Money demand and banking – some challenges for the “Free Bankers”

Within the Austrian School of Economics there has long been disagreement and therefore occasionally fierce debate about the nature and consequences of fractional-reserve banking, from here on called simply FRB. FRB denotes the practice by banks of issuing, as part of their lending activities, claims against themselves, either in the form of banknotes or demand deposits (fiduciary media), that are instantly redeemable in money proper (such as gold or state fiat money, depending on the prevailing monetary system) but that are not fully backed by money proper. To the extent that the public accepts these claims and uses them side by side with money proper, gold or state fiat money, as has been the case throughout most of banking history, the banks add to the supply of what the public uses as money in the wider sense.

Very broadly speaking, and at the risk of oversimplifying things, we can identify two camps. There is the 100-percent reserve group, which considers FRB either outright fraud or at least some kind of scam, and tends to advocate its ban. As an outright ban is difficult for an otherwise libertarian group of intellectuals to advocate – who would ban it if there were no state? – certain ideas have taken hold among members of this group. There is the notion that without state support – which, at present, is everywhere substantial – the public would not participate in it, and therefore it would not exist, or that it constitutes a fundamental violation of property rights, and that it would thus be in conflict with libertarian law in a free society. This position is most strongly associated with Murray Rothbard, and has, to various degrees and with different shadings, been advocated by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Jesus Huerta de Soto, and Jörg Guido Hülsmann.

The opposing view within the Austrian tradition is mainly associated with George Selgin and Larry White, although there are other notable members of this group, such as Steve Horwitz. This camp has assumed the label “free bankers” and it defends FRB against accusations of fraud and misrepresentation, maintains that FRB is a normal feature of a free society, and that no property rights violations occur in the normal conduct of it. But this group takes the defence of banking practices further, as it also maintains that FRB is not a disruptive influence on the economy, a position that may put the free bankers in conflict with the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, although the free bankers deny this. This point is different from saying that FRB is not fraudulent or suspect. We should always consider the possibility that otherwise perfectly legitimate activities could still be the cause of economic imbalances, even in a free market. If we did find that to be the case, we might still not follow from this that state intervention or bans are justified.

But the free bankers go even further than this. Not only is FRB not problematic, either on grounds of property rights nor on economic stability, FRB is even beneficial as it tends to maintain what the free bankers call short term monetary equilibrium, that is, through FRB the banks tend to adjust the supply of money (by issuing or withdrawing deposit money on the margin) in response to discretionary changes in money demand in such a way that disruptions would not occur that otherwise seem unavoidable under inelastic forms of money when changes in money demand would have to be absorbed by changes in nominal prices. FRB is thus not just legitimate, it is highly beneficial.

Purpose of this essay

As I said before, this is an old debate. Why should we reheat it? – Before I answer this question, I should briefly state my position: I am not fully in agreement with either camp. I do believe that the free bankers’ defence of FRB is largely successful but that their claims as to it being entirely innocuous and certainly their claims as to its efficiency in flexibly meeting changes in money demand are overstated. In my view, their attempts to support these claims fail.

FRB is, in principle and usually, neither fraud nor a scam, and the question to what extent the depositing public fully grasps how FRB works is not even material in settling this issue. In their 1996-paper ‘In defense of fiduciary media’, Selgin and White argue that the type of money that FRB brings into circulation has to be distinguished from fiat money; they explain that FRB is not fraudulent and that it does not necessarily involve a violation of property rights; third party effects, that is any potentially adverse effects that FRB may have on those who do not participate in it, are not materially different from adverse effects that may emanate from other legitimate market activity, and thus provide no reason for banning FRB; furthermore, Selgin and White claim that FRB is popular and that it would occur in a free market. I agree with all these points. There is no basis for banning FRB, so it should not be banned. This position is, in my view, correct, and it also happens to be obviously libertarian. I may add that I believe it is also almost impossible to ban FRB, or something like FRB, completely. We could ban FRB as practiced by banks today but in a developed financial system it is still likely that other market participants may from time to time succeed in bringing highly liquid near-money instruments into circulation, and that may cause all the problems that the 100-percent-reserve crowd associates with traditional FRB. The question is now the following: do these problems with FRB exist? The free bankers say no. FRB, in a free market, is not only not a source of instability, it is a source of stability as it manages to satisfy changes in money demand smoothly. These positive claims as to the power of FRB are the topic of this essay. I do not believe that these claims hold up to scrutiny.

Why is this relevant?

At first it does not appear to be relevant. Selgin and White declare in their 1996 paper, and I assume their position on this has not changed, that they are opposed to state fiat money and central banking. This sounds similar to the conclusions that I develop in my book, Paper Money Collapse. I advocate the strict separation of money and state. No central bank and no state fiat money. I think it is extremely likely that an entirely uninhibited free market in money and banking would again chose some kind of inflexible commodity – a natural commodity with a long tradition as a medium of exchange, such as gold, or maybe a new, man-made but scarce commodity, such as the cryptographic commodity Bitcoin, or something similar – as the basis for the financial system, and even if the market were to continue with the established denominations of dollars, yen, and so forth, as the public is, for now at least, still comfortable using them, would somehow link the issuance of these monetary units again to something inelastic that was not under anybody’s discretionary control.

In any case, if we assume that some type of ‘market-gold-standard’ would again resurface, it is very clear that under such purely market-driven, voluntary arrangements and with essentially hard money at its core, any FRB activity would be strictly limited. FRB-practicing banks would not have lender-of-last resort central banks watching their backs. There would be no limitless well of new bank reserves to bail out overstretched banks and to restart new credit cycles whenever the old ones have run their course. There would be no state-administered and tax-payer-guaranteed deposit insurance, or any other arrangement by which the cost of failure in banking could be socialized. Lowering reserve ratios and issuing additional fiduciary media (substitute money, i.e. deposit money) would be legal (the state would abstain from any involvement in monetary affairs, including the banning of any such activities) but it would come with considerable business risk, as it should be.

Would there still be FRB? Certainly. And in my view, the remaining FRB activity, adding as it does to the elasticity of the money supply at the margin and thus potentially distorting interest rate signals, is going to lead to capital misallocations to some degree, and thus initiate the occasional business cycle. That, in my view, is the price we have to pay for having a developed monetary economy and entire freedom in money and banking with all the undeniable advantages such a system brings. Importantly, I believe that these costs are unavoidable. But they are minor due to the absence of FRB-boosting state policy. – No, an entirely free market would not fulfil any dreams of uninterrupted bliss or realise the macroeconomist’s fantasy of everlasting ‘equilibrium’, both notions that Ludwig von Mises frequently rejected and ridiculed, but it would for sure be considerably better, and much more stable, than anything our present elastic monetary system can produce.

In Paper Money Collapse, I argue that inelasticity of supply is a virtue in money. That is why gold is such an excellent monetary asset. Complete inelasticity is unattainable in the real world but something like a proper gold standard is close enough. But for the ‘free bankers’ the remaining elasticity under restricted FRB (restricted by a stable commodity base) would be a boon. It would further stabilize the economy and establish…equilibrium. In my view, these claims are unsupported. But, you may say, why should we argue about the specific features of the post-fiat-money world if we are in agreement that such a post-fiat money world is in any case preferable to the present one?

