Monday, May 04, 2009

The Austrian School

John Quiggan on the Austrian business cycle theory:

To sum up, although the Austrian School was at the forefront of business cycle theory in the 1920s, it hasn’t developed in any positive way since then. The central idea of the credit cycle is an important one, particularly as it applies to the business cycle in the presence of a largely unregulated financial system. But the Austrians balked at the interventionist implications of their own position, and failed to engage seriously with Keynesian ideas.

The result (like orthodox Marxism) is a research program that was active and progressive a century or so ago but has now become an ossified dogma. Like all such dogmatic orthodoxies, it provides believers with the illusion of a complete explanation but cease to respond in a progressive way to empirical violations of its predictions or to theoretical objections. To the extent that anything positive remains, it is likely to be developed by non-Austrians such as the post-Keynesian followers of Hyman Minsky.

...At the time it was put forward, the Mises-Hayek business cycle theory was actually a pretty big theoretical advance. The main competitors were the orthodox defenders of Says Law, who denied that a business cycle was possible (unemployment being attributed to unions or government-imposed minumum wages), and the Marxists who offered a model of catastrophic crisis driven by the declining rate of profit.

Both Marxism and classical economics were characterized by the assumption that money is neutral, a ‘veil’ over real transactions. On the classical theory, if the quantity of money suddenly doubled, with no change in the real productive capacity of the economy, prices and wages would rise rapidly. Once the price level had doubled the previous equilibrium would be restored. Says Law (every offer to supply a good service implies a demand to buy some other good or service) which is obviously true in a barter economy, was assumed to hold also for a money economy, and therefore to ensure that equilibrium involved full employment

The Austrians were the first to offer a good reason for the non-neutrality of money. Expansion of the money supply will lower (short-term) interest rates and therefore make investments more attractive.

There’s an obvious implication about the (sub)optimality of market outcomes here, though more obvious to a generation of economists for whom arguments about rational expectations are second nature than it was 100 years ago. If investors correctly anticipate that a decline in interest rates will be temporary, they won’t evaluate long-term investments on the basis of current rates. So, the Austrian story requires either a failure of rational expectations, or a capital market failure that means that individuals rationally choose to make ‘bad’ investments on the assumption that someone else will bear the cost. And if either of these conditions apply, there’s no reason to think that market outcomes will be optimal in general.

A closely related point is that, unless Say’s Law is violated, the Austrian model implies that consumption should be negatively correlated with investment over the business cycle, whereas in fact the opposite is true. To the extent that booms are driven by mistaken beliefs that investments have become more profitable, they are typically characterized by high, not low, consumption.

The whole thing is worth reading. It provides as concise a comparative analysis of the topic as one could wish for.

(via Brad DeLong)

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