«Besley for inviting me, Professor Philip Booth and the Institute of Economic Affairs for allowing me to also use this as an opportunity to introduce ...»
Besley for inviting me, Professor Philip Booth and the Institute
of Economic Affairs for allowing me to also use this as an opportunity
to introduce my most recent book entitled «Socialism, Economic
Calculation and Entrepreneurship,» and finally Toby Baxendale
for making this whole event possible.
Today I will concentrate on the recent financial crisis and the
current worldwide economic recession, which I consider to be the most challenging problem we as economists must now face.
The Fatal Error of Peel’s Bank Act I would like to start off by stressing the following important idea: all the financial and economic problems we are struggling with today are the result, in one way or another, of something that happened precisely in this country on July 19, 1844... What happened on that fateful day that has conditioned up to the present time the financial and economic evolution of the whole world? On that date, Peel’s Bank Act was enacted after years of debate between Banking and Currency School Theorists on the true causes of the artificial economic booms and the subsequent financial crises that had been affecting England especially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
The Bank Charter Act of 1844 successfully incorporated the sound monetary theoretical insights of the Currency School. This school was able to correctly diagnose that the origin of the boom and bust cycles lay in the artificial credit expansions orchestrated by private banks and financed not by the prior or genuine savings of citizens, but through the issue of huge doses of fiduciary media (in those days mainly paper banknotes, or certificates of demand deposits issued by banks for a much greater amount than the gold originally deposited in their vaults). So, the requirement by Peel’s Bank Act of a 100 percent reserve on the banknotes issued was not only in full accordance with the most elementary general principles of Roman Law regarding the need to prevent the forgery or the over-issue of deposit certificates, but also was a first and positive step in the right direction to avoid endlessly recurring cycles of booms and depressions.
NOTICIASHowever Peel’s bank Act, not withstanding the good intentions behind it, and its sound theoretical foundations, was a huge failure.
Why? Because it stopped short of extending the 100 percent reserve requirement to demand deposits also (Mises 1980, 446-448).
Unfortunately, by Peel’s day, some ideas originally hit upon by the Scholastics of the Spanish Golden Century had been entirely forgotten. The Scholastics had discovered at least three hundred years earlier that demand deposits (which they called in Latin «chirographis pecuniarium,» or money created only by the entries in banks’ accounting books) were part of the money supply (Huerta de Soto 2009, 606). They had also realized that from a legal standpoint, neglecting to maintain a 100 percent reserve on demand deposits is a mortal sin and a crime not of forgery, as is the case with the over-issue of banknotes, but of misappropriation.
This error of Peel’s Bank Act, or rather, of most economists of that period, who were ignorant of something already discovered
much earlier by the Spanish Scholastics, proved to be a fatal error:
after 1844 bankers did continue to keep fractional reserves, not on banknotes of course, because it was forbidden by the Bank Charter Act, but on demand deposits. In other words, banks redirected their activity from the business of over-issuing banknotes to that of issuing demand deposits not backed by a 100 percent reserve, which from an economic point of view is exactly the same business. So, artificial credit expansions and economic booms did continue, financial crises and economic recessions were not avoided, and despite all the hopes and good intentions originally put into Peel’s Bank Act, this piece of legislation soon lost all of its credibility and popular support. Not only that, but the failure of the Bank Act conditioned the evolution of financial matters up to the present time and fully explains the wrong institutional design that afflicts the financial and monetary system of the so-called free market economies, and the dreadful economic consequences we are currently suffering.
When we consider the failure of Peel’s Bank Act, the evolution of events up to now makes perfect sense: bubbles did continue to form, financial crises and economic recessions were not avoided, bank bailouts were regularly demanded, the lender of last resort or central bank was created precisely to bail out banks 318 NOTICIAS and to permit the creation of the necessary liquidity in moments of crisis, gold was abandoned and legal tender laws and a purely fiduciary system were introduced all over the world. So as we can see, the outcome of this historical process sheds light on the wrong institutional design and financial mess that incredibly is still affecting the world at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century!
The healthy process of capital accumulationbased on true savings
Now it is important that we quickly review the specifics of the economic processes through which artificial credit expansions created by a fractional-reserve banking system under the direction of a Central Bank entirely distort the real productive structure, and thus generate bubbles, induce unwise investments and finally trigger a financial crisis and a deep economic recession. But before that, and in honor of Hayek, we must remember the fundamental rudiments of capital theory which up to the present time and at least since the Keynesian revolution, have been almost entirely absent from the syllabus of most university courses on economic theory. In other words, we are first going to explain the specific entrepreneurial, spontaneous and microeconomic processes that in an unhampered free market tend to correctly invest all funds previously saved by economic agents. This is important, because only this knowledge will permit us to understand the huge differences with respect to what happens if investment is financed not by true savings, but by the mere creation out of thin air of new demand deposits which only materialize in the entries of banks’ accounting books. What we are going to explain now is nothing more and nothing less than why the so-called «paradox of saving»
is entirely wrong from the standpoint of economic theory (Hayek 1975, 199-263). Unfortunately this is something very few students of economic theory know even when they finish their studies and leave the university. Nevertheless this knowledge applies without any doubt to one of the most important spontaneous market processes that every economist should be highly familiar with.
