A Tract on Monetary Reform, by John Maynard Keynes is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Chapter 1: No. 2: The Business Class.
It has long been recognised, by the business world and by economists alike, that a period of rising prices acts as a stimulus to enterprise and is beneficial to business men.
In the first place there is the advantage which is the counterpart of the loss to the investing class which we have just examined. When the value of money falls, it is evident that those persons who have engaged to pay fixed sums of money yearly out of the profits of active business must benefit, since their fixed money outgoings will bear a smaller proportion than formerly to their money turnover. This benefit persists not only during the transitional period of change, but also, so far as old loans are concerned, when prices have settled down at their new and higher level. For example, the farmers throughout Europe, who had raised by mortgage the funds to purchase the land they farmed, now find themselves almost freed from the burden at the expense of the mortgagees.
But during the period of change, while prices are rising month by month, the business man has a further and greater source of windfall. Whether he is a merchant or a manufacturer, he will generally buy before he sells, and on at least a part of his stock he will run the risk of price changes. If, therefore, month after month his stock appreciates on his hands, he is always selling at a better price than he expected and securing a windfall profit upon which he had not calculated. In such a period the business of trade becomes unduly easy. Any one who can borrow money and is not exceptionally unlucky must make a profit, which he may have done little to deserve. The continuous enjoyment of such profits engenders an expectation of their renewal. The practice of borrowing from banks is extended beyond what is normal. If the market expects prices to rise still further, it is natural that stocks of commodities should be held speculatively for the rise, and for a time the mere expectation of a rise is sufficient, by inducing speculative purchases, to produce one.
Take, for example, the Statist index number for raw materials month by month from April, 1919, to March, 1920:
It follows from this table that a man, who borrowed money from his banker and used the proceeds to purchase raw materials selected at random, stood to make a profit in every single month of this period with the exception of the last, and would have cleared 46 per cent on the average of the year. Yet bankers were not charging at this time above 7 per cent for their advances, leaving a clear profit of between20 30 and 40 per cent per annum, without the exercise of any particular skill, to any person lucky enough to have embarked on these courses. How much more were the opportunities of persons whose business position and expert knowledge enabled them to exercise intelligent anticipation as to the probable course of prices of particular commodities! Yet any dealer in or user of raw materials on a large scale who knew his trade was thus situated. The profits of certain kinds of business to the man who has a little skill or some luck are certain in such a period to be inordinate. Great fortunes may be made in a few months. But apart from all such, the steady-going business man, who would be pained and insulted at the thought of being designated speculator or profiteer, may find windfall profits dropping into his lap which he has neither sought nor desired.
Economists draw an instructive distinction between what are termed the “money” rate of interest and the “real” rate of interest. If a sum of money worth 100 in terms of commodities at the time when the loan is made is lent for a year at 5 per cent interest, and is only worth 90 in terms of commodities at the end of the year, the lender receives back, including his interest, what is only worth 94½. This is expressed by saying that while the money rate of interest was 5 per cent, the real rate of interest had actually been negative and equal to minus 5½ per cent. In the same way, if at the end of the period the value of money had risen and the capital sum lent had come to be worth 110 in terms of commodities, while the money rate of interest would still be 5 per cent the real rate of interest would have been 15½ per cent.
Such considerations, even though they are not explicitly present to the minds of the business world, are far from being academic. The business world may speak, and even think, as though the money rate of interest could be considered by itself, without reference to the real rate. But it does not act so. The merchant or manufacturer, who is calculating whether a 7 per cent bank rate is so onerous as to compel him to curtail his operations, is very much influenced by his anticipations about the prospective price of the commodity in which he is interested.
Thus, when prices are rising, the business man who borrows money is able to repay the lender with what, in terms of real value, not only represents no interest, but is even less than the capital originally advanced; that is, the real rate of interest falls to a negative value, and the borrower reaps a corresponding benefit. It is true that, in so far as a rise of prices is foreseen, attempts to get advantage from this by increased borrowing force the money rates of interest to move upwards. It is for this reason, amongst others, that a high bank rate should be associated with a period of rising prices, and a low bank rate with a period of falling prices. The apparent abnormality of the money rate of interest at such times is merely the other side of the attempt of the real rate of interest to steady itself. Nevertheless in a period of rapidly changing prices, the money rate of interest seldom adjusts itself adequately or fast enough to prevent the real rate from becoming abnormal. For it is not the fact of a given rise of prices, but the expectation of a rise compounded of the various possible price-movements and the estimated probability of each, which affects money rates; and in countries where the currency has not collapsed completely, there has seldom or never existed a sufficient general confidence in a further rise or fall of prices to cause the short-money rate of interest to rise above 10 per cent per annum, or to fall below 1 per cent.6 A fluctuation of this order is not sufficient to balance a movement of prices, up or down, of more than (say) 5 per cent per annum,—a rate which the actual price movement has frequently exceeded.