The reason is simply this: how do we evaluate current policies? On this question I thought that most Austrians, as advocates of gold or something similar, and as critics of fiat money, would still be in broad agreement. But to my initial shock and my lasting amazement I found that some Austrian free bankers frequently cannot bring themselves to reject ‘quantitative easing’ and other heavy-handed central bank intervention on principle, and that they are able to embrace monetarist policy proposals, such as nominal GDP targeting by central banks, as a kind of second-best-solution that will do for as long as our first choice of separation of money and state is not realised. I believe these positions to stand in fundamental conflict with key tenets of the Austrian School of Economics and, apart from that and more importantly, to be simply unjustifiable. I think they are misguided. But it seems to me that the occasional support for them among free bankers originates in certain expectations as to what the equilibrating forces of ‘free banking’ would bring about in a free market in terms of a stable nominal GDP, and the free bankers can thus advocate certain forms of central bank activism if these are bound to generate these same outcomes. Therefore, in order to refute the idea of nominal GDP targeting we have to show that the free bankers’ expectations as to ‘monetary equilibrium’ under free banking lack a convincing analytical foundation. In this essay I want to pose some challenges for the free bankers. In a later article I hope to address NGDP-targeting as such.

Money does not need a producer

Among all goods money has a special place. It is the most liquid good and the only one that is demanded only for its exchange value, that is, its price in other goods and services. Anybody who has demand for money has demand for real money balances, that is, for effective purchasing power in the form of money. Nobody has demand for a specific quantity of the monetary asset per se, like a certain number of paper notes or a particular quantity of gold, but always for the specific purchasing power that these monetary assets convey.

In contrast to all other goods and services, changes in money demand can in theory be met by either producing additional quantities or by withdrawing and eliminating existing quantities of the monetary asset (changing the physical quantity of money), or by allowing the price of money, money’s exchange value, to change in response to the buying and selling of money versus non-money goods by the public (changing money’s purchasing power). Furthermore, it can be argued, as I do in Paper Money Collapse, that the superior market process for bringing demand for and supply of money in balance is the latter, i.e. the market-driven adjustment of nominal prices in response to the public’s buying and selling of money for non-money goods according to money demand. Why? – Well, mainly because the process of adjusting the physical quantity of money does not work. 1) We lack a procedure by which we can detect changes in money demand before they have begun to affect prices, and if prices are already beginning to change then these price changes already constitute the very process that satisfies the new money demand. This makes changing the quantity of money superfluous. 2) We lack a procedure by which we can expand and contract the supply of money without affecting the supply of credit and without changing interest rates. This makes changing the quantity of money dangerous. Money demand and loan demand are different things. Our modern fiat money systems are, in any case, not really designed for occasionally reducing the supply of money but for a continuous expansion of the money supply. As the Austrian Business Cycle Theory explains, expanding the supply of money by expanding bank credit must distort interest rates (artificially depress them) and lead to mismatches between voluntary saving and investment and thus to capital misallocations.

To this analysis the free bankers appear to voice a few objections. Before we look at the differences, however, let’s first stress an important agreement: the free bankers agree that nominal prices can do the adjusting and bring demand for and supply of money in balance. But they introduce an important condition: in the long run. In the short run, they argue, the process is not quite as smooth as many hard-money Austrians portray it to be.

Selgin and White (‘Defence’, 1996):

In the long run, nominal prices will adjust to equate supply and demand for money balances, whatever the nominal quantity of money. It does not follow, however, that each and every change in the supply of or demand for money will lead at once to a new long-run equilibrium, because the required price adjustments take time. They take time because not all agents are instantly and perfectly aware of changes in the money stock or money demand, and because some prices are costly to adjust and therefore “sticky.” It follows that, in the short run (empirically, think “for a number of months”), less than fully anticipated changes to the supply of or demand for money can give rise to monetary disequilibrium.

Thus, the first objection of the free bankers is that the account of the hard-money Austrians about the smooth adjustment of prices in response to changes in money demand is a bit superficial and slick. In the real world, not all prices will respond so quickly. Not all goods and services are being priced and re-priced in a continuous auction process, and when the public reduces money-outlays at the margin in an attempt to increase money-holdings, not every producer of goods and services will quickly adjust the price tags of his wares.

I do think some of this criticism is valid, and I am not excluding myself from it. My own account of the process of adjustment of money’s purchasing power sometimes runs the risk of glossing over the real-life frictions involved. However, to my defence, I acknowledged some of these problems in Paper Money Collapse, although I do not treat them extensively. See page 144-145:

In the absence of a flexible money supply, sudden changes in money demand will have to be fully absorbed by changes’ in money’s purchasing power. One could argue that this, too, has the potential to disrupt the otherwise smooth operation of the economy. Indeed, as we have seen, this phenomenon will also affect the prices of different goods differently. [This refers to the fact that when, for example, people try to raise their money holdings, they will reduce money-outlays on non-money goods or sell non-money goods for money, but they won’t cut every single expenditure item by an equal amount, or liquidate a tiny portion of each of their assets but will always cut the expenditure or sell the asset that is lowest on their present value scale. Downward pressure on prices from rising money demand will thus not be the same for all prices.]…A change in the demand for money will change overall prices but also relative prices and therefore the relative position of economic actors and the allocation of resources in the economy. All of this is true but it must lead to a different question: Is any of this avoidable….?

Is ‘monetary disequilibrium’ a unique phenomenon?

The free bankers are correct to point to these problems but it is also true that every change in the preferences of economic agents leads to similar problems. If consumer tastes change and money-flows are being redirected from certain products to certain other products, this, too, means that nominal spending on some items is being reduced. Profitability will decline in some parts of the economy and increase in others. This, too, will ultimate redirect resources and change the economy but all of these processes “take time because not all agents are instantly and perfectly aware …” of what is going on, and also for other reasons, including the stickiness of some prices. I think agents are never “instantly and perfectly aware” of anything, and that the slickness of economic models is never matched by reality. Accordingly, the real world is constantly in disequilibrium, and as economists we can only explain the underlying processes that tend towards equilibrium without ever reaching it. I wonder, however, if the concerns of the free bankers, valid though they are, are not just examples of the frictions that always exist in the real world, in which tastes and preferences change constantly, and change in an instant, but prices, knowledge, and resource use always move more slowly.

Furthermore, the issue of stickiness of prices should not be overstated. These days many prices do appear rather flexible and tend to adjust rather quickly: not only those of financial assets but also industrial commodities, and even many consumer goods, from used cars to hotel stays to flight tickets to everything on eBay. Discounting in response to a drop in nominal spending is the first of line of defense for almost every entrepreneur, I would guess, and if what the entrepreneur faces is indeed a higher money demand among his clientele, rather than a genuine change in consumption preferences, then sales should stabilize quickly at the lower price.

But I think the main point is this: how can the banks do better? What do the free bankers say to my two points above that changing the quantity of money is not really a viable alternative to allowing changes in nominal prices? Let’s address the first point first:

Point 1) We lack a procedure by which we can detect changes in money demand before they have begun to affect prices, and if prices are already beginning to change then these price changes already constitute the very process that satisfies the new money demand. This makes changing the quantity of money superfluous.

How do banks detect a change in money demand – before it has affected prices?

Banks have no facility to create money and money alone (deposit money, fiduciary media). New money is always a byproduct of banks’ lending operations. Banks can only create money by expanding their balance sheets. Thus, they always create an asset (a new loan) at the same time they create a new liability (the demand deposit in which the bank pays out the loan to the borrower, and which is part of the money supply). Therefore, if you suddenly experience a rise in money demand, if you suddenly feel the urge to hold more of your wealth in the form of the most fungible object (money), the bank can’t help you. Of course, you could go to the bank and borrow the money and then keep it in cash. This is a possibility but I think we all agree – and the free bankers seem to agree as well – that this is very unusual, and that it must be rare. Banks meet loan demand, not money demand, and the two are not only different, they are the opposite of one another. Borrowers do not have a high marginal demand for money; quite to the contrary, they have a high marginal demand for goods and services, i.e. non-money items (that is why they are willing to incur interest expense). The loan is in the form of money but the borrowers usually spend the money right away on whatever they really desire.

