principle to distinguish one type of speculator from another. If a financial trader is a gambler on rising or falling prices then so is every business, every shop, every carpenter, and every plumber in the world. But even if financial traders or any speculators were simply gamblers then what harm would it do? Every speculator, as we have noted, must one day sell after he has bought. He is not a producer of original supply or final demand, rather he greases the market towards prices where the original suppliers and final demanders are in equilibrium. If he is successful in doing this he sells for a profit; if he is not then he sells for a loss. If the former then he has aided economic efficiency by moving supply and demand towards its equilibrium price, whatever his methods. Consequently he is trusted with more funds on which to make larger and more important speculations in the future. If he loses then it is the opposite – he has harmed discovery of the equilibrium price, but his resources for doing so are limited. If he keeps making losses then very quickly the market will wipe him out and his means for causing ill economic effects are curtailed. However if these losses happen through gambling then the situation is just like that of any speculator who applies faulty methods, whether they are laziness, sloppiness or simply a lack of entrepreneurial talent. There is no way to separate a gambling speculator from one that is simply bad.

Finally, let us consider wild speculative bubbles that, during boom years, inflate away like an aphrodisiac balloon until they finally pop, ushering in a recession or depression following a crash in prices. This is not the place to discuss at length the cause of the business cycle by artificial credit stimulation. But if such artificial stimulation distorts the underlying fundamentals of the economy – by making longer and more roundabout production processes appear more attractive and diverting resources unsustainably into capital projects – then this is not the fault of the speculator. Remember that every speculator is always in the position of having to sell after he buys. He cannot, therefore, affect the overall or average price level of the speculative good. In buying capital goods at the start of the boom, the very ones that he knows will be sucked up by all the freshly created and loaned money that is emerging from the artificially low interest rate environment, he merely moves prices quicker to where they are already heading as a result of all this newly printed money. The boom therefore happens quicker, but it is only in response to the anticipated demand that has been falsely stimulated by credit creation. The same happens at the bust phase – by selling or short selling the speculator simply lays bare the fact that demand and supply, at such inflated prices, cannot continue to be in equilibrium in the absence of continued credit expansion. His action at the peak of the market and on its slide down liquidates the boom’s malinvestments quicker and, uninterrupted, provides a painful but much speedier recovery to a sound and stable economy than otherwise would be the case. Speculation exists to serve the direction of supply and demand in the economy whatever causes this supply and demand to occur on the part of market participants. If the directions of supply and demand are distorted by destructive interventions then their consequences are not the fault of the speculator. Proper blame should be laid at the door of the easy credit policy which still, regardless of the continuing economic malaise since 2008, is the favourite of governments and central banks everywhere.

Conclusion

In sum therefore, it may be said that:

  • All human actions are speculative and therefore everyone is a speculator;
  • That all consumer choices are speculations;
  • That all market participation – buying and selling – is speculative;
  • That speculative activities are beneficial to channelling the scarce resources of the Earth to their most urgent needs and uses by harmonising supply and demand;
  • That it is not possible to distinguish, in principle, between different speculative activities on the market; and that, further, differences between types of speculator usually centre on the fact that a lack of physical change to a good is falsely regarded as a lack of added value;
  • That common myths regarding the nature and alleged destructiveness of financial trading in particular are entirely false.

1 We might also point out that the higher prices of the factors will also be preceded by speculative action for them as well, and investment will also be drawn towards increasing the supply of these factors that is now justified by their increased price. Hence their factors also will increase in price, and so on and so forth right back through the chain of production until prices for all of the factors and their respective finished product approach equilibrium.

2 If this equilibrium is reached oranges will still trade at a premium in London because of these costs.

3 For the avoidance of doubt we are not referring here to the premium placed on present goods vs future goods as a result of the law of time preference; we are discussing here real changes in the supply and demand for a good.

4 Shareholders and bondholders fulfil the same economic function as each other – they both advance investment funds to the company. The difference is that they do so merely on different legal terms and acquire different rights through the respective relationships.

5 Earnings announcements are typical examples of where the share price diverges from the company’s ability to earn future profits. If earnings are good the share prices normally rocket on the news whereas if the are bad they plummet. But today’s earnings have nothing to do with tomorrow’s. If today’s are bad it might be that the company still has the ability to pull itself together and deliver a result tomorrow; or it might really be a turkey and still continue to lose money. If, on the other hand, today’s results are good this might be the best that it ever gets and tomorrow will only generate lower profits or even losses; or it might just be the start of a long and prestigious career of generating truly handsome returns. All of these options are possible yet nearly always investors react as if good news today is good for tomorrow and bad news today is bad for tomorrow.

6 These facts should put an end forever to so-called efficient market hypothesis (EMH). The hypothesis is based upon a misunderstanding of why markets are said to be “efficient”, a term itself that is vague and stifles clarity. Markets are “efficient” because they harmonise the supply and demand for goods through the price mechanism, in other words goods are directed to where they are most highly sought and, a fortiori, their most highly valued ends. But the efficiency of markets has nothing to do with the underlying valuations that drive this supply and demand. These are products of the human mind, the result of desires and choices, and the notion that prices respond “efficiently” to publicly available information suggests that the impact of this information upon such human choice and desire is uniform, predictable and quantifiable. The theory’s weakness is similar to that of a strict adherence to the quantity theory of money in attempting to explain how increases of the supply of money affect the so-called “price level”. Further, the entire reason why profits are earned in an economy is because future valuations are not known, nor are they available in publicly disseminated information; it is, rather, the task of entrepreneurs to bear the risk of predicting them through their understanding of their customers’ sentiments. A million investors, acting on all of the publicly available “information”, may dump the stock of a company that, tomorrow, will earn sky-high profits. The one investor who goes against this grain and buys all of the sold stock is the person who reaps the “excess” reward that EMH states is impossible or at least unlikely.

7 Browne, Christopher H, The Little Book of Value Investing.

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