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The Last Gasps of “Late Degeneracy Capitalism”

The Last Gasps of “Late Degeneracy Capitalism”

The Last Gasps of “Late Degeneracy Capitalism”

It was a mid-afternoon in 2006 in Cannes, where I joined Dr. Kurt Richebächer at his apartment to collaborate on a book project that, unfortunately, failed to come together before his death a year later.

The old man grabbed his cane and moved to a comfy chair and clicked on a widescreen TV.

Bloomberg. In German.

It was bad news from what I remember. But as far as the economic commentariat was concerned, it was good news. It meant the Fed would simply pump more money into the market.

Traders loved the report; stock futures back in New York had already begun to rally.

Kurt, on the other hand, was flabbergasted. He started talking to me and to the television in German. Neither I nor the TV understood German…

Dr. Richebächer was kind of a crank. He was a special kind of crank, though.

He used to say something like: “the sins of the boom, will be laid bare in the bust.”

A Market Prophet

Kurt wrote a newsletter for more than 40 years. And back in the late 90s and early 2000s we published The Richebächer Letter.

Kurt accurately forecast the tech wreck. And for having done so, he became a semi-celebrity among the geeks — present company included — who like to read and think about an obscure outpost in the field of economics — the Austrian school.

Kurt never claimed to adhere to the Austrian school, but that hardly seemed to matter. His insights apply just as much today as they did 14 years ago — probably more.

It all started after World War II when Kurt had made a name for himself as the best-known financial journalist in Germany — a razor-sharp critic of what he saw as the stupid economic and fiscal policies of the post-war German government.

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Why the New Economics Just Boils Down to Printing More Money

WHY THE NEW ECONOMICS JUST BOILS DOWN TO PRINTING MORE MONEY

[Editor’s Note: this article is adapted from a 2003 essay in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics entitled “New Keynesian Monetary Views: A Comment.” As economists abandon theory in favor of makeshift plans to flood the economy with stimulus, Hülsmann here provides some helpful reminders of the fundamental problems behind the current economic consensus on money.]

The essential fallacy of John Maynard Keynes and his early disciples was to cultivate the monetary equivalent of alchemy. They believed that paper money was a suitable means to alleviate the fundamental economic problem of scarcity. The printing press was, at any rate, under certain plausible conditions of duress, a substitute for hard work, savings, and cutting prices (Hazlitt 1959, 1960).

The self-styled new Keynesians have not at all abandoned this fallacy, and they therefore do not differ in any essential respect from the old Keynesians, in spite of the pains they take to distinguish themselves from the latter. The new Keynesian recommendation for monetary policy is to “stabilize the growth of aggregate demand.” In plain language this means that the monetary authorities should never stop flooding the economy with paper money. This is recognizably the core tenet of the old Keynesian monetary program, which in itself had been nothing but even older fallacies clothed in the new language of aggregate analysis.

In many respects, new Keynesian views on monetary theory and policy seem to be even more fallacious than those of their predecessors. Whereas Keynes and his immediate followers were still trained in the old-fashioned art of economic reasoning, the new Keynesians are macroeconomic purebreds.1 Their expertise lies more or less exclusively in the field of modeling.

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The Austrian School Warned, the ECB Didn’t Listen

The Austrian School Warned, the ECB Didn’t Listen

Looking at the current situation, one can easily perceive that our economic environment is not in the best condition. The whole of Europe is suffering from an economic stagnation, if not in some countries even a slowdown, that could very well turn into an economic recession sooner than later if appropriate measures are not taken to restructure many parts of our monetary system. The US could start experiencing the same effects soon, as we can observe from current trends on employment and productivity. Short-sighted economic policy, as that of President Trump asking the Fed for lower interest rates, or the ECB’s loose monetary policy (necessary in great part due to the lack of structural reforms by European governments), has severe effects -mostly that it only works in the short term, and leaves a tremendous economic hangover, composed of huge debt burdens and skyrocketing deficit levels.

The Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) can also shed some light on the situation in Europe by looking at how the European Central Bank has acted over the last decade, and how its actions, even if they had mild positive economic effects in the short term, are now slowing down productivity growth, impeding economic reforms, and sending countries into debt oceans – and, thus, finally, potentially accelerating the economic slowdown.

The ABCT is an economic theory primarily developed by the Austrian School of Economics from the 19th century onwards, mainly by Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Briefly explained, this theory is based on the idea that a tinkering with the interest rates, leading to excessive increases in the money supply of a country, by a central bank or through fractional reserve banking, inevitably creates a cycle of economic booms and busts.

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Some Confusions of Language in Economic Thought

Fifty years ago, in 1968, Austrian (and Austrian school) economist Friedrich A. Hayek published a monograph called The Confusion of Language in Political Thought [4]. Hayek argued that the words we use and the meanings we give to them greatly influence how we think about the political system and the wider social order in which we live. This is no less so, I would suggest, in the language and the meanings of words used in economics.

Hayek’s focus was on the misunderstanding created by the false notion that society is the product of design. He emphasized that many, if not most, of the institutions of the social order are not the result of human design, but are the cumulative results of multitudes of people interacting over many generations.

Social Order Without Political Design

This is a theme in social analysis that has been a part of Austrian economics since the founding of the Austrian school by Carl Menger. He explained that markets and money, language and much of the legal system, social customs and cultural traditions, and polite manners are all the evolved outcomes of a vast number of individuals, each pursing their own personal self-interest for the most part. Their interactions and associations with each other slowly form into behavioral patterns, informal rules, and interactive procedures by which and through which human beings come to arrange and adapt their conduct with one another in a wide variety of social settings.

It is not that human beings do not consciously guide their actions according to a plan. Indeed, all meaningful human action is pursuit of a chosen set of ends with selected means the use of which is believed most likely to bring about the desired ends.

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All Is Not Well In Financial Markets

All Is Not Well In Financial Markets

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It seems to be a hard time for those expressing concern about the build-up of risks in the economic and financial system: the major economies in the world are expanding at a decent clip, credit default concerns are very low, and stock and housing prices keep going up, driven by investor optimism and supported by an ongoing low interest rate environment.

Moreover, cyclical indicators do currently not suggest that something terrible is just around the corner. But of course, there is good reason not to get carried away by the “all is well” mentality that has gripped financial market action. For central banks have, by way of their monetary policies of exceptionally low interest rates, set into motion an artificial upswing (“boom”).

While the boom leads to higher output and employment levels, it also causes — beneath the surface, so to speak — malinvestment on a grand scale: the development of the economies’ production and employment structure is getting diverted from the path it would have taken had there not been a downward manipulation of interest rates on the part of central banks.

Some Theory

This becomes obvious once a sound theory of the interest rate is taken into account, as put forward by the Austrian School of Economics, in particular by Ludwig von Mises. To explain this in some detail, we have to make a distinction between the “pure,” or “originary,” interest rate and the “nominal market” interest rate.

The originary interest rate is inseparably tied to human action: each and one of us value an early satisfaction of a want more highly than a later satisfaction of the same want. In other words: we as human beings value a good that is presently available more highly than the same good available at a future point in time. This is the direct outcome of our time preference.

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Austrian Economics Is Essential to Understand Booms, Busts, and Money Itself

Austrian Economics Is Essential to Understand Booms, Busts, and Money Itself

The boom-and-bust business cycle is a natural result of free-market capitalism, but rather of government intervention.

Looking to the next few years, will America and the world continue to ride a wave of economic growth, improved living standards, and technological changes that raise the quality of life? Or will this turn out to be, at least partly, an artificial economic boom that ends in another economic bust?

Reading the economic tea leaves is never an easy task. But the Austrian theory of the business cycle offers clues of what may be in store. In 1928, the famous Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises published a monograph called Monetary Stabilization and Cyclical Policy. It was an extension of his earlier work, The Theory of Money and Credit (1912).

Many things have happened, of course, over the last nine decades—the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Union, roller coasters of inflations and recessions, replacement of gold with paper monies, the dramatic expansion of the welfare state, and an era of government debt fed by deficit spending to cover the costs of political largesse.

Then, as today, many governments were busy manipulating the supply of money and credit.

Yet, the laws of economics have not been overturned. As a result, like causes still bring about like effects. Minimum wage laws still price some workers out of the labor market whose value added to the employer is less than what the government dictates he must be paid. Rent controls and restrictive zoning laws create housing shortages when government interferes with market-based pricing.

Mises’ Monetary and Business Cycle Analysis Still Relevant Today

This is no less the case in the area of money and banking. When Mises published Monetary Stabilization and Cyclical Policy in 1928, most of the major countries of the world where still on some version of the gold standard.

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America’s Great Depression and Austrian Business Cycle Theory

America’s Great Depression and Austrian Business Cycle Theory

The capitalist system is a great engine of human prosperity.

