“Austrian” Business Cycle Theory and the Rate of Interest

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

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

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

Robinson Crusoe Economics

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

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

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

Bilateral Exchange

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

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

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

Bilateral Investment

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

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

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

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

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

Credit Expansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fractional Reserve Banking – The Ethics and Economics

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Fractional reserve banking is a prime topic for study on the part of libertarians on the one hand and of “Austrian” economists on the other. For not only is the practice, in the way it is carried out today, deeply unethical it also creates macroeconomic instability and is one of the causes of economic crises such as that which we are enduring currently. This essay will explore in particular the ethical and economic consequences of the legal framework imposed by government fiat that breathes life into this practice, concluding that it is government that is at the heart of its unethical nature and causes the endurance of its bad effects.

What is Fractional Reserve Banking?

A bank engages in fractional reserve banking if it retains as reserves only a fraction of its liabilities that can be redeemed on demand – most often, this means money that is held in current or “checking” accounts where you are entitled to withdraw your money at a moment’s notice. If customers have deposited in the bank £10 million of cash and the bank’s reserve requirement (or its internal practice, depending upon the regulatory regime) is 10% then the amount of cash held by the bank for withdrawal by those customers is a mere £1 million. This may be easier to visualise when deposited money consisted not of paper but of gold and other precious metals. When you deposited your gold in a bank, you were issued with a paper warehouse ticket stating the amount of your deposit (say, 10oz) and the fact that you were entitled to withdraw it on demand. If your bank engaged in the practice of fractional reserve banking then only a portion of this gold would actually be in the bank ready for you to withdraw. Incidentally, these warehouse tickets were the origin of paper money – a £10 banknote issued by the Bank of England still states “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of £10”, £10 originally meaning 10 pounds in weight of sterling silver. Indeed, all of the monetary denominations such as pounds, dollars, francs and marks were originally fixed weights of precious metal. These days, of course, the note is backed by no commodity whatsoever and statements of account at banks merely indicate a promise to pay the sum stated in paper money which has, to all intents and purposes, replaced metals such as gold and silver.

The obvious question, then, is where on Earth has this money gone? If it is not in the bank then where is it? And more importantly, why is it not in the bank? Have the bankers taken your money and used it to purchase luxury consumption goods, hoping that you will never come back for it? Not quite; the answer is that the bank has loaned the money to borrowers, usually for the long term to people who wish to take out a mortgage, for example, in spite of the fact that all of the bank’s liabilities are payable on demand. In this practice of “borrowing short to lend long” the bank takes a gamble that two conditions will be met. First, that it will only ever need the fraction of deposits kept as reserves in order to meet the number of withdrawals by its depositors that are likely to be required at any one time; and second, that a sufficient number of the borrowers will pay back the money that has been lent out. The primary motivation for this is, of course, to earn interest on the sums lent. This is why most banks do not charge their depositors a fee for their services – they are using your money deposited to earn an income from other people.

Fractional Reserve Banking – Fraudulent or Legitimate?

The question of whether fractional reserve banking is fraudulent is a matter for debate in libertarian circles. Could not, for example, two persons agree to engage in the practice? If I know, for example, that my bank will only keep a fraction of the money as reserves and I know it is at risk of the bank’s insolvency then is there any breach of the non-aggression principle?

The answer to this question lies in the consequences of the terms upon which such an arrangement could be made and the also in the legal and regulatory context. There are two basic possibilities; either one’s deposit of money in a bank is a bailment, in which case the bank acts as a custodian of your money (like a warehouse or storage facility); or, the deposit takes the form of a loan to the bank and the bank is simply your debtor. In the former case, you retain proprietary title to the money and it is ring fenced from the bank’s own assets. If the bank goes bust then its creditors cannot get their hands on your money. Your bank statement is not a statement of account but, rather, an inventory of property deposited in the bank for safekeeping. In this scenario, but for one important qualification that we will mention below, the statement of account (or the warehouse ticket for gold deposits) is defined as the cash on deposit – in other words, it is the same thing. That is why people accepted paper tickets in trade when they were titles to gold. These transactions are not payments of money at all; they are transfers of the bank’s obligation to redeem cash on demand from one person to another. Because the obligation to pay is a full, proprietary title the transfer of this obligation is as good as the cash itself. Under this banking arrangement, fractional reserve banking would be fraudulent. If the bank loans out the money to a third party then it is required to grant full proprietary title over the money to the third party debtor in exchange for a promise to pay back the sum lent once the maturity date of the loan is reached. But the bank cannot legally divest itself of a title that is not in its possession. In essence the bank would be selling property which it does not own. It is exactly the same as me purporting to sell your house or your car to someone else and pocketing the cash – or a storage warehouse loaning out the furniture that you have deposited there for safekeeping. In practice, what happens is that the bank creates two simultaneous titles to the cash on deposit – one for you as the original depositor and one for the borrower. Both of you are under the delusion that you have exclusive title to the cash on deposit whereas in reality it could be claimed by the other person. In the second case, however, where the deposit takes the form of a loan to the bank, if this is agreed and understood by both parties in a genuinely free legal and regulatory environment then all well and good – there is certainly no breach of the non-aggression principle for libertarians to complain about. If the bank goes bust with it goes any claim to your money. However, one important aspect is that what is now in the depositor’s possession – a mere promise that you will receive payment in cash on demand rather than a full, proprietary title to cash – is a markedly different good from cash or a proprietary title to cash. Hence, we are now talking about two different goods – money on the one hand and a loan agreement on the other, something that is below the quality of money as the most marketable commodity. While it therefore may be a perfectly legal arrangement and people may be able to trade these loan agreements in exchange for goods and services (as we do today when we make electronic transfers) we would expect a loan agreement to trade at a discount compared to real money. Should this be doubted, even under full reserve banking the paper ticket to warehouse deposited gold was regarded as a distinct commodity by the trading public; when gold coins were stamped with a dollar value equal to the dollar value of a paper ticket, even though redemption of that paper ticket would guarantee payment of the same dollar value in coin, Gresham’s law came into effect and the paper tickets were traded while the coin was hoarded1. Under a system with genuine market pricing, therefore, we would expect warehouse receipts to gold to trade at a discount compared to real gold. If this is so then clearly loan agreements – far less secure than 100% warehouse receipts – would trade at a discount even lower than this.

