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.

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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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