The meaning of Hayek’s main views on monetary theory

The one who is set to determine what Friedrich Hayek’s monetary theory consisted of will discover that his was a labyrinthic exploration conducted to dead-ends, which taught him what paths not to follow.

In his first years of research, Hayek was focused on the business cycle theory and on the monetary effects on the business cycles, his main objective being the pursuit of a neutral currency. This means, a monetary system that does not interfere in the price system, i.e., that the variations in relative prices express only the variations in the relative scarcity of goods, without any monetary disturbances. In this first stage, Hayek concentrated on the study of what he called “Cantillon effects,” in which the variations in the money supply did not affect prices simultaneously but were transmitted from capital goods firstly to consumer goods later, generating thus an intertemporal distortion or falsification in relative prices.

This distortion in the intertemporal value of goods is expressed in the distortion in the interest rate. It is worth clarifying about this last aspect, that for the Austrian School of Economics, which was where Hayek came from, time preference is the predominant element in the interest rate and that the monetary element represents, precisely, a disturbance in said time preference scale.

The monetary disturbances on the interest rate had two main consequences for Hayek: the first, the generation of cycles of boom and recession; the second, a process of continuous decapitalization of the economy.

In turn, in this first stage of Hayekian economic thought, stability in the purchasing power of money would not necessarily mean a neutral monetary system: that the money supply accompanies an increase in money demand, for example, could lead to a cycle of boom and recession with an initial stage of stability in the general level of prices, since the increase in the money supply would first be channeled into the capital goods market, generating an effect similar to an initial drop in the interest rate, which would then rise when the increase in the money supply reached the market for consumer goods.

In this last stage, the demand for consumer goods would increase, but the supply of such would not be able to satisfy it, since the resources -induced by the initial drop in the interest rate- had previously been redirected to the production of capital goods.

For Hayek, therefore, crises were not generated by underconsumption, but quite the opposite, by pressure on the demand for consumer goods. If this additional demand for consumer goods was not validated by further increases in the money supply, adjustment and recession would ensue. It is what was called The Concertina Effect -which later received severe critics from Hayek’s former disciple and translator Nicholas Kaldor.

But if indeed the monetary authority validated the expectations of consumers permanently, in order to avoid the slump, this would induce a gradual substitution in the production of consumer goods for capital goods. A process of a sort that John Maynard Keynes had already mentioned in his “A Tract on Monetary Reform” -to which Hayek adhered: The phenomenon of capital consumption that caused high inflation. Such a process of erosion of the capital structure of an inflationary economy would be the central theme of Hayek’s studies on the Ricardo Effect, which John Hicks proposed to rename the Ricardo-Hayek effect. This theme of his youth will accompany him both in the works of his adulthood and in his old age, as exposed in his essays “The Ricardo Effect” (1942) and “Three Elucidations of the Ricardo Effect” (1969).

To summarize, Hayek’s initial concern on monetary theory was not focused on the stability of the price level but rather on the attainment of the neutrality of money. His most relevant conclusions on this subject could be found in his short note titled “On Neutral Money” (originally published as “Über ‘neutrale Geld’” in 1933), in which he stated what follows:

“Hence the relationship between the theoretical concept of neutrality of the money supply and the ideal of monetary policy is that the degree to which the latter approximates to the former provides one, probably the most important though not the sole, criterion for assessing the maxims of monetary policy. It is perfectly conceivable that monetary influences would always give rise to a ‘falsification’ of relative prices and a misdirection of production unless certain conditions were fulfilled, e.g., (1) the flow of money remained constant, and (2) all prices were perfectly flexible, and (3) in the conclusion of long-term contracts in terms of money, the future movement of prices was approximately correctly predicted. But the implication is, then, that if (2) and (3) are not given, the ideal cannot be attained by any kind of monetary policy at all.”

In turn, in 1943, he rehearses the proposal of “A Commodity Reserve Currency“, with the purpose of giving a functional meaning to the phenomenon of hoarding: an increase in the purchasing power of money caused by a monetary demand for a reserve of value would translate into in a greater demand for primary goods by the monetary authority, which would curb the fall in prices and the monetary disturbances on the level of activity. Correlatively, a rise in spending would be offset by the sale of raw materials by the monetary authority and the concomitant sterilization of means of payment, thereby decompressing inflationary pressures. The big problem with such a proposal was the instrumentation itself: having a reserve system for a basket of raw materials is laborious and costly; in the same way that the choice of goods that make up said basket of goods is not exempt from controversy.

That is way Hayek’s attitude towards the inevitability of monetary shocks to the real economy is one of apparent resignation. When it comes to describing the incidence of the money multiplier by the banking system, Hayek points out that not much can be done about it, other than to understand that this is how capitalist economies work.

However, in 1976 – 1977, Hayek returned to contribute to monetary theory from his proposal of competition of currencies in “Denationalisation of Money”, where he questioned whether the monopoly of money was a necessary attribute of the nation state -something that dates back to the times of Jean Bodin- and proposed that the different countries that made up the then European Economic Community, instead of issuing a common currency, compete with each other in a selection process of currencies by the public.

Although Hayek is credited with having outlined inflation targeting in that book and is regarded as an inspiration to the private and crypto currencies, his main contribution remains yet to be assessed: The competition of currencies is not the best monetary system but the best procedure to discover a better one.

Previously, in his essay of 1968, “Competition as a Discover Procedure”, Hayek had stated that: “Competition is a procedure for discovering facts, which, if the procedure did not exist, would remain unknown or would not be used.” Thus, we will never define by ourselves, speculatively, how it would work the perfect monetary system, but the competition of currencies would enable us with a more powerful tool to discover which monetary system would better adapt to the changing conditions of the economic environment. The denationalization of money is not a monetary system by itself, but a device to improve the existing ones.

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