Banks are not in the money-creation business (or only in it by default – no pun intended); they are really in the lending business. The idea that rising money demand would articulate itself as higher loan demand at banks is wrong, and the free bankers do not usually make that mistake. They know (and some of them even stress) that money demand articulates itself in the markets for non-money goods and services (including, but not restricted to, financial assets). People reduce or increase spending in order to establish the desired money holdings.

To the extent that, when people experience a higher money demand, they sell financial assets to banks, the banks do indeed directly experience the heightened money demand, and if the banks increase their FRB activities in response and expand their balance sheets accordingly (the financial assets they buy enter the asset side of the balance sheet – they are the new loans – and the new demand deposits the banks issue to pay for them sit on the liability side of the balance sheet), the quantity of money is indeed being expanded in response to money demand. But to the extent that the public does not sell to FRB-practicing banks or that the public reduces other outlays or sells non-financial assets, the banks are not directly involved as counterparties. How can they still detect a rising money demand?

[As an aside, the free bankers sometimes speak of ‘the public having a higher demand for demand deposits or ‘inside money’ ’, and that the banks should be allowed to ‘accommodate’ this. I think these statements are confusing. Depositing physical cash in a bank, or conversely liquidating demand deposits to increase holdings of physical cash, are transactions between various forms of money. In a functioning FRB system, both forms of money, physical cash and bank-produced deposit money, are almost perfect surrogates. Both are used side by side, and both satisfy the demand for money. That is the precondition for FRB to work. The factors that occasionally determine preferences for a specific form of money are fundamentally different from those that affect the demand for money overall. If the public, for example, reduces demand deposits and accumulates physical cash, i.e. switches from ‘inside money’ to ‘outside money’, this may be because it is concerned about the health of the banks, and this is unrelated to the public’s demand for money, which in this case may be unchanged. As an example, in the recent crisis, the demand for physical cash increased in many countries, relative to the demand for bank deposits. At the same time, overall money demand also probably increased. But importantly, both phenomena are fundamentally different.]

The answer is this: if the public, in an attempt to raise money holdings, reduces money spending, this will slow the velocity of money, and to the banks this will be clearly visible. Money doesn’t change hands as quickly as before, and that includes transaction-ready deposit money at banks. Importantly, the slower velocity of money means a reduced risk of money outflows for each bank, in particular the likelihood of transfers to other banks that are a drain on existing bank reserves. Thus, the banks now have more scope to conduct FRB, that is, to reduce their reserve ratios, lower loan rates and issue more loans, and obviously to produce more deposit money in the process.

In the essay mentioned above, ‘In defence of fiduciary media’, this explanation appears in footnote 29, the emphasis here is different and so is the wording but the essence is the same, in my view. Banks increase FRB in response to a drop in money velocity. A rising money demand articulates itself in a lower velocity and thus a tendency for more FRB:

But how can the banks manage to expand their demand deposits, if total bank reserves have not changed? The increased demand to hold demand deposits, relative to income [increased money demand, DS], means that fewer checks are written per year per dollar of account balances. The marginal deposit dollar poses less of a threat to a bank’s reserves. Thus a bank can safely increase its ratio of deposits to reserves, increasing the volume of its deposits to the point where the rising liquidity cost plus interest and other costs of the last dollar of deposits again equals the marginal revenue from a dollar of assets.

I think this explanation is exceedingly clever and accurate. I do not, because I cannot, object to the logic. But does it help us? I have two observations:

1)   Is it really probable that this process is faster and more efficient than the adjustment of nominal prices? The objection of the free bankers was that the adjustment of nominal prices takes time. But so does this process. The bankers will not be “instantly and perfectly aware” of what is happening anymore than the producers of goods and services. When the public reduces spending in order to preserve money balances the effect will be felt as soon by the producers of whatever the public now spends less money on, as by the bankers who see fewer cheques being written. Why would we assume that the bankers respond faster? Sure, prices can be sticky, but does that mean that accelerated FRB will always beat nominal price changes in terms of speed? Will the bankers always expand their loan book faster than the affected producers discount their product? It is not clear to me why this would be the case.

2)   More importantly, the banks will, by definition, give the new deposit money first not to those who have a higher demand for money but to their loan clients who, we just established, have no demand for money but for goods and services, and who will quickly spend the money. From there, the money will circulate and may, finally, reach those who do indeed have a higher demand for money. But there is no escaping the fact that this is a roundabout process. For the very reason that banks can only produce money as a byproduct of their lending business, those who do demand higher money balances can only ever be reached via a detour through other markets, never directly. Bank-produced money has to go through the loan market first, and has to change hands a few times, before it can reach those who originally experienced a high money demand. There is no process as part of which we could ever hear a banker say to any of his customers: you have a higher money demand? Here, have some. – The question is now, what type of frictions or unintended consequences of this procedure of satisfying money demand do we encounter? Are these frictions likely to be smaller or even greater than the frictions inherent in allowing nominal prices to do the adjusting to meet changes in money demand?

Before we address these frictions a few words on a related topic: the free bankers sometimes seem to imply that unwanted fiduciary media (demand deposits, inside money) would return to the banks. This is not correct, or rather, it would only be correct if people wanted to exchange the demand deposit for physical cash but this is a transaction that is, as we have seen, unrelated to money demand. Claims against any specific bank may be unwanted, or demand deposits may be wanted less than physical cash, but this is unrelated to overall money demand. If deposit money is seen as a viable money good, and this is the precondition for FRB to work, any excess holding of money, whether inside money or outside money, whether cash or demand deposit, will not be returned to a bank and exchanged but will be spent! If banks increase their FRB activities and bring new fiduciary media into circulation, this money will circulate until it reaches somebody with genuine money demand. Often – when money demand has not risen simultaneously – this process involves inflation as a lower purchasing power for each monetary unit is required to get the public to voluntarily hold the new monetary units.

Is money demand a form of desired saving?

According to the free bankers, banks respond to a drop in money velocity as a result of rising money demand by engaging in extra FRB. At lower velocity, the risks inherent in FRB are smaller and this encourages banks to reduce their reserve ratios marginally, create extra loans and produce extra money, i.e. new deposit money that is now satisfying at least some of the new money demand. But what about the extra bank credit that also comes into existence? Hasn’t Mises shown that bank credit expansion is a source of economic instability; that bank credit expansion sets off business cycles? If extra loans at lower interest rates are not the result of additional voluntary saving but simply of money printing, and these loans still encourage extra investment and capital spending, then these additional projects will ultimately lack the real resources, resources that only voluntary saving can free up and redirect towards investment, that are needed to see the projects through to conclusion and to sustain them. Extra bank credit is thus bound to upset the market’s process of coordination between saving and investment – coordination that is directed via market interest rates. Would the extra FRB not start a Misesian business cycle? Would the allegedly faster and smoother process of satisfying changed money demand via FRB, via the adjustment in the nominal quantity of money rather than nominal price changes, not create new instabilities as a result of the artificially lower interest rates and the extra bank credit that are the necessary mirror image of new deposit money?

