Credit Booms Gone Wrong

Recent research by economists Moritz Schularick and Alan M. Taylor have confirmed the theory that economic booms are fueled by an excessive growth of credit. They have written a paper titled “Credit Booms Gone Bust: Monetary Policy, Leverage Cycles and Financial Crises, 1870–2008“, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

A major cause of the Great Depression was a credit boom, as analyzed by Barry Eichengreen and Kris Mitchener in their paper, “The Great Depression as a credit boom gone wrong” (BIS Working Paper No. 137). Eichengreen and Mitchener cite Henry George’s Progress and Poverty as providing an early theory of booms and busts based on land speculation. They also credit the Austrian school of economic thought, which in the works of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, had developed a theory of the business cycle in which credit booms play a central role. Henry George’s theory of the business cycle is complementary to the Austrian theory, as George identified the rise in land values as the key role in causing depressions.

An expansion of money and credit reduces interest rates and induces a greater production and purchase of long-duration capital goods and land. The most important investment and speculation affected is real estate. Much of investment consists of buildings and the durable goods that go into buildings as well as the infrastructure that services real estate. Much of the gains from an economic expansion go to higher land rent and land value, so speculators jump in to profit from leveraged speculation. This creates an unsustainable rise in land value that makes real estate too expensive for actual uses, so as interest rates and real estate costs rise, investment slows down and then declines. The subsequent fall in land values and investment reduces total output, generates unemployment, and then crashes the financial system.

We can ask whether this theory is consistent with historical evidence. One strand of evidence is the history of the real estate cycle, which has been investigated by the works of Homer Hoyt, Fred Harrison, and my own writings. Another strand is the history of credit booms, as shown by Schularick and Taylor, who assembled a large data set on money and credit for 12 developed economies 1870 to 2008. They show how credit expansions have been related to money expansions, and how financial innovations have greatly increased credit. Because economic booms are fueled by credit expansion, Schularick and Taylor note that credit booms can be used to forecast the coming downturn.

Followers of Henry George have focused on the real estate aspect of the boom and bust, while the Austrian school has focused on credit, interest rates, and capital goods. A complete explanation requires a synthesis of the theories of both schools, but these recent works on credit booms have not recognized the geo-Austrian synthesis. In order to eliminate the boom-bust cycle, both the real side (real estate) and the financial side (money and credit) need to be confronted.

Current Austrian-school economists such as Larry White and George Selgin have investigated the theory and history of free banking, the truly free-market policy of abolishing the central bank as well as restrictions on banking such as limiting branches and controlling interest rates. In pure free banking, there would be a base of real money such as gold or a fixed amount of government currency. Banks would issue their own private notes convertible into base money at a fixed rate. The convertibility and the competitive banking structure would provide a flexible supply of money along with price stability. The banks would associate to provide one another with loans when a bank faces a temporary need for more base money, or a lender of last resort.

Both the members of the Austrian school and the economists who have studied credit booms have not understood the need to prevent the land-value bubble by taxing most of the value of land. That would stop land speculation and eliminate the demand for credit by land buyers.

But the credit-bubble theorists have not understood that financial regulation and rules for central banks cannot solve the financial side of credit bubbles. Credit booms always go wrong. As the Austrians have pointed out, there is no scientific way to know the correct amount of money or the optimal rates of interest. Only the market can discover the rate of interest that balances savings and borrowing, and only the market can balance money supply with money demand.

Thus the remedy for the boom-bust cycle is both land value taxation and free banking. Land speculation would not be as bad without a credit boom, but will still take place as land values capture economic gains and land speculators suck credit away from productive uses. But also, a credit boom with land-value taxation will still result in excessive construction and the waste of resources in fixed capital goods, reducing the circulating capital need to generate output and employment, as Mason Gaffney has written about.

Economic bliss requires both the public collection of rent and a free market in money.

[Editor’s note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Foldvary’s blog, the Foldvarium, on April 4 2010]

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