All of this would be fine from a libertarian point of view and nobody can stop anyone else from accepting loan agreements freely in exchange for goods and services if that is what they want. The problem with today’s banking system, however, is that there is no genuine choice between these two arrangements. The fact that in today’s world “everybody” uses fractional reserve banks and “everybody” generally accepts mere loan agreements in settlement of debt without a premium does not mean that this arrangement has the full, unbridled consent of the public. First, legal tender laws force the public to accept as payment the government’s own monopoly brand of money and are unable to consider alternative media of exchange. Second, under the guise of “anti-money laundering” (in other words to try and stop drug traders, “terrorists” and other underground operations that are of the government’s own creation) the legal and regulatory regime has all but abolished cash transactions of any significant quantity, thus forcing people to direct their financial needs through banking institutions. Third, government schemes such as the Financial Services Compensation Scheme in the UK or Federal Deposit Insurance in the US (which basically means that the taxpayer is forced to foot the bill if the bank loses your money) provide a positive incentive to use these banking institutions and prevent either the hoarding of cash by the public or any “maverick” banker from splintering away and establishing a full reserve bank2. Fourth, these institutions have been completely cartelised under the aegis of the central bank, meaning that the only institution available for people to use for their banking amounts to little more than a single, fractional reserve bank splintered off into different brand names such as HSBC or Barclays in order to give the illusion of competition in the banking industry. Indeed, the force of government, either in the form of direct enforcement of fractional reserve banking or by forcing the taxpayer to bail out the consequences, has always been required to sustain the practice for any extended period of time as genuine competition between freely standing banks has always restricted their ability to issue large quantities of unbacked notes. The precise effectiveness of this point is debated between “Austrians”. The Mises-Rothbard orthodoxy emphasises that competing banks will swiftly call upon each other for redemption in the event that one bank takes possession of another’s notes. For example, if I deposited gold at Bank A and received for it a paper ticket stating that I had gold deposited in Bank A, I could use this paper ticket to buy goods and services from, say, a grocer. But if the grocer banks at Bank B, he will deposit my note from Bank A with Bank B, but Bank B will call upon Bank A to redeem its note in gold. Hence Bank A would be restricted from over issuing unbacked notes as whenever they fell into the hands of the customers of other banks those other banks would call upon Bank A for redemption in gold. Mises, moreover, also emphasised that the bank’s reputation with its own customers for being able to meet redemption on demand was a decisive limit upon the expansion of unbacked notes3. However, when all banks are issuing the same notes everywhere, with all gold deposited centrally in a monolithic bank (or no gold at all, as under our current regime) then this clearly isn’t possible and all banks would be able to expand together in concert. Later writers, however, have pointed out the importance of interbank lending in neutralising the effectiveness of banking competition, with banks that have over-issued notes borrowing from banks that are under-issued in order to meet redemption demands. In other words banks will not necessarily call upon each other for redemption and will seek instead to earn an interest profit through mutual lending4. However, all we need to conclude here is that people today do not have a genuine choice as to whether they should meet their financial needs through fractional reserve banks. We can, though, still see the difference between payments in cash and other methods of payment in certain limited circumstances. Debit and credit card payments are inherently less secure than hard cash and the risk to the merchant is that the card issuing bank will not honour the transaction after the customer has left with the goods – in just the same way as a deposit bank may be unable to honour a paper ticket to warehouse deposited gold. Acquiring banks and card issuers therefore levy a charge upon merchants in order to guarantee – or at least improve – the security of the transactions and some merchants pass this charge on explicitly to their customers as an additional fee. This results in two prices – a lower price for payment by cash and a higher price for payment by card. It is reasonable to assume also, therefore, that given a genuine choice people would also regard hard cash and deposits in fractional reserve banks as distinct goods of different value. Finally, if the lack of genuine consent of the public in using fractional reserve banks should be doubted, then try asking any banker whether he would be prepared to look his customers in the eye and tell them their money is not really in the bank. The experience of the present author suggests that this is enough to close a debate on the matter with bank employees who actually know how the system operates.

All of this suggests that people do not wish their banking arrangements to be managed with fractional reserves, given a genuine choice. Indeed the entire backbone of Mises’ thesis in The Theory of Money and Credit is that money and what he called “fiduciary media” (notes issued unbacked by gold) are distinct concepts and where people trade fiduciary media at a par with money or backed notes they only do so because they believe that they are not fiduciary media and are, instead, fully backed notes with redemption on demand all but certain. Something to pull the wool over the public’s eyes is needed in order to achieve this. In our world today it is the force of government sustaining fractional reserve banking and compelling people to use it which is the illegal and immoral element. This should be the focus of libertarians in their moral opposition to its practice.

Fractional Reserve Banking and Economic Instability

In addition to the moral element concerning fractional reserve banking, the practice in the way it is carried out today is also economically destabilising. As we know from “Austrian” Business Cycle Theory, the creation of credit that is not supported by any real saving forces the economy onto a path of malinvestment that must collapse once the credit creation stops. Fractional reserve banking is the primary method through which this credit creation occurs. Nevertheless, once again this issue is intricately connected to the legal and regulatory framework in which fractional reserve banking operates and it is this factor that will be emphasised in the treatment below.

Let us posit a first scenario where banking consists of deposits of gold and precious metal in exchange for paper warehouse certificates, certificates that are a legal title to money and do not represent merely a loan to the bank that would permit the latter to do with the gold whatever it likes. If, therefore, A deposited 100oz of gold in a bank the bank would issue a 100oz paper ticket to A and the gold would remain locked up in the bank’s vault ready for A to come and collect at a point in the future when he deems fit. In this instance 100z of gold in the economy has been replaced by a warehouse ticket to 100oz deposited in the bank When this ticket is used and accepted in trade it is “as good as gold” and people will trade the paper as though it was gold, although, as we noted earlier, with the possibility that it may trade at a minor discount compared to the real thing. At this point, the money supply has not altered; rather 100z of money proper has been replaced by a 100z “money substitute”. In this environment, if the bank engaged in fractional reserve banking it would print new paper tickets which represent full, legal titles to gold without any corresponding increase in gold on deposit in its vault – in other words, pure fiduciary media, in Mises’ terminology. Let’s say that the bank lends an unbacked 100oz ticket to a borrower, B. There is now, therefore, 100oz of gold deposited in the bank but 200oz of paper tickets that can be exchanged in trade. The supply of equally homogenous money substitutes that are deemed to be as good as money and are traded as money has therefore doubled. This method of fractional reserve banking (which, we might recall, is also the fraudulent one) will therefore cause economic instability and lead to the business cycle as it has channelled a new supply of money unsupported by real saving through the loan market. The new supply will lower the interest rate on money and will incentivise borrowers to invest in longer term investment projects than are sustainable under the pool of available savings5.

Let us now examine a second scenario where banking does not consist of deposits of gold and precious metal in exchange for paper warehouse certificates but, rather, gold is deposited on loan to the bank that is redeemable on demand. The money is legally the bank’s to do with whatever it likes but the lender may call for redemption at any time, taking the risk that the bank may not have sufficient reserves to meet the redemption. Furthermore let us assume that this arrangement is entirely voluntary and agreed to, with no government impetus or the force of law compelling its use. If A therefore makes such a loan of 100oz to the bank he will receive a paper ticket or a statement of account stating that he has loaned money to the bank that is redeemable on demand. A may be able to trade these “loan agreements” either in paper ticket form or electronically – either way it doesn’t really matter as both would be a transfer between individuals of the bank’s obligation to pay. 100oz of gold has been deposited in the bank and a 100oz loan agreement has been released into the economy. If the bank now engages in fractional reserve banking and makes a loan of 100oz to B by creating out of thin air another paper ticket (that in and of itself constitutes only a loan agreement and not a proprietary title to hard money), we now have 100oz of gold still in the bank but 200oz of paper loan agreements to gold issued in the economy. On the face of it, it would again appear as though the money supply has expanded through credit creation. Wouldn’t this lead to economic instability and ultimately to the business cycle? However, this is unlikely to be the case. For the crucial aspect in starting the business cycle is that the interest rate on money is lowered through people’s inability to perceive money that represents genuine savings and money that has been created out of thin air. In this case, however, it is possible to distinguish between money proper and mere loan agreements to money that are redeemable on demand. An expansion of the latter does not lead to an expansion of the former. While the “interest rate” on the loan agreements may fall as a result of the their expansion, so too would their discount compared to money proper as the increasing abundance of these loan agreements makes the security of redemption less likely. The effect of the increased discount would be raise production costs to borrowers which would offset the reduction of interest rate and prevent the business cycle from occurring.

Let us now fast forward to the situation that we have today. Now, the paper ticket itself has replaced gold as the item that is deposited and as we stated above everyone is either forced or cajoled into using fractional reserve banks under the aegis of a single, central bank. The expansion occurs through the increasing of deposit balances on account – i.e. the numbers on your bank statement. If you deposit £100 worth of Bank of England notes in your account you can transfer the bank’s obligation to pay electronically. If the bank then creates a loan out of thin air by creating another deposit account, both you and the borrower then have the ability to spend these digits in the economy. But, unlike the difference between money proper and mere “loan agreements” that was plainly obvious in the second scenario we explored, here, nobody knows which of the digits being spent represents genuine savings and which have been conjured out of thin air. Hence, the interest rate on money will fall, longer term investment projects will be stimulated and the business cycle begins with its “boom” phase.

It could be alleged that the inherent instability of this arrangement could be countered with the “prudence” of the banker – the idea that an expert fractional reserve banker will be able to loan wisely to only those borrowers who are most trustworthy and will keep on hand enough reserves to meet redemption requirements. This is beside the point. Apart from the fact that it is the least prudent bankers and borrowers who post the highest profits during the boom phase, leaving any conservatives way behind, the fundamental problem for economic stability is that no inter-temporal transaction has occurred – in other words there has been no a trade of present goods for future goods. In normal saving and lending, in order to make loan to the borrower for, say, one year the lender must save for a year. The lender in this instance has given up consumption for one year and freed real resources in the economy to the borrower so that the latter may use these resources in an investment that will come to fruition at the maturity date of the loan in one year’s time, allowing the borrower to pay back the loan to the lender so that the lender can then purchase consumption goods that have come into existence as a result of the borrower’s year-long investment. This is what makes real, sustainable economic growth possible – the harmony of temporal interests over goods between those with short time horizons and those with long. With fractional reserve banking, however, no such harmony exists. The lender – that is, the depositor – does not want to relinquish consumption for a year. He maintains his cash balance in a demand deposit account because he wishes to call upon those funds for current consumption and not consumption in one year. He may, of course, leave the funds in his deposit account for a year but the crucial point is that at the outset this is not certain – he wants to be able to call on consumption goods at a moment’s notice when the time arises. The borrower, however, wants goods that he can invest for a yearlong production process, tying up those goods for that duration until the project comes to fruition. He cannot accept goods that someone else will want back in a shorter time. It is clear that both individuals cannot have their way and that one or the other must ultimately triumph because the same resources cannot be simultaneously consumed and invested. During the boom phase when credit expansion rises, it is the borrower who wins as his increased purchasing power allows him to purchase the resources and invest them in capital goods – hence there is, during the boom phase, a marked price inflation of capital goods as these borrowers take advantage of their newly found purchasing power and a relatively weaker price inflation of consumer goods as the latter become more scarce relative to the demands of consumers. Once the credit expansion stops and starves the borrower of fresh purchasing power, however, it is the lender’s preferences that rule the roost. Either the lender must be prepared to start saving and thus provide the resources to complete the borrower’s investment projects; or, if he is not so prepared and maintains a preference for consumption, then the borrower’s investments must be liquidated. Hence, in the bust phase we experience a heavy price deflation of capital goods as they are hastily sold off and a weaker, relative price deflation in consumer goods buoyed up by the fact that these goods are still in demand.

Conclusion

What we can see from all of this is that the destabilising effects of fractional reserve banking on the one hand and its illegal and immoral aspect on the other are two sides of the same coin. The fact that people do not know which units of currency in existence represent real, genuine savings and which have been conjured out of thin air as fiduciary media is the essence of both the fraudulent  and destabilising nature of fractional reserve banking. The government in bed with a monolithic banking system pulls the wool over everyone’s eyes for their own enrichment at the expense of wasteful malinvestments during booms, followed by unemployment, misery and taxpayer funded bailouts during busts. It is high time that the public realised the true nature of their fractional reserve banking system and anyone who cares for liberty is right to emphasise its odious nature.

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1As Ron Paul has suggested, it was this that resulted in a withdrawal of gold coin from circulation and its concentration as deposits in banks that made it easier for governments to confiscate them. It is for this reason that both Paul and, earlier, Mises urge the need for gold coins to be used physically in transactions. See Ron Paul, “The Political Agenda for the Real Gold Standard”, Ch. 7 in Llewellyn H Rockewell, Jr. (ed.), The Gold Standard – Perspectives in the Austrian School; and Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit, Part Four, Chapter III, “The Return to Sound Money”.

2We can also suggest that, as per Ron Paul’s analysis cited in note 1 above, that as electronic transfers and paper notes bear the same legal value, Gresham’s law comes into effect and the paper notes are stashed away in banks while electronic digits are traded.

3Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, The Scholar’s Edition, p. 436.

4See, for example, Nikolay Gertchev, “The Inter-bank Market in the Perspective of Fractional Reserve Banking”, Ch. 10 in Jörg Guido Hülsmann (ed.), Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media – Essays in Celebration of the Centennial.

5This expansion of credit is not likely to last for very long in a competitive banking environment that lacks deposit accounts. Not only, of course, could overexpansion call for redemption of the overissued notes in specie, but soon the economy would clearly be awash with paper tickets which reveal that something is amiss. Central banking, abolishing competition, would be needed to sustain the expansion of note issue and electronic transfers between deposit accounts would be needed to hide the expansion from plain sight. Ironically, therefore, monetary expansion or “printing money” these days involves a contraction and not an increase of circulating paper notes. As a note of historical interest, Peel’s famous Bank Charter Act of 1844 failed to control economic instability because, following the otherwise insightful Currency School of thought that was prevalent at the time, it concentrated only on banknotes and overlooked the role of deposit accounts in expanding the money supply.

Economic Myths #2 – Consumption Boosts Growth

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The belief that economic growth is boosted by consumption is based upon such a simple misunderstanding that a realisation of the truth will cause one to question why such a simple fact evaded you in the first place.

The confusion is based on a conflation of the desire to consume on the one hand with the act of consumption on the other. It is true that all economic growth, and all economic activity, is motivated by the desire to achieve consumption – in other words, to devote scarce resources in order to satisfy our most highly valued ends. Without any desire to consume or to satisfy any ends there would never be any economic activity whatsoever. The act of consumption, however, does not in and of itself fuel any economic growth. For consumption is the result of growth – i.e. of increased production – and not the initiator. Consumption is what we reward ourselves with once we have achieved growth and not that which we do in order to begin it. Stated in its simplest way you cannot consume a good unless it has first been produced.

