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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