Prices and Cost of Production

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A major field of study in the science of economics is the pricing of consumer goods and their antecedent factors of production. The history of this area of thought provides an almost textbook example of the falsehood of the “Whig theory” of historiography – the idea that the knowledge of humanity progresses in an ever upward direction and that what we know now is better and more enlightened than what we knew before. For this area of study in particular is marked by progression, retrogression and progression once more, often with disastrous consequences.

The most serious case of retrogression in this regard was of, course the Marxian labour theory of value that stipulated that the exchange ratio of goods depended upon the quantity of labour time inherent in their production. This theory, together with its corollaries and associates such as the iron law of wages and the exploitation theory, was derived, so it was believed, directly from the largely pre-capitalist classical economics of Smith and Ricardo.

A basic “Austrian” response to this is to reject Marxism and its supposed classical parent by pointing out, of course, that costs are also prices. To explain prices in reference to prices, therefore, would appear to be a case of circular reasoning. Rather, the prices of the factors of production were derived from the value of the final good. Capitalists would bid up the factors of production according to the valuation of the final product. Thus the value of every factor was explained not according to the effort expended but, rather, according to its value in producing consumer goods.

Unfortunately, however, this basic understanding of the “Austrian” approach towards prices ignores the much richer theoretical tapestry inherent in the “Austrian” approach (especially that of Böhm-Bawerk) which, in fact, does not contradict many of the tenets of price theory in classical economics but, rather, armed with the law of marginal utility, provides a more powerful explanatory basis for them. Thus, one need not throw out the classical economics baby with the Marxist bath water and risk losing many of the important and true conclusions that were abused and distorted by Marx.

An immediate problem with the basic “Austrian” view is that the sequence of valuations from consumer good through the stages of production to the ultimate land and labour factors is the reverse of the temporal sequence of events. A product has to have been produced through all of its stages of production before a consumer can bid a price for it. Thus, the prices of the factors of production pre-date those of the consumer goods upon which the former are supposedly based. It is difficult to understand, therefore, how something can be derived from something else that does not yet exist. The more accurate view is, of course, that the prices of the factors of production are based upon the estimated selling prices of the future consumer goods. In a static equilibrium such as the evenly rotating economy the prices of the final goods are known in advance and hence the pricing of the factors of production will accurately reflect the value of the final consumer goods. But as helpful as this model may be in conceptualising the structure of production, it is woefully easy to draw from it the conclusion, so beloved of mainstream economists, that a boost in the value of consumption must necessarily result in a subsequent boost of the value of the factors of production. In other words that consumption feeds production. This, of course, is patently untrue. As John Stuart Mill said, “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”. Rather, to produce a commodity for purchase, labour (and all of the factors of production) must already have been demanded by capitalist-entrepreneurs. In other words, it is production that feeds consumption not vice-versa.

Second, if the prices of the factors of production of a good are based upon the valuations of consumers this does not explain the individual pricing of the factors. If, for example, a consumer will buy a loaf of bread for £1.00, why does the flour that went into it cost, say, 40p, the labour 50p and the hire of the oven to bake it 10p? Why doesn’t flour cost 50p, labour 30p and the oven 20p? Or any other possible combination of prices? One possible answer to this problem is that each factor earns its marginal revenue product – that is, the portion of the value of the increased product that it is attributable to an incremental increase of that particular factor. So for example, if I have a patch of land and a given number of seeds and apply increasing units of fertiliser then each additional unit of fertiliser will be priced according to the additional revenue earned by the additional physical product that results. The problem with this view is that it ignores the fact that no additional product is the result of a single factor alone and that the value of the additional product need not be imputed solely to the additional fertiliser. What if, for example, the purchase price of the land and the seeds already accounted for the fact that additional fertiliser could be applied to it to produce a larger physical product? Moreover, even if, say, the land and seeds were purchased at a price that reflected the fact that only a limited quantity of fertiliser was available and thus only a reduced physical product could be yielded from them, any unexpected increase in the available quantity of fertiliser and thus increased physical product and increased revenue would also cause an increase in the capitalised value of the land and the price of seeds. In other words, there is no reason to assume that the marginal revenue product should be imputed to only a single factor. We are therefore no closer to solving our problem – what is it that causes the particular array of prices between the factors? As we shall see, each factor does, in fact, earn its marginal revenue product, but not in a partial equilibrium where we examine only a particular end or use for a factor. Rather we have to consider the entire assortment of uses to which a good can be directed.

A further problem with the basic “Austrian” approach is revealed when we consider large consumer goods such as cars and computers. It is patently obvious that the value of a car is zero unless it has a steering wheel. Indeed, the demand for steering wheels is likely to be extremely inelastic, stretching all the way up to the height of the value of the entire car. However, in reality, the full value of the car does not result in the imputation of that full value to the steering wheel but rather to all of the other factors as well. Similarly, a computer is useless without the monitor; a television without a plug; glasses without lenses. In fact, it is clear that the utility of thousands of goods is dependent upon the unity of all of their individual components and if any one of them is missing the utility of a particular good drops to zero. Yet in many cases we never have to pay more than a few pounds for the “essential ingredient” to be produced.

How then do we arrive at the prices of all of the individual factors? The answer to this question lies in a deeper understanding of the law of marginal utility. As we know, this law states that the value of a unit of a good is equal to the value attached to the least valuable use to which that unit can be directed. So if, for example, I have five bottles of water, I might use the first for my most important end which is drinking, the second for the next most important end which is washing, the third for cleaning laundry, the fourth for watering plants, and the fifth to make into ice cubes. As each bottle is interchangeable, if one bottle was to be lost it would be the least valuable use – making ice cubes – that would be foregone. Thus, the value of any one unit will equate to the value of the least valuable end of making ice cubes, in spite of the fact that some of those units will be directed to ends with far greater value.

What we can see, however, is that if the value of any one unit of a good equates to the value of the least valuable use to which that unit can be directed then this value must also be imputed to the factors of production. If a portion of those factors was to be lost, the resulting reduced supply of goods would result in the loss of the least valuable ends. Thus, each unit of the factors of production that created the five bottles of water must themselves be valued at the lowest valuable use of a good that those factors will produce.

However, this law will also apply when the factors of production are not specific and can be used to produce any range of goods that satisfy a number of different ends. Let’s say, for example, that a given quantity of factors of production can be used to produce the following consumer goods in descending order of value:

  1. A bottle of water;
  2. A loaf of bread;
  3. A bar of soap;
  4. A pair of socks;
  5. A box of tissues.

If the same factors of production can be used to produce my most valuable good, a bottle of water, as my least valuable good, a box of tissues, then it follows that the factors of production will be valued according to the value attached to the box of tissues. The loss of any portion of those factors of production will result in the cessation of the production of tissues while all of my other goods are still produced. Here, then, is the key to understanding the different prices of the factors of production. The value of a factor is based not upon the utility attached to the specific good to which that factor is directed but, rather, upon the least valuable good to which a portion of its supply is directed. Only highly specific factors of production which can be devoted only to a single end will derive their value fully from that specific end.

