«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 ...»
It is easy to realize that the new accounting rules act in a procyclic manner by heightening volatility and erroneously biasing business management: in times of prosperity, they create a false «wealth effect» which prompts people to take disproportionate «risks»; when, from one day to the next, the errors committed come to light, the loss in the value of assets immediately decapitalizes companies, which are obliged to sell assets and attempt to recapitalize at the worst moment, when assets are worth the least and financial markets dry up. Clearly, accounting principles which have proven so disturbing must be abandoned as soon as
NOTICIASpossible, and the accounting reforms recently enacted, must be reversed. This is so not only because these reforms mean a dead end in a period of financial crisis and recession, but especially because it is vital that in periods of prosperity we stick to the principle of prudence in valuation, a principle which has shaped all accounting systems from the time of Luca Pacioli at the beginning of the fifteenth century till the adoption of the false idol of the International Accounting Rules.
It must be emphasized that the purpose of accounting is not to reflect supposed «real» values (which in any case are subjective and which are determined and vary daily in the corresponding markets) under the pretext of attaining a (poorly understood) «accounting transparency.» Instead, the purpose of accounting is to permit the prudent management of each company and to prevent capital consumption, as Hayek already established as early as 1934 in his article «The Maintenance of Capital» (Hayek 1934). This requires the application of strict standards of accounting conservatism (based on the prudence principle and the recording of either historical cost or market value, whichever is lower), standards which ensure at all times that distributable profits come from a safe surplus which can be distributed without in any way endangering the future viability and capitalization of each company.
Who is responsible for the current situation?
Of course the spontaneous order of the unhampered market is not responsible for the current situation. And one of the most typical consequences of every past crisis and of course of this current one, is how many people are blaming the market and firmly believing that the recession is a «market failure» that requires more government intervention. The market is a process that spontaneously reacts in the way we have seen against the monetary aggression of the bubble years, which consisted of a huge credit expansion that was not only allowed but even orchestrated and directed by Central Banks, which are the institutions truly responsible for all the economic sufferings from the crisis and 330 NOTICIAS recession that are affecting the world. And paradoxically central banks have been able to present themselves to the general public not only as indignant victims of the list of ad hoc scapegoats they have been able to put together (stupid private bankers, greedy managers receiving exorbitant bonuses, etc.), but also as the only institutions which, by bailing out the banking system as a last resort, have avoided a much greater tragedy.
In any case, it is crystal clear that the world monetary and banking system has chronically suffered from wrong institutional design at least since Peel’s Bank Act of 1844. There is no free
market in the monetary and banking system but just the opposite:
private money has been nationalized, legal tender rules introduced, a huge mess of administrative regulations enacted, the interest rate manipulated and most importantly, everything is directed by a monetary central-planning agency: The Central Bank.
In other words, real socialism, represented by state money, Central Banks and financial administrative regulations, is still in force in the monetary and credit sectors of the so-called free market economies.
As a result of this fact we experience regularly in the area of money and credit all the negative consequences established by the Theorem of the Impossibility of Socialism discovered by those
distinguished members of the Austrian School of Economics:
Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
Specifically, the central planners of state money are unable to know, to follow and to control the changes in both the demand for and supply of money. Furthermore, as we have seen, the whole financial system is based on the legal privilege given by the state to private bankers, who can use a fractional-reserve ratio with respect to the demand deposits they receive from their customers.
As a result of this privilege, private bankers are not true financial intermediaries, but are mainly creators of deposits materializing in credit expansions that inevitably end in crisis and recession.
The most rigorous economic analysis and the coolest, most balanced interpretation of past and recent economic and financial events lead inexorably to the conclusion that central banks (which, again, are true financial central-planning agencies) cannot possibly succeed in finding the most convenient monetary policy
NOTICIASat every moment. This is exactly the kind of problem that became evident in the case of the failed attempts to plan the former Soviet economy from above.
To put it another way, the theorem of the economic impossibility of socialism, which the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek discovered, is fully applicable to central banks in general, and to the Federal Reserve and (at one time) Alan Greenspan and (currently) Ben Bernanke in particular.
According to this theorem, it is impossible to organize any area of the economy and especially the financial sector, via coercive commands issued by a planning agency, since such a body can never obtain the information it needs to infuse its commands with a coordinating nature. This is precisely what I analyze in Chapter 3 of my book on Socialism, Economic Calculation and Entrepreneurship, which has been published by Edward Elgar in association with the Institute of Economic Affairs, and which we present today (Huerta de Soto, 2010b).
Indeed, nothing is more dangerous than to indulge in the «fatal conceit» —to use Hayek’s useful expression (Hayek, 1990)— of believing oneself omniscient or at least wise and powerful enough to be able to keep the most suitable monetary policy fine-tuned at all times. Hence, rather than softening the most violent ups and downs of the economic cycle, the Federal Reserve and, to a lesser extent, the European Central Bank, have been their main architects and the culprits in their worsening.