NOTICIASIn order to understand what will follow, we must visualize the real productive structure of the market as a temporal process composed of many very complex temporal stages in which most labor, capital goods and productive resources are not devoted to producing consumer goods maturing this year, but consumer goods and services that will mature, and eventually be demanded by consumers, two, three, four, or even many more years from now… For instance, a period of several years elapses between the time engineers begin to imagine and design a new car, and the time the iron ore has already been mined and converted into steel, the different parts of the car have been produced, everything has been assembled in the auto factory, and the new cars are distributed, marketed and sold. This period comprises a very complex set of successive temporal productive stages. So, what happens if the subjective time preference of economic agents suddenly decreases and as a result the current consumption of this year decreases, for example, by ten percent? If this increase in savings happens, three key spontaneous microeconomic processes are triggered and tend to guarantee the correct investment of the newly saved consumer goods.
The first effect is the new disparity in profits between the different productive stages: immediate sales in current consumer goods industries will fall and profits will decrease and stagnate compared with the profits in other sectors further away in time from current consumption. I am referring to industries which produce consumer goods maturing two, three, five or more years from now, their profitability not being affected by the negative evolution of short term current consumption. Entrepreneurial profits are the key signal that moves entrepreneurs in their investment decisions, and the relatively superior profit behavior of capital goods industries which help to produce consumer goods that will mature in the long term tells entrepreneurs all around the productive structure that they must redirect their efforts and investments from the less profitable industries closer to consumption to the more profitable capital goods industries situated further away in time from consumption.
The second effect of the new increase in savings is the decrease in the interest rate and the way it influences the market price of 320 NOTICIAS
capital goods situated further away in time from consumption:
as the interest rate is used to discount the present value of the expected future returns of each capital good, a decrease in the interest rate increases the market price of capital goods, and this increase in price is greater the longer the capital good takes to reach maturity as a consumer good. This significant increase in the market prices of capital goods compared with the relatively lower prices of the less demanded consumer goods (due to the increase in savings) is a second very powerful microeconomic effect that signals all around the market that entrepreneurs must redirect their efforts and invest less in consumer goods industries and more in capital goods industries further from consumption.
Finally, and third, we should mention what Hayek called The Ricardo Effect (Hayek 1948, 220-254; 1978, 165-178), which refers to the impact on real wages of any increase in savings: whenever savings increase, sales and market prices of immediate consumer goods relatively stagnate or even decrease. If factor incomes remain the same, this means higher real wages, and the corresponding reaction of entrepreneurs, who will try in the margin to substitute the now relatively cheaper capital goods for labor. What the Ricardo Effect explains is that it is perfectly possible to earn profits even when sales (of consumer goods) go down, if costs decrease even more via the replacement of labor, which has become more expensive, with machines and computers, for instance. Who produces these machines, computers, and capital goods that are newly demanded? Precisely the workers who have been dismissed by the stagnating consumer goods industries and who have relocated to the more distant capital goods industries, where there is new demand for them to produce the newly demanded capital goods.
This third effect, the Ricardo Effect, along with the other two mentioned above, promotes a longer productive process with more stages, which are further away from current consumption.
And this new, more capital-intensive productive structure is fully sustainable, since it is fully backed by prior, genuine real savings. Furthermore, it can also significantly increase, in the future, the final production of consumer goods and the real income of all economic agents. These three combined effects all work in the same direction; they are the most elementary teachings of capital
NOTICIAStheory; and they explain the secular tendency of the unhampered free market to correctly invest new savings and constantly promote capital accumulation and the corresponding sustainable increase in economic welfare and development.
The unsustainable nature of the Bubbles induced by artificial credit expansions created by the fractional-reserve banking industry We are now in a position to fully understand, by contrast with the above process of healthy capital accumulation, what happens if investments are financed not by prior genuine savings but by a process of artificial credit expansion, orchestrated by fractionalreserve banks and directed by the lender of last resort or Central Bank.
Unilateral credit expansion means that new loans are provided by banks and recorded on the asset side of their balance sheets, against new demand deposits that are created out of thin air as collateral for the new loans, and are automatically recorded on the liability side of banks’ balance sheets. So new money, or I should say new «virtual money» because it only «materializes» in bank accounting book entries, is constantly created through this process of artificial credit expansion. And in fact roughly only around ten percent of the money supply of most important economies is in the form of cash (paper bills and coins), while the remaining 90 percent of the money supply is this kind of virtual money that only exists as written entries in banks’ accounting books. (This is precisely what the Spanish Scholastics termed, over 400 years ago, «chirographis pecuniarum» or virtual money that only exists in writing in an accounting book.) It is easy to understand why credit expansions are so tempting and popular and the way in which they entirely corrupt the behavior of economic agents and deeply demoralize society at all levels. To begin with, entrepreneurs are usually very happy with expansions of credit, because they make it seem as if any investment project, no matter how crazy it would appear in other situations, could easily get financing at very low interest rates.
322 NOTICIAS The money created through credit expansions is used by entrepreneurs to demand factors of production, which they employ mainly in capital goods industries more distant from consumption. As the process has not been triggered by an increase in savings, no productive resources are liberated from consumer industries, and the prices of commodities, factors of production, capital goods and the securities that represent them in stock markets tend to grow substantially and create a market bubble.
Everyone is happy, especially because it appears it would be possible to increase one’s wealth very easily without any sacrifice in the form of prior saving and honest hard individual work. The so-called «virtuous circle of the new economy» in which recessions
seemed to have been avoided forever, cheats all economic agents: