Capital and Its Structure
By Ludwig M. Lachmann
For a long time now the theory of capital has been under a cloud. Twenty years ago, when Professor Knight launched his attack on the capital theories of Boehm-Bawerk and Wicksell, there opened a controversy which continued for years on both sides of the Atlantic. Today very little is heard of all this. The centre of interest has shifted to other fields.In practice of course problems concerning capital have by no means lost their interest. There can be few economists who do not use the word ‘capital’ almost every day of their working lives. But apart from some notable exceptions, economists have ceased to ask fundamental questions about capital. It is pertinent to enquire why this has happened. It would seem that there are three major reasons to account for this curious neglect…. [From the text]
First Pub. Date
Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc.
First published 1956 by Bell and Sons, Ltd., on behalf of the London School of Economics and Political Science 2nd edition.
The text of this edition is copyright ©1977, The Institute for Humane Studies.
The explicit introduction of expectations into the economic theories of the last thirty years has given rise to a host of new problems. Of these the most fundamental is the question whether expectations have to be regarded as independent ‘data’ or as the results of economic processes. As yet, economists appear to disagree on the answer; hence the unsatisfactory state of the theory of expectations.
Evidently expectations are not economic results in the sense in which prices and output quantities are. No economic process
determines them. A 10 per cent rise in the price of apples may just as well give rise to an expectation of a further rise as to that of a future fall. It all depends on the circumstances accompanying the rise, and different people may give these circumstances a different interpretation. It follows that all those dynamic theories which are based on ‘difference equations’, ‘accelerators’, etc., simply by-pass our problem. At best we may regard them as provisional hypotheses to be employed as long as the wider questions remain unanswered.
It is, however, equally impossible to treat expectations as
data in the same way as we treat consumers’ tastes. From whatever angle we look at them, expectations reflect economic experience and are affected by changes in it. In this fact lies an important difference between a change in tastes and a change in expectations. A change in taste of course may also be due to experience, but it need not be. I may give up smoking a certain brand of cigarettes because I have found that it affects my throat, but I may also give it up because I no longer like it and ‘have lost the taste for it’. There lies behind tastes an irreducible substrate which rational analysis cannot grasp, which may be of interest to the psychologist, but which defies the analytical tools of the economist.
Expectations, on the other hand, always embody
problematical experience, i.e. an experience which requires
interpretation. It is the task of the theory of expectations to elucidate the problems
our experience (and that of others in so far as it is accessible to us) sets us in judging the uncertain future, as well as to clarify the
modus interpretandi. It is a task with which economists thus far do not seem to have come to grapple.
Experience is the raw material out of which all expectations are formed. But not all material is equally useful, not all experience is equally relevant to a given situation. There is a subjective element in the acts of the mind by which we select those portions of our experience we allow to affect our judgment of the future. But this
subjectivism of interpretation is something altogether different from the
subjectivism of want which underlies our utility theory. The former yields provisional judgments to be confirmed by later experience, imperfect knowledge capable of being perfected. The latter can provide us with no new knowledge: we either have a want or do not have it.
In a society based on division of labour men cannot act without knowing each other’s needs and resources. Such knowledge need not be, as some have thought, ‘perfect’, but it must be relevant knowledge, knowledge of the demand and supply conditions in the markets in which one happens to deal. There is no difficulty in conceiving of such knowledge in a ‘stationary state’, a world without change, since here we need not ask how people came by their knowledge any more than we need ask how this improbable state of affairs came about: both belong to the category of, now irrelevant, ‘bygones’.
But we can also conceive of a
quasi-stationary state in which changes are few and far between, and each change has had its full repercussions before the next change takes place. This quasi-stationary state is the background of most neo-classical economics. Against it the method of comparative statics shows itself to full advantage. In this state knowledge is guided by prices functioning as signposts to action. Here it is by observing price changes that consumers learn which goods to substitute for which, and producers learn which line of production to abandon and which to turn to. Here we may say that the price system integrates all economic activity. We may regard the price system as a vast network of communications through which knowledge is at once transmitted from each market to the remotest corners of the economy. Every
significant change in needs or resources expresses itself in a price change, and every price change is a signal to consumers and producers to modify their conduct. Thus people gain knowledge about each other by closely following market prices.
But in the world in which we are living change does not follow such a convenient pattern. Here knowledge derived from price messages becomes problematical. It does not cease to be knowledge, but ‘does not tell the whole story’. Many changes may happen simultaneously. Parts of our communications network may be ‘jammed’ and messages delayed. When a number of messages is received it is no longer clear in which order they were ‘sent’. Moreover, even if there is no delay in transmission, today’s knowledge may be out of date tomorrow, hence no longer a safe guide to action. Worst of all, in a world of continuous change much may be gained by those ‘speculators’ who prefer to anticipate tomorrow’s changes today rather than adjust themselves to those recorded in the latest message received. Their action will affect prices which others take as their point of orientation, and which, if these speculators turn out to be wrong, may mislead others into actions they would not have taken had they known the real cause of the price change.
It is here neither necessary nor possible to follow up all the ramifications of the problem what constitutes relevant knowledge in a world of continuous change. This theme will be taken up again in Chapter IV. Action based on price messages conveying misleading information is, as we shall see in Chapter VII, often an important factor in the Trade Cycle.
For our present purpose it is sufficient to realize:
First, that in a world of continuous change prices are no longer in all circumstances a safe guide to action;
Second, that nevertheless even here price changes do transmit information, though now incomplete information;
Third, that such information therefore requires interpretation (the messages have to be ‘decoded’) in order to be transformed into knowledge, and all such knowledge is bound to be imperfect knowledge.
The formation of expectations is nothing but a phase in this continuous process of exchange and transmission of knowledge which effectively integrates a market society. A theory of expectations which can explain anything at all has therefore to start by studying this phase within the context of the process as a whole. If it fails to do this, it can accomplish nothing. Its first task is to describe the structure of the mental acts which constitute the formation of expectations; its second task, to describe the process of interaction of a number of individuals whose conduct is orientated towards each other.
For anybody who has to make a decision in the face of an uncertain future the formation of an expectation is
incidental to the endeavour to diagnose the situation in which he has to act, an endeavour always undertaken with imperfect knowledge. The business man who forms an expectation is doing precisely what a scientist does when he formulates a working hypothesis. Both, business expectation and scientific hypothesis serve the same purpose; both reflect an attempt at cognition and orientation in an imperfectly known world, both embody imperfect knowledge to be tested and improved by later experience. Each expectation does not stand by itself but is the cumulative result of a series of former expectations which have been revised in the light of later experience, and these past revisions are the source of whatever present knowledge we have. On the other hand, our present expectation, to be revised later on as experience accrues, is not only the basis of the action plan but also a source of more perfect future knowledge. The formation of expectations is thus a continuous process, an element of the larger process of the transmission of knowledge. The rationale of the method of
process analysis, as we shall learn in Chapter III, is that it enables us to treat the
ex ante ‘data’ of action as provisional hypotheses to be revised in the light of later experience.
We have said that the formation of expectations is incidental to the diagnosis of the situation as a whole in which one has to act. How is this done? We analyse the situation, as we see it, in terms of
forces to which we attribute various degrees of strength. We disregard what we believe to be
minor forces and state our expectations in terms of the results we expect the operation of the
major forces to have. Which forces we regard
as major and minor is of course a matter of judgment. Here the subjective element of interpretation is seen at work. In general, we shall be inclined to treat forces working at random as minor forces, since we know nothing about their origin and direction, and are therefore anyhow unable to predict the result of their operation. We treat as major forces those about whose origin and direction we think we know something. This means that in assessing the significance of price changes observed in the past for future changes we shall tend to neglect those we believe to have been due to random causes, and to confine our attention to those we believe due to more ‘permanent’ causes. Hence, in a market economy, there are some price changes which transmit knowledge and are acted upon, and there are always others which are disregarded, often wrongly, and therefore become economically ‘functionless’. This is an important distinction to which we shall return at the end of the chapter.
