Spain’s quasi-depression – an Austrian ‘bust’ or a monetary contraction? Or both?

A couple of days ago I wrote a post on the behavior of prices in the ‘bust’ phase of an Austrian style business cycle. My argument was that the Austrian business cycle story basically is a supply side story and that in the bust there is a negative supply shock. As a consequence one should expect inflation to increase during the ‘bust’ phase.

My post was not really about what have happened during the Great Recession, but it is obvious that the discussion could be relevant for understanding the present crisis.

Overall I don’t think that the present crisis can be explained by an Austrian style business cycle theory, but I nonetheless think that we can learn something relevant from Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) that will deepen our understanding of the crisis.

Unlike Austrians Market Monetarists generally do not stress what happened prior to the crisis. I do, however, think that we prior to the crisis saw a significant misallocation of resources in some countries. I myself in the run up to the crisis – back in 2006/7 – pointed to the risk of boom-bust in for example Iceland and Baltic States. Furthermore, in hindsight one could certainly also argue that we saw a similar misallocation in some Southern European countries. This misallocation in my view was caused by a combination of overly easy monetary conditions and significant moral hazard problems.

This discussion has inspired me to have a look Spain in the light of my discussion of ABCT.

My starting point is to decompose Spanish inflation into a supply and a demand component. I have used the crude method - the Quasi-Real Price Index – that I inspired by David Eagle developed in a number of posts back in 2011. I will not go into details with the method here, but you can read more here.

This is my decomposition of Spanish inflation.

Spain inflation QRPI

The story prior to the crisis is pretty clear. Both demand and supply inflation is fairly stable and there are no real sign of strongly accelerating demand inflation. However, the picture that emerges in the “bust-years” is very different.

As the graph shows supply inflation spiked as the crisis played out and has remained elevated ever since and we are now seeing supply inflation around 5%. However, at the same time demand inflation has collapsed and we basically have had demand deflation since the outbreak of the crisis.

I would stress that my crude method of decomposing inflation assumes that the aggregate supply curve is vertical. That obviously is not the case and that likely lead to an overestimation of the supply side inflation. That said, I feel pretty confident that the overall story is correct.

Hence, the Spanish story in my view provides some support for an Austrian-inspired interpretation of the crisis in the Spanish economy. As the crisis in Spain started to unfold the Spanish economy was hit by a large negative supply shock, which caused supply inflation to spike. There is clearly an Austrian style argument to be made here. Investors realised that they had  made a mistake and therefore economic resources had to reallocated from unprofitable sectors (for example the construction sector) to other sector. With price and wage rigidities this is a supply shock.

A negative supply shock will not in itself cause a depression 

However, this is not the whole story. A purely Austrian interpretation of the crisis misses the main problem in the Spanish economy today – the collapse in aggregate demand. Despite the sharp increase in Spanish supply inflation headline inflation (measured with the GDP deflator) has collapsed! That can only happen if demand inflation drops more than supply inflation increases. This is exactly what have happened in Spain. In fact we have a situation where we have high suppply inflation AND demand deflation.

What have happened is that the Spanish economy has moved from the ‘bust’ phase to what Hayek called ‘secondary deflation’. The ‘secondary deflation’ is the post-bust phase where a negative demand shock causes the economy to go into depression and a general deflationary state. This is a massively negative monetary shock and this is the real cause of the prolonged crisis.

The ‘secondary deflation’ is not a natural consequence of an Austrian style boom-bust, but rather a consequence of a monetary contraction. In that sense the secondary deflation is more monetarist in nature than Austrian.

In the case of Spain the monetary contraction is a direct consequence of Spain’s euro membership. If a country has a freely floating exchange rate then a negative supply shock – the bust – will cause the country’s currency to depreciate. However, due to Spain’s membership this obviously is not possible. The lack of depreciation of Spain’s currency de facto is monetary tightening (process that plays out is basically David Hume’s Price-Specie-flow story).

In fact the monetary tightening in Spain has been massive and has caused demand inflation to drop from around 4% to today more than 5% (demand) deflation!

This obviously is the real cause of the continued crisis in the Spanish economy. So while my decomposition of Spanish inflation seems to indicate that there has been an ‘Austrian story’ in the sense that there Spain has gone through of re-allocation (the negative supply shock) the dominant story is the collapse in aggregate demand caused by a monetary contraction.

