“There is one special difficulty about accounting for the present situation. In the misdirection of labour and the distortion of the structure of production during past business cycles, it was fairly easy to point to the places where the excessive expansion had occurred because it was, on the whole, confined to the capital goods industries. The whole thing was due to an over-expansion of credit for investment purposes, and it was therefore possible to regard the industries producing capital equipment as those which had been over-expanded.And this remains a severe flaw in the Austrian trade cycle theory: the original theory assumes credit expansion goes to businesses investing in capital goods, and has no role for loans for consumer durables or debt-fuelled asset bubbles. Karen Vaughn has already drawn attention to the latter failing of ABCT (Vaughn 1994: 87–88).
In contrast, the present expansion of money [sc. in the 1970s], which has been brought about partly by means of bank credit expansion and partly through budget deficits, has been the result of a deliberate policy, and has gone through somewhat different channels. The additional expenditure has been much more widely dispersed. In the earlier cases I had no difficulty in pointing to particular instances of overexpansion; now I am somewhat embarrassed when I am asked the question, because I would have to know the particular situation in a particular country, where the additional money flows went in the first place, etc. I would also have to trace the successive movements of prices which indicate these flows. In consequence, I have no general answer to the question.” (Hayek 1978: 212).
Even Hayek himself made a remarkable qualification of his theory with respect to conditions after the Second World War:
“HIGH: The Austrian theory of the cycle depends very heavily on business expectations being wrong. Now, what basis do you feel an economist has for asserting that expectations regarding the future will generally be wrong?Hayek’s belief that a proper application of his trade cycle theory to the modern world requires looking at the direct of credit expansion “separately for each particular phase and situation” is one lost on most modern Austrians. Instead, they flog the dead horse of Hayek’s 1930s theory, which he himself admitted had lost its relevance in modern economies.
HAYEK: Well, I think the general fact that booms have always appeared with a great increase of investment, a large part of which proved to be erroneous, mistaken. That, of course, fits in with the idea that a supply of capital was made apparent which wasn’t actually existing. The whole combination of a stimulus to invest on a large scale followed by a period of acute scarcity of capital fits into this idea that there has been a misdirection due to monetary influences, and that general schema, I still believe, is correct.
But this is capable of a great many modifications, particularly in connection with where the additional money goes. You see, that’s another point where I thought too much in what was true under prewar conditions, when all credit expansion, or nearly all, went into private investment, into a combination of industrial capital. Since then, so much of the credit expansion has gone to where government directed it that the misdirection may no longer be overinvestment in industrial capital, but may take any number of forms. You must really study it separately for each particular phase and situation. The typical trade cycle no longer exists, I believe. But you get very similar phenomena with all kinds of modifications.” (Nobel Prize-Winning Economist: Friedrich A. von Hayek, pp. 184–186).
The modern Austrians present a fossilised Hayekian relic of a theory derived from Prices and Production (1931; 2nd edn. 1935) and Profits, Interest and Investment (1939), as can be seen in Roger W. Garrison’s Time and Money: The Macroeconomics of Capital Structure (Routledge, London, 2002). Hayek himself by the 1970s had moved on from believing his 1930s work on trade cycles could be simply applied to the modern world, at least not without serious modification.
And one further observation should be made: a monetary theory that examines business cycles by looking at the flows of credit to debt-financed asset bubbles already exists: it is called Irving Fisher’s debt deflation theory (Fisher 1933), which has been developed in Hyman Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis (FIH) (Minsky 1982; 2008). This has been further developed in Post Keynesian economics, most notably by Steve Keen.
This is the true monetary theory of the trade cycle when credit flows to speculation that creates asset bubbles and their collapse spills over into severe effects on the real economy. This theory explains many 19th century trade cycles, the Great Depression, Japan’s lost decade, and now the mess that many Western nations are in.
Fisher, I. 1933. “The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions,” Econometrica 1.4: 337–357.
Garrison, R. W. 2000. Time and Money: The Macroeconomics of Capital Structure, Routledge, London and New York.
Hayek, F. A. von, 1931. Prices and Production, G. Routledge & Sons, Ltd, London.
Hayek, F. A. von, 1935. Prices and Production (2nd edn), Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Hayek, F. A. von, 1939. Profits, Interest and Investment, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
Hayek, F. A. von. 1978. New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and the History of Ideas, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
Minsky, H. P. 1982. Can “It” Happen Again?: Essays on Instability and Finance, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, N.Y.
Minsky, H. P. 2008 . John Maynard Keynes, McGraw-Hill, New York and London.
Nobel Prize-Winning Economist: Friedrich A. von Hayek. Interviewed by Earlene Graver, Axel Leijonhufvud, Leo Rosten, Jack High, James Buchanan, Robert Bork, Thomas Hazlett, Armen A. Alchian, Robert Chitester, Regents of the University of California, 1983.
Vaughn, K. I. 1994. Austrian Economics in America: The Migration of a Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York.