Having stated our expectations at the start of a ‘period’, we test them at its end by comparing actual with expected results, attempting to infer therefrom whether our initial diagnosis of forces and their strength was correct. This process, like all verification of hypotheses, is indirect and therefore often inconclusive. Again, it requires interpretation and yields imperfect knowledge. we may have been right for the wrong reason. Or, though we now may know that our original hypothesis was wrong, we do not know how we could have been right. The same result, say, a price change, may have been brought about by a number of different constellations of major forces, hence the need for further hypotheses and further testing.
Expectations are thus phases of a never-ending process, the process by which men acquire knowledge about each other’s needs and resources. For our present purpose we shall draw three conclusions from this fact:
First, when at any point of time we look backwards at our past course of action we find that all our past expectations form a continuous sequence, whether they turned out to be right or wrong. For we learnt from all of them.
Second, there are problems of
consistency, both interpersonal and intertemporal. Different people may hold different expectations at the same time; the same person may hold different expectations at different times. These are quite
insoluble problems as long as we regard expectations as independent of each other. Why should they be consistent with each other?
But if we look at the process as a whole, the prospect becomes more hopeful; successful expectations, which stand the test, are, on the whole, more likely to reflect ‘real forces’ than unsuccessful expectations. And those whose expectations are never successful are likely to be eliminated by the market process. Moreover, as we shall see in Chapter IV, the market also tends to evolve institutions which mitigate interpersonal and intertemporal inconsistency.
Third, the results of past mistakes are there not merely to provide lessons, but to provide resources. In revising our expectations we not only have the knowledge, often dearly bought, of past mistakes (our own and others’) to learn from, but also their physical counterpart,
malinvested capital. Malinvested capital is still capital that can be adapted to other uses. This is the main problem of the theory of capital in a world of unexpected change. We shall come to deal with it in Chapter III.
Thus far we have endeavoured, all too briefly, to indicate at least some of the foundations on which, in our view, a theory of expectations which truly reflects economic processes which integrate a society founded on specialization and exchange, must be based. In the light of what we have thus learnt we shall now turn to a critical examination of some other attempts to present the problem of expectations in a systematic manner.
Until recently most studies of the problems of expectations were informed by the view that this is a proper field for the application of probability theory. An entrepreneur who has to make a decision the outcome of which is uncertain, is conceived of as setting up a probability distribution of possible quantitative outcomes for each course of action open to him. The next step is usually to ‘substitute for the most probable prices actually expected with uncertainty equivalent prices expected with certainty’.
*14. In this way the range of the probability distribution is compressed to a point, a ‘certainty-equivalent’.
*15 In 1945 we objected to this procedure on the
ground that ‘by substituting single-value expectations for the uncertainty range of expected prices we stand to lose more than we gain, because reaction to price change will largely depend on the location of the prices affected within the scale of expected prices’.
*16 We shall explain later on why we maintain this view.
But meanwhile the whole probability approach to the study of expectations has come under heavy fire. In the final chapter of his book
Expectations in Economics*17 Professor Shackle has subjected what he calls the ‘orthodox view’ of the formation of expectations to strong and extensive criticism. His arguments are not new,
*18 but they are none the less effective. His main point is ‘the irrelevance of estimates of probability (in the sense of relative frequency) to unique or quasi-unique decisions’.
*19 ‘Few individual enterprises, for example, even in the course of their whole lives, launch a number of ventures of even broadly similar kinds which is “large” in any sense required by the theory, or even the practical application, of probability principles.’
*20 The point is reinforced by the absence of a ‘homogeneous universe of outcomes’. ‘For many important kinds of decisions which must be taken in human affairs it will be impossible to find a sufficient number of past instances which occur under appropriately similar conditions; no well-founded figures of probability for different kinds of outcome can be established on the basis of experience.’
