The Economic Consequences Of Cheap Money

[From a memorandum, dated April 24, 1946, prepared in English by Professor Mises for a committee of businessmen for whom he served as a consultant, this article appears in The Causes of the Economic Crisis, and Other Essays Before and After the Great Depression (2006) as chapter 5, "The Trade Cycle and Credit Expansion: The Economic Consequences of Cheap Money."]

The author of this paper is fully aware of its insufficiency. Yet, there is no means of dealing with the problem of the trade cycle in a more satisfactory way if one does not write a treatise embracing all aspects of the capitalist market economy. The author fully agrees with the dictum of Böhm-Bawerk: "A theory of the trade cycle, if it is not to be mere botching, can only be written as the last chapter or the last chapter but one of a treatise dealing with all economic problems."

It is only with these reservations that the present writer presents this rough sketch to the members of the Committee.

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I. The Unpopularity of Interest

One of the characteristic features of this age of wars and destruction is the general attack launched by all governments and pressure groups against the rights of creditors. The first act of the Bolshevik Government was to abolish loans and payment of interest altogether. The most popular of the slogans that swept the Nazis into power was Brechung der Zinsknechtschaft, abolition of interest-slavery. The debtor countries are intent upon expropriating the claims of foreign creditors by various devices, the most efficient of which is foreign exchange control. Their economic nationalism aims at brushing away an alleged return to colonialism. They pretend to wage a new war of independence against the foreign exploiters as they venture to call those who provided them with the capital required for the improvement of their economic conditions. As the foremost creditor nation today is the United States, this struggle is virtually directed against the American people. Only the old usages of diplomatic reticence make it advisable for the economic nationalists to name the devil they are fighting not the Yankees, but "Wall Street."

"Wall Street" is no less the target at which the monetary authorities of this country are directing their blows when embarking upon an "easy-money" policy. It is generally assumed that measures designed to lower the rate of interest, below the height at which the unhampered market would fix it, are extremely beneficial to the immense majority at the expense of a small minority of capitalists and hardboiled moneylenders. It is tacitly implied that the creditors are the idle rich while the debtors are the industrious poor. However, this belief is atavistic and utterly misjudges contemporary conditions.

In the days of Solon, Athens's wise legislator, in the time of ancient Rome's agrarian laws, in the Middle Ages and even for some centuries later, one was by and large right in identifying the creditors with the rich and the debtors with the poor. It is quite different in our age of bonds and debentures, of savings banks, of life insurance and social security. The proprietary classes are the owners of big plants and farms, of common stock, of urban real estate and, as such, they are very often debtors. The people of more modest income are bondholders, owners of saving deposits and insurance policies and beneficiaries of social security. As such, they are creditors. Their interests are impaired by endeavors to lower the rate of interest and the national currency's purchasing power.

It is true that the masses do not think of themselves as creditors and thus sympathize with the noncreditor policies. However, this ignorance does not alter the fact that the immense majority of the nation are to be classified as creditors and that these people, in approving of an "easy-money" policy, unwittingly hurt their own material interests. It merely explodes the Marxian fable that a social class never errs in recognizing its particular class interests and always acts in accordance with these interests.

The modern champions of the "easy-money" policy take pride in calling themselves unorthodox and slander their adversaries as orthodox, old-fashioned, and reactionary. One of the most eloquent spokesmen of what is called functional finance, Professor Abba Lerner, pretends that in judging fiscal measures he and his friends resort to what "is known as the method of science as opposed to scholasticism." The truth is that Lord Keynes, Professor Alvin H. Hansen and Professor Lerner, in their passionate denunciation of interest, are guided by the essence of Medieval Scholasticism's economic doctrine, the disapprobation of interest. While emphatically asserting that a return to the 19th century's economic policies is out of the question, they are zealously advocating a revival of the methods of the Dark Ages and of the orthodoxy of old canons.

II. The Two Classes of Credit

There is no difference between the ultimate objectives of the anti-interest policies of canon law and the policies recommended by modern interest-baiting. But the methods applied are different. Medieval orthodoxy was intent first upon prohibiting by decree interest altogether and later upon limiting the height of interest rates by the so-called usury laws. Modern self-styled unorthodoxy aims at lowering or even abolishing interest by means of credit expansion.

Every serious discussion of the problem of credit expansion must start from the distinction between two classes of credit: commodity credit and circulation credit.

Commodity credit is the transfer of savings from the hands of the original saver into those of the entrepreneurs who plan to use these funds in production. The original saver has saved money by not consuming what he could have consumed by spending it for consumption. He transfers purchasing power to the debtor and thus enables the latter to buy these nonconsumed commodities for use in further production. Thus the amount of commodity credit is strictly limited by the amount of saving, i.e., abstention from consumption. Additional credit can only be granted to the extent that additional savings have been accumulated. The whole process does not affect the purchasing power of the monetary unit.

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