[T]o counter Selgin’s argument – which is to say, the central argument of Austrian Business-Cycle Theory – one has to take a step back and ask why a price bubble, or a distortion of interest rates, caused by central-bank policy should have any macroeconomic significance. In any conceivable real-world economy, entrepreneurial error is a fact of life. Malinvestments occur all the time; resources are, as a consequence, constantly being reallocated…. To be sure, the rate of interest is a comprehensive price potentially affecting how all resources are allocated. But that doesn’t mean that a temporary disequilibrium in the rate of interest would trigger a major economy-wide breakdown….
The Austrian explanation for this system-wide breakdown is that the price bubble or the interest-rate misallocation leads to the adoption of investments projects and of production processes that “unsustainable.”… [C]redit expansion that shifts resources from consumption to investment, what is sometimes called “forced saving.” At a certain point, the credit expansion must cease, and at that point, the unsustainability of the incomplete investment projects or even the completed, but excessively roundabout, production processes becomes clear…. The capital embodied in those investment projects and production processes is revealed to have been worthless, and all or most of the cooperating factors of production, especially workers, are rendered unemployable in their former occupations.
Although it is not without merit, that story is far from compelling.
There are two basic problems with it.
First, the notion of unsustainability is itself unsustainable, or at the very least greatly exaggerated and misleading. Why must the credit expansion that produced the interest-rate distortion or the price bubble come to an end? Well, if one goes back to the original sources for the Austrian theory, namely Mises’s 1912 book The Theory of Money and Credit and Hayek’s 1929 book Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle, one finds that the effective cause of the contraction of credit is… the willingness of the central bank to tolerate a decline in its gold holdings. It is quite a stretch to equate the demand of the central bank for a certain level of gold reserves with a barrier that renders the completion of investment projects and the operation of lengthened production processes impossible, which is how Austrian writers, fond of telling stories about what happens when someone tries to build a house without having the materials required for its completion, try to explain what “unsustainability” means.
The original Austrian theory of the business cycle was thus a theory specific to the historical conditions associated with classical gold standard….
[D]espite their antipathy to proposals for easing the constraints of the gold standard on individual central banks, Mises and Hayek never succeeded in explaining why a central-bank expansion necessarily had to be stopped. Rather than provide such an explanation they instead made a different argument, which was that the stimulative effect of a central-bank expansion would wear off once economic agents became aware of its effects and began to anticipate its continuation. This was a fine argument…. But that was an argument that the effects of central-bank expansion would tend to diminish over time as its effects were anticipated… not an argument that the expansion was unsustainable.
Just because total income and employment are not permanently increased by the monetary expansion that induces an increase in investment and an elongation of the production process does not mean that the investments financed by, and the production processes undertaken as a result of, the monetary expansion must be abandoned. The monetary expansion may cause a permanent shift in the economy’s structure of production in the same way that tax on consumption, whose proceeds were used to finance investment projects that would otherwise not have been undertaken, might be carried on indefinitely…. That’s the first problem.
The second problem is even more serious…. The whole idea of unsustainability… presumes that all the incomplete investment projects and all the new production processes become unprofitable more or less simultaneously, leading to their rapid abandonment. But the consequence is that all the incomplete investment projects and all the newly adopted production processes are scuttled, producing massive unemployment and redundant resources. But why doesn’t that drop in resource prices restore the profitability of all the investment projects and production processes just abandoned?…
[T]he Austrian vision is of a completely brittle economy in which price adjustments continue without inducing any substitutions to ease the resource bottlenecks. Demands and supplies are highly inelastic, and adjustments cannot be made until prices can no longer even cover variable costs. At that point prices collapse, implying that resource bottlenecks are eliminated overnight, without restoring profitability to any of the abandoned projects or processes…. [T]he most amazing thing about such a vision may be how closely it resembles the vision of an economy espoused by Hayek’s old nemesis Piero Sraffa in his late work The Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, a vision based on fixed factor proportions in production, thus excluding the possibility of resource substitution in production in response to relative price changes.
A more realistic vision, it seems to me, would be for resource bottlenecks to induce substitution away from the relatively scarce resources allowing production processes to continue in operation even though the value of many fixed assets would have to be written down substantially…