Professor Shackle’s criticism of the probability approach to the problem of expectations is sound enough, though the emphasis, in our view, should be on heterogeneity of situations rather than on uniqueness of decisions. It seems to us that Professor Shackle’s argument might lose much of its applicability to the real world if the ‘uniqueness of decisions’ is taken too literally. Few business decisions are unique in the sense that they are made only once in a lifetime, and Professor Shackle only weakens his case by confining it to investment
decisions involving very large sums.
*22 We have to distinguish between uniqueness of decisions and uniqueness of the situations the decisions are taken to meet and to create. The number of possible business decisions is almost certainly smaller than the number of such possible situations, precisely because in an uncertain world each decision may have one of several results. And the ‘outcomes’ are here not, as in nature, ‘external events given to us’, but the result of a complex process of interaction always accompanied by transmission of knowledge. It therefore seems better to base our rejection of the probability theory of expectations on the inherent heterogeneity of the situations rather than on the uniqueness of decisions.
Whether Professor Shackle’s positive contribution can be of much help to us in grappling with the problems set out earlier in this chapter must remain doubtful. The object of his study is the mental processes of an individual who has to take a decision in the face of an uncertain future. His theory is modeled on the equilibrium of the isolated individual (Robinson Crusoe) and stops there. It tells us nothing about market processes and nothing about the exchange and transmission of knowledge. To be sure ‘a plan if it is to make sense must be based on one self-consistent scheme of expectations’,
*23 but the creation of such a scheme marks only the beginning of our problems. We have to ask how these expectations are formed, revised if disappointed, and projected into the future when successful. The changes of knowledge which Professor Shackle studies in his Chapter III imply a ‘clarifying of expectations’ in a purely formal sense. The events leading to such clarification are ‘external events’, not market transactions. In other words, Professor Shackle’s is a static theory, and change is here comprehended as once-for-all change within the framework of comparative statics.
It is noteworthy that the only time that Professor Shackle mentions an actual market, this is a market which, for the time being, has ceased to function; a market not in
operation but in
suspense. In trying to account for a certain price phenomenon
on the peri-urban land market he finds that ‘Evidence taken by the Uthwatt Committee shows that, where the belt of land encircling a town is parceled up amongst a large number of separate ownerships, the market value of each piece is such that when the separate values are aggregated, the total is several times as great as would be warranted by any reasonable estimate of
aggregate future building development round the town as a whole. It is as though each actual and potential owner of a plot of land near the town were convinced that, out of a far more than adequate total supply of similarly situated land, the particular plot in question was almost
certain to be selected as part of the site for such new houses as will be required during, say, the next twenty years.’
Professor Shackle regards this as a ‘curious phenomenon’ and attempts an explanation in terms of his ‘potential surprise functions’. But a much simpler explanation can be given in terms of the market process, or rather, its conspicuous absence in this case.
The function of the capital market is to allocate scarce capital resources amongst a number of alternative uses. This is simple where these uses are known, not so simple where they are not known. For them to be known, however, it is not enough merely that the total quantity required is known. Where these uses are specific, unless individual uses and their specific requirements are known, no allocation can take place.
In the case under discussion this is just what has happened: while total requirements can be estimated, individual future requirements are unknown. On the other hand, the need of land for urban development is the most important need. In this situation the market safeguards the future provision for the most important need by
suspending the allocation to others and creating a reserve stock of land. This it does by making the price of each plot equal to its value in satisfying the most important need, thus making it impossible for anybody who wants land for other purposes, to get it. The need for a reserve stock will continue until the individual and specific needs are known. Then, but only then, the market process of allocation can begin.
‘Market’, in the true economic sense, means a process of exchange and allocation reflecting the transmission of knowledge. It
does not simply mean that prices are quoted. The prices quoted may be what they are in order