In Austrian theory, desired savings are a function of time preference. A lower time preference means the public attaches a lower importance to consumption in the near future relative to consumption in the more distant future. The discount rate at which future goods are discounted is lowered and the propensity to save rises, i.e. the willingness to reallocate income from meeting present consumption needs to meeting future consumption needs rises. The extra savings are offered on the loan markets at marginally lower rates. This encourages a marginal increase in investment. The marginally lower rates on the loan market thus accurately reflect the marginally lower time preference of the public. But lower rates as a result of credit expansion and FRB can unhinge this process. That is the core message of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory. How can the free bankers get out of this dilemma?

The free bankers counter this point by claiming that an increased demand for money reflects a lower time preference. Holding more money is a form of saving.

Although in the already quoted “Defence of Fiduciary Media”, Selgin and White at some point state that

We agree that time preference and money demand are distinct, and that a change in one does not imply a change in the other.

They also write, and this is more crucial to the case they are making, I believe,

The argument for the equilibrating properties of free banking rests in part on recognizing that an increased demand to hold claims on intermediaries, including claims in the form of banknotes and demand deposits, at the expense of holding additional consumer goods, is equivalent to an increase in desired saving.

In any case, in the examples they provide later, time preference, desired saving, and money demand always move together.

While I agree that accumulating money balances can be a form of saving (I say that much in Paper Money Collapse), it does not have to be the case, and I think it is more helpful to disentangle saving, consumption and money demand. Holding money is non-consuming, as Selgin and White point out, but it is equally non-investing.

If I sell my laptop on e-Bay so I have more readily spendable money (demand deposits) in my bank account so that I can take advantage of any unforeseen spending opportunities during my holiday in Greece, would we say that my time preference has declined, and that this is an act of saving? This is a switch from a consumption good to money, and Selgin and White would label this an act of saving, at least as I understand them. But the laptop would have delivered its use-value to me over a long period of time. Now I hold instantly spendable demand deposits instead. Has my time preference really dropped?

Here is a different example, one where we encounter a switch from investment goods to money, an example that Selgin and White put forward in their paper and where they argue that in such an operation total desired saving remains unchanged. Time preference remains the same. In the example given, the public sells bonds and accumulates cash or demand deposits instead. Both, money and bonds are non-consumption goods and thus saving-instruments in the Selgin and White definition. According to their theory, the banks would now acquire the bonds and issue deposit money against them. By doing this (increased FRB activity), the banks satisfy the demand for more money and keep interest rates from rising – which is appropriate as overall desired savings have not changed and time preference is still the same. – However, has the public’s time preference really not changed? Rather than holding a less liquid, long-term debt instrument the public now holds the most fungible asset (money). Is it fair to say that when people liquidate their bond portfolios that their time preference remains unchanged? – Maybe the public does this precisely for the reason that time preference has increased. The public may spend the money soon on consumption goods, or the public considers market interest rates too low and as no longer representative of the public’s time preference, and a drop in bond prices (rise in yields) is thus warranted to reflect this, and should not be cancelled out by the banks’ accelerated FRB.

The short run versus the long run

Furthermore, I suspect that there is an inconsistency in claiming that, in the long run, nominal price changes do bring the demand for and supply of money in line and then to argue that in the short run, money demand is best – and automatically – met by quantitative changes in the supply of money via FRB. The long run is evidently only a string of short runs, and if changes in money demand have been satisfied in the short run via FRB, how can these changes then still exercise up- or downward pressure on nominal prices in the long run?


The free bankers are correct to point to real-life frictions in the process of satisfying a changed money demand via an adjustment of nominal prices. The process is neither smooth nor instant, but then almost no market process is in reality. Their explanation that a rise in money demand will lead to a drop in money velocity and that this will, on the margin and under normal conditions, encourage additional FRB and thus an expansion of bank-produced money also strikes me as correct. Yet, the free bankers fail, in my view, to show convincingly why this process would be faster and smoother than the adjustment of nominal prices, and in particular, why the extra bank credit that also comes into existence through FRB would not generate the problems that the Austrian School under Mises has explained extensively.

If only a subset of the population, rather than the entire public, experiences a higher money demand – and this must be the more likely scenario by far – and this subset than reduces nominal spending on those goods and services that are relevant to this group, and if this then leads to a marginal drop in the prices of these goods and services, the extra demand of this group for real money balances has been met with potentially fairly limited frictions and side-effects, I would argue. By comparison, FRB can never meet money demand of any group directly. Banks always have to inject the new money into the economy via the loan market, that is, at a point where money demand is low and demand for non-money goods is high. Money demand will always be met in a roundabout way. Furthermore, the lowering of interest rates through the additional FRB activity is only unproblematic if the additional demand for real money balances is identical with desired saving and reflects a reduce time preference. These are rather heroic assumptions indeed.

Ludwig von Mises – The real free banker

The 100-percent-reserve Austrians have stuck – correctly in my view – with one of the most important insights of Austrian monetary theory as developed by the school’s most distinguished 20th century representative, Ludwig von Mises, namely the destabilizing force of credit expansion. Unfortunately, the 100-percent-reserve Austrians have taken the critique of banking too far. Claims of misrepresentation, deception, and fraud as being constituting elements of FRB go too far and remain ultimately unsupported.

The self-styled ‘free bankers’ are correct to reject these claims but they are taking their defense of FRB too far as well. By claiming that FRB could smoothly and quickly satisfy any changes in money demand they assign equilibrating properties to FRB that are ultimately unsupportable. In the process, they risk ignoring some of the most relevant Misesian insights. In particular the free bankers, it seems to me, tend to ignore that in an established FRB system, bank-produced fiduciary media (such as demand deposits) will be seen as near-perfect surrogates for money proper (such as state fiat money or gold). In such an environment the banks can (within limits) expand FRB and thus create more fiduciary media regardless of present money demand. Unwanted money (deposit money) then leads to a rise in money velocity and an upward pressure on nominal prices – it does not lead to the public exchanging deposit money for physical cash, as that would be just a switch from one form of money to another. Therefore, the unwanted bank-produced money – that entered the economy via the bank loan market – does not return to the banks. In my view, the free bankers ignore some of the dangers in FRB and overstate its equilibrating powers.

Both camps refer to Mises as an authority, albeit the ‘free bankers’ generally less so. Selgin and White, in their 1996 paper, quote Mises as a champion of free banking. I do, however, believe that the quote, taken from Human Action, has to be read in the context of Mises’ life-long and unwavering commitment to a proper gold standard. Here is the quote:

Free banking is the only method for the prevention of the dangers inherent in credit expansion. It would, it is true, not hinder a slow credit expansion, kept within very narrow limits, on the part of cautious banks which provide the public with all the information required about their financial status. But under free banking it would have been impossible for credit expansion with all its inevitable consequences to have developed into a regular – one is tempted to say normal – feature of the economic system. Only free banking would have rendered the market economy secure against crises and depressions.

Crises and depressions, in Misesian theory, do not come about because of short-term mismatches between money demand and money supply, or frictions in the adjustment of nominal prices, but because of credit expansion. In order to appreciate Mises’s concerns over credit expansion, one does not have to consider bankers fraudsters (or ‘banksters’), and I can see no evidence in Mises’ writing that he saw bankers that way. But in order to agree with him that banks should be as free as all other enterprises – which, importantly, includes the freedom to fail – you do not have to assign them mystical equilibrating powers, either.