At any one moment in time there is an array of produced goods available to us. Each of us faces a basic choice as to what to do with these goods – consume them now, or turn them into productive capital goods that will yield a greater output of consumption goods in the future. If we choose the first path – consumption – all we do is reduce the number of goods available to us and we are left with less. We may have achieved immediate satisfaction but we now have fewer resources left with which to produce more in the future. If I burn a log of wood to keep warm I cannot then use it as building material later. Rather it is gone forever and I will now have to labour in order to search for fresh building materials if I am to make good this loss. A farmer who decides to eat the seeds for crops in the spring will then have nothing to sow and come harvest time will have barren and empty fields rather than lush acres full of wheat. Beyond the point of providing nourishment and sustenance to the human body the act of consuming of these goods will not provide any growth. Consumption, for the most part, is the destruction of what we have. Growth is the transformation of what we have into something that will produce more for us in the future. If we choose the second option – that of turning our goods into productive resources – rather than destroying the resources available to us we will invest them in productive enterprises that raises the yield of consumer goods in the future.

The key to promoting growth, therefore, is not to encourage the act of consumption which equates with an act of destruction. Rather it is to encourage production and a direction of a greater proportion of our resources available today towards saving and investment so that we may consume more in the future. This is particularly important following a bust that results from a boom or bubble inflated by credit expansion. With so many malinvestments left starved of resources the best thing we can do to minimise the pain is to increase the proportion of saving and investing so that at least some of the doomed projects may realise a degree of viability. Instead our economic lords and masters do the precise opposite and encourage us to borrow, spend and consume which only exacerbates the losses experienced by those projects that were started in the boom. Growth must begin with saving, sound investment and production which is then rewarded by greater consumption. Consumption will never lead to growth and it is important for Austro-libertarians to point out this grave fallacy.

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Time Preference and Human Action

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

Classes of Goods

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

Present Ends and Future Ends

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

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

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

Psychology and Physiology

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

Goods and Serviceability

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

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

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

Time and Serviceability

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Appreciation of Time

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

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

Uncertainty

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

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

Exchange between Present and Future Goods

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

“Austrian” Business Cycle Theory – An Easy Explanation

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Against the simple and straightforward siren song of “underconsumptionist” and “underspending” theories of boom and bust, “Austrian” business cycle theory (ABCT) can seem contrastingly complex and lacking in communicability. The former types of theory, associated with “mainstream” schools of economics, in spite of their falsehood, are at least advantaged by the veneer of plausibility. A huge glut of business confidence and spending will, it seems, naturally lead to an economic boom, a boom that can only come crashing down if these aspects were to disappear. For what could be worse for economic progress if people just don’t have the nerve do anything? Add in all the usual traits of “greed” and “selfishness” with which people take pride in adorning the characters of bankers and businessmen (again, with demonstrable plausibility) and you have a pretty convincing cover story for why we routinely suffer from the business cycle. ABCT, on the other hand, with its long chains of deductive logic, can seem more impenetrable and confusing. Is there a way in which Austro-Libertarians can overcome this problem?

“Austrian” economics is unique in that all its laws are deduced from a handful of self-evident truths, the most important being the action axiom, often peppered with a few additional assumptions or empirical truths (such as the desire for leisure time). The entire corpus of economic law – right from the isolated individual choosing between simple ends all the way up to complex structures of production, trade and finance – therefore forms a unified and logically consistent whole. This is not true, however, of “mainstream” schools of thought which tend, nowadays, to be splintered and scattered into separate, specialised areas of study that are based upon their own, individual foundations. The fissure between so-called “microeconomics” and “macroeconomics” is a prime case in point; while “Austrians” will read much that is agreeable in “microeconomics” (although it still contains many faults and general misunderstandings resulting from the lack of coherence and soundness that is furnished by deduction from the action axiom), “macroeconomics”, on the other hand, seems to be a completely different ball game, considering only “the economy as a whole” without reference to its individual components1. It is this fact that “Austrians” can use to give them the upper hand when explaining the business cycle. For in ABCT, the explanations of “macro” phenomena are little more than an extension of what is found in “micro” price theory.

The market price for a good is the price at which the quantity demanded equals the quantity supplied. Prices therefore serve to ration goods as a response to their scarcity, the goods available being traded from the hands of the most eager sellers to the most eager buyers. Those buyers who are not willing to pay the market price will go away empty handed and those sellers who are unwilling to sell at the market price will not be able to get rid of their goods. What happens, then, if this relationship is disturbed by a forced fixing of prices by the government? First, if the price is raised above the market price to create a price floor, the new price will attract more sellers into the market for that good because the price that they will receive for a sale is now the price at which they are willing to sell. However, at this heightened price there are fewer people wishing to buy the good. Some, who were not previously prepared to pay the lower, market price, are certainly not going to pay the higher price now. And those who would have paid the market price before may now decide that the new price is too high so they also do not buy. What results, therefore, is an increase in sellers and a decrease in buyers which can lead to only one thing – a surplus of unsold goods. The sellers may be very eager to sell at the new price but they will have a hard time finding anyone to sell to. Secondly, the opposite case, where the price is lowered below the market price (a price ceiling) creates, as one would expect, the opposite effect. This new price will attract more buyers into the market for that good because the price that they will pay for a purchase is now the lower price at which they are willing to buy. However, at this lowered price there are fewer people wishing to sell the good. Again, some, who were not, before, prepared to sell at the market price, are certainly not going to sell at the lower price now and those who would have sold at the market price may now decide that the new price is too low so they also do not sell2. What results, therefore, is a decrease in sellers and an increase in buyers which, clearly, leads only to a shortage of goods. Buyers will swarm into the marketplace eager to purchase the articles at the new, attractive price but, to their dismay, the shelves will be empty, cleared out by all of the more hasty buyers who got there before them3.

It is this latter scenario – that of artificially lowered prices – that is relevant for ABCT. For the business cycle is, according to “Austrians”, little more than price fixing on the widest scale, the fixing and the manipulation of what is possibly the most important price in the economy – the interest rate on the loan market. Rather than being the price at which a single good is traded, the interest rate is the price at which saved funds are borrowed and lent (i.e. demanded and supplied) in the economy.

When the stock of money is fixed, if one person wants to borrow (demand) money then another must have saved it in order to lend (supply) it. The resulting rate of interest is the point at which the quantity of money saved/lent equals the quantity of money borrowed. Any borrowers who want to borrow at a cheaper rate and any sellers who want to lend at a higher rate will find themselves priced out of the market for loanable funds, the sub-marginal buyers unable to borrow any money and the sub-marginal lenders unable to lend any. This situation produces a stable amount of saving, lending, borrowing and investment because the interest rate – the price of saved funds – is in harmony with the preferences of consumers, in particular, their preferences for allocating their funds towards either capital or consumer goods. The portion of his funds that the saver retains for consumption will be spent on consumer goods (i.e., present consumption) whereas the portion that he allocates towards saving and lending for investment will be spent on capital goods that will not provide any immediate consumption but will provide a greater amount of it in the future. At the market rate of interest goods and resources in the economy will be allocated in harmony with these desires. If, for example, a borrower wishes to borrow money to build a factory (a capital good) and his calculations reveal that the prevailing rate of interest is low enough for him to make a return on this enterprise, it means that savers are willing to lend a sufficient quantity of funds in order to make it viable. If, however, the prevailing interest is too high it means that savers are not willing to lend enough funds to build the factory – the money that could be spent on building the factory they would prefer to spend on their own, immediate consumption4.