When Murray Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression first appeared in print in 1963, the economics profession was still completely dominated by the Keynesian Revolution that began in the 1930s. Rothbard, instead, employed the “Austrian” approach to money and the business cycle to explain the causes for the Great Depression, and to analyze the misguided and counterproductive policies that followed in the early 1930s, which, in fact, only intensified and prolonged the economic downturn.

To many of the economists in the early 1960s, Rothbard’s “Austrian” approach seemed out-of-step with the then generally accepted textbook, macroeconomic approach that focused on a highly “aggregate” analysis of economic changes and fluctuations on general output and employment as a whole. There was also the widely held presumption that governments could easily maintain economy-wide growth and stability through the use of a variety of monetary and fiscal policy tools.

We can now see that it represented the revival of the “Austrian” monetary tradition in the post-World War II period.

However, in the early to mid-1930s, the Austrian explanation of the Great Depression was at the forefront of the theoretical and policy debates of the time. Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) first developed the “Austrian” theory on the causes of inflations and depressions in his book, The Theory of Money and Credit (1912; 2nd revised ed., 1924) and then in his monograph, Monetary Stabilization and Cyclical Policy (1928).But the Austrian theory’s international recognition and role in the business cycle debates and controversies in the 1930s were particularly due to Friedrich A. Hayek (1899-1992). His version of the theory was presented in his works, Prices and Production (1932), Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle (1933), and Profits, Interest and Investment (1939).

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Give Us Another Oil Boom

GIVE US ANOTHER OIL BOOM 

Dear Lord, Y’all give us another oil boom…

If there is one sector of the US economy where an Austrian-style Boom-and-Bust bust has taken place, it is the onshore oil industry – though, by extension, other primary resource industries, such as metals and mining and farming have also suffered in the ongoing aftermath of the general commodity bust.

The good news is that the Austrian prescription for how to deal with a such a calamity has also been followed. The weak have ceded control to the strong – whether by bankruptcy, equity dilution, or co-option and takeover. Prices have been allowed to fall; payrolls – alas, for the unfortunate souls involved – have been cut; the more marginal projects have been put in abeyance, while an unrelenting search for greater efficiency has gone so as to reduce the level of the all-important cut-off between profit and loss.

As a result – and even if we do have to offer a caveat that much of what is afoot is also taking place under the baleful influence of over-easy monetary conditions – the industry has not only found a base, but has even begun to expand once more with no bail-outs, TARPs, or other assistance from a government apparatus (which, if anything has been intensely antagonistic to the industry on ideological grounds), saving only the putative enactment of last autumn’s OPEC agreement to limit output elsewhere.

To put this into context, we could perhaps start with a Moody’s report from the middle of last year which summed matters up by declaring that the oil bust was fully comparable with that vast destruction of value which took place during the first great Tech-Telecom mania at the turn of the century.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

For Keynesians and Austrians, ‘Uncertainty’ Means Two Different Things

Keynesian economics has witnessed a remarkable resurgence since the crisis of 2008. The inability of mainstream economics to predict or explain the crisis led many economists to become skeptical of its core macroeconomic tenets. Several have turned the clock back to the ideas of Keynes to make sense of the housing bubble and the ensuing recession.

One such explanation inspired by the General Theory emphasizes the endemic uncertainty of the future and its implications for market stability. Championed by Paul Davidson1 and popularized by Robert Skidelsky,2 this line of thought blames the crisis and recession on the fickle expectations and “animal spirits” that guide investment in a market economy.3

Per this thesis, in an uncertain world, entrepreneurs and investors suffer from mood swings. Optimism regarding the future abruptly gives way to pessimism. Fluctuations in economic activity are the result of these variations in outlook.

With its focus on uncertainty, this line of thought bears a striking resemblance to Austrian ideas. Moreover, its rejection of mathematical probability as a foundation for expectations is echoed by several prominent Austrian economists.

Nevertheless, while Keynesians conclude that the uncertainty of the future renders a market economy inherently unstable, Austrians embrace uncertainty without losing faith in the order generated by a market economy. What lies at the root of this puzzle?

Keynes on Expectations, Uncertainty, and Market Stability

Think of Mary, a plastic bottle manufacturer drawing up plans to open a new factory. Given the durability of the investment, her decision is based on a set of long-term expectations. How does Mary arrive at these estimations of future prices?

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Should the Fed Raise Interest Rates?

Should the Fed Raise Interest Rates?

