Tag Archives: Interest rate depression

What sense do we make of bad news?

It seems to be the season of bad news. Here, here, here, here and here with some honourable exceptions here and here, various sectors of industry led by the automobile sector seem to be facing slow or negative growth in the last financial year. What sense do we make of these disparate bits of data coming from different corners of the market?

Why are auto sales falling?

Before answering this question, it is important to understand that what we are witnessing is a broadbased fall in sales across the automobile industry, not just in one or two firms. This means that people have, in general, chosen not to buy new automobiles, which in turn means that they have chosen to retain their existing mode of transportation, which could be private or public transportation.

Second, a significant proportion of automobile purchases (2 and 4 wheelers) in India happens with a bank financing the purchase, usually paying a large chunk (70-80%) of the price. The buyer of the automobile pays for it on a 3-5 year EMI schedule. That people are not ready to borrow in order to finance automobile purchases indicates that either funding is not available as easily as before or has become too costly, or the borrowers perceive greater uncertainty regarding their future income and are therefore reluctant to take up the responsibility of paying for a new vehicle under a scheme of EMIs.

So, if automobile sales are indeed falling, it must be a combination of these factors
1. People choosing to retain existing modes of transportation
2. Funding not as easily available as before
3. People not ready to borrow now and pay EMI later due to fundamental uncertainty over their own income
that underlies the problem. But then that raises the further question of why such an outcome should occur, that too across the entire automobile industry after so many years of spectacular, non-stop growth? The answer lies not in an analysis of the automobile industry and its markets but in understanding the broader economic climate in which the auto industry currently operates.

The economic climate

Since 2007, the global economy and the Indian economy along with it have been muddling through what is today called The Great Recession and is being recognised as one of the longest periods of economic growth challenges since the Great Depression. On paper, the recession started in December of 2007 and while there are debates about the official end date, the problems that started in 2007 are far from over. Every now and then, a new crisis pops up and there is a mad scramble to contain it. It was Greece a few months ago and it is Cyprus now. Heaven knows what it will be in the near and distant future.

Like any depression, The Great Recession is just a period of correction that consists of identification of a cluster of entrepreneurial error. In simple terms, a large number of businesses suddenly and surprisingly find that they are and have been producing things that people do not need and are therefore staring at deep losses and capital erosion. As Austrian Business Cycle Theory explains, this cluster of errors is created during the preceding inflationary boom (in this case by the boom of 2001-2007) and is caused by a combination of misleading interest rate signals given to producers, credit injection into the production system and monetary inflation, causing intertemporal discoordination, i.e., a mismatch between consumers’ consumption decisions and producers’ corresponding production decisions.

That producers en masse suddenly find far fewer takers for their goods, as automobile manufacturers currently do, is a result of this intertemporal discoordination. When this happens, what a sensible producer should do is to understand the economic climate, try to develop a better forecast of what the future, medium and long-term, is likely to look like and adjust production decisions accordingly. This could mean, in some cases, producing less of the good. It could even mean completely ending certain lines of production, i.e., shutting down certain businesses.

Such decisions are usually accompanied by a lot of pain as many people are put out of employment and, in many cases, will need to reskill themselves to the requirements of the new production structure. This puts further strain on many already struggling businesses leading to more business failures and more people being out of unemployment. While this sounds painful, it is just the market’s way of clearing past production decisions that are not in line with consumer preferences.

This process goes on till the market clears out all such poor decisions and leaves the production system in sync with consumer preferences. Capital is taken out of the hands of those who made poor forecasts of the future into the hands of better forecasters, i.e., from failed entrepreneurs to successful entrepreneurs. This is the proper point of economic recovery. Further economic expansion would, under a free market, be triggered by fresh decisions to save and add to the capital available to be advanced for production for a more distant future.

An alternative, equally or more likely in today’s FRB system, is that the banking system interrupts the market’s cleaning up process and initiates a fresh round of interest rate depression through credit expansion and monetary inflation, thus flooding the market with cheap money and cheap loans. This time, however, one would also have to contend with the possibility that such measures are not guaranteed to work like they have in the past. Experiments in the Western world indicate that such attempts have not really led to an economic recovery this time round.

Summary

What the auto industry is going through today could very well be one of the manifestations of the bursting of the bubble created from 2001 to 2007. If people are not buying as many cars as they are producing, it is probably because they do not wish to see producers produce as many cars as they are producing. It is possible that the market is crying for a correction and that producers need to cut-back production to the level customers are ready to support. This is clearly one of the possibilities for any producer. Alternately, producers could place their bets on the RBI, through the banking system, inflating a new bubble through a fresh round of credit expansion and monetary inflation. In this case, they need to hold their horses for the recovery to happen while being prepared to profit the most by being at the vanguard of the recovery.

Clearly, therefore, each entrepreneur will have to decide which scenario is likely to play out and what is the most appropriate course of action for him. It’s not easy, but no one ever said that operating a business in an environment of uncertainty created by endless meddling in the market would be easy. The times sure are challenging and let’s hope many entrepreneurs do make their way heroically through this economic fog to do what they do best – meet customer needs in the best possible way.

What we need to take home, and what this article seeks to emphasise, is the point that in many circumstances, having sound economic understanding can help us understand business situations far better than those economically uninformed or ill-informed can. We can also see that cutting through the fog and making sense of complex situations is made possible by a good grasp of sound economic principles. The situation created by falling sales of the automobile industry in India only highlights the point that learning sound economics is a critical prerequisite for any aspiring business manager seeking to create a career out of making effective business decisions in a complex economic environment.