What happens, then, if the rate of interest is set below the prevailing market rate? Exactly the same as what happens when prices are forcibly lowered for any single good. At this rate borrowers who before found the rate of interest too high for their ventures suddenly find that they can afford to borrow. The quantity of funds demanded, therefore, will rise at this new, low price. Savers, however, will be less willing to lend at this price. Certainly if they weren’t prepared to lend at the previous rate of interest they will not be induced to do so by an even lower rate and some savers who were prepared to lend at the market rate will not be prepared to do so at the new, artificially fixed rate. The increase in borrowers and decrease in sellers, therefore, causes a shortage of saved funds, or at least it should do so. Why, then, does this shortage not materialise immediately at the point that the interest rate is fixed? Why aren’t the banks empty of cash and why can they keep on lending and lending and lending? Why can this situation perpetuate for years and end in a calamitous crash that causes almost unrelenting havoc?

This is where a degree of complexity enters the explanation. What is really being borrowed and lent is not money but, rather, the real goods and resources that they can buy. We said above that if someone wishes to borrow money another person has to have saved it. But what this really means is that the saver has to have worked to produce real goods and resources in order to earn that money. He then lends that money to the borrower and the borrower uses that money to buy those goods that the lender produced and diverts them towards his enterprise. If, of course, saving, lending and borrowing took place with real goods, or if the supply of money was fixed, then obviously a forced lowering of the rate at which these goods could be borrowed would result in their shortage very quickly. But the fact that the saving and lending takes place through the mechanism of an easily expanded paper money supply creates a clever smokescreen. For our entire financial system rests not on the principal of every pound borrowed requiring a pound to be saved, but rather that pounds can be “created” out of thin air by the central bank and lent out even though someone has not saved. By printing fresh money (or its digital equivalent) the volume of borrowing can expand without a corresponding expansion of the volume of saving. This easy ability to produce more money to meet the higher demand for borrowing means that the artificially low interest rate never causes a shortage of money as we would normally expect when the price of any other good is fixed below its market price. A second problem, though, is that the real goods that this new money can buy have not increased in line with the increase of the supply of money, but, rather, have remained constant and there is, therefore, still only the same quantity of goods that have to be allocated towards either consumption or investment. Surely the artificially low interest rate will mean that there will be a shortage of real goods to devote towards investment?

Unfortunately, at the beginning, this is not so. For the newly printed money transfers purchasing power over goods out of the hands of those holding existing money and into the hands of those who have the new money. The result of this is that the borrowers of the new money – those who want to devote the goods purchased to capital investment – now have an advantage over those who wish to devote them to consumption. Let’s say, for example, that I earn £1000 in a given month. This means that I have worked for and created real goods in the economy on which I can spend this £1000. Let’s say that I allocate £750 towards consumption and £250 towards saving and investment. Therefore, what I want to achieve is to consume 75% of the goods on which I can spend the money and save and invest 25%. This £250, the 25% of the goods I wish to devote to saving and lending constitutes supply in the loan market that will help to set the market rate of interest. We can illustrate this allocation accordingly:

Consumption  £750   75%

——————————

Saving          £250   25%

——————————

TOTAL           £1000  100%

If, however, a commercial bank depresses the interest rate and simply prints an extra £500 to meet the new demand at this lower rate, what has happened now? There has been no change, remember, in the quantity of goods – the new money must be still be spent on these goods. The purchasing power of the existing money that I wished to spend on consumption therefore reduces and that of the new money that is to be spent on lending and investment correspondingly increases. All that happens therefore is that the proportion of goods that can be devoted to lending and, hence, to investment has now been forcibly increased from £250 to £750 – and increase from 25% to 50% of the new total stock of money, thus:

Consumption  £750   50%

——————————

Saving          £250   17%

New Money    £500   33%

——————————

TOTAL           £1500  100%

Newly printed money that enters the loan market therefore forces the economy onto a different consumption/investment ratio from that which is desired by consumers. The poor consumer will find that the newly created money has caused the prices of goods to rise; he is forced, therefore, to curtail his consumption in real terms. The goods that he can no longer afford to buy and consume will be purchased by the new borrowers who will devote them towards their capital enterprises. It is for this reason that none of the expected effects of price fixing occur and the economy proceeds along what appears to be a sustainable boom in capital investment. The problem, though, is that capital projects usually take several years to complete and rely on a continuous supply of goods throughout this time. But consumers don’t want to save voluntarily the amount necessary to complete these projects. The interest rate must therefore be constantly kept low and the new money reeling off the printers to meet it if the projects are to continue. It is only down the line when price inflation inevitably begins to accelerate and the central bank forces an increase in the interest rate and a corresponding reduction in growth of the money supply that the problems are revealed. For now the consumption/investment ratio once again begins to reflect the preferences of consumers – they want, if we remember, more consumption and less saving which means that lending and investment has to reduce. Hence half-finished capital projects have to be left incomplete. They have been starved of the resources necessary as they can no longer afford to purchase them at the new rate of interest. This precipitates a collapse in the prices  of capital assets, a collapse that causes widespread bankruptcy and liquidation of firms and enterprises that, hitherto, had seemed sustainable and profitable. Ludwig von Mises describes the perfect analogy:

The whole entrepreneurial class is, as it were, in the position of a master-builder whose task it is to erect a building out of a limited supply of building materials. If this man overestimates the quantity of the available supply, he drafts a plan for the execution of which the means at his disposal are not sufficient. He oversizes the groundwork and the foundations and only discovers later in the progress of the construction that he lacks the material needed for the completion of the structure. It is obvious that our master-builder’s fault was not overinvestment, but an inappropriate employment of the means at his disposal5.

Mises’ last sentence is important. As the prices of capital goods were accelerating upwards during the boom and then suddenly come crashing down, there is a temptation to analyse this as “overinvestment”. While this is true and that “too much” has been devoted to long term investment projects it should be clear from our analysis that the real problem is malinvestment – a diversion of resources from desired consumer goods to capital goods.

Observant readers might say that it is actually the return to the market rate of interest and not the fixed rate that has caused the sudden shortage of capital goods. This would not be a correct interpretation. Artificially lower prices always give the illusion of plenty, of abundance and availability for everyone. It is just that with the fixed price of a particular good the illusion becomes obvious more quickly. But with fixing the rate of interest, because it takes effect through the mechanism of money, the illusion of plenty is obscured and, for a time, looks very sound. For this new money has the very real ability to divert resources away from consumption towards capital investment. Nothing more has been created but it looks like there has. Couple that with price inflation with higher nominal wages and people, at least, think that they are better off than they were before the “miracle” of artificially low interest rates. Real abundance and plenty, however, would not merely divert resources from consumption. Rather, resources for capital investment would exist independently of and in addition to those desired for consumption, as dictated by the desires of consumers.