The counterfactual story – and why a Austrian style bust is not recessionary

The discussion above in my view illustrates a clear problem with the Austrian story of the business cycle. I my view Austrians often fail to explain why a reallocation of economic resources will have to lead to a recession. Yes, it is clear that we will get a temporary downturn in real GDP in the bust phase, but there is nothing in ABCT that explains that that will turn into a depression-like situation as is the case in Spain.

What would for example have happened if Spain had had its own currency and an independent monetary policy regime where the central bank had targeted nominal GDP – for example along a 6% NGDP growth path.

Lets say that the entire initial Spanish downturn had been cause by a bubble bursting (it was not), but also that the central bank had been targeting a 6% NGDP growth path. Hence, as the bubble bursts real GDP growth decelerates sharply. However, as the central bank is keeping NGDP growth at 6% inflation will – temporary – increase. Most of the rise in inflation will be caused by an increase in supply inflation (but demand inflation will not drop). This is temporary and inflation will drop back once the re-allocation process has come to an end. Hence, there will not be a deflationary shock.

Therefore, the drop in real GDP growth is a necessary adjustment to a bubble bursting. However, the drop will likely be rather short-lived as aggregate demand (NGDP) is kept “on track” due to the NGDP target and hence “facilitate” a smooth re-allocation of resources in the Spanish economy.

This in my view clearly illustrates why we cannot use Austrian Business Cycle Theory to explain why the crisis in the Spanish economy is as deep as it is. Clever Austrians like Roger Garrison and Steve Horwitz will of course agree that ABCT is not a theory of depression. You need a monetary contraction to create a depression. This is Steve Horwitz on ABCT:

Both critics and adherents of the ABCT misunderstand it if they think it is some sort of comprehensive theory of the boom, breaking point, and length/depth of the bust.  It isn’t.  As Roger Garrison has long insisted, the theory by itself is a theory of the unsustainable boom.  It is a theory that explains why driving the market rate of interest below the natural rate through expansionary monetary policy produces a boom that contains endogenous processes that will cause that boom to turn to a bust.  Again, it’s a theory of the unsustainable boom.

ABCT tells us nothing about exactly when the boom will break and the precise factors that will cause it.  The theory claims that eventually costs will rise in such a way that make it clear that the longer-term production processes falsely induced by the boom will not be profitable, leading to their abandonment.  But it says nothing about which projects will be undertaken in which markets and which costs (other than perhaps the loan rate) will rise, and it tells us nothing about the timing of those events.  We know it has to happen, but the where and when are unique, not typical, features of business cycles.

… The ABCT is not a theory of the causes of the length and depth of recessions/depressions, but a theory of the unsustainable boom.

…The ABCT cannot explain the entirety of the Great Depression.  It simply can’t.  And adherents of theory who make the claim that it can are not doing the theory any favors.  What ABCT can explain (at least potentially, if the data support it) is why there was a recession at all in 1929.  It argues that it was the result of an unsustainable boom initiated by an excess supply of money at some point in the 1920s.  Yes, the bigger the boom, cet. par., the worse the bust, but even that doesn’t tell us much.  Once the turning point is reached, there’s not a lot that ABCT can say other than to let the healing process unfold unimpeded.

I think Steve’s description of ABCT is completely correct and in the same way as Steve doesn’t believe that ABCT can explain the entire Great Depression I would argue that ABCT cannot explain the Spanish crisis – or the euro crisis for that matter. Yes, there undoubtedly is some truth to the fact that overly easy monetary policy from the ECB contributed  to creating a unsustainable boom in the Spanish economy (and other European economies). However, ABCT cannot explain why we still five years into the crisis are trapped in a deflationary crisis in the Spanish economy. The depressionary state of the Spanish economy – at this stage – is nearly fully a consequence of a sharp monetary contraction. The bust has clearly long ago run its natural cause and what is keeping the Spanish economy from recovering is not a necessary re-allocation of economic resources, but very tight monetary conditions in Spain.

Conclusion: ABCT provide important insights, but will not help us now 

So to me the conclusion is pretty clear – Austrian Business Cycle theory do indeed provide some interesting and important insights to the boom-bust process. However, ABCT only explains a very limited part of the crisis in the Spanish economy and the euro zone for that matter. Had monetary policy been kept on track as the re-allocation process started the adjustment process in the Spanish economy would likely have been fairly painless and swift.

