The question as to what causes financial bubbles has plagued mankind for millennia. Former fed chairman Alan Greenspan’s working theory however flies in the face of the free market economic philosophy to which he purported to prescribe.

According to a recent interview in Marketwatch, Greenspan said:

I have come to the conclusion that bubbles…are a function of human nature. We don’t have enough observations, but my tentative hypothesis to what we’re dealing with is that both a necessary and sufficient condition for the emergence of a bubble is a protracted period of stable economic activity at low inflation. So it is a very difficult policy problem. I do believe that central banks that believe they can quell bubbles are living in a state of unrealism.”

Alan Greenspan. (Image Source: Matt Mendelsohn / Corbis)

Alan Greenspan. (Image Source: Matt Mendelsohn / Corbis)

Greenspan, a former outspoken free marketeer who once wrote a letter about the link between the gold standard and economic freedom for Ayn Rand’s Objectivist newsletter, and is no doubt familiar with the work of Austrian economists, would certainly be challenged by the deans of the Austrian school.

Indeed economists like the late Murray Rothbard contend that bubbles are not in and of themselves natural, but rather a result of a natural reaction by markets to unnatural central bank intervention.

The Austrian economist in his seminal study on the causes of the Great Depression, aptly titled “America’s Great Depression,” writes that in order to understand the causes of bubbles, we first need to understand what a bubble is. According to Rothbard, the bubble inflates when market participants make errors en masse:

Entrepreneurs are largely in the business of forecasting. They must invest and pay costs in the present, in the expectation of recouping a profit by sale either to consumers or to other entrepreneurs further down in the economy’s structure of production. The better entrepreneurs, with better judgment in forecasting consumer or other producer demands, make profits; the inefficient entrepreneurs suffer losses. The market, therefore, provides a training ground for the reward and expansion of successful, far-sighted entrepreneurs and the weeding out of inefficient businessmen. As a rule only some businessmen suffer losses at any one time; the bulk either break even or earn profits. How, then, do we explain the curious phenomenon of the crisis when almost all entrepreneurs suffer sudden losses? In short, how did all the country’s astute businessmen come to make such errors together, and why were they all suddenly revealed at this particular time?

This mass of errors is not natural as asserted by Greenspan, but created by the rational response of profit-seeking individuals to central bank intervention which distorts interest rates. As Rothbard writes: “In the purely free and unhampered market, there will be no cluster of errors.” The cluster of errors results from:

bank credit expansion sets into motion the business cycle in all its phases: the inflationary boom, marked by expansion of the money supply and by malinvestment; the crisis, which arrives when credit expansion ceases and malinvestments become evident; and the depression recovery, the necessary adjustment process by which the economy returns to the most efficient ways of satisfying consumer desires.

In order to understand how malinvestment occurs, Rothbard walks the reader through the concepts of time preference and interest rate structure.

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Let us suppose an economy with a given supply of money. Some of the money is spent in consumption; the rest is saved and invested in a mighty structure of capital, in various orders of production. The proportion of consumption to saving or investment is determined by people’s time preferences—the degree to which they prefer present to future satisfactions. The less they prefer them in the present, the lower will their time preference rate be, and the lower therefore will be the pure interest rate, which is determined by the time preferences of the individuals in society. A lower time-preference rate will be reflected in greater proportions of investment to consumption, a lengthening of the structure of production, and a building-up of capital. Higher time preferences, on the other hand, will be reflected in higher pure interest rates and a lower proportion of investment to consumption. The final market rates of interest reflect the pure interest rate plus or minus entrepreneurial risk and purchasing power components. Varying degrees of entrepreneurial risk bring about a structure of interest rates instead of a single uniform one, and purchasing-power components reflect changes in the purchasing power of the dollar, as well as in the specific position of an entrepreneur in relation to price changes. The crucial factor, however, is the pure interest rate. This interest rate first manifests itself in the “natural rate” or what is generally called the going “rate of profit.” This going rate is reflected in the interest rate on the loan market, a rate which is determined by the going profit rate.

When central banks tamper in the market according to Rothbard, this distorts the pure rate of interest, the effects of which create a bubble of malinvestment:

Now what happens when banks print new money (whether as bank notes or bank deposits) and lend it to business? The new money pours forth on the loan market and lowers the loan rate of interest. It looks as if the supply of saved funds for investment has increased, for the effect is the same: the supply of funds for investment apparently increases, and the interest rate is lowered. Businessmen, in short, are misled by the bank inflation into believing that the supply of saved funds is greater than it really is. Now, when saved funds increase, businessmen invest in “longer processes of production,” i.e., the capital structure is lengthened, especially in the “higher orders” most remote from the consumer. Businessmen take their newly acquired funds and bid up the prices of capital and other producers’ goods, and this stimulates a shift of investment from the “lower” (near the consumer) to the “higher” orders of production (furthest from the consumer)—from consumer goods to capital goods industries.

If this were the effect of a genuine fall in time preferences and an increase in saving, all would be well and good, and the new lengthened structure of production could be indefinitely sustained. But this shift is the product of bank credit expansion. Soon the new money percolates downward from the business borrowers to the factors of production: in wages, rents, interest. Now, unless time preferences have changed, and there is no reason to think that they have, people will rush to spend the higher incomes in the old consumption-investment proportions. In short, people will rush to reestablish the old proportions, and demand will shift back from the higher to the lower orders. Capital goods industries will find that their investments have been in error: that what they thought profitable really fails for lack of demand by their entrepreneurial customers. Higher orders of production have turned out to be wasteful, and the malinvestment must be liquidated.

Summarizing this process:

businessmen were misled by bank credit inflation to invest too much in higher-order capital goods, which could only be prosperously sustained through lower time preferences and greater savings and investment; as soon as the inflation permeates to the mass of the people, the old consumption-investment proportion is reestablished, and business investments in the higher orders are seen to have been wasteful. Businessmen were led to this error by the credit expansion and its tampering with the free-market rate of interest.

The boom then must be followed by a bust — the depression actually being the period of recovery:

The “boom,” then, is actually a period of wasteful misinvestment. It is the time when errors are made, due to bank credit’s tampering with the free market. The “crisis” arrives when the consumers come to reestablish their desired proportions. The “depression” is actually the process by which the economy adjusts to the wastes and errors of the boom, and reestablishes efficient service of consumer desires. The adjustment process consists in rapid liquidation of the wasteful investments. Some of these will be abandoned altogether (like the Western ghost towns constructed in the boom of 1816–1818 and deserted during the Panic of 1819); others will be shifted to other uses. Always the principle will be not to mourn past errors, but to make most efficient use of the existing stock of capital. In sum, the free market tends to satisfy voluntarily-expressed consumer desires with maximum efficiency, and this includes the public’s relative desires for present and future consumption. The inflationary boom hobbles this efficiency, and distorts the structure of production, which no longer serves consumers properly. The crisis signals the end of this inflationary distortion, and the depression is the process by which the economy returns to the efficient service of consumers. In short, and this is a highly important point to grasp, the depression is the “recovery” process, and the end of the depression heralds the return to normal, and to optimum efficiency. The depression, then, far from being an evil scourge, is the necessary and beneficial return of the economy to normal after the distortions imposed by the boom. The boom, then, requires a “bust.”

 

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