For some time now the Fed has been hinting that it will moderate its interventions–monetizing government debt by printing money to buy government bonds and now quantitative easing by printing money to buy corporate bonds–in order to drive down the interest rate to unprecedented low levels. The Keynesian theory behind these interventions is that lower interest rates will spur lending, which in turn will spur spending. In the Keynesian mindset spending is all important–not saving, not being frugal, not living within one’s own means–no, spend, spend, spend. The Keynesians running all the world’s banks firmly believe that it is their duty that spending not diminish one cent, even if this means going massively into debt. Keynes himself famously said that government should borrow money to pay people to dig holes in the ground and then pay them again to fill them back up.

To Austrian school economist like myself, this is childish, shallow, and ultimately dangerous thinking. Austrians understand that economic prosperity depends first of all upon savings, not spending. Savings is funneled by the capital markets into productive, wealth generating enterprises. Gratuitous spending is simply consumption. Now, there is nothing wrong with consumption…as long as one has actually produced something to be consumed. Printed money is not the same as capital accumulation. Or, as Austrian school economist Frank Shostak explains, goods and services are the “means” of exchange and money is merely the “medium” of exchange. Expanding the means of exchange through increased production–which requires increased capital, which itself requires increased savings–is a hallmark of a prosperous society. Increasing the medium of exchange out of thin air, as is current central bank policy, is the hallmark of a declining society that has decided to eat its seed corn.

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There is no such thing as a negative interest rate

There is no such thing as a negative interest rate

We Austrian economists are used to having terms corrupted, misused and redefined by statists and others who love and advocate strong central control of money and power. The term “inflation” is a prime example. We Austrians refer to “inflation” as creating new fiat money–as in inflation of the money supply. This is in sharp contrast to what we commonly hear in the mainstream media and from all Keynesian influenced economists, who use the term to describe a general increase in prices. Now nearly everyone thinks of inflation in this sense, so much so that we Austrians must always be careful to say “inflation of the money supply” whenever we use the term “inflation”.

Those of us of a libertarian political persuasion, which includes many (but not all) Austrian economists, likewise bristle at how modern statists have hijacked and corrupted the term “liberal”. Liberal is a term that is derived from the word “liberty”. Ludwig von Mises even penned a book titled “Liberalism“. Naturally, it contains not one reference to what today’s so-called liberals advocate; i.e., erosion of property rights and statist intervention in almost all aspects of life.

However, now we Austrian economists are faced with a term that is new. It is NOT a term that has had a prior meaning and has been corrupted and re-defined.. It is a new, made up and wholly fabricated term– “Negative Interest Rate”.

Interest is founded on time preference

The rate of interest is founded on an innate trait of the human condition. All other things being equal, humans desire goods and services earlier rather than later. Austrian economists refer to this human trait as “time preference”. Those who desire things sooner rather than later are said to have a high time preference. Likewise, those who desire things later rather than sooner are said to have a low time preference.

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5 Reasons Why Austrian Economics Is Better than the Mainstream

5 Reasons Why Austrian Economics Is Better than the Mainstream

Noah Smith has acknowledged the failings of mainstream macroeconomics, but he says that none of the “outside ideas” offer a better replacement. He failed to mention the Austrian school, but we can still show how the Austrian tradition parries his criticisms with ease.

1. Quantitative Models Totally Miss the Nature of Human Action

Smith dismisses all outside approaches that do not produce quantitative forecasts, even though the best, newest, and high-powered quantitative macroeconomic models have failed recently.

The quantitative approach, however, totally misses the nature of human action, the fundamental starting point for economics. All economics boils down to individuals making choices, the outcome of which is dependent on individuals’ preferences.

Unfortunately, you can’t even do basic math with people’s preferences for two reasons: preferences are subjective, and preferences are ordinal. You can’t measure or compare something you can’t observe, and you can’t do math with ordinal figures. Adding 2nd place to 3rd place doesn’t get you 5th place or 1st place. It gets you nowhere, which is exactly where mainstream macro is today.

2. The Micro/Macro Separation is Baseless

Smith dedicated his article to problems with macro theories, but Austrians understand that there is no meaningful distinction between micro- and macroeconomics. The only difference is one of scale and focus, but the fundamentals of economics are the same no matter if you are looking at individual consumers and firms, or the effects of credit expansion and inflation.

Mainstream economists find their way into smaller and smaller categories. Now, there is “health economics” and “development economics” and “energy economics.” There is also a major divide between those who do macro and everybody else, to the point that neither side really understands what the other is doing.

