Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Questions for Bob Murphy and other Austrians on the inevitability of the bust
David Glasner had some recent posts (here and here) on Ludwig von Mises and Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT). Bob Murphy pushed back here with a good rebuttal. But David's general point still stands: what necessarily forces a central bank that has adopted the practice of lending at a rate below the natural rate to ever cease this practice? Why does there have to be an inevitable bust?
I consider myself an Austrian in that one of my favorite economists is Carl Menger. I've also written a thing or two for the Mises Institute, my most recent being on Menger and Leon Walras and how the two would have differed on the phenomenon of high frequency trading. On the other hand, when it comes to macroeconomics, I remain a business cycle agnostic. I'm willing to be converted though. All you've got to do is answer a few questions of mine.
Say a central bank decides to reduce the rate at which it lends below the natural rate. Businesses can come to it for cheap loans -- and they do. Mises points out that as long as this differential exists it'll eventually lead to a "crack-up boom". The currency enters hyperinflation stage and, at its peak, people either turn to barter or dollarization occurs. Alarmed at this prospect, the central bank will probably increase rates in order to stave off the crack up.
But say the central bank and the currency users exists on a small island far from everywhere so dollarization can't happen. Say also that the police force is vigilant about preventing people from bartering. As a result, the currency issued by the central bank continues to be used, even during hyperinflation. The inevitable flight from money — the crack-up boom — can't occur. The currency perpetually falls.
So having assumed the crack-up boom away, why should the setting of market rates below the natural rate inevitably end in a bust? Sure, in the interim there might be a redirection of capital towards projects that are only profitable at low rates. In this context, a sudden increase in rates by the central bank back up to the natural rate might show some of these projects to be unprofitable. You've got a bust of sorts. But our central bank, released from the disciplining threat of a crack-up boom, steadfastly refuses to raise rates.
So if rates can be kept perpetually too low, and a crack-up boom can be averted, what causes the bust?
To start off, one explanation for a bust occurring is that when rates are kept too low, excess resources are allocated to interest-sensitive distant projects and not enough to less interest-sensitive near-term projects. At some point there's a realization that not enough capital has been allocated to present needs and all those future projects suddenly collapse in value. Thus a bust. What causes this sudden epiphany? As David Glasner asks, are workers dying of starvation? It can't be higher interest rates that render these projects unprofitable since, as I've already pointed out, the central bank keeps rates permanently low.
Even if capital begins to flow into projects that are only profitable at low rates, wouldn't the prices of materials required by those projects be bid up relative to other prices, thereby putting a quick end to the profitability of these distant projects? Wouldn't the relative prices of material required for near term projects fall, thereby increasing the profitability of near term projects? How can any significant capital misallocation proceed given these rapid relative price adjustments?
If you can answer all my questions, then you'll have successfully converted me.