Austrian Business Cycle Theory

Austrian Business Cycle Theory

According to Ludwig von Mises and his followers, the boom-bust cycle is not inherent in the free market, but is rather caused by the government’s interference in the credit markets, specifically its manipulation of interest rates. The government causes the boom period when it injects new credit into the system (pushing down rates), and then the unsustainable, non-economic investment projects put into motion necessitate a bust at some future date. (Here is a reading plan for this topic.)

Generally speaking, the chart indicates an inverse relationship between the two series. This accords with the commonsense view that cutting interest rates provides a stimulus while hiking them is contractionary. However, what the Austrian approach provides is the understanding of the real forces behind the boom-bust cycle. In other words, most financial commentators think that today’s interest rates affect today’s economic growth, end of story. But if a previous boom period has led to massive malinvestments, there must be a bust period to liquidate the various projects (for which there is an inadequate capital structure to complete).

To put it another way, many commentators seem to believe that if the Fed held interest rates low indefinitely, then we’d never have high unemployment, just rampant price inflation. And yet, the recent experience shows that this is dead wrong. The Fed didn’t cause the recent problems by “responsibly” hiking interest rates. No, rates had been steady at 5.25% for some time, and then the housing bubble burst and the mortgage market faltered, thus “forcing” the Fed to take action.

Looking back at the chart above, we can see why the worst may be yet to come. In (price) inflation-adjusted terms, the early-2000s levels of the actual fed funds rate is the lowest since the Carter years. And many readers may recall the severe recessions of 1980 and 1982 that followed that period.

Real Yr/Yr GDP Growth (blue, right)
vs. Real Effective Fed Funds Rate (red, left)



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