Conclusion

What we have seen, therefore, is that ABCT sits coherently with the examination of individual price action and is little more than an extension of it. The business cycle is simply a case of price fixing writ large, causing widespread waste, chaos and misery when its effects are finally revealed. There are no separate bases or foundations of this “macro” sphere of economic theory. There are, however, certain special features that make this form of price fixing especially insidious and long-lasting – that of the easy ability to print fresh money to meet the new, low rate of interest, permitting purchasing power to be transferred to new borrowers and, hence, the real diversion of resources. As soon as this situation ceases the smokescreens vanish to reveal the waste and futility of these diversions.

Whenever, therefore, one has difficulty in either understanding or explaining ABCT, think back to what you know about simple price fixing. In fixing the rate of interest, the most important price in the economy, “Austrian” economics, with its strict deductive logic from the action axiom, will tell you that the results will be the same.

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1Murray N Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market, p. 269 (n. 19).

2This isn’t just stinginess on the part of sellers; rather, the cause of their unwillingness to sell will be, in the long run, that they simply cannot – the lower price will usually not be sufficient for them to recoup the costs of production so they have to abandon the particular line altogether.

3These results were seen during the high inflation of the 1970s in the US when price controls led to long queues at gasoline station because the demanded quantity of gasoline could not be supplied at the artificially low price.

4An interesting question is whether the interest rate may strictly be considered a “price”. In the exchange of goods, the price of a good is the quantity of another good that is fetched in exchange. For example, if one apple sells for two oranges, then the “orange” price of an apple is two oranges (and the “apple” price of an orange is 0.5 apples). In the complex economy, of course, every good is exchanged for money so we always reckon prices in terms of the quantity of money received in exchange. However, whatever the other good that is received, it makes no sense to compare the two physically heterogeneous goods in terms of magnitude. For how does one calculate the “difference” between two apples and one orange, or between £2.00 and a bag of oranges? In the exchange of a present good for a future good, which is what happens in the loan market, this is not the case, however. If a borrower agrees with a lender to borrow £100 today and to pay back £110 in one year’s time, strictly the price of one unit of present money is 1.1 units of future money (or the price of 1 unit of future money is approximately 91p of present money). But because the two goods are physically homogenous we can compare the two magnitudes – 1.0 and 1.1 – in order to derive a rate or ratio between them of 10%. We would therefore state that the interest rate per annum in this scenario is 10%. This rate is therefore not strictly a price but an expression of two prices – the price of present money in terms of future money and the price of future money in terms of present money. However, it should be clear that a manipulation of the rate of interest would have the effect of fixing the actual prices of present and future money. If, for example, the interest rate is forcibly lowered to 5% then the price of one unit of present money is now 1.05 units of future money rather than 1.1 units of future money. The resulting effects of price fixing will therefore be felt in this scenario. Hence, it makes sense to speak of the rate of interest as a price just like any other and, indeed, this is how it is treated by acting humans in the loan market.

5Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, p. 557.

Politicians and Entrepreneurs

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When perusing much public discourse concerning those in government and those who, say, are businessmen and entrepreneurs, one of the more striking aspects is how their economic roles and motivations are viewed as the complete opposite for what they really are.

Even though their achievements may, from time to time, be lauded, the businessman, entrepreneur or capitalist is almost universally despised for what appear to be his motives of greed, selfishness and exploitation. Central to this is the profit-motive, a factor that seems to receive exclusive attention at the expense of any other. Yes, it is true that people are in business to make money and usually as much of it as possible. But this completely overlooks the fact that no businessman is in a position to force anyone to contribute to his income. He can only gain a return on his investment if he is able to accurately devote the scarce resources available to the most highly valued ends of consumers. Even if he has no charitable motivation or any emotive feeling towards the people whom he serves, at the very least he is required to have a superior empathetic understanding of their tastes and desires. If he fails in this regard then the result is not a bumper profit but an eye-watering loss. All transactions, therefore, between businesses, their customers and their employees are entirely voluntary. People enter voluntary transactions because they expect to be better off as a result of them. Nobody is therefore put into a worse position through his interaction with a business, or at least they expect not be.

Counter this with the view of the politician. Reading the list of supposed motivations for government office one would think that only those with an angelic disposition need apply. Not only are they expected to be selfless and altruistic, thinking only of their “people” and of their “nation”, they are also supposed to be utterly devoid of any kind of personal ambition. Asked whether he/she has any eye for high office, one is normally retorted with the rhetoric of “public service” and the apparent fact that the budding statesman is just there to “do his job”.  In short, the implication is that government employment produces universally good and wonderful things that apparently require some kind of sacrifice for which there is very little reward. Nothing could be further from the truth. Government receives its revenue from taxation, and taxes are paid compulsorily. Whereas the entrepreneur has to risk the entirety of his wealth in order to persuade his consumers that what he produces is worthwhile spending their money on, a politician faces no such restraint. They can charge as much as they like, deliver services that are despicably dire and command a personal income that far exceeds what they would be able to obtain in the free market. Furthermore, because the funds for all of their boondoggles have been levied by the threat of force, there is a very real loss experienced by the taxpayers, even if the resulting service is relatively “good”. For none of them would need to be forced to pay up if the government’s ends where truly what they most highly desired to do with their money. Whereas an entrepreneur makes everyone – himself and his customers – better off, the politician only makes himself and the recipients of his tax loot better off. Those who have been forced to pay are left substantially worse off.

These fallacious views have played themselves out recently in the whole debacle of corporate tax avoidance. Few overlook the fact that the likes of Amazon and Starbucks rake in large revenues (if not apparent accounting profits) that somehow requires them to “give something back” to “society”. Yet what is forgotten is that they have only been able to obtain these revenues and profits through voluntary exchange because they have created employment and served the needs of customers by providing them with products that they want to buy. Yet for some reason we think it is just to charge them for this “privilege” of serving our needs. Further, is there not something incongruous about the whole rhetoric of “giving back”? I want a coffee so I go to Starbucks; I give them money, they give me coffee; they have already given in the form of a product that meets my needs. If Starbucks has to “give back” then why don’t I have to “give back” their coffee? Why am I, through the route of taxation, effectively allowed to renege on my side of the bargain?

A similarly related fallacy is that anyone who “owns resources” (i.e. land and capital goods) effectively just has to sit back and earn a perpetual income by virtue of this ownership. Although space precludes a detailed examination of the economics, a net return can only be earned from such ownership if the good is directed to a use more highly valued than that anticipated by other entrepreneurs. Failure to do this will simply result in losses. Try telling the owners of Woolworths, HMV or Blockbuster that ownership of resources is a path to perpetual wealth and income. If anything, it is the government that yields a perpetual income from resources. For it can confiscate anything it wants by force, and display zero entrepreneurial talent with its use by spending it on any wasteful project it deems desirable to itself and its cronies. The only say we have in the matter is an “election” between approved and screened candidates once every four to five years.