Mises’ conclusions were consistent and his recommendations practical: introduce inelastic, inflexible, apolitical money as the basis of the financial system, a hard monetary core, such as in a proper gold standard, and then allow banks the same freedom, under the same laws of corporation, that all other businesses enjoy – no special bans and no special privileges, such as ‘lenders of last resort’ or tax-payer-backed deposit insurance – and you can allow the market to operate. I believe that this should be the policy proposal under which all Austrians can and should unite.

Any deviation from the core Misesian message also occasionally gets ‘Austrians’ into some strange political company. With their damnation of FRB and allegations of fraud, the 100-percent-reserve Austrians seem at times to play into the hands of populist anti-bank fractions that have recently grown in influence since the financial crisis started, and to inadvertently be associated with the statist proposals of organizations such as the UK’s Positive Money or IMF economists Benes and Kumhof, all of whom consider money-creation by private banks – FRB- as the root of all evil and propose full control over the monetary sphere by the state – a proposal that could not be further from Mises’ ideals.

On the other side, the free bankers are in such awe of the assumed equilibrating powers of FRB in a free market that they confidently predict a stable (or at least reasonably stable) nominal GDP – and if we do not have free banking and a free market yet, why not have today’s central banks target nominal GDP to get a similar result under today’s statist monetary infrastructure? Bizarrely, and completely indefensibly, in my view, these Austrians end up joining forces with aggregate-demand-managing Keynesians or money-supply-managing monetarists. This is not only in fundamental conflict with many tenets of the Misesian framework – it is simply misguided, even under considerations of monetary realpolitik, i.e. of what is politically practicable presently but better than the present system.

Banks should be free but can only ever be so within a proper capitalist monetary system, and that is a system with a market-chosen monetary commodity at its core, and most certainly a hard and inelastic one. No new ‘target’ for central bank policy can ever achieve results that mirror the outcome of a properly functioning monetary system and a free banking market. We do not have a gold standard and free banking at present, and under these conditions I would suggest that a central bank that imitates a gold standard as closely as possible – i.e. one that ultimately keeps the monetary base fairly stable – would be, under the circumstances, the second best’, or least worst, solution. But a full treatment of the NGDP-targeting proposal will have to wait for another blog.

In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.

This article was previously published at


Banking: from Goldman Sachs to David Fishwick?

Two days ago, Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive director, resigned in sensational fashion, writing a column in the New York Times. In the article, he laid out the reasons for his resignation, citing the change in culture at the firm over the ten years he worked there. He wrote,

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization.

In particular, he attacked what he sees as the 3 ways to get ahead at Goldman Sachs:

  1. “persuading your clients to invest in the stocks or other products that we are trying to get rid of because they are not seen as having a lot of potential profit.”;
  2. “get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman”; and
  3. “Find yourself sitting in a seat where your job is to trade any illiquid, opaque product with a three-letter acronym”

While the article might have been dismissed as one disillusioned ex-employee’s rant, it will ring all too true across the financial sector. The Motley Fool reports Goldman Isn’t Alone in the Delicate Art of Ripping Off People. After quoting some illustrative returns, fees and rewards in the industry, the author writes:

The clients that Goldman and the rest of Wall Street rip off are skilled at ripping off their own clients, thank you very much. Each is part of the same game of inflating expectations and overcharging fees — a system summarized best by the title of Fred Schwed’s classic bookWhere Are the Customers’ Yachts?

And then he points out that the losers, the client’s clients, are people like you and me: savers, pension fund beneficiaries and retired schoolteachers. The article finishes by asserting that Goldman is just one example of “putting personal interests before clients.”

How did all this come to pass?

In 1999, just over ten years ago, Goldman Sachs went through a public listing. It had previously operated as a partnership but now it is majority owned by institutional investors.

Over on Forbes, an article explains the difference in incentives between a bank run as a partnership and one run as a traded corporation: the switch in incentives is from long-term success to short-term results. The author gives some persuasive arguments for the partnership model and says investment banks should be required to return to it. He finishes,

Real banking reform isn’t about lashing out, but about restoring the connection between bankers’ profits and the economy they serve.

Which is why, as part of my work on injustice in the financial system, I introduced my Financial Institutions (Reform) Bill. The Bill would minimise moral hazard within the financial system by ensuring that those who take risks are held personally liable for the consequences. It would realign bankers’ rewards, their risks and their actions in the real economy. I said,

Hard-working families and individuals paying tax out of typically modest incomes must never again suffer the injustice of carrying the risks, and consequences of risks, taken in the pursuit of often enormous private returns. Risks must fall to those who take them. Instead of vicarious liability of taxpayers, there must be responsibility in the banking system. The Bill represents an opportunity to free the banking sector and the public from regulatory capture and lobbying. It could raise standards from the bottom up, through the preservation and extension of commercial freedom and the development of professional, personal and mutual responsibility.

At the time, I had no idea that yesterday I would meet David Fishwick, founder of a savings and loans firm in Burnley, who is delivering just that. It began when he found people could not buy from his van business for want of credit, so he started making loans himself. He’s an entrepreneur, a self-made multi-millionaire from ordinary beginnings.

Channel 4 are now making a documentary about Dave’s attempts to start a decent bank which serves both savers and businesses.  The Lancashire Telegraph reports,

“My bank may be tiny but it will be better than a high street bank. I want to show how banking can be socially responsible and not greedy and reckless and I’m going to do what the high street banks just can’t bring themselves to do, give away any profits to charity.”

The venture will see him guarantee and underwrite all the banking activity from his personal fortune.

It’s quite a rebuff to all those who told me no-one would run a bank if they had to put their own assets at risk. As I pointed out, some of history’s greatest bankers bore their own risks without limit. Now, Dave Fishwick is demonstrating that the basic business of banking — intermediating savings to entrepreneurs through productive loans — is an enterprise which individuals will back with their own wealth.

Dave’s banking business is small. The FSA essentially won’t meet him and no wonder: they make their money from fees levied on those they regulate. Dave’s business is presumably too small to cover the FSA’s costs. So he doesn’t have a banking licence, accepting savings and making loans on a different legal basis. His business, as he tells it, is based on his personal guarantee, trust and entrepreneurship. In the terms Hazlitt explained, credit is something people bring to Dave, through running profitable businesses, and that’s what enables him to make loans out of people’s precious savings, personally underwritten by him.

Dave Fishwick may yet fail. His business may be crushed out of existence by a dull and clumsy state. But I have said time and again that we need a new generation of local financial institutions which reconnect savers and productive businesses. It seems Dave is redeveloping the teamwork, integrity, spirit of humility and sense of “always doing right by our clients” which used to engender pride and belief amongst Goldman Sachs’ staff. There will always be a place for large, sophisticated firms but, together with ideas like Funding Circle, Dave’s enterprise may indicate that a new, more responsible and productive financial system is emerging spontaneously in society.

I look forward to watching the documentary in the next couple of months.

This article was previously published at


Two ways to promote wealth creation

In an article yesterday I defined the only lawful way I know to create wealth as follows:

Wealth is only created when entrepreneurs make better goods and services, satisfying more of the needs of consumers, in better and more convenient and cheaper ways, via more capitalistic and hence more efficient methods of production.  Both the capital investment and the subsequent purchase of the new goods and services should be supported by real savings (forgone consumption).