Therefore, the dilemma facing Ben Bernanke and his Federal Reserve Board, as well as the other central banks (beginning with the European Central Bank), is not at all comfortable. For years they have shirked their monetary responsibility, and now they find themselves up a blind alley. They can either allow the recessionary process to follow its course, and with it the healthy and painful readjustment, or they can escape forward toward a «renewed inflationist» cure. With the latter, the chances of an even more severe recession (even stagflation) in the not-too-distant future increase dramatically. (This was precisely the error committed following the stock market crash of 1987, an error which led to the inflation at the end of the 1980s and concluded with the sharp recession of 1990-1992.) 332 NOTICIAS Furthermore, the reintroduction of the artificially cheap-credit policy at this stage could only hinder the necessary liquidation of unprofitable investments and company reconversion. It could even wind up prolonging the recession indefinitely, as happened in the case of the Japanese economy, which, though all possible interventions have been tried, has ceased to respond to any stimulus involving either monetarist credit expansions or Keynesian methods.
It is in this context of «financial schizophrenia» that we must interpret the «shots in the dark» fired in the last two years by the monetary authorities (who have two totally contradictory responsibilities: both to control inflation and to inject all the liquidity necessary into the financial system to prevent its collapse).
Thus, one day the Fed rescues Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or City Group, and the next it allows Lehman Brothers to fail, under the amply justified pretext of «teaching a lesson» and refusing to fuel moral hazard. Finally, in light of the way events were unfolding, the US and European governments launched multi-billion-dollar plans to purchase illiquid (that is, worthless) assets from the banking system, or to monetize the public debt, or even to buy bank shares, totally or partially nationalizing the private banking system. And considering all that we have seen, which are now the possible future scenarios?
Possible future scenarios and the most appropriateeconomic policy
Theoretically, under the wrongly designed current financial system,
once the crisis has hit we can think of four possible scenarios:
The first scenario is the catastrophic one in which the whole banking system based on a fractional reserve collapses. This scenario seems to have been avoided by central banks which, acting as lenders of last resort, are bailing out private banks whenever it is necessary.
The second scenario is just the opposite of the first one but equally tragic: it consist of an «inflationist cure» so intense, that a new bubble is created. This forward escape would only temporarily
NOTICIASpostpone the solution of the problems at the cost of making them far more serious later (this is precisely what happened in the crisis of 2001).
The third scenario is what I have called the «japanization» of the economy: it happens when the reintroduction of the cheap-credit policy together with all conceivable government interventions entirely blocks the spontaneous market process of liquidation of unprofitable investments and company reconversion. As a result, the recession is prolonged indefinitely and the economy does not recover and ceases to respond to any stimulus involving monetarist credit expansions or Keynesian methods.
The fourth and final scenario is currently the most probable one: It happens when the spontaneous order of the market, against all odds and despite all government interventions, is finally able to complete the microeconomic readjustment of the whole economy, and the necessary reallocation of labor and the other factors of production toward profitable lines based on sustainable new investment projects.
In any case, after a financial crisis and an economic recession have hit it is necessary to avoid any additional credit expansion (apart from the minimum monetary injection strictly necessary to avoid the collapse of the whole fractional-reserve banking system). And the most appropriate policy would be to liberalize the economy at all levels (especially in the labor market) to permit the rapid reallocation of productive factors (particularly labor) to profitable sectors. Likewise, it is essential to reduce public spending and taxes, in order to increase the available income of heavily-indebted economic agents who need to repay their loans as soon as possible. Economic agents in general and companies in particular can only rehabilitate their finances by cutting costs (especially labor costs) and paying off loans.
Essential to this aim are a very flexible labor market and a much more austere public sector. These measures are fundamental if the market is to reveal as quickly as possible the real value of the investment goods produced in error and thus lay the foundation for a healthy, sustainable economic recovery.
However, once the economy recovers (and in a sense the recovery begins with the crisis and the recession themselves which mark 334 NOTICIAS the discovery by the market of the errors committed and the beginning of the necessary microeconomic readjustment), I am afraid that, as has happened in the past again and again, no matter how careful central banks may be in the future (can we expect them to have learned their lesson? For how long will they remember what happened?), nor how many new regulations are enacted (as in the past all of them, and now especially Basel II and III, have attacked only the symptoms but not the true causes), sooner or later new cycles of credit expansion, artificial economic boom, financial crisis and economic recession will inevitably continue affecting us until the world financial and banking systems are entirely redesigned according to the general principles of private property law that are the essential foundation of the capitalist system and that require a 100 percent reserve for any demand deposit contract.
I began this lecture with Peel’s Bank Act, and I will also finish with it. On June 13 and 24, 1844 Robert Peel pointed out in the House of Commons that in each one of the previous monetary crises «there was an increase in the issues of country bank paper»
and that «currency without a basis (…) only creates fictitious value, and when the bubble bursts, it spreads ruin over the country and deranges all commercial transactions».
Today, 166 years later, we are still suffering from the problems that were already correctly diagnosed by Robert Peel. And in order to solve them and finally reach the only truly free and stable financial and monetary system that is compatible with a free market economy in this 21st century, it will be necessary to take
the following three steps:
First, to develop and culminate the basic concept of Peel’s Bank Act by also extending the prescription of a 100 percent reserve requirement to demand deposits and equivalents. Hayek states that this radical solution would prevent all future crises (Hayek 1984, 29) as no credit expansions would be possible without a prior increase in real genuine saving, making investments sustainable