Business Cycles Explained: Austrian Theory

Tyler Cowen,

Release Date
July 30, 2012


The Fed & Monetary Policy

Check out Prof. Cowen’s popular econ blog, Marginal Revolution.

What is the central claim of Austrian Business Cycle Theory? Cowen boils down the Austrians’ boom-bust explanation:  when the government manipulates the money supply, entrepreneurs get false ideas about the economy and make unsustainable decisions. When the central bank inflates the supply of money, the real interest rate falls because there is more money to be lent out. Since money is cheaper to borrow, entrepreneurs ramp up investment and take on riskier long-term projects—a boom often follows. But the man-handled market environment doesn’t hold. False hopes lead to failures and an apparent boom, well, busts.
Tyler points to the housing bubble as a case study. Between 2001 and 2004, the Federal Reserve played fast and loose with credit.  Booming borrowing to invest in housing inflated the housing bubble. But when house prices fell, these long-term investments proved to be unprofitable and brought on the bust.
How can we escape the cycle? Austrians propose that we steer clear of inflation—institute a gold standard or a monetary rule to avoid financial disaster. The rationale: a tighter money market means a more stable monetary supply that will enable entrepreneurs to keep expectations and investments in check. For many Austrians, kicking inflation takes on additional urgency based on their claim that once inflationary effects occur, the only corrective is to let investments fail and re-allocate remaining resources.
The Ideas in Action:
Turning to the Great Depression and our current financial crisis, Cowen explains that Austrians and Keynesians explain the downturns quite differently. For Keynesians and monetarists, both big busts could have been avoided if there was an increase in aggregate demand.
 Austrians, on the other hand, blame the effects of loose monetary policy misleading entrepreneurs. Which theory does historical evidence support? One point in the Austrian corner: many credit bubbles, the Great Depression and recent recession included, correspond with periods of loose monetary policy.
But the Austrian angle has its shortcomings. First, put yourself into the mind of a bright entrepreneur for a moment; if you can reliably predict that loose money leads to riskier long term investments, wouldn’t you exercise caution while taking on new projects in easy-money times? Second, we have to look at more than two historical case studies; in a broader field of view, we can find many economic downturns that have been caused by monetary contractions rather than expansions.