Unfortunately that has not been the case and monetary policy has caused the Spanish economy to enter a ‘secondary deflation’ and clever Austrians know that that is not a result of a bust, but rather a result of a monetary disequilibrium resulting from a excessive demand for money relative to the supply of money. There is no reason to worry about about reflating a bubble. The bubble has been deflated long ago.

PS The purpose of this post has been to discuss ABCT in the light of the crisis in Spain. However, the purpose has not been to tell the full story of Spain’s economic problems. Hence, it is clear that Spain struggles with serious structural problems such as extremely damaging firing-and-hiring rules. This structural problem significantly contribute to deepen and prolong the crisis, but it has not been the cause of the crisis.

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The Austrian bust: HIGHER inflation and relative deflation

I have been thinking about an issue that puzzles me – it is about inflation in an Austrian School style bust.

Here is the story. If we think about a stylized Austrian school boom-bust then the story more or less is that easy money leads to an unsustainable boom that eventually – for some reason – will lead to a bust.

What people often fail to realize is that the Austrian business cycle theory basically is a supply side story.

Austrians will hate it, but you can tell much of the story within an AS/AD framework. The graph below is an illustration of this.

AS AD - AS shift rightwards

What happens is that the central bank cuts interest rates below the Wicksellian natural interest rate. Investors are tricked into thinking that it is the natural interest rates that has fallen and as a result investments are increased. Austrians will of course object by saying “it is not a overinvestment theory, but a malinvestment theory”. Yes, that is right, but that is not relevant for the question I want to look at here.

The boom happens not because of higher demand, but because of over (and mal) investment. The production capacity of the economy is hence expanded – the AS curve shifts to the right during the Austrian boom and production increases from Y1 to Y2. We ignore the demand effects – so we keep the AD unchanged – as the Austrians really are not paying much attention to this part of the story anyway (and yes, I am aware the there is relative demand story – private consumption vs investments).

Notice what happens with the price level initially. Prices drop from P1 to P2. Obviously that would not necessarily have to be the case if the AD curve also have shifted to the right as well (but that is not important for the story here). However, this pretty well illustrates the Austrian story that “headline” inflation will not necessarily increase during the boom. What happens – and we can obviously not realize that by just looking at AD and AS curves – is that we get what Austrians call relative inflation. Some prices rise, but the aggregate price level does not necessarily increase.

So far so good. I know Austrian economists would say that I told the story in the “wrong way”, but I guess they will agree on the main points – Austrian Business Cycle Theory is mostly about the supply side of the economy and that the aggregate price level will not necessarily have to increase during the boom phase.

Now we turn to the bust phase…

At some point investors realise that they have made a mistake – the natural interest rate has not really dropped. Therefore, what they thought were good and profitable investments are not really that great. So as a result investors cut back investments – after the “bubble” have bursted a large part of the production capacity in the economy is worthless. This is a negative supply shock! The AS shift back leftwards.

AS AD - AS shift leftwards

What is the result of this? Well, it is simple – the price level increases from P2 to P1. We get higher inflation. This might seem counterintuitive to most people – that the bust leads to higher rather lower inflation – but remember this is due fact that the Austrian boom-bust cycle primarily is a supply side story.

‘Benign’ inflation should be welcomed

And this brings me to what I really wanted to say. An increase inflation should be welcomed if it reflects a rational and undistorted reaction to investors realising that they have made a mistake. That is exactly what happens in an Austrian style bust. We might get relative deflation/disinflation, but the aggregate price level increases due to the negative supply shock.

Therefore, when Austrians often argue that the bust should be allowed to play out without any interference from the government or the central bank then that logically mean that they should welcome an increase in inflation in the bust phase of the business cycle. That obvious is not that same saying that monetary policy should be eased in the bust phase, but inflation should nonetheless be allowed to increase as we get “benign” inflation.

However, in my view that would mean that it would be wrong from an Austrian perspective for the central bank to tighten monetary policy in response to rise in (supply) inflation during the bust. Those Austrian economists who favour NGDP level targeting – like Anthony Evans and Steve Horwitz – would likely agree, but what about the “internet Austrian”? And what about Bob Murphy or Joe Salerno?

Obviously the story I have told above is a caricature of the Austrian Business Cycle theory, but I think there is a relevant discussion here that need to be addressed. Is the aggregate price level likely to rise in the bust phase as natural consequence of market forces being allowed to run it cause?