In real life, of course, it is never the case that whole combinations of factors of production can be exchanged between different ends. Rather factors have to take their place in different combinations of specific and non-specific factors. It is these various arrays that produce, at any one time, the individual prices of the factors of production. Thus the breakdown of prices of factors used to produce a particular good is derived from the lowest valued uses to which portions of the supply of those individual factors are directed.

We are now, therefore, in a position to see what we mean when we say that a factor of production earns its marginal revenue product. If we gain an additional unit of a particular factor, that unit will be directed towards the next most valuable end that is currently unfulfilled in the economy as a whole. All of the most valuable uses for the factor will already be fulfilled. Yet all units of this particular factor will now be priced according to the value of the marginal unit which will be derived from the least valuable end.

However, the pricing of the factors of production according to their marginal uses is not the only effect of the application of the law of marginal utility. It also affects the value of the supra-marginal products whose direct marginal utility is above that of the marginal product. These products too will be priced according to the combination of prices involved in their factors of production as the loss of any given portion of a factor will not result in the loss of this product but in the loss of the marginal product. Thus, the prices of most goods in the economy are priced according to the least valuable goods that are produced out by the marginal units of their shared factors of production. As George Reisman explains:

Allow me to illustrate Böhm-Bawerk’s point here by means of a modification of his famous example of the pioneer farmer with five sacks of grain. As will be recalled, the five sacks serve wants in descending order of importance. One sack is necessary for the farmer to get through the winter without dying of starvation. The second enables him to survive in good health. The third enables him to eat to the point of feeling contented. The fourth enables him to make a supply of brandy. The fifth enables him to feed pet parrots.

[…]

Now let us slightly modify the example. Let us imagine that the first sack of grain has been used to make a supply of flour, which in turn has been used to make a supply of biscuits, and that it is this resulting supply of biscuits by means of which the first sack of grain performs its service of preserving the farmer’s life […] We can imagine a little tag attached, this time saying, “Biscuits Required for Survival.” As before, our farmer still has four remaining sacks of grain, any of which can be used to make a fresh supply of flour and then a fresh supply of biscuits. And now, just as before, we may imagine rats or other vermin destroying the supply of biscuits. Will the answer to the question concerning the magnitude of the farmer’s loss be materially different? Certainly, his life does not depend on the supply of biscuits any more than it did on the sack of grain. For he can replace that supply of biscuits at the expense of the marginal employment of the remaining sacks of grain, which, of course, is the feeding of the pet parrots. To be sure, additional labor will have to be applied as well, but the magnitude of value lost here is that of the marginal product of that labor, which might be  something such as the construction of a sun shade or an additional sun shade or even the feeding of the parrots. The point is that the value of the biscuits will not be determined by the importance of the wants directly served by the biscuits but by the importance of the marginal wants served by the means of production used to produce biscuits and from which a replacement supply of biscuits can be produced at will.1

Thus, we can conclude, that for the majority of products that are available for sale today, their selling prices are based not upon their direct marginal utilities but, rather, upon their costs of production which is derived from the marginal utilities of the least valuable products to which factors of production are directed. There are several noteworthy effects of this analysis.

The first is that this does not nullify the operation of supply and demand in determining the price of any supra-marginal good. Rather, it results in a shifting of the supply curve to the right so that it intersects the demand curve at a level where price equals the cost of production, plus the going rate of profit. Changes in the availability of the factors of production which either increase or decrease their marginal utility will cause similar shifts of the supply curve to the left or right which will have the corresponding effect of raising or lowering the price of the specific consumer good. This is possible without any change in the quantity that is bought and sold if, for example, the shift of the supply curve takes place on a highly inelastic stretch of the demand curve. The same quantity will be bought and sold simply at a higher or lower price.

The second observation, derived from the first, is that this obliterates the standard economic analysis behind monopoly pricing. The basis of this analysis is that suppliers can exploit inelastic demand curves to reduce supply, raise their prices and thus rein in an artificially expanded profit at the expense of the consumer. However, our theory here reveals that the opportunities for doing this are minimal. For the raising of prices and consequent swollen profit margins will cause competitors to shift factors of production away from the production of marginal goods towards an increase in production of the goods whose prices have been raised, thus restoring an increase in supply and the reduction of prices back to near their costs of production. Thus, for any businessman, the primary tool for estimating his selling price is not elasticity of demand of the particular good that he is selling; rather, it is the cost of production of any potential competitor. It is for this reason why very basic goods such as bread, milk, eggs, salt etc. which have an inelastic demand curve are priced very low; and it is for this reason why sole suppliers in particular industries will earn only the going rate of profit; any attempt to raise prices will simply attract competition.

The third important observation is the impact of this analysis on wages. For labour too is, of course, a factor of production and thus will only draw income in line with the marginal use to which it can be devoted. What results, therefore, is that labour is paid a rate of wages that is far below the direct marginal utilities of the goods that the very vast majority of labourers will be producing. Yet it is also clear that, because the value of marginal products is imputed, via their factors of production, to the supra-marginal products, it is clear that the resulting lower prices means that labour can buy all of this produce. Thus increases in the supply of labour, resulting in the direction of the latter to further marginal uses and thus a lowering of the nominal wage rate, will have no bearing upon the ability of labourers, in their capacity as consumers, to buy its produce and, indeed, will serve to increase the real wage rate. Thus the argument that increases in the supply of labour through, say, immigration are largely unfounded.

What we can see therefore is that the “Austrian” understanding of the prices of goods and their costs of production, although complex, provides a strong bulwark against false theories in many important areas such as stimulus spending, wages, and competition law. Every individual who wishes to offer powerful affronts to the falsehoods that abound in these areas should study it avidly.

View the video version of this post.

1George Reisman, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk’s “Value, Cost and Marginal Utility”: Notes on the Translation, QJAE, Vol. 5, No.3: 25-35.

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Capital – The Lifeblood of the Economy

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It is the gravest deficiency of mainstream economics that it fails to understand the necessity, role and structure of capital in the economy, a failure that permeates through to lay debates concerning production, income, wealth and redistribution. This essay will explain why this deficiency will lead to economic ruin unless its errors are comprehended and corrected.

Production

It is self-evident that everything desired by humans that is not the free gift of nature at the immediate point of consumption must, in some way, be worked for. By “worked for” we mean that the human consciously strives to devote means to bringing about an end that would not otherwise exist. The benefits of air, for example, must be “worked for” in the sense that the body has to contract the diaphragm to inhale. But to the extent that this is not a conscious process, that the human does not knowingly have to divert resources to meet this end means that air is, to all intents and purposes, a free good. Very few, if any, other goods meet this criteria and the environment of the first human that walked on the Earth was one of unrelenting scarcity, a complete and utter dearth of anything necessary, enjoyable or desirable for that human being’s existence.