No amount of creating more money units itself produces more of the above. I would usually then say that we should seriously consider ending corporation tax so that companies can invest their own money in more capitalistic methods of production to produce more goods and services at cheaper prices that people want. This is a particularly salient point at this credit starved part of the business cycle, when banks are not lending.  Through excessive taxation, the government makes companies reliant on debt financing.  They then use this reliance to argue that the banks must be bailed out and supported with taxpayers’ money.  Despite the massive public subsidy, banks are still reluctant to lend.  Why not let the companies keep their own money, and finance themselves? We would see a growth-led entrepreneurial revolution.

Another positive step the government could take would be to abolish all copyright laws. Here is a very interesting article supporting the theory that the German Industrial Revolution was significantly propelled by the absence of copyright laws.

The legal theorist Stephan Kinsella highlights the German experience in his list of “Innovations that thrive without IP“:

According to Robert Groezinger, “This article in Der Spiegel is all about how the absence of copyright in Germany led to an “explosion of knowledge” in the 19th century. The reason there was no copyright law was that there was no central government until 1871. This contrasts with the UK, where there had been copyright since 1710, and the number of publications was lower by a factor of 10 compared to Germany. Also, the number of copies printed was much, much lower in the UK (hundreds as compared to ten thousand or so). The article claims that this is the main reason that Germany’s production and industry had caught up with everyone else by 1900.”

Radical times call for radical solutions, and abolition of corporation tax and copyright laws should be given serious consideration.


Huerta De Soto on Entrepreneurship and the Division of Knowledge

The Subjectivist Revolution in Economics Continues

Humans act and they act purposefully: this is the axiom of action proposed by Ludwig von Mises, teacher of Hayek. From this he claimed that the whole of economics could be deduced. As Mises shows, in order to be, we act purposefully. Not being, we would not act, indeed we would not exist. We act upon satisfying our most urgent needs first, then our second most urgent needs, and so on and so forth, ranking our preferences, with the most urgent needs/demands being satisfied first, the least urgent, and the furthest away in time. From this hierarchy we derive the law of demand, the downward sloping demand curve, the law of diminishing marginal utility (see here for a good illustration) and on and on it goes. Lord Lionel Robbins in a masterful 1932 book, The Nature and Significance of Economic Science shows in very clear terms how all the laws of Economics are derived from the a-priori thought process.

To try to refute it, you cannot, as you act purposefully to do so. Just as Pythagoras’s Theorem is implied in the concept of a right angle triangle – and we knew about the concept of the right angle triangle before Pythagoras “discovered” his Theorem – so, too, do the laws of economics flow from the one irrefutable axiom that humans act purposefully. It is a bit like saying Darwin “discovered” the Theory of Evolution, when what he actually did was articulate it and find very plausible data sets to help explain it to the sceptical mind. Evolution was always there.

So What can this Axiom tell us About Entrepreneurship?

When we act, we choose to satisfy our most urgent needs first, and we forego other opportunities which form our subjective costs. Action implies a sacrifice: what opportunity you forgo is your cost, and what you hope to gain is more than your cost: this is your entrepreneurial profit. This entrepreneurial profit does not have to be measured in money; it can be the choice between going to the theatre or staying at home and watching a TV program.

The entrepreneur is someone who is good at generating entrepreneurial profit, not only for himself but in the way he/she can help many more others in achieving and consuming the results of entrepreneurial profit. He is more alert at spotting opportunities that will satisfy people’s most urgent needs in quicker and in better formats, and for this he is rewarded usually with more money for his efforts.

According to Jesus Huerta De Soto in his book called Socialismo Calculo Economico Y Funcion Empresarial” 1992 soon to be published in English by Edward Elgar in Association with the IEA and called: “Socialism, Economic Calculation and Entrepreneurship” 2010, there are six characteristics of the information and knowledge that the entrepreneur captures to use to provide better goods and services to all in society.

Knowledge is Subjective and not Objective and Scientific

I have just watched my local farmer bring in a grass crop frantically in 3 days as he assessed a window of opportunity for him to do so, since rain was coming. He could not send this up to a State planner to make a decision for him – only his local knowledge about this particular time and circumstance, and his informed intuition regarding the weather could lead to this decision. He has crop that he can sell now. A planner in Whitehall would neither have all the information necessary nor respond quickly enough to make this all happen.

Knowledge is Exclusive and Dispersed

In my farmer example, this knowledge about when to bring the crop in is exclusively his and resides in him alone.  In the same way, knowledge across the whole economy is broken up into little pockets of subjective knowledge held by millions of different people.

Knowledge is Tacit and it Cannot be Articulated

My farmer’s knowledge is tacit and in him, yet he probably cannot objectively articulate why he is doing it. Michael Oakeshott in “Rationalism in Politics”, 1962, gave us a very good example of a chef who is after all only following a formulaic procedure of putting together a recipe — add X of this to Y of that and cook at 200 degrees for 10 mins. But the instincts and unconscious background knowledge of an uber chef like Gordon Ramsey will allow him to produce outstanding food which I cannot hope to match simply by following the same recipe.

Entrepreneurship is Creative

There is no cost to an entrepreneurial idea, it is created ex novo. Bill Gates, when he created his first operating system, had his vision and his thought process, the idea, and then he got creating.  Profits are thus created new and from nothing.

The Creation of New Information

Each creative new act of entrepreneurship creates new information which is used by others to profit them as well. A new software solution developed by the creative minds of Apple alerts all their users to new ways of doing things that benefit them in a quicker, faster and better way.

I recently had a conversation with a potential entrepreneur who has identified an abundant source of farm waste product that could be excellent for fish feed. If his business is developed, farmers will suddenly be made aware that what was once a cost can now be a source of revenue for him. Thus he will adapt his farming processes to now harvest this waste and costly product for profit. The fish farmers will eagerly await this new source of protein and adapt their newer and better buying accordingly.

The Transmission of Information

Although the price system is objective and allows the allocation of resources, the fish farmer does not need to know all the subjective information of the entrepreneur who has developed the new feed out of the farms’ waste, just that he can buy it.  Likewise, the farmer does not need to know the detail of how it is going to be made useful to the fish farmer. All this knowledge is subjective and the briefest communication of it happens to facilitate trade.

Entrepreneurship is the foundation of society in that it insures the co-ordination of individuals’ behaviours. Without it, society would not exist.

Competition and Entrepreneurship

There is always a competitive and  on-going process of rivalry and discovery as this society-wide coordination process happens. It is limitless and produces progress if left uninterrupted. It is the single most important process which unites society and permits its harmonious advancement.

The Division of Knowledge v the Division of Labour

The division of labour as suggested by Adam Smith shows us how, in a pin factory, if people concentrate on certain tasks and specialise, more production happens. This is an objective measure. Underneath this, and prior to it, is the subjective division of knowledge. In-depth knowledge is held in widely dispersed formats, often tacitly, precluding its articulation across society; thus it is impossible for any one person body or machine or government department to know all of this information. Also, only tiny amounts need to be communicated to make coordination in society possible. So Huerta De Soto introduces a new concept into the body of knowledge concerning economics: the universal division of knowledge that exists as a deduction from the axiom that humans act and takes the subjectivist revolution started by Menger into our very understanding of the division of labour. He also moves man on from being the Robbinsian homo oeconomicus to the homo empresario. Acting man is entrepreneurship.

Once again Huerta De Soto has given some great new insights into economics in the field of economics. He has stood on the shoulders of Adam Smith, Mises, Hayek and Kirzner to great effect to knock the objective division of labour off its pedestal and put in its place the division of knowledge. This is what Einstein did to Newton in physics. Both still have their place, but the latter being of more fundamental importance.


Time to Celebrate the Entrepreneur

Do you think it is very worrying that not one government policy encourages the entrepreneurs of the world to create wealth?