The reason that I think this debate is important is that some Austrians spend a lot of time arguing that the deflationary tendencies that we see for example in Europe at the moment are a natural and necessary bursting and deflating of a bubble. However, IF we indeed were in the bust phase of a Austrian style business cycle then we would not be seeing deflationary tendencies. We would in fact be seeing the opposite – we would see HIGHER inflation, but at the same time relative deflation.

Obviously this is not what we are seeing in the US and Europe today - inflation in both the US and the euro zone is well-below what it was during the “boom years”. That mean that we are not in the bust phase of an Austrian style boom-bust. There might very well have been a boom-bust initially (I believe that was the case in some European countries for example), but we have long ago moved to another phase – and that is what Hayek termed secondary deflation – a downturn in the economy caused by an monetary contraction.

PS Take a look at what happened in the US in 2007-8. Overall inflation did in fact increase as the economy was slowing, while we at the same time had relative deflation in the form of falling property prices. However, starting in the Autumn of 2008 we clearly saw across the board deflationary tendencies – here it is pretty clear that we entered a secondary deflationary phase caused by a monetary contraction. This is consistent with an Austrian interpretation of the Great Recession, but it is not a story I have heard many (any??) Austrians tell. And of course it is not necessarily the story I would tell – even though I think there is a lot of truth in it.

PPS The graphs above could indicate that both production and prices shifts back to the initial starting point during the bust. That obviously would not have to be the case as I here have ignored the shift in the AD curve and as any Austrian would note the AS/AD framework is not telling us anything about relative prices.

Are half a million hardworking Poles to blame for the UK real estate bubble?

The answer to the question of course is no, but let me tell the story anyway. It is a story about positive supply shocks, inflation targeting, relative inflation and bubbles.

In 2004 Poland joined the EU. That gave Poles the possibility to enter the UK labour market (and other EU labour markets). It is estimated that as much as half a million poles have come to work in the UK since 2004. The graph below shows the numbers of Poles employed in the UK economy (I stole the graph from Wikipedia)









Effectively that has been a large positive supply shock to the UK economy. In a simple AS/AD model we can illustrate that as in the graph below.

Positive supply shock

The inflow of Polish workers pushes the AS curve to the right (from AS to AS’). As a result output increases from Y to Y’ and the price level drops to P’ from P.

Imagine that we to begin with is exactly at the Bank of England’s inflation target of 2%.

In this scenario a positive supply – half a million Polish workers – will push inflation below 2%.

As a strict inflation targeting central bank the BoE in response will ease monetary policy to push inflation back to the 2% inflation target.

We can illustrate that in an AS/AD graph as a shift in the AD curve to the right (for simplicity we here assume that the BoE targets the price level rather than inflation).

The BoE’s easing will keep that price level at P, but increase the output to Y” as the AD curve shifts to AD’. Note that that assumes that the long-run AS curve also have shifted – I have not illustrated that in the graphs.

Positive supply shock and demand shock

At this point the Austrian economist will wake up – because the BoE given it’s monetary easing in response to the positive supply shock is creating relative inflation.

Inflation targeting is distorting relative prices

If we just look at this in terms of the aggregate price level we miss an important point and that is what is happening to relative prices.

Hence, the Polish workers are mostly employed in service jobs. As a result the positive supply shock is the largest in the service sector. However, as the service sector prices fall the BoE will push up prices in all other sectors to ensure that the price level (or rather inflation) is unchanged. This for example causes property prices to increase.

This is what Austrian economists call relative inflation, but it also illustrates a key Market Monetarist critique of inflation targeting. Hence, inflation targeting will distort relative prices and in that sense inflation targeting is not a “neutral” monetary policy.

On the other hand had the BoE been targeting the nominal GDP level then it would have allowed the positive shock to lead to a permanent drop in prices (or lower inflation), while at the same time kept NGDP on track. Therefore, we can describe NGDP level targeting as a “neutral” monetary policy as it will not lead to a distortion of relative prices.

This is one of the key reasons why I again and again have described NGDP level targeting as the true free market alternative – as NGDP targeting is not distorting relative prices contrary to inflation targeting,which distorts relative prices and therefore also distorts the allocation of labour and capital. This is basically an Austrian style (unsustainable) boom that sooner or later leads to a bust.

So is this really the story about UK property prices?