Whenever one is presented, therefore, with an opinion on the characters of businessmen on the one hand and of politicians on the other it is best to assume that the stated characteristics should be reversed.

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Means, Ends, Production and Consumption

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One of the apparent weaknesses of economics (of any school of thought) is that as soon as one gets past the “Robinson Crusoe” stage of an isolated individual and proceeds to the elaborate explanations of production, exchange, and the division of labour, it becomes extremely easy to forget that at the start of every economic system, at the bottom of every theory, is the individual acting man, the person who has ends that he achieves with means through actions. There are two, seemingly contradictory (although actually related) dangers from this oversight. First, by separating the categories of production, consumption, saving, investment, entrepreneurship and so forth into separate personae under the division of labour, we forget that these qualities are inherent in the action of all human beings and are simply abstractions from the different categories of action applied to different groups in order to demonstrate their role in the economic system as a whole. What results, therefore, is atomistic appreciation of these different categories, so that, for example, we talk of the needs of “producers” or of the welfare of “employees” or of interests of “borrowers” or of “savers” being punished, and so on. Secondly, we can go to the opposite extreme and only look at the whole economy, concluding erroneously that what is “good” for the economy (if such a thing can be said) is also good for the individual human beings who make up that economy. These two dangers we will explore in turn.

 The Atomised Categories of the Economy

When looking at an individual human being, it is not outrageously difficult to understand how the object of each human being is to achieve his most highly valued ends with the scarce means available to him. We do not need to enter a deep, praxeological analysis to understand how the individual human will, all else being equal, seek to maximise his gains and minimise his costs. He will attempt to inflate the former and deflate the latter as far as it is possible for him so to do. It is also clear that the final object of all of his action is consumption – the enjoyment of the fruits of his toil, the benefit of which he predicts will outweigh the disutility of that toil. If, therefore, in a situation of isolation, a human decides to plough a field, plant seeds and then sow the resulting crop we can readily understand that he will seek to achieve the highest yield of crop possible while ploughing the field and sowing the seeds in a manner that bears him the lightest labour and the lowest cost. If he is able to achieve the same yield with a lower cost or a higher yield with the same cost, he will, all else being equal, proceed to do so. Hence, if he is suddenly gifted a tractor that halves his ploughing time, we can understand easily why he will make use of it. If he can purchase a new type of seed that doubles the crop yield but with no extra work then, again, no one will have any difficulty in appreciating this. The idea that we will always take the shortest route to the same end or the same route to a higher end can be empathetically understood by any human – we are always trying to spend less and have more, cut down on X and increase Y, all to yield the highest benefit for the minimum cost1.

What we can also readily appreciate in this scenario is the different categories of action inherent in the single, lone human. He is a consumer, a producer, an entrepreneur, a saver, an investor, and a capitalist. He must carry out all of these activities with the means available to him on his own behalf. And hence it should be obvious that all of these activities are carried on not for their own sake but for the valuable ends and the improvements to his life that they achieve. If all of the ends could be achieved with no work, production, no saving, no investment and no capital accumulation whatsoever few would doubt that he would be in a far better position. How many of us would turn down the opportunity to purchase anything we wanted without having to go to work each day? Judging by the fact that more than half of the eligible population play the national lottery, it stands to reason that this would be few. It would, therefore, be absolutely absurd for us to say that a person’s life would be made better by loading additional burdens onto the ones that already exist. Who in their right mind would say that our lone human would be better off digging the soil with his bare hands rather than with a tractor and plough? Or that he is better off having to transport water on his shoulders than with the aid of pipes and irrigation? This would only mean that he would endure more work, more hardship but for the same end. No one in his right mind would advocate such a course of action. Additionally, no one would ever say (all else being equal) that a person has “produced too much”. We would not take the fruits of our labour and burn a half of it because the extra productivity means that we might not have to work next week. The result of this would be that a person forces himself to endure the same work for a lesser end. Again, all of this is readily understandable and no person would advocate such courses of action and expect to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, however, this appears to be the approach that we take as soon as the division of labour comes into play and we examine the economy as a whole. For now, when considering the economy in such a manner, while all persons will still retain their multi-faceted characteristics2, the roles of consumer, producer, saver, investor, entrepreneur and so on are not concentrated in an individual but are split out so as to understand them in the new context of the division of labour and exchange. This is, of course, highly useful as it is only by utilising this approach that we can hope to gain any understanding of economic phenomena in the world in which we live, a world that is certainly not isolated but where each individual relies heavily on the productivity of everyone else. However, there is a danger in compartmentalising these activities and considering them only in isolation. With our lone human, we noted that less work means the same enjoyment for a lower burden of effort. A labour saving device, such as machine to pick fruit, for example, would obviously be of a benefit to him. But in the whole economy where the roles of consumer and producer are split, if such a device is introduced, the relative benefits and burdens appear to be split also. Hence, person X, the purchaser and consumer of fruit, is benefited by the lower cost of the product that the machine has permitted. But person Y, who might have been a fruit picker before the machine was introduced, might now find himself completely out of a job (or he may find that at least the demand for his services is drastically reduced) with apparently no corresponding benefit. The conclusion that is often drawn is that there has been a great harm and that “something must be done” to alleviate the plight of the formerly employed fruit pickers. This becomes manifest in a number of policy considerations such as “make work” rules, subsidies, campaigns against machinery and so on, many of which are instigated under union pressure.

The errors of these conclusions come from looking only at the production element of the economy and ignoring the consumer element. For no one in their right mind would say that an individual human should “make more work” for himself or destroy productive machinery to “give him a job”. It is obvious that such things would be a detriment to his ability to consume the fruits of labour. Nor would he be able to subsidise himself by taking money out of one of his pockets and putting it into the other. The very aim of every individual person is to gain as much as he can while doing less work, not more. Yet this is precisely what we do when looking at the economy as a whole. If productive machinery is allowed to displace jobs then this means that the consumers benefit with lower prices and/or increased product. To ward off the loss of jobs by artificially restricting the saving of labour is simply to “benefit” the production end of the economy but to “burden” the consumer end. But the whole point of production is consumption. These people, being kept in jobs that are unneeded, are in no way contributing towards the benefits of consumption. Their work continues as a deadweight cost and there is neither dignity nor achievement in perpetuating their pointless labour. Furthermore, while it is true that they will suffer unemployment in the meantime, the increased supply of free labour will cause wages to fall temporarily. This means that new lines of employment, those that were not previously economic when the people’s labour was desired to pick fruit, are now suddenly viable. New entrepreneurs will rush in to hire the spare labour and devote it to their new enterprises. One must not forget that there will be a degree of hardship during the transition, particularly if one was in a now redundant job for many decades or if a particular skill or talent has now become obsolete. But by deploying the labour to new lines of work, the array of consumer goods now increases. The labour saving device enables more consumption for lower prices, the final end of production, rather than stifling it in the production of the same goods for the same prices. In his role as a consumer every person will feel this benefit over time as real wages increase as a result of the increased productivity.