How inflationary banking creates economic depressions and recessions

In response to my post of yesterday , a student of mine, Sankalp, had asked this question to which I responded thus. Sankalp raised an important point that I am sure a lot of people believe. With a little elaboration from my side, his question becomes this

What is the problem in banks being inflationary by nature if by engaging in such inflation, they will be able to lend much more and a lot more investment can happen? Would not an economy where lending is constrained by the actual amount of cash experience highly hampered growth in comparison?

Ordinary people see no problem in this state of affairs. Those with an exposure to mainstream economics would in fact jump to a fierce defence of this system and argue that growth would become highly constrained if the banking system were to allow cash to sit idle in the bank’s vaults while thousands of investment-worthy projects gather dust and go to rust.

The Austrian School of Economics in the tradition of Carl Menger, Böhm Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Murray Rothbard takes a radically different view of this situation. Austrian School economists explain that the much dreaded economic depression (including its modern semantic avatars, the economic recession, slowdown, downturn or whatever you wish to call it) is caused by the inflationary banking system.

The explanation, known by the name Austrian Business Cycle Theory, originated in the work of Ludwig von Mises in his book, The Theory of Money and Credit (1912) and was further developed by his student, Friedrich Hayek, in his books Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle and Prices and Production. In fact, Friedrich Hayek went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 for his Business Cycle Theory, the only Austrian School economist to do so till date.

The brief version of Austrian Business Cycle Theory

In an earlier post, I had presented a stylised representation of a production system in which the original means of production, labour and land, are applied across various stages of production and eventually transformed into consumers’ goods. We saw in that case that the consumers’ goods output worth 100 oz was made possible and supported by a total capitalist saving of 318 oz.

What would happen if consumers were to decide to save 20 oz? Two things happen.
1. Consumption now falls to 80 oz
2. Capitalist savings go up to 338 oz
But what is the use of greater saving being available from capitalists when people have decided to consume less? The trick is to recognise that saving is a deferral of consumption, not permanent abstinence from consumption. In simpler terms, the saving is intended as future consumption. Saving is a decision to change the time of consumption.

This decision by consumers gets communicated to producers through a fall in the rate of interest. Producers take a cue and decide to rejig their production for a more distant future. In doing so, the production system becomes longer, with more stages of production. Hayek presented this in a highly stylised form using what are today known as Hayekian triangles as shown below.

Fig 1 - Hayekian Triangles representing the effect of new capitalist saving on the structure of production

Originally, a total saving of 160 oz churned out an output of 80 oz worth consumers’ goods. Now, a total saving of 180 oz churns out an output of 60 oz worth consumers’ goods. In our 6-stage production structure, a similar outcome would occur with a corresponding increase in the number of stages of production.

Many outcomes result. The immediate fall in demand for consumers’ goods leads to a fall in their prices. This is transmitted up the production structure, but the lower consumption does not put factors out of employment. The lower interest rate causes remoter stage capital goods prices to rise on account of much lower discounting (lower interest rates) of their imputed future contribution to revenue (called their discounted marginal value product). In the long run, greater availability of savings results in increased demand for factors in remoter stages of production.

The addition of stages implies greater specialisation and division of labour implying more efficient production thus leading to greater volume of consumers’ goods output in the future. This leads to a further fall in consumers’ goods prices in the future. However, when the greater output of consumers’ goods hit the market, the saved funds are now available to support their consumption. For the same 60 oz of spending, consumers get to consume the greater output of the longer and hence more efficient production system. This is the normal process by which an economy advances and standard of living improves.

Inflationary credit expansion and the production structure

When the banking system inflates money supply, it does so by injecting credit into the production system in the form of loans made to producers. This injection, however, takes place without saving by consumers. An injection of 80 oz of credit makes the production structure as long as in the earlier case with the 80 oz of consumers’ goods output being supported by a total apparent capitalist saving of 240 oz.

Fig 2 - Hayekian Triangles representing the effect of credit injection through monetary inflation on the structure of production

To achieve this credit expansion, the banking system will need to depress the interest rate. This lowered interest rate raises the prices of remoter stage capital goods as in the case of real savings, shifting factors of production there. However, the greater availability of capital without a fall in the demand for consumers’ goods results in a rise in the prices of factors of production. When the greater income is spent on consumers’ goods, their prices start going up as well, though after the prices of capital goods and their factors of production go up.

A general feeling of prosperity is created all around as capital goods prices, consumers’ goods prices, wages and rents go up and profits emerge in the economy. This is the inflationary boom like the one we experienced from 2001 to 2007.

However, inflationary pressures soon catch up and the system is forced to raise interest rates. Production processes that started in the reduced interest rate regime suddenly become impossible to continue further. To make matters worse, when the greater output of the more efficient, longer production structure hits the market, savings are not available to be spent on them. Unsold inventory piles up and businesses rack up huge losses.

The result is widespread business failure including failure of financial institutions that made loans to borrowers who end up defaulting. This is what we understand as the bust, commonly known as an economic depression or recession.

What we see

The lengthening of the production structure caused by genuine saving was stable and sustainable in the long run. Lengthening fuelled by credit expansion, however, is unstable as the manner in which it is done creates pressures that force an untimely increase in interest rates resulting in the depression stage of the business cycle. We see that once the inflationary boom is triggered by credit expansion through monetary inflation by the banking system, the bust is inevitable.

Thus, Austrian Business Cycle Theory helps us understand that it is the inflationary banking system that is the primary cause of all the misery created by the phenomenon of economic depressions. The key question now is

Are these boom-bust cycles inherent to the capitalist system of production or are they a result of intervention in the economy? Is it at all possible to eliminate the business cycle?

These important questions shall be the subject of another post on another day.