Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ludwig von Mises: Master-Builder of Austrian Theory

Is there a more appropriate analogy for the housing crash of 2008 than Mises' "master-builder"? From Ludwig von Mises' Human Action, Chapter VI: Interest, Credit Expansion, and The Trade Cycle:
The erroneous belief that the essential feature of the boom is overinvestment and not malinvestment is due to the habit of judging conditions merely according to what is perceptible and tangible. The observer notices only the malinvestments which are visible and fails to recognize that these establishments are malinvestments only be cause of the fact that other plants--those required for the production of the complementary factors of production and those required for the production of consumers' goods more urgently demanded by the public--are lacking. [...]

The whole entrepreneurial class is, as it were, in the position of a master-builder whose task it is to erect a building out of a limited supply of building materials. If this man overestimates the quantity of the available supply, he drafts a plan for the execution of which the means at his disposal are not sufficient. He oversizes the groundwork and the foundations and only discovers later in the progress of the construction that he lacks the material needed for the completion of the structure. It is obvious that our master-builder's fault was not overinvestment, but an inappropriate employment of the means at his disposal.
While the fundamental cause of the housing "bubble" was the manipulation of interest rates by The Fed, the proximal cause was the "cluster of errors" (to borrow Lionel Robbins' phrase) around pseudo-market activities in the mortgage market. 

The malinvestment became clear when the mortgages prices on which the derivatives were based plummeted, and despite a flurry of "stimulus," the demand stubbornly tapped out. The side effects of this were disastrous not only for investors, but for consumers, who themselves leveraged their mortgages and properties on the inflated prices to borrow and spend with realistically unhinged expectations of a correctionless future market.

The facade crumbled, as it always does, and we were returned to our foundations.  And then the Democrats came along and put in a basement - by employing debt to try to sustain the malinvested structure of the economy, which suited their political preferences.  In Keynesian America, the future looks to be a fruitless endeavor of digging for the sake of digging.

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