It is important to stress that I don’t necessarily think that this is what happened in the UK property market. First, of all UK property prices seemed to have taken off a couple of years earlier than 2004 and I have really not studied the data close enough to claim that this is the real story. However, that is not really my point. Instead I am using this (quasi-hypothetical) example to illustrate that central bankers are much more likely to creating bubbles if they target inflation rather than the NGDP level and it is certainly the case that had the BoE had an NGDP level targeting (around for example a 5% trend path) then monetary policy would have been tighter during the “boom years” than was actually the case and hence the property market boom would likely have been much less extreme.

But again if anybody is to blame it is not the half million hardworking Poles in Britain, but rather the Bank of England’s overly easing monetary policy in the pre-crisis years.

PS I am a bit sloppy with the difference between changes in prices (inflation) and the price level above. Furthermore, I am not clear about whether we are talking about permanent or temporary supply shocks. That, however, do not change the conclusions and after all this is a blog post and not an academic article.

Mario Rizzo on Austrian Business Cycle Theory

Mario Rizzo has an excellent post on Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT). I think Mario do a good job explaining what ABCT is and what it is not.

At the centre of Mario’s discussion is that monetary policy is not neutral, but that the important think is not inflation, but rather “relative inflation”. Here is Mario:

The Austrian theory rests, not on a catalyzing effect of core inflation or headline inflation, but on changes inrelative prices that cause resources to be allocated in ultimately unsustainable ways. The Great Depression was not preceded by much inflation because productivity improvements allowed for increases in bank credit without increasing (by much) the price level. Hayek said repeatedly that the price level aggregate can hide the distortions basic to the cycle.

This point is especially important in the early stages of recovery when there is so much unused capacity and previous investment pessimism that expansions in bank credit (not meaning base money) may be returning to sustainable levels and inflation in the usual sense is unlikely. Nevertheless, as the recovery proceeds, there is a danger that maintenance of low interest rates by the central bank for long periods can induce a distorted character of investment, even as the total amount of investment measured throughout the economy has not recovered.

The policy-relevant point is that if the central bank decides not to allow interest rates to rise until aggregate investment has recovered to boom levels, it will have waited too long. The character of the investment will be distorted. Malinvestments will set in – even without inflation.

I do not think that the Austrian theory says anything unique about inflation – in the sense of increases in the aggregate price level – beyond the warning that aggregates of this sort can conceal the theoretically-relevant magnitudes for understanding business cycles.

I think this is a completely fair and accurate description of Austrian Business Cycle Theory (at least the Hayek-Garrison version of ABCT). That said, I do have serious problems with ABCT as a general business cycle theory. First of all while I don’t think the so-called Cantillon effect is completely irrelevant I don’t think it is very important empirically and the Cantillon effect seems to be based on the assumption that some agents have adaptive or static expectations and/or asymmetrical information (these assumptions are highly ad hoc in nature). Second, ABCT is also based on the assumption that credit markets are imperfect – that might or might not be the case in the real world, but Austrians often fail to state that clearly. I hope to follow up on these issues in a later post.

That said, unlike some other Market Monetarists I don’t think Austrian Business Cycle theory is irrelevant. Rather, I think that (variations of) ABCT will be helpful in understanding the “boom” in for example certain euro zone countries prior to 2008 – and it certainly helped me in my own research on for example Iceland and the Baltic States during the “boom years” of 2006-7. However, empirically I think that both the US and particularly in euro zone are in the secondary deflation phase of the business cycle (in the sense that NGDP has fallen well below the pre-crisis trend), which as Mario notes ABCT has little to say about. As a consequence I don’t think that monetary easing in at the present state of the cycle is likely to lead to a Austrian style boom with distortion of relative prices – at least not if monetary easing is conducted with-in a clear rule based set-up like NGDP level targeting.

In a sense one can say that my biggest problem with ABCT is not so much ABCT in itself, but rather that many Austrian economists today seems to believe that we are in necessary “bursting of the bubble”-phase of the cycle rather than in the secondary deflation phase.

Concluding, while I do not think that ABCT is a general theory of the business cycle and I would certainly also stress the “secondary deflation” part of the cycle much more than the “boom” phase of the cycle I nonetheless think that Mario’s description of Austrian Business Cycle Theory is excellent and I hope that Austrian and non-Austrians alike will read it.


Suggested reading on ABCT:

Hayek’s Price and Production

Garrison’s Time and Money (I linked to a PDF of Garrison’s book, but do yourself a favour and buy a hardcopy)

See my earlier post on the Rothbardian version of ABCT and Steve Horwitz excellent reply to that post. Steve’s reply to me was very much in line with Mario’s views.


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