An isolated human, therefore, has to work to produce his goods. The extent of his success determines his productivity or, to put it more starkly, his income. If, at the start of the day, he has nothing and he labours to produce three loaves of bread then by sunset we may say that his productivity, or his income, is three loaves of bread per day. Productivity does not rise proportionally with effort. It may be possible to achieve a high level of productivity with relatively little effort or, conversely, to waste ones efforts on boondoggles that turn out to be a complete failure. While it is generally true, therefore, that harder work will begat a greater level of productivity it is not necessarily true – humans must direct their efforts in the most appropriate way to enable the greatest productivity, not necessarily in the hardest way.

Let us take, then, the first human on Earth who has nothing except air to breathe and nature’s gift of his body which empowers him with the ability to labour. Let us say that, at this point, his wealth, his accumulated stock of produced goods, is zero. It will be the task of his existence to increase this level of wealth. How does and how should he go about this?1 Let us say that his first desire is to find firewood to burn and keep warm. So on the morning of day one of his existence he has no logs to burn and his wealth is zero. Off he goes on a brief expedition and, using only the body that nature has given him, he returns in the evening with three logs. His productivity, or his income for the day, is therefore three logs. We may also say that his wealth has increased from zero to three logs. However, he then makes the decision to burn all of the three logs to keep him warm for the night. His act of burning the logs is his consumption. He has used the three logs as consumer goods to directly yield him a satisfaction in his mind. However, with the arrival of morning, he is in exactly the same position that he was in on the previous morning – his stock of wealth is once again zero. So off he goes on another expedition and returns again, with three logs. Once again his income is three logs and his wealth has expanded by three logs. But again he burns them overnight, meaning that yet again his stock of wealth on day three is back to zero.

It is therefore the case that one’s stock of wealth is directly related to the amount of it that is consumed. The more of one’s produced product (income) that is consumed, the less overall wealth one has.

Let us say that, within a week, our human grows weary of collecting three logs every single day only to see them vanish again overnight. He wants to increase his wealth. What can he do? It should be self evident that the only thing he can do is to reduce his consumption; if, he wants to be wealthier at the start of tomorrow than he was at the start of today he needs to reduce his level of consumption by abstaining from burning one or more logs. Let us say that he decides to burn only two logs and sets aside one. The following morning, therefore, his wealth is now one log, whereas the previous morning it was zero logs. He is now wealthier today than he was twenty four hours ago, this increase of wealth being owed to the fact that our human he has engaged in an act of saving2. With his saved wealth he can do one of two things. The first possibility is that he can hoard it. If he hoards it then all this means is that, while his wealth will increase as his act of hoarding continues, the human’s consumption of the wealth that he is accumulating daily is merely delayed. This method of saving does not, in and of itself, permit wealth to grow and from this perspective serves little purpose. If all else is equal, he might as well burn the third log today and enjoy the extra warmth rather than leave it lying around for a future date3. However, the second thing that he can do is to take his saved logs and invest them. To invest means rather than consuming his wealth directly the human takes it and uses it as a tool of production of further goods. This must be the result of a transformation of the goods into such a tool. Let us say that the human saves enough logs to invest in the production of a wheelbarrow and that, for one week, he labours to construct the wheelbarrow. The finished wheelbarrow is now a capital good – a good used in the production of further goods. The aim, in this case, is for the wheelbarrow to be used to transport logs that will then, in turn, be burnt as firewood. Let us say that with the aid of the completed wheelbarrow he is now able to bring home six logs per day rather than the initial three. By aid of the capital good he is therefore able to increase his production of other goods. His wealth therefore increases by more than it would have done so without the aid of the capital good.

What, therefore, are the inherent qualities of this act of saving and investment? What, in particular, will induce the human to engage in it? There are several aspects to note:

  • It requires abstinence from direct consumption of the good that will be transformed into a capital good;
  • The abstinence is for a period of time, that is the time taken to transform the goods into capital goods that yield further goods for consumption;
  • In order to justify the period of abstinence, the yield of goods from the capital goods must be higher than it would have been without the capital good.

This final point is of crucial importance. For what will determine the human’s propensity to save/invest on the one hand and his propensity to consume now on the other? The answer will be his willingness to trade the period of waiting in which the capital good will be constructed against the increased quantity of goods that will result. He will start to save at a point when the increased quantity of goods yielded is more valuable to him than the utility gained from direct consumption now of the capital good. He will stop saving when consuming now will yield him more utility than waiting for an increased quantity of goods in the future. This propensity to wait is called his time preference. If time is relatively more valuable to him than an increased quantity of goods then he has a high time preference. If the increased quantity of goods is relatively more valuable than the waiting time then he has a low time preference.

Increasing Capital – the Structure of Production

The consequences of the increased yield of consumer goods – in this, case, from three logs per day to six logs per day – and the resulting increase in wealth means that our human yet again has to face the same choice as he did with his original stock of wealth – to consume or save (hoard/invest). Only now, however, he has to make this choice with an increased quantity of goods. What will be the possibilities?

  • He could choose to consume and save at the same rate as he did previously, that is one saved log per two consumed. Out of a total of six logs he will, therefore save two logs per day and consume four;
  • He could choose to consume at an increased rate and save at a reduced rate. One day of doing this would be to save the same quantity of logs as he was before (one) and consume the remainder (five); however, he could also increase the quantity he saves while decreasing the rate, for example by saving one and a half logs and consuming four and a half.
  • He could choose to save at an increased rate and consume at a reduced rate, for example by consuming the same quantity of logs as he did before (two) and saving the remainder (four); however, he could also increase the quantity he consumes while decreasing the rate, for example by consuming three logs and saving three.

The precise consequences of each choice are unimportant, merely that each will occur at a different rate depending on what is chosen. It should be self-evident that more saving will begat more capital goods and more consumption but only after the period of waiting; more consumption will mean more goods can be enjoyed today at the expense of relatively fewer in the future. But in practice, we might add, it tends to be the case that the wealthier a person becomes the more he tends to follow the third scenario, specifically by increasing the quantity he consumes while decreasing the rate. The rich, for example, consume a much greater quantity of goods than poorer people do but as a proportion of their wealth they consume less. This will have important consequences as we shall see when we consider the effects of taxation and redistribution below.

However, let us assume that, whatever choice the human makes, there will be a rate of saving that permits investment to continue. What will happen now?