Without wealth creation we are doomed to a long slow decline in the productive capacity of the economy. We are doomed to the stagnating to slow growth economy that all the policies of our Great Leader, Gordon Brown, is inflicting upon us. It is all because he does not understand how wealth is created and the role of entrepreneurship in society. Most politicians are the same, I am afraid to say, with a few shining lights and notable exceptions.  This is desperately worrying for all of us.

How is Wealth Created?

I have said here on this site before  “I would like you to absent the concept of money and consider a situation of barter. As a butcher, when I kill an animal, I may get for the sake of argument, 10 cuts of meat: this is my production. I only need 2 for my immediate consumption, so with the remaining 8 cuts, I trade with Andrew, a garment manufacturer, for some garments to keep me warm. I consume 2 cuts and I save 8 cuts in order to trade for other goods and services. I need to produce to consume: I need to save/invest to consume.

“If I wish to consume more of Andrew’s garments as I have a family to dress and keep warm, 8 cuts of meat may well not be enough to purchase these new needs and requirements of mine. At this point in time, I am faced with a choice, either my production has to increase so I can generate more cuts to exchange for other goods, or I accept my fate and stay where I am. I decide that I can invent a method of cutting up the parts quicker by using a sharper knife, thus I seek to invent the “steel” or knife sharpener that improves my productivity from generating 10 cuts in a day to 15. With these 5 extra cuts, I can get more garments.

“The problem is, that in order to get the steel built, I need to spend some of my time that would be making the 10 cuts. Thus, I have to save and forgo some consumption while I have the steel built. I also have to rely on my savings — those stored cuts of meat — that I have not consumed to keep me afloat. This is what an economist may mean when he says adding capital to an economy lengthens the structure of production. The steel in this example adds a stage to the capital structure of society, to make me more productive, so I can consume more things.

“To be clear, saving is the only thing that allows this to happen. In this example, my personal capital structure has gone from me with a knife in my hand consuming two cuts a day and exchanging 8 saved portions, to me and a knife and a steel to produce 15 cuts of which I consume 2 and exchange 13 saved cuts. Now Andrew will be doing the same, i.e. lengthening his structure of production to meet my new found desires for more goods. He will also have to save — i.e. forgo consumption — to invest with the sustenance that savings gives him, to become more “capitalistic” or capital intensive in his production structure, to meet my demand.”

In summary, during the passage of time, only an act of saving to invest in a longer capitalistic method of production can lead to more goods and services being produced and consumed. No amount of creating money out of thin air creates more goods and services.

The Austrian School Role of the Entrepreneur in Economics

Humans Act

One of the great contributions of Ludwig von Mises to our understanding of the world, in his book ‘Human Action’ is that humans act and they act purposefully to satisfy their most urgent needs and requirements. Absent action and you would not have a moving human society, but a static world with no existence at all. We rank our most immediate preferences first and our most remote preferences last, thus we always have a downward sloping demand curve for things.

Sub Categories of Action: the Entrepreneur

All men act, they are in economic theory either an entrepreneur, a capitalist, a landowner, a worker or a consumer. These are ideal types, ideal styles. The reality is that we are all a combination of more than one of the above.

In the real world everybody is an entrepreneur except the children and elderly we look after, and wards of state that we pay in various forms to do nothing, such as the unemployed and those on incapacity benefit.

Israel Kirzner shows us in his books ‘Competition and Entrepreneurship’ and also in ‘Perception, Opportunity, and Profit’, how the spontaneous discovery of new opportunities by alert individuals is a defining characteristic of entrepreneurship. For example, a man who is more alert than another to satisfying the most urgent needs and requirements of other men, such as Bill Gates in inventing Microsoft and its worldwide and world changing software is rewarded by his fellow consumer entrepreneurs more so than the man who comes and fixes the boiler as he is providing a more valuable and needed service. Gates’s unique ability over the years to be alert to the potential opportunity, to think, to create to make happen, makes him the richest man in the world.

The Economy as Dynamic Creative Process

De Soto, in his books ‘The Theory of Dynamic Efficiency’ and ‘The Austrian School, Market Order and Entrepreneurial Creativity’ shows us that as the economy is predicated by acting man seeking ways to satisfy his most urgent needs and requirements first, and with limited resources, everything in politics should be geared to letting the full creative talents of the most humble entrepreneur to the giants on entrepreneurship flourish.  Past Popes such as John Paul the II and Leo XIII, in ‘Centesimus Annus’ and ‘Rerun Novarum’ have been wonderful in expressing the moral ethic of human being s able to express our own creativity unhindered so long as we hinder no one else.

To our current political class, astonishingly, it is never about creating, but about distributing: X, the group of more deserving persons, is going to get Y taken from them, and it will be promptly redistributed to the less deserving class. In most cases the less deserving class is the successful entrepreneur who has satisfied the most urgent needs of consumers the most and been rewarded for doing so by his consumers!

How the Political Class Understands Economics: the Neo-classical Way

Lord Lionel Robbins, a great early Austrian  School economist from the LSE, sadly left us with a very negative legacy concerning entrepreneurship in his otherwise exceptional book, ‘An Essay on The Nature and Significance of Economic Science’. My copy is online here,    This would be the starting point marking when economics is described as the science which studies the utilisation of scare resources which may be put to alternative uses in order to satisfy human needs.  So the economic problem is a technical one of allocation.

This contrasts with the real world creative dynamic actors who are constantly alert to creating new means to satisfy new ends by using all their creative talents and those of others they can muster in order to satisfy the largest number of ends. This is entrepreneurship as a discovery process. No economics is about choosing between competing uses to satisfy set ends.

In the Neoclassical world – and we must remember the School of Keynes and Friedman, the Keynesians and the Monetarist  are but subsections of the Neoclassical School – it is impossible for there to be pure entrepreneurial profit or genuine discovery, as they are enclosed in a world where there is call for intervention in the distribution of scarce resources. Technical allocation is the height of the Neoclassical Mission. The man who ‘discovers’ the wheel, the internal combustion engine, the computer etc are all acts of great creativity and are examples of where pure entrepreneurial profit is generated. To the technician/administrator/bureaucrat/resource allocator of the Neoclassical School, there is no role for this, but when it does happen, lo and behold there is a role of how to technically allocate its benefits!

The Role of Knowledge and Information

I was fortunate to study under Dr Robert Orr at the LSE who was a protégé of the outstanding political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. I will never forget my first introduction to his 1962 classic book, ‘Rationalism in Politics’, where Oakeshott cleverly distinguished between “practical knowledge” and “scientific knowledge.” The former he describes as the dispersed know-how that we all have that allows us to do things that cannot be formalised, like the tacit knowledge a cook has when he/she cooks a fantastic dinner. Putting the food together in various combinations and heating for various times are, after all, simple acts that could be described in a very formulaic fashion.  But how many of us have that practical, unquantifiable knowledge to cook an outstanding dinner? The former, formulaic knowledge,  is the scientific knowledge or technical knowledge that we can formalise such as the knowledge of science itself. The study of entrepreneurship or economics in general is about the study of which entrepreneurs use this practical knowledge to bring about co- ordination and more goods and services by doing more things to satisfy more people. Scientific knowledge may boost this process as entrepreneurs exploit the information that the scientific knowledge produces. The danger is when the people who study economics and the application of entrepreneurship or the use of this dispersed practical knowledge or know how think they can scientifically manage it.