6 The merchant, who borrows money in order to take advantage of a prospective high real rate of interest, has to act in advance of the rise in prices, and is calculating on a probability, not upon a certainty, with the result that he will be deterred by a movement in the money rate of interest of much less magnitude than the contrary movement in the real rate of interest, upon which indeed he is reckoning, yet is not reckoning with certainty.
Germany has recently provided an illustration of the extraordinary degree in which the money rate of interest can rise in its endeavour to keep up with the real rate, when prices have continued to rise for so long and with such violence that, rightly or wrongly, every one believes that they will continue to rise further. Yet even there the money rate of interest has never risen high enough to keep pace with the rise of prices. In the autumn of 1922, the full effects were just becoming visible of the long preceding period during which the real rate of interest in Germany had reached a high negative figure, that is to say during which any one who could borrow marks and turn them into assets would have found at the end of any given period that the appreciation in the mark-value of the assets was far greater than the interest he had to pay for borrowing them. By this means great fortunes were snatched out of general calamity; and those made most who had seen first, that the right game was to borrow and to borrow and to borrow, and thus secure the difference between the real rate of interest and the money rate. But after this had been good business for many months, every one began to take a hand, with belated results on the money rate of interest. At that time, with a nominal Reichsbank rate of 8 per cent, the effective gilt-edged rate for short loans had risen to 22 per cent per annum. During the first half of 1923, the rate of the Reichsbank itself rose to 24 per cent, and subsequently to 30, and finally 108 per cent, whilst the market rate fluctuated violently at preposterous figures, reaching at times 3 per cent per week for certain types of loan. With the final currency collapse of July-September 1923, the open market rate was altogether demoralised, and reached figures of 100 per cent per month. In face, however, of the rate of currency depreciation, even such figures were inadequate, and the bold borrower was still making money.
In Hungary, Poland, and Russia—wherever prices were expected to collapse yet further—the same phenomenon was present, exhibiting as through a microscope what takes place everywhere when prices are expected to rise.
On the other hand, when prices are falling 30 to 40 per cent between the average of one year and that of the next, as they were in Great Britain and in the United States during 1921, even a bank rate of 1 per cent would have been oppressive to business, since it would have corresponded to a very high rate of real interest. Any one who could have foreseen the movement even partially would have done well for himself by selling out his assets and staying out of business for the time being.
But if the depreciation of money is a source of gain to the business man, it is also the occasion of opprobrium. To the consumer the business man’s exceptional profits appear as the cause (instead of the consequence) of the hated rise of prices. Amidst the rapid fluctuations of his fortunes he himself loses his conservative instincts, and begins to think more of the large gains of the moment than of the lesser, but permanent, profits of normal business. The welfare of his enterprise in the relatively distant future weighs less with him than before, and thoughts are excited of a quick fortune and clearing out. His excessive gains have come to him unsought and without fault or design on his part, but once acquired he does not lightly surrender them, and will struggle to retain his booty. With such impulses and so placed, the business man is himself not free from a suppressed uneasiness. In his heart he loses his former self-confidence in his relation to society, in his utility and necessity in the economic scheme. He fears the future of his business and his class, and the less secure he feels his fortune to be the tighter he clings to it. The business man, the prop of society and the builder of the future, to whose activities and rewards there had been accorded, not long ago, an almost religious sanction, he of all men and classes most respectable, praiseworthy and necessary, with whom interference was not only disastrous but almost impious, was now to suffer sidelong glances, to feel himself suspected and attacked, the victim of unjust and injurious laws,—to become, and know himself half-guilty, a profiteer.
No man of spirit will consent to remain poor if he believes his betters to have gained their goods by lucky gambling. To convert the business man into the profiteer is to strike a blow at capitalism, because it destroys the psychological equilibrium which permits the perpetuance of unequal rewards. The economic doctrine of normal profits, vaguely apprehended by every one, is a necessary condition for the justification of capitalism. The business man is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relation to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to society.
This, then, is the second disturbance to the existing economic order for which the depreciation of money is responsible. If the fall in the value of money discourages investment, it also discredits enterprise.
Not that the business man was allowed, even during the period of boom, to retain the whole of his exceptional profits. A host of popular remedies vainly attempted to cure the evils of the day; which remedies themselves—subsidies, price and rent fixing, profiteer hunting, and excess profits duties—eventually became not the least part of the evils.
In due course came the depression, with falling prices, which operate on those who hold stocks in a manner exactly opposite to rising prices. Excessive losses, bearing no relation to the efficiency of the business, took the place of windfall gains; and the effort of every one to hold as small stocks as possible brought industry to a standstill, just as previously their efforts to accumulate stocks had over-stimulated it. Unemployment succeeded Profiteering as the problem of the hour. But whilst the cyclical movement of trade and credit has, in the good-currency countries, partly reversed, for the time being at least, the great rise of 1920, it has, in the countries of continuing inflation, made no more than a ripple on the rapids of depreciation.
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Keynes, John Maynard. 2021. A Tract on Monetary Reform. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/65278/65278-h/65278-h.htm#sec_3
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