As the level of production is now dependent upon a capital good, the rate of saving must, at the very least be able to maintain this capital good. Capital goods are not consumed directly but they are consumed in the process of production through wearing down. While no new wheelbarrow will need to be produced, of course, a level of saving that permits its parts to be repaired or replaced will be necessary. If the human is not able to maintain his capital goods what happens? It means that he is using it for the purposes of production the results of which are consumed to the detriment of repairing and replacing the capital stock; in short he is engaging in capital consumption. It should be self evident that if the capital is lost, production must decline and so too will the standard of living. The dangers of capital consumption will become clearer when we discuss it below4.

However, let us assume that our lone human is able to maintain the existing capital stock and also has enough further saving that does not need to be used for this purpose. What will happen? He will, of course, invest in further capital goods to increase his production of consumer goods. Let us say that, satisfied with the utility gained from and his ability to maintain his wheelbarrow, he decides instead to invest his logs in the production of tools. Let us say that he fashions from a log directly an axe handle. But the axe head cannot be made out of wood. He must acquire and fashion metal in order to complete the axe. Aren’t the saved logs useless for this purpose? Not at all; for while the saved logs cannot be used directly in the production of the axe head, they can be used indirectly in order to sustain our human during the production of the axe head. In short, let’s say he goes on an expedition far from home in order to acquire the material to fashion the axe head. He takes the saved logs with him and burns them at night to keep him warm. To the extent that the venture is successful and he returns from the expedition with the material to fashion the axe head, then the consumption of the logs has been compensated by the acquisition of the axe head. The axe head can then be used to fell entire branches or even trees which can then be transported in the wheelbarrow for our human to consume. Let us say that, once again, his output doubles as a result of the introduction of the axe, meaning that he now takes home twelve logs each day.

What does this addition of another capital good – the axe – demonstrate? In the first place, it once again demonstrates the requirement of waiting during the production of the additional capital good, waiting that must be sufficiently offset (in the valuations of the human) by the resulting increased level of production. But there are two more crucial aspects:

  • That, in terms of providing for the human’s needs, it is relatively less important to stress the amount of capital he possesses as compared to its precise structure. The new capital structure is intricately woven and the stages are dependent upon each other. For example, if he had two axes and no wheelbarrow, he could fell a lot of trees but would lack the means to transport them. If he had two wheelbarrows and no trees then he could transport a lot of logs but he wouldn’t be able to fell enough trees to fill and use two wheelbarrows. As we can see therefore, capital growth manifests itself as increasing the stages of an intricate production structure through the passage of time. Any interference with the precise structure of capital would be as detrimental as capital consumption; in the complex economy a corollary would be all of the world’s factories, tools and machines, consisting only of tractors. It would not be hard to see that, in spite of the overall level of capital being very high, the specific glut of tractors and corresponding shortage of absolutely anything else would lead to a very severe degree of impoverishment;
  • That the logs used in discovery and fashioning of the axe head, by not being used directly as a capital goods, were used as a fund to produce a capital good. The majority of capital investment is, in fact, the use of a fund of saved products that are consumed in the production of other products and these latter products are the capital goods. In the complex economy we can see how wages, for instance, which are consumed by workers are paid out of saved funds in return for their production of goods which are either sold or used as capital goods (or both if the buyer uses them as capital goods), just in the same way that the logs were consumed in production of the axe head.

This method of saving and investment in capital goods is frequently termed in “Austrian” literature as “roundabout” methods of production; that an increase in capital leads to a longer production structure with multiple stages (in our case hacking of logs off the trees with tools, collection of logs in the wheel barrow, followed by consumption). However a more appropriate description would be that increased saving and investment in capital goods results in a process of production that takes more time for a greater quantity of produced products.

Further Increases in the Structure of Production – The Source of Wealth

This outline of a simple economy consisting of our lone human and two stages of production should illustrate how that human can further increase his wealth. Assuming he continues to save at a rate above that which permits him to maintain the existing capital goods (the wheelbarrow and the axe) he can continue to expand the stages of production of logs or begin to invest in the lower stages of production of other goods. He might, for example, use one log to build a fishing net to catch fish, thus increasing his quantity of fish to add to his wealth. He then might be able to use quantity of saved fish and saved logs to sustain him in building a boat which permit him to catch and even greater quantity of fish. It is this process of capital accumulation, its maintenance and its regulation into a particular structure that is the cause of the increase of wealth. Relatively speaking, the more capital that our human has, the more tools, equipment, machines, etc. that he fashions by abstaining from the consumption of the goods that make them (and by waiting for them to be completed), the wealthier he is.

It should not be difficult to abstract from this simple illustration the workings of a complex economy. The only substantial differences are the existence of the division of labour and the resulting necessity of trade which serve as the most complicating factor in trying to visualise the complex, growing economy. For in such an economy people, on the whole, do not produce goods for their own consumption but rather they concentrate on the production of a specific good (or service) which they then trade in return for other goods. The other goods, of course, are never traded directly but with the aid of a medium of exchange, money, so that you sell the goods that you produce for money and then take money to buy the goods and services that you want to consume5. Each and every single day, then, any person who goes to work engages in production of a produced product. If you are a baker you produce bread, if you are a butcher you produce meat, if you are a fishmonger you produce fish. But no one butcher, baker or fishmonger directly consumes his own product, rather he trades it for money which he then uses to buy the goods he wants. So the baker, for example, may sell bread to the fishmonger who will pay for it with money. The baker may then use the money he receives to buy meat from the butcher. From the point of view of the economy as a whole, the situation is no different from that of the economy with the lone individual. We will remember that, in the latter situation, if our loner produced three logs per day and burnt (consumed) three logs per day then on the morning of the following day he is in exactly in the same position regarding his personal wealth as he was the previous morning. If, in our complex economy, the butcher, baker and fishmonger produce, respectively, on one day three cuts of meat, three loaves of bread and three fish, then if after trade these are all consumed by somebody at the end of the day, then tomorrow the economy as whole will be in exactly the same position as it was at the start of the previous day. If, however, some of these products are saved then tomorrow the economy as a whole will be wealthier than it was at the start of the previous day6.

Saving and investment in the complex economy will not, of course, take place in the form of hoarding the physical products like it did in the simple economy. Rather, let’s say that that the baker sells three loaves of bread to the butcher and receives in exchange for them money. His saving takes place in the form of saving money rather than goods directly. His investment will come in the form of spending this money on goods that are used for investment – i.e. are transformed into capital goods – rather than for consumption. For example, let’s say that he takes his saved money (we shall call it £100) and buys fish from the fishmonger. In exactly the same way as the logs sustained the lone human in constructing the axe head, the fish provide sustenance for the baker while he increases his capital at his bakery – let’s say he invests in a new oven. The fish, therefore, provided a fund which was used to construct a new capital good, the oven which will produce more consumer goods. In his own mind, however, the baker will not reckon in terms of fish, ovens, or the extra amount of bread that is produced as a result of the oven’s construction. Rather, he will say that he has an investment of £100, an investment whose return will be measured not by the physical quantity of extra bread produced but by the increased money he will receive from being able to sell the extra bread. It is this extra money that, in his own mind, compensates him for the waiting time in constructing the capital good. If we say, for example, that he invested his £100 at the start of the year and by the end of the year his sales had increased by £10 then we may that the return is 10% per year. This return is known as interest, the compensation for the waiting time between the point of saving and the point that the increased quantity of consumer goods is available for consumption (and in this case, when the baker has the money from the increased sales).