All of this goes to show that, far from failing to explain anything noteworthy, the economics of the isolated man – so-called “Robinson Crusoe” economics – must be thoroughly borne in mind if one wishes to avoid these misunderstandings.

The Broad View of the Economy

The second error we outlined above was of the opposite ilk – that, rather than looking at parts of the economy in compartmentalised components, one looks only at the whole economy and only thinks in terms of hermetically sealed aggregates and totals. With the individual, lone human we noted that anything that increases his consumption and reduces the burden of production is of a benefit to him. When he is, in effect, his own “mini-economy” all burdens are felt by him and all benefits are enjoyed by him; the one is weighed against the other in the same mind. If, for example, a person desires more to bake more bread and to achieve this he is going to deliberately curtail his production of meat then there is no problem in saying that the burden of the reduction of meat is offset by the increase in bread, for this individual feels both the burden of less meat and the benefit of more bread. His action demonstrates that he prefers bread to meat. This is not the case in the economy as a whole, where roles are concentrated under the division of labour and burdens and benefits are scattered across many – literally millions of – different people. It is a mistake to assume that there is any one, particular event that will be “good for the economy as a whole”. For the economy is just a number of people trading and co-operating peacefully; it is not an entity in its own right, it does not feel, it does think, it does not desire and feels neither pleasure nor pain. While we can, for example, say that a decline in meat production offset by a rise in steel production is a benefit “for the economy as whole” in the sense that the individual members of this economy have chosen to prefer steel over meat (and that jobs in the meat industry will shift to steel production), it is not the case that some broad measures of “output” and “input” leads to the conclusion that all is well. The most pervasive manifestation of this error is the almost ubiquitous obsession with GDP, a figure that is calculated from numerous aggregates that bear no relationship whatsoever with the underlying desires of the acting humans. A particularly crucial element in this aggregates is that of government spending. If GDP starts to fall, say, from the onset of a recession, then Government can simply prop it up by increasing its share of the GDP pie. But it does not follow from this that there is any benefit from this spending. It can only be concluded that an exchange is beneficial if the parties to exchange are volunteers. They only exchange because their action demonstrates that they desire the good that is gained more than the good that is given up. Government spending, however, is funded by taxation3, a compulsory exchange, not a voluntary one. Because the exchange was compulsory it demonstrates that the tax-paying party would prefer not to have his money in the hands of the government. If he did so prefer he would have paid it across voluntarily. When the government spends this money, therefore, it can only do so in ways that are less valuable to those people who provided the funding. There is no sense in which anyone is “better off”. The big aggregate numbers may look impressive following this expenditure but what has not been realised is that they are completely severed from the preferences of the individual people. The situation is no different from one man holding a gun to another’s head and forcing the latter to devote his productive resources to churn out stuff that he doesn’t want. The effort, the production and the physical results may look impressive but there is no point in producing anything if it does not satisfy someone’s most urgently desired needs. What has been gained, like Bastiat’s famous broken window, has simply been at the expense of something that was more highly desired. The same is true also of so-called “infrastructure” spending, which ignores the intricate web of the capital structure. This has been dealt with in detail here. Suffice it to say for the moment that government spending on capital goods does not help the economy; rather, the effect is to divert the economy from a path on which it was meeting the needs of individual people onto a path where it must adapt itself to the new capital resource. Lines of production that depend upon that resource will become profitable, but only at the expense of other, more highly desired lines that have to be abandoned because their funding was compulsorily diverted to government capital expenditure.

The same fallacy – of viewing the economy only as a whole – is evident in the whole saga of the business cycle and credit expansion.  For while the forced lowering of the rate of interest swells the aggregate numbers – everyone is employed, stock markets climb, skyscrapers start shooting up, etc. – what has been forgotten is the underlying preferences of the individuals in the economy. They are not willing to devote the resources necessary to sustain the new capital structure which is precisely why, when the credit expansion stops, the whole lot comes tumbling down. Indeed, the entire approach of mainstream economists seems to be that the economy is doing well as long as somebody, somewhere, is spending on something, i.e. as long as there is some kind of “activity” then there is no cause for alarm. Their failure to acknowledge the wastefulness of the boom and the necessity of the bust demonstrates their lack of comprehension of the fact that spending the scarce resources at our disposal on stuff that is simply not wanted is emphatically not economising activity – it is just waste. The lesson from the 2008 financial crisis should be that you cannot build houses if people are not prepared to pay for the bricks.

The Praxeological Method

These two errors – of looking at the economy too narrowly and then too broadly – can only be avoided by following the praxeological method. For both errors have their root in the failure to grasp the same basic point – that all economising activity is initiated by humans who desire, choose and act so as to devote the scarce resources available to best meet their most highly valued ends. By understanding this crucial fact one would never focus too narrowly and advocate a programme to help certain producers at the expense of others; but neither also would one look too broadly and conclude that what appears to be some kind of economic activity – expressed through aggregates, totals and figures – is always a good thing. Human choice, actions and ends are the foundation of economic understanding and it is vital that is restored to its rightful place in economic thought.

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1We do not, of course, have to assume that every human wants to “have more” in the sense of material fulfilment; rather that every human wishes to meet his ends for the lowest costs whatever the substance of these ends may be.

2A labourer, for example, must, to a degree, possess entrepreneurial skill in choosing the employer from which his labour will yield the highest return; he will also be a saver and investor if, for example, he saves some of his income in a pension fund. And everyone, whatever their broader role in the economy, is also a consumer.

3Even if it is funded by borrowing not only must these borrowed funds be repaid with tax loot but also government borrowing crowds out private borrowing.

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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Poverty and the Pope

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The newly elected Pope Francis has celebrated his inaugural mass by placing the poor at the centre of his papacy, presaged earlier by the inspiration of St Francis of Assisi when choosing his regnal name and the urging of a fellow cardinal to “remember the poor” immediately upon his “victory” in the Sistine Chapel.

There are three questions one is tempted to ask any public person who bleats on incessantly about the poor:

1. What is the definition of poverty?

2. What is its cause?

3. What can be done about it?

Let us be charitable and ignore the fact that many measures of poverty are determined relatively (and hence are really a disguised measurement of “inequality” rather than of poverty) and proceed to answer the second two questions firmly and starkly. Poverty, to the extent that it exists, only does so because of a relative lack of production per capita of the population that is poor. This, in turn, is because there is a low amount of capital invested per person. The only way to resolve poverty is to encourage private saving, private investment in capital and an increase in production per head of the population, all of which must in turn be based upon strong rights to private property. There is absolutely no other way. Taxation, redistribution, borrowing, wasting, Government boondoggles will in no way help the poor. And yet precisely what is it that is always called for? Always the latter. Nor will the poor be helped by “showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about”, to quote the Pope’s inaugural homily. As economics teaches us you do not need to love your fellow human in order to increase his well-being, merely to serve him and engage in trade with him.

It would be an inspiration indeed if the Pope was to call for private property, free trade and free enterprise to lift the poor out of the slums. But I, for one, do not remain particularly hopeful that he will follow this path.

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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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