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“Markets Have No Purpose Any More” Mark Spitznagel Warns “Biggest Collapse In History” Is Inevitable

“Markets Have No Purpose Any More” Mark Spitznagel Warns “Biggest Collapse In History” Is Inevitable

After making over $1 billion in one day last August, and warning that “the markets are overvalued to the tune of 50%,” Mark Spitznagel knows a thing or two about managing tail risk.

The outspoken practitioner of Austrian economic philosophy tells The FT, “Markets don’t have a purpose any more – they just reflect whatever central planners want them to,” confirming his fund-management partner, Nassim Taleb’s perspective that “being protected from fragility in the financial system is a necessity rather than an option.”

“This is the greatest monetary experiment in history. Why wouldn’t it lead to the biggest collapse? My strategy doesn’t require that I’m right about the likelihood of that scenario. Logic dictates to me that it’s inevitable.”

While some money managers are critical of a strategy that “sells fear,” The FT reports there are others who share Mr Spitznagel’s views that another reckoning is imminent.

Among those who share his worldview is former US presidential candidate, Senator Rand Paul, and his father Ron Paul.

The elder Paul wrote the introduction to Mr Spitznagel’s 2013 book, The Dao of Capital. “As one of the leading voices in the country on economic policy, Mark has been a key friend and ally, and I’m thankful for his always-ready advice,” Senator Paul told the FT. But most investors will be praying he is wrong.

Universa started in January 2007 after its success during the financial crisis, when it reportedly gained about 100 per cent. The firm now protects about $6bn of investor money, backed by about $200m-$300m of capital (the firm declined to say exactly how much because of regulatory issues). Fees are paid on the nominal amount insured against calamity, rather than the capital invested.

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How I Became a Libertarian and an Austrian Economist

I suppose I can date my interest in both libertarianism and Austrian Economics from the day I was born. The doctor grabbed me by my little feet, turned me upside down and spanked my tiny bottom.

I began to cry out. That is when I realized the fundamental axiom that, “man acts.” In addition, I appreciated that what the doctor had done was in violation of the “non-aggression” principle.

The rest is history. Well . . . maybe not quite.

For some reason, I had found history and current events interesting when I was in my early ‘teens in the 1960s. I had a part-time job at the Hollywood Public Library in Los Angeles when I was in high school. Part of responsibilities was to maintain the magazine collections on a balcony in the building. I would finish my work, and hide up in the balcony reading new and old political and news publications.

The Confusions of “Left” and “Right”

But I soon was confused. When I read “left-of-center” publications like The Nation or the New Republic, they always seemed to have the moral high ground, making the case for “social justice,” “fairness” and morality.  On the other hand, when I read “right-of-center” publications like Human Events or National Review the argument was made that all that “bleeding heart” stuff just did not work. There was a “bottom line”: it cost too much, screwed things up, and socialism and communism seemed to kill a lot of people.

When I was about seventeen, and living in Hollywood, I met two men who introduced me to the works of Ayn Rand. I ran into them at a restaurant called “Hody’s” that was at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

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Mises.org: Keynes’s Critique of Econometrics is Surprisingly Good

In a recent article we had a brief look at Ragnar Frisch’s (1895–1973) vision of econometric model building. As mentioned, Frisch was the first economist chosen over Mises to win the Nobel Prize in 1969. In fact, there was a second one in the same year. Frisch won the prize jointly with Dutchman Jan Tinbergen (1903–1994), who applied Frischian econometrics for the first time in large-scale macro models by the end of the 1930s.

In the first volume of his investigations into business cycles commissioned by the League of Nations, entitled Statistical Testing of Business Cycle Theories, published in 1939, Tinbergen exonerates the statistician and econometrician from his responsibility and explains:

The part which the statistician can play in this process of analysis must not be misunderstood. The theories which he submits to examination are handed over to him by the economist, and with the economist the responsibility for them must remain; for no statistical test can prove a theory to be correct.

While classical and Austrian economists would agree that an economic theory cannot be proven correct empirically, they would not as easily let the statistician off the hook. Indeed, the econometrician and statistician have some responsibility for the economic theories that come to be accepted, especially if one holds, as Tinbergen does, that those theories can be proven “incorrect, or at least incomplete, by showing that it does not cover a particular set of facts.”

This is an odd claim, since practically any theory is incomplete, but this does not mean that it is incorrect. Obviously there remains a twofold danger: A wrong theory might not be proven wrong, although it could be done in principle, and a true theory might be “proven wrong” mistakenly, because it is incomplete as it does not account for some particular set of facts. The econometrician would of course be responsible for these errors.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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