Another possibility is that rather than expanding his existing business the baker creates a new one; or he could lend the saved funds to somebody else to invest in their business. Let’s say that he lends the money to a new entrepreneur, the candlestick maker. The candlestick maker has himself also saved £100. for his new business and so, together with his own saving and the money lent to him by the baker, he has a total investment in his firm of £2007. The candlestick maker will then take that money and spend it on the fish (or other goods) that will sustain him in producing the capital goods needed for his new candlestick business. Let us say that this business is successful and, at the end of the year, the resulting sales means that the value of the business has increased from the initial £200 to £220 – the original £200 capital and £20 return on that capital as a result of increased sales. This £20 will be divided between the baker and the candlestick maker depending on the terms of their investment, but overall the firm has received interest of 10% per annum.

We have, of course, left out of this simplistic calculation the fact of depreciation – the wearing down of the capital goods during their use in production. Suffice it to say here that at the end of the year the original amount of saving reckoned in money terms will be less than £200 owing to the depreciation of the capital goods in the venture. More on this can be read here].

Another aspect we have deliberately ignored is entrepreneurial profit and loss. The rate of return that any one person needs to receive to induce him to save and invest is the interest return – the compensation for waiting. We have assumed in all of the illustrations above that any saving and investment will for sure result in the return that is expected. But this is never the case in real life – the actual return may be greater than, less than, or equal to what was expected. In all cases, then, the actual return will consist of:

Interest + Profit/Loss8

Going back to our original lone human, he may find that his wheelbarrow actually is only enough to bring him an extra two logs per day whereas he originally wanted three. His return will therefore consist of an interest return of three logs and a profit/loss of negative one log. Or, he may be delightfully surprised to find that his wheelbarrow is enough to bring in four logs per day in which case he will earn interest of three logs and profit/loss of one log. Or, the most disastrous of all outcomes would be that he finds the wheelbarrow is a complete hindrance and, in fact, means that he is able to harvest fewer logs than he was with his bare hands! Let’s say he can only bring home two. In that what is earned is interest of three logs and profit and loss of negative four logs. The real loss that he experiences is much higher than the nominal loss of logs – four and one respectively – as, at the time he decided to save and invest, he needed a return of three logs to justify the waiting time. Although he only appears to lose one log by erroneous construction of the wheelbarrow his actual loss is much greater because of the waiting time he endured. In our complex economy, profit and loss takes the form of having to anticipate that other people will want to purchase the additional produce that is enabled by the capital good. If the actual selling price of the final goods is more than what was needed to induce an entrepreneur to save and invest then this represents an entrepreneurial profit. If it is less than he suffers an entrepreneurial loss9.

It is not necessary for the reader to dwell too much on the intricacies of profit and loss in order to understand the role of capital in increasing wealth. An elaboration is offered here merely for the sake of a degree of completion. Interest, however, is vital in understanding the role of capital. It must be emphasised again that people will begin to save and invest in capital goods when the resulting outlay of consumer goods is higher than what could be produced without the capital goods, and this outlay must be sufficient to compensate for the waiting time in which the capital goods are constructed. In short, people must make a choice between having fewer goods to consume today or more goods to consume at a future date. The number of additional goods that a person wants to appear at the future date to induce saving is his interest return. Whether this return actually appears or not and to what degree determines his profit and loss. But it is this desire to consume more in the future, to abstain from consumption today for a lot more of it tomorrow, that enables the economy to grow and for wealth to expand. There is no other way than by saving and investment in capital goods.

In the complex economy, of course, everyone can be savers and investors and we do so in a multitude of different ways and through different channels. Anyone who earns a wage and then spends a portion of it on his monthly outgoings (i.e. consumption) and uses the remainder to, say, deposit in a savings account, or to buy bonds or shares is investing in capital goods and increasing the capital stock of the economy. If it is saved in a savings account, the bank will lend that money to companies who will use it to invest in the capital goods, the return on which will enable the bank to pay interest to the depositor. If stocks or bonds are bought then money is advanced to a company directly. The crucial aspect is that by saving money, you are not consuming. By investing it you are turning those goods that could have been consumed today into capital goods that will produce more goods to be consumed in the future.

Having therefore examined in some detail the role of capital in wealth accumulation and raising the standard of living, let us proceed to analyse some aspects of Government interference that will affect the rate of saving and investment.

Taxation

Taxation is the deliberate confiscation by the Government of that which has been produced. It must be emphasised that all taxation, whatever name it is given, however one may attempt to justify it, must be a taxation of produce. There must be something that has been produced that the Government can come along and take. In our example of the lone human, the Government would have come along and taken some of his logs, i.e. confiscated his produce directly. In the complex economy the Government tends not to confiscate produce directly but rather money which it then spends on produce, i.e. the produce that the taxed individual could have bought is diverted, by way of money, to the Government.

From our analysis of saving and investment above we also know that there are only two types of produce that can be taxed – that which is produced today (income) and that which was saved and invested (capital, or wealth). There is nothing else that can be taxed and all taxes are either taxes on income or on wealth. What are the implications and results of each? Let us deal with the material effects first of all. If the Government taxes income, that is, the presently produced product, we know from our analysis above that it can do so up to a point which still permits enough saving to maintain the existing capital stock. If it does this, the present level of production can continue as the capital goods will keep functioning. However, for the remainder of the produce that is confiscated, there will be less saved in the hands of private individuals and entrepreneurs to invest and increase the capital stock. Capital growth, therefore, will be retarded. And even if the private individuals would not have saved this income but would have consumed it, it is still the case that they have suffered a loss from the fact that the produce is directed towards Government ends rather than their own. The important point is, however, that taxation retards the ability of private individuals to grow capital and increase production and, hence, the standard of living must either stagnate or improve less quickly.

