In this thesis the Austrian business cycle theory is analyzed. Based on the work of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1959), Knut Wicksell (1962) and Ludwig von Mises (1953), the theory was further developed and made famous by Friedrich von Hayek in the 1930s. Arguably, Hayek was the main rival of Keynes during this decade, but after heavy criticism and the publication of the General Theory (Keynes, 1936), the Austrian business cycle theory was left with few advocates by the end of World War II. In the recent decades, there has been renewed interest in the theory. This is partly due to Hayek’s Nobel Prize in 1974, but even more so because of the strong revival of the Austrian School of economics. Lately, the ongoing economic downturn has led to further interest in the Austrian business cycle theory. The analysis is conducted with the aim of answering the following three questions: 1.What is the Austrian explanation for, and solution to, the ongoing 2008 financial crisis? 2.What are the policy implications of the Austrian business cycle theory? 3.To what extent can the Austrian business cycle theory be said to be a valid theory?
In order to analyze the theory with these questions in mind, I proceed in the following way. In chapter 2, the history of the Austrian School is presented. This provides a broader understanding of the Austrian business cycle theory and tracks the development of this heterodoxy school of thought. It is argued that the modern Austrian School follows a “Mengerian” branch of the traditional Austrian School, and that Menger’s logical analysis represents an alternative view of economics, compared with the static equilibrium approach of Walras. In chapter 3 the Austrians are further contrasted with the “mainstream” economists. Praxeology – the Austrian method – is analyzed and described as a study of human action with economics as a sub discipline. The Austrian methodology is compared with Milton Friedman (1966), representing conventional economics. While Friedman argues that the validity of an economic model depends on its ability to predict, the Austrian models aim neither at prediction, nor at description, but are instead utilized as auxiliary constructs for the logical deduction of economic propositions. Austrians rejected that empirical investigations may disprove these propositions. In chapter 4 a number of microeconomic themes are analyzed and developed into the more macroeconomic building blocks of the business cycle theory. First the most important Austrian equilibrium construct, the evenly rotating economy, is presented, before we analyze the role of the entrepreneur. According to the Austrian School, the entrepreneur performs an equilibrating function in his search for profit opportunities. To the extent that the entrepreneur is able to make profits, he is seen as reducing the misallocation of resources. Hence, it is the entrepreneur, based on interpretations of the price signal, who allocates resources between investment and consumption. In the second section of this chapter, the focus is shifted to the capital theory of the Austrian School as this is a hallmark of the business cycle theory. The Hayekian triangle is presented, representing the production structure of the economy. In this way, the capital stock of the economy is divided into stages of production, depending on the time it will take before the capital goods can materialize into consumption goods. The Austrian business cycle theory hinges on this capital theory to a great extent, as it is argued that the capital structure of an economy is highly dependent on the money supply. In the third section, the focus is shifted to interest rates and money. The Austrian theory of interest rates is a subjective theory deduced from the praxeological theory. According to Austrian economics, the single explanation for interest rates is that people have time preferences. Furthermore, the Wicksellian concept of the natural rate of interest is presented. This theory is vital to the Austrian explanation of business cycles. The chapter ends with a review of the market for loanable funds. This classical theory provides the third building block of the model. In chapter 5, the building blocks from chapter 4 are put together in a consistent figure which allows us to study the Austrian theory of the business cycle. First, a decrease in intertemporal preferences is considered, in order to contrast this case of sustainable growth with the theory of boom and bust. In the subsequent section, the Austrian business cycle is examined and explained from three different points of view. In brief, the argument is that an increase in the supply of money may create a difference between the unobservable natural rate of interest and the market rate of interest which is relied upon by the entrepreneurs. For this reason, entrepreneurs may expand the capital structure of the economy in a way that is at odds with the wishes of the consumers. To the extent that capital goods are specific, these investments are identified as malinvestments. When the market rate of interest inevitably converges with the natural rate, it is revealed that these malinvested resources are unprofitable and needs to be reallocated. A costly liquidation process – the recession – must necessarily come about. In chapter 6 some of the most important critiques against the theory, along with the Austrian explanations, are examined. Among the objections examined is the claim that the Austrian business cycle theory does not take rational expectations into account, the Cambridge capital controversy in which Samuelson (1966) rejected the Austrian capital theory because of the reswitching phenomenon and Keynes’ critique of the market for loanable funds theory. In chapter 7 we answer the three introductory questions. First, the theory is investigated in relation to the economic downturn of 2008, by interpretation of some relevant data. Obviously, this is a task that requires an econometric analysis, but this would prove too big a task for a thesis of this format. The empirical analysis must therefore come with a big warning and should not be assigned too much importance, but for what it is worth, the data seems to be consistent with the Austrian business cycle theory. In accordance with this, the main Austrian explanation for the financial crisis is arguably that the central bank of the United States expanded the monetary supply in the years preceding the economic downturn, and caused a business cycle in accordance with the Austrian theory. Furthermore, the Austrian solution to the crisis would be to liquidate the malinvestments by restricting the supply of money. Since the approach chosen by most central banks have been contrary to this, Austrian economists argue that the business cycle has been aggravated and will inevitably hit with increased intensity in the future. The second question is answered with an analysis of the Austrian policy recommendation. The radical Austrian claim is that the central bank is unfit for the task of controlling such an important market signal as the rate of interest, and that it should instead be determined by other factors. At this point there is a dissension among the modern Austrians. While one group supports a banking system based on the 100 % reserve gold standard, other Austrians argue that the fractional reserve system should be kept, but that the central bank needs to be replaced by a free banking system. The chapter ends with some thoughts on the third question regarding the validity of the theory. Empirically, the present investigation is inadequate to make any bold conclusions, but the data does at least not falsify the theory. Further econometric investigations are necessary in order to answer this more definitely. The logic of the theory seems to some extent promising, and the Austrians are able to provide fairly good answers in response to most of the criticism. However, there are certain problems. The capital theory may be regarded as inadequate, the Keynesian critique of the market for loanable funds is problematic for the Austrian theory, and one may generally be skeptic towards the possibility of deriving true propositions through long chains of logical deductions.