Harmony / Coordination and not the Creative Destruction of Schumpeter

Technical direction by the ‘enlightened’ entrenched administrators who dominate large parts of our lives is no match for the co-ordinating forces of entrepreneurship. The price mechanism throws up information that suggests opportunities to alert entrepreneurs to supply goods and services or solutions to satisfy peoples’ most urgent needs. This co-ordination can never be facilitated by administrators. Each time a profit opportunity is found and then satisfied, a creative and co-ordinating act has happened. Entrepreneurship is coordination. Each act of entrepreneurship in fact smoothes out dis-co-ordination in society. It is the most civilising act. This is very different to the creative destruction of Joseph Schumpeter who, in ‘Capitalism , Socialism and Democracy’ says that entrepreneurs enter established industries that start to exercise some monopoly power, thus allowing a smaller, nimbler competitor to enter and value-destruct and then value re-create something new and better.  Schumpeter, unlike his Austrian contemporary, Mises, viewed booms and busts to be caused by innovation and not by excessive credit creation.

The Austrian Approach

So for the Austrian, we all act to satisfy our ends.  Some do it better than others, some do it to many others, and these latter entrepreneurs are, in truth, the dynamic, creative, co-ordinating and above all harmonious drivers of the economy and facilitators of a peaceful society. This is in direct contrast with the homo oeconomicus of Robbins and the Neoclassical School, whose modern members are Keynesians and Monetarists. Resource allocation between competing needs is the name of their game.

They conflate scientific knowledge with the practical. This allows them to advocate constant spending by a thing they describe as a third party: Government. Government is meant to inject new money into the economy to get us all moving again. There is a horrible inevitability here: like a Greek tragedy, it is played out on epic proportions. There is no such thing as a government standing above and separate from us that can stimulate us. The government can only take from one section of the population and give to other sections of the population. When they spend money, they are spending the money you would have spent.  The positive government spending multiplier is exactly negated by the negative spending multiplier from where the government has extracted  the money in the first place. The net effect is zero extra spending. However.  It does not stop there.  For a great dis-co-ordination in the practical knowledge of people will take place when a government spends as the entrepreneurs will now be confused as to which activity in the economy will produce a sustainable outcome. Which bits of price information are driven by the most urgent needs of consumers that needs satisfying? Which are driven by the technical director of some government department directing who he thinks – or his political master thinks – the given set of resources should be allocated?

We are told we should print more money. I tell no lie, I witnessed one economist, Roger Bootle, see here  say we should, if need be, print money indefinitely until people knew we were so serious that we would not allow a deflation! He equates a growing money supply with more wealth. But a growing money supply without more goods and services means a lowering of each money unit’s purchasing power! This has nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of wealth, as I have demonstrated above. Both endless spending and endless printing of money are the policies of the mystic and witch doctor!

In conclusion,the correct and urgent policy for the political class must be to remove all restrictions on the ability of each person to use their best entrepreneurial endeavours.  Each person can then take advantage of the practical knowledge that is out there and create, ex novo, new combinations of the factors of production to produce new things. Abolish all laws that prevent and hamper business unnecessarily; pro-union legislation; employment law excesses; presumption of guilt by you, the employer, for anything your staff does, thus absenting you from any individual responsibility. Stop paying the people who abuse the benefit system, who form the massive, larger than the army size workforce we have idle on unemployment and or incapacity benefit. Stop wasting resources going to war. Stop printing money and creating confusion as it is harder for an entrepreneur now more than ever to distinguish between what is or is not a bubble supported activity that is never going to be sustainable. This latter disruption in the co-ordinating ability of entrepreneurs to bring about economic harmony is the worst part of the legacy that this current government will gift the next. 

Until they understand the nature of entrepreneurship, we are in for a prolonged and rough recession.


Seafood Holdings 12th in Fast Track 100 Buy Out League

Our Founder and Chairman’s fish supply company, Seafood Holdings, came 12th in the weekend’s Sunday Times Fast Track 100 Buy Out League profits table:

Although the results show 2008 and not 2009, the continuing dedication to sound entrepreneurship that drives our Chairman continues apace and we wish Toby all the best in his endeavours.


Fed signals pullback in liquidity supports

Via / US / Economy & Fed – Fed signals pullback in liquidity supports, we learn:

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday upgraded its assessment of the US economy and highlighted its intention to shut down most of its crisis-fighting liquidity facilities in early 2010.

And consequently:

Stocks eased slightly after the Fed statement, while the yield curve in the bond market steepened.

Which brings us on to Roger Koppl’s Big Players and the Economic Theory of Expectations.

I am indebted to Cobden Centre supporter Bruno Prior for introducing me to Koppl’s work which extends the tradition of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and others, unusually, applying empirical methods to demonstrate the application of the theory.

Koppl demonstrates, with extensive reference to other scholars, that investment and all other economic actions depend on “subjective” expectations. He then presents a theory of expectations which assumes people interpret their situations in unpredictable ways. This theory includes a theory of “Big Players”:

Big Players are privileged actors who disrupt markets. A Big Player has three defining characteristics. He is big in the sense that his actions influence the market under study. He is insensitive to the discipline of profit and loss. He is arbitrary in the sense that his actions depend on discretion rather than any set of rules. Big Players have power and use it.

We learn that Big Players reduce the reliability of expectations, thereby disrupting markets. They encourage herding and produce perverse effects on entrepreneurship: traders must pay attention to the Big Player and not the fundamentals.

And so we find today, for example, the markets moving in response to the Fed not the realities of the economy…


Jamie Murray Wells on entrepreneurship

Via ConservativeHome, excellent comment from Jamie Murray Wells, founder and Executive Chairman of Glasses Direct, the world’s largest online retailer of prescription glasses:

A rich entrepreneurial spirit flows through Britain. Thousands of new businesses are successfully established here each year. But the response this Government is proposing to our current economic mess will certainly not benefit the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Entrepreneurs are job creators and a fiscal environment that supports entrepreneurial activity is good for the whole UK economy, but the tax rises Gordon Brown says he needs to fund the stimulus and fend off rising unemployment, will in fact do the opposite. And while Brown has been increasing the public sector workforce at the expense of private sector jobs, Mandelson has been renewing the old Labour habit of using taxpayers' money to “pick winners“. The historical record of that policy is disastrous.


Entrepreneurship and the business cycle

Via the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, our Chairman, Toby Baxendale, and our Founding Fellow, Dr Anthony J. Evans further the monetary theory of the trade cycle:

We contribute to the debate over the contemporary relevance of the Austrian Business Cycle theory (ABC) by making three theoretical developments.

First, we claim that the heterogeneous nature of entrepreneurship is the best means to respond to a Rational Expectations (RE) critique. If entrepreneurs are different then the “cluster of errors” are not made by everyone, just those on the margin. And if the marginal entrepreneurs are systematically different from the population as a whole, we avoid the implication of widespread irrationality, even though credit expansion will affect real variables.

Second, we argue that the size of the monetary footprint is a more telling signal than the market rate of interest, and will not necessarily be revealed by measured inflation. Therefore attention to the official interest rate or Consumer Price Index is misleading, and an inappropriate way to assess applicability.

And third, the main harm from loose monetary policy is not that it encourages entrepreneurs to behave more recklessly with capital, but that it encourages precisely the people who can’t afford capital at the market rate to borrow, and makes them the marginal trader.

This suggests that adverse selection is a more important issue than moral hazard. We acknowledge that empirical work is required to verify these claims, and suggest how this might be undertaken.

The article includes a recap of the theory. Read more.