It is no answer to this charge to assert that Government might take this money and spend it on allegedly “important” capital projects such as roads, schools, hospitals, and other spending on what they like to call “infrastructure”. As we noted above it is not the capital stock that is so important but rather the capital structure. For the invested capital must take a form in which it meshes cleanly with the rest of the existing capital and its produce supports the production of goods further down the chain of production. It would, for example, be useless to bring a fishing net to a cattle ranch. The only way to determine whether capital contributes to the capital structure is through the pricing, profit and loss system – that capital that is successfully producing generally needed products to create further products will turn a profit for the enterprise. But how does Government, devoid of the need for profit and loss, know that, say, a factory or a road must be built? What if it diverts its taxed resources to building a grand factory but there are no machines to put in this factory? How does it know how large the factory should be, what it should produce, etc.? No Government has any method of gauging these criteria. Our lone human, we noted, needed in his capital structure an axe to fell trees and a wheelbarrow to transport the logs. Having instead two axes or two wheelbarrows would have been of no use to him. Precisely the same is encountered when Government produces roads when there are no cars, hospitals but no operating equipment, tractors but no plough, railway locomotives but no wagons. Such was frequently the case in the former Soviet Union where buildings and machinery frequently were lying incomplete because a crucial part had received underinvestment and hence was simply missing. It is true, of course, that the capital structure that remains in private hands will adapt to the capital that Government has forced upon it. If a Government produces a road, for example, it becomes more economical to increase the production of cars in order to fill it. But all this means is that private investment has been forced to adapt to what the Government has produced whereas these Government projects are frequently sold to the public as being necessary to “boost the economy” etc. Instead the capital structure has been twisted and distorted from the form that it would have taken had it been left alone and the structure that is in fact produced is serving ends that are relatively less valuable than those that would have been served in the absence of the Government interference. As Bastiat would put it, the Government may be able to point to its wonderful roads that are full of cars (that which is seen), but what is not seen is all that was not produced as a result of this diversion of funds10. It is for this reason that, economically, all Government spending must be regarded as waste spending.

However, what if the Government initiates an even higher level of income taxation, a level that does not permit enough saving to main the existing capital stock? Then, disaster will strike. For now the existing capital stock will start to wear down and cannot be replaced. As the capital structure collapses, production will decline and so too will the standard of living. Production processes will become shorter and less roundabout as the produce that could have maintained them is siphoned off into Government consumption. The situation is exactly the same as if the lone human consumed the logs that should have been diverted to maintaining his wheelbarrow. He enjoys, for the moment, the additional consumption of the log but at the expense of a severely reduced level of consumption in the future. But when the Government taxes income at such a level the private citizens do not even get to enjoy this temporary upswing of consumption, merely the bureaucrats and politicians whose lifestyles it is supporting.

Within this category of taxation of income we may place all of the everyday taxes from which people suffer – income taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes, corporation taxes, capital gains taxes, dividend taxes, VAT, etc. Anything that is a tax on productivity or newly produced good is a tax on income.

Finally, we consider the horror of horrors – when Government doesn’t tax the presently produced product but instead directly taxes the existing stock of capital. Within this category fall inheritance taxes, property taxes and wealth taxes. The results of such action should be obvious as it deliberately sets about consuming the capital stock. It dismantles the factories, machines and tools and diverts them towards Government consumption and even if the Government diverts them to “investment” then this will simply be of the same kind of Government “investment” that we just outlined with regard to income taxes. Wealth taxes are the most ruinous and destructive, attacking the very means of production and leading to a rapid decline in output and the standard of living. The situation is precisely analogous to our lone human chopping up his wheelbarrow and using it as firewood – there is a temporary increase in enjoyment today that must be offset by a very rapid decrease tomorrow.

It is at this point that we should consider all “soak the rich” taxation rhetoric and practice. For it is usually the point of view of politicians and the non-rich that the wealthy provide an inexhaustible slush fund that can be plundered and pillaged to serve whatever “needs” might be desired. Earlier we noted that there is a tendency (although not strictly a necessity) that as income increases the proportion of that income that a person devotes to consumption decreases and the proportion that is devoted to saving and investment increases. Therefore, while the rich consume more in terms of quantity than a poorer person, as a percentage of their overall income they consume far less. A person earning an income of £1 000 per month might consume £800 worth and save £200, a consumption rate of 80% and a saving rate of 20%. However a person earning £10 000 per month might consume £3 000 and save £7 000 – a consumption rate of 30% and a saving rate of 70%. So while the rich person is visibly consuming more in terms of quantity he is saving and investing a very great deal more. This saving and investment is obviously channelled into capital goods, goods which are used in the production of consumer goods that other people can buy. By increasing the supply of consumer goods the prices of these items drop and so they become more affordable to everyone else and the general standard of living increases. To the extent that the “rich become richer” through this process it is only because they invest in those capital goods that produce the wares that are most eagerly sought for by the masses. Indeed the only way to really become rich under conditions of free exchange is to abstain from consumption and divert your savings to that which people most want to buy11.

If the Government therefore sets about taxing the rich to what extent can it do so? It should be clear from our analysis that it can tax the proportion of the rich person’s assets that comprise his consumption spending. If this is done then what the rich man would have spent on fine dining, chauffeurs, exotic holidays etc. is simply diverted to Government spending. The capital structure remains untouched. But the amount of consumption spending by the rich is extremely limited; indeed if all of it was to be confiscated and distributed to the world’s poor there would barely be enough to give everyone a handful of pennies. Therefore, if taxes on the rich are to be increased then they must start attacking the saved wealth of the rich, that is the capital structure. In short, factories, machines, and tools – the very things that were churning out affordable products that the masses wanted to buy – are liquidated and diverted to Government uses, either to Government consumption or to a form of investment that, as we noted above, must necessarily be less valuable than that which existed before. The very worst thing that can be done is to tax the capital stock and distribute it in welfare for then the saved wealth of society is quite literally transferred from those who saved and invested it to those who consume and destroy it. With fewer machines and tools there will be less production, with less production there will be fewer goods, with fewer goods there are higher prices and with higher prices there is less that everyone is able to buy.

We might conclude this section, therefore, by saying that from the point of view of the standard of living, all taxation will retard its level or growth. However, that form of taxation which decays the existing capital stock is the most destructive. Wealth taxes, inheritance taxes, property taxes and their ilk should be firmly resisted.

It is not sufficient, however, to merely consider the material effects of a policy of taxation, wherever it may fall. We also need to consider the psychic effects. It is self-evident that all taxation is a confiscation from one set of persons and a distribution to another set of persons. Those who have had their goods confiscated must be producers; those who receive in distribution must be (relative) non-producers. Indeed, usually some kind of non-productive status is what qualifies a person as a recipient of welfare spending – poverty, illness, disability, etc. It is an axiom of human action that all humans devote their energies to that which has the most benefit for the smallest cost. We endure the toil of labour because the loss experienced in doing so we deem to be worthwhile for the value that is gained as a result. The same is true of consumption and investment. Each has its own benefits and costs. The benefit of consumption is the enjoyment that it provides to the mental faculties; its cost is the labour expended in production of the article to be consumed and that, once it is consumed, it is gone forever and cannot be devoted to an alternative or additional use and further needs must be met by increased production. The benefit of investment is an increased yield of consumer goods in the future; its cost is the pain of having to deny oneself the consumption today of the goods that will be added to the capital stock.

If there is any change in the relative proportions of these benefits and costs it follows that certain activities will become more attractive (i.e. more valuable) and others will become less attractive. Yet this is precisely what the effects of taxation are, effects that fall heavily upon the impetus to produce, consume, or invest. We noted earlier that a person will start to invest at the point that the increased quantity of goods that results from the investment is sufficient to compensate him for the waiting time necessary to produce the capital good. Yet if the fruits of this productivity are taxed it means that the yield is reduced. To the individual saver and investor, the benefit of saving and investment has declined, but the costs remain the same – he must still expend the same amount of labour and must endure the same amount of waiting time but only now for a smaller yield. The value, therefore, of investing will, to him, decline and consumption will become relatively more attractive. There will therefore be less investment and more consumption, lower output and the standard of living will decline. It gets worse, however, when we look to the recipients of taxed income or wealth. For in a world where there is no tax, the enjoyment of consumption must be outweighed by the costs of production and the incentive to invest. Only if the value of consumption is higher than the toil of production and the yield from investment will consumption be carried on. But if one now receives an income free of the necessity to produce, both of these costs are removed. For now, why should one labour to produce when he can simply receive the benefit – the enjoyment – for free? And why should he invest when he can simply demand another article from the Government once he has consumed the first? And even if he did invest his income from other people’s taxes, this will simply be taxed away anyway. Why bother?

In short, therefore, taxation reduces the relative value of production and investment. It increases the relative value of consumption. There will therefore be less production and investment and more consumption, the stock of capital will decline, output will decline and the standard of living will lower also.

Regulation

Regulation is, in common social democratic discourse, deemed to be a necessary tempering (or tampering, one might say) of the otherwise capitalist economy, the wise overlords stepping in and ensuring that people do not compromise “safety”, “quality” or whatever in their supposedly lustful pursuit of profits. We will leave to one side any discussion of the fact that regulation is itself a service that consumes scarce resources and that the benefits of a regulation must be offset by its cost – hence it is a market activity just the same as any other. Rather, we shall focus exclusively on the effects of Government (i.e. forced) regulation upon saving and investment in the capital stock.

The effect of a regulation is to ban a certain activity from being carried on by otherwise free individuals; an example would be a restriction on to whom a certain product can be sold, perhaps by age or income. Or, it can take the effect of a requirement to do so something, usually before something else can be done. For example, it may be required to provide a list of ingredients or a nutritional breakdown on an item of food before it can be sold. However sensible they may seem the effect of regulations is to limit the ends to which capital may be devoted.

Let us first of all consider regulations that take the form of bans. As we noted above the incentive to save is dependent upon the fruits of production that are the result of the investment. In a free market a person can invest in whatever he thinks people will want to buy. By advancing goods and services to meet people’s ends he earns a return. The public could, for example, in the saver’s estimation be demanding more of goods X, Y and Z. He will invest in the line of production that he believes will yield the highest return. But what happens if the Government then intercedes with a regulation? It is effectively saying to the investor “you may invest in goods X or Y, but not in good Z”. In other words, an entire avenue of investment opportunity is closed off even though both the public and the investor may wish to trade the good Z. What then happens if Z was the most profitable investment? Then, by having to invest in the relatively less profitable X or Y, the value of saving and investing to the investor will reduce. Therefore, there will be less saving and less investment. Indeed he might even decide that the profit opportunities afforded by X or Y to be insufficient to reward him for the waiting time between the act of saving and the receipt of returns. He may just decide to consume entirely that which he would have invested. The amount of capital investment therefore decreases and so too does the standard of living. But even if he does invest in X or Y this is not what the buying public are demanding – they want Z and no extra amount of X or Y will compensate for this loss.

However, the more common type of regulation is of the second kind – that a product may be invested in but there are regulatory requirements that must be met before one can do so. Let us take the typical type of regulation on which the Government feels itself qualified to pronounce judgment and that is health and safety. If the public demands food, for example, it may be perfectly happy to buy food that comes without any detail of ingredients or nutritional breakdown. The Government then decides that people aren’t giving enough thought to their health (probably as a result of them being able to get free healthcare, which has been dealt with in detail here). So the Government then steps in and says to the investor “OK, you can invest in food but to do so you must provide a list of ingredients, a nutritional breakdown and, with every sale, you must provide a free fact sheet of how to live healthily.” The effects of such an edict should be clear – for every article that is now sold, the investor must spend additional money on analysing every article of food for its ingredients and nutritional content and must spend even more money further on producing the factsheet. Yet the public are not demanding these things so they will not be willing to pay any more for the articles that are purchased. The effect of this regulation, then, is to increase the amount of capital that is needed to produce the same return. Or, to put it another way, the same amount of capital produces a lower return. So once again, then, the value of investing to the investor is lowered and there will be less of it. By heaping on to production artificial, deadweight costs that serve no one capital is simply consumed purposelessly. It is conceivable that regulation may cripple an industry so much that it deters all investment and investors will simply stop producing the regulated products altogether. In practice what tends to happen is that regulation forces out the smaller investors, the upstart companies, while the big players are able to absorb the added costs. The economy is then left with a few key providers in each sector who are able to raise prices and lower quality as a result of this insulation from competition.

Regulation is therefore one of the most powerful ways in which capital investment can be restricted, possibly even more so than taxation.

Uncertainty

The final aspect of Government intervention into saving and investment we will consider is that of uncertainty. Whereas before we were analysing the effects of known Government policies on taxation or regulation, here we will look at what happens when someone simply doesn’t know, or cannot be sure of, precisely what the Government will do.

Rothbard describes succinctly the role of uncertainty in human action:

[A] fundamental implication derived from the existence of human action is the uncertainty of the future. This must be true because the contrary would completely negate the possibility of action. If man knew future events completely, he would never act, since no act of his could change the situation. Thus, the fact of action signifies that the future is uncertain to the actors. This uncertainty about future events stems from two basic sources: the unpredictability of human acts of choice, and insufficient knowledge about natural phenomena. Man does not know enough about natural phenomena to predict all their future developments, and he cannot know the content of future human choices. All human choices are continually changing as a result of changing valuations and changing ideas about the most appropriate means of arriving at ends. This does not mean, of course, that people do not try their best to estimate future developments. Indeed, any actor, when employing means, estimates that he will thus arrive at his desired goal. But he never has certain knowledge of the future. All his actions are of necessity speculations based on his judgment of the course of future events. The omnipresence of uncertainty introduces the ever-present possibility of error in human action. The actor may find, after he has completed his action, that the means have been inappropriate to the attainment of his end.12

It follows from this excerpt that an increased degree of uncertainty leads to an increased possibility of error – that there is an increased likelihood that the scarce goods used in attainment of the end will, in fact, not attain the end and will be wasted. And, as Rothbard highlights, part of the composition of this uncertainty stems from future human choice, in our case the choices of the Government actors.

We noted above that the effect of Government taxation and regulation is to render less valuable the act of saving and investment to the individual. If he knows that he will be taxed and regulated to nth degree then he can, at least, factor this in to his calculations and act accordingly. If, however, the Government creates an aura of uncertainty – that an individual investor may find his fruits taxed or regulated not necessarily to the nth degree but may be to the n + 1st degree, or the n – 1st degree, or to a whole other range of possible degrees, then this weighs heavily on his mind in deciding whether to save and invest. Indeed heaping on uncertainty effectively increases the psychic costs of an action. The greater the degree of uncertainty and the more likely it is that his decision to invest will result in error (the error in this case being that he will suffer a more crippling degree of taxation or regulation than he would prefer) the more costly it becomes. Hence, the relative attractiveness of consumption increases. Indeed, consumption renders neutral this uncertainty – if something is consumed then the Government, for sure, can’t come along later and attempt to tax it away. There will, therefore, be more consumption and less saving and investment. The capital stock will not grow as fast and neither also will the standard of living.

Uncertainty, often labelled “regime uncertainty”, has been an important factor following the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent malaise. Precisely because nobody knows precisely what the Government will try next, whether it be stimulus, taxes, regulations, capital controls, inflation or whatever, nobody is willing to take the risk to save and invest. Indeed, in the US, the huge increase of excess bank reserves – i.e. banks simply holding onto cash – following the expansion of the monetary base is at least partly explained by the phenomenon of increased uncertainty.

Conclusion

What we have realised through our analysis, therefore, is that capital accumulation is the source of increased wealth and an increased standard of living. Where there are strong private property rights to this capital and its fruits then capital accumulation will, all else being equal, be encouraged. Where these rights are compromised by taxation and regulation, they will be discouraged. Further, as our discussion of uncertainty entails, it is not sufficient that these rights are left uncompromised today but there must also be an expectation that they will not be compromised in the future.

We have not said much about Government-induced credit expansion that leads to business cycles. The effect of credit expansion is to divert goods away from consumption and to invest them in more roundabout production processes. This looks, on the face of it, as if the Government is doing a benevolent thing – it is causing us to increase the capital stock! But as we noted above, the return on capital must be sufficient to justify the waiting time. If people are not willing to endure this waiting time then investment cannot occur. Indeed credit expansion is forced saving and investment in an increased capital stock. When the credit expansion halts it is not possible to continue this diversion of goods into building and maintaining this capital structure; rather the latter now becomes fully dependent upon the consumption/saving preferences of consumers. But these preferences are not sufficient to carry out the level of investment required. The capital structure is revealed as malinvestment and must be unwound. Tragically, the Government, in ignorance of what we have learnt here about waiting times and the necessity for a precise capital structure that meets the needs of consumers, responds to this series of events by trying to boost consumption, even though it is not consumption that needs a shot in the arm. If anything, there needs to be more saving and investing so that at least some of the projects that were embarked upon during the credit expansion can be justified.

All in all the effects of Government upon capital accumulation and the creation of wealth are a disaster. All that is needed for these things to occur is private property and free exchange and Government, if we are to endure at all, should concentrate on guaranteeing these institutions.

1Strictly it is a necessity of human action that it seeks improvement to the current condition. Therefore, simply moving an object out of one’s way or to where one would prefer it to be is an act of “production” and an increase in “wealth” from the acting human’s point of view. But for the sake of simplicity we will discuss production, income and wealth as alluding to driving towards an increase in the number of material, tangible goods that the human can enjoy.

2Here we may briefly consider what the purpose of increasing wealth is. Excluding the possibility that someone gains utility simply from owning a lot of stuff, it can only be to consume in the future. The ultimate aim of all production is consumption, if not by yourself then by your heirs. Production that does not eventually result in consumption gains nothing. This is important for understanding what the human does with his saved wealth.

3We must add emphatically that hoarding is not unproductive and typically takes place in times of uncertainty – when one does not know whether he might suddenly need to call upon extra resources – or to cater for a known period of un-productivity, such as storing food for the Winter.

4Technically speaking if the level of “saving” is insufficient to maintain capital then there is a net dis-saving. As Mises puts it: “The immediate end of acquisitive action is to increase or, at least, to preserve the capital. That amount which can be consumed within a definite period without lowering the capital is called income. If consumption exceeds the income available, the difference is called capital consumption. If the income available is greater than the amount consumed, the difference is called saving. Among the main tasks of economic calculation are those of establishing the magnitudes of income, saving, and capital consumption.” Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Scholar’s Edition, p. 261. However for the purposes of this essay we shall define income as the produced product and saving as the portion of the income that is not consumed, regardless of whether the rate of saving is sufficient to maintain the capital stock.

5Money as well as being the medium of exchange is also is the facilitator of economic calculation without which a complex economy could not exist. Money is also a good in its own right but there is not space here to dwell on the fascinating reasons how and why it comes into existence. Interested readers should consult Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit.

6A word of extreme caution in necessary when discussing the economy in the aggregate. Simply because we say that x amount of produce is consumed or y amount of produce is invested does not mean that it does not matter precisely who is consuming and who is investing. For it matters very much to the particular individuals concerned. If, for example, the baker purchases three cuts of steak from the butcher with the intent to consume all of them but the fishmonger steals them and consumes two but saves one, even though the fishmonger has “saved” one steak that would have been consumed by the baker we can in no way say that the economy is “better off”. The loss of utility of steak consumption to the baker cannot be compared or measured against the gain of utility to the fishmonger who consumes two steaks and saves one. Similarly if a slave is forced to labour to produce bread in the bakery and he gets nothing in return we cannot say that the economy is better as a result for there has been a very real loss to the slave in spite of the bread produced. We can only assume that there are gains in utility when there is voluntary exchange and any analysis of the economy as a whole which results in conclusions of one state of affairs being “better” or “wealthier” than the other must be made under the assumption of voluntary production and exchange.

7Whether someone is a stockholder or a lender to a firm or enterprise is a legal difference, not an economic one. They are both advancing saved funds to further the firm’s ventures but on different terms.

8There is also the possibility of additional compositions of return that we will ignore here. See Murray N Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, Scholar’s Edition, pp 601-5, although it remains doubtful whether some of these can be distinguished conceptually from existing categories of return.

9Calculated profit and loss in the complex economy is measured against the societal rate of interest which is determined by the societal time preference rate. The societal interest rate is the price at which all willing borrowers can borrow money and all willing lenders can lend it and the success of failure of an enterprise will, by and large, be judged against this rate.

10Claude Frédéric Bastiat, That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen.

11Capitalism, in contrast to socialist and Marxist myths, has always been a system of production for the masses, of increasing the outlay of basic, everyday items that are sold inexpensively to everyone. Very little of capitalist production is devoted to luxury production for the rich.

12Rothbard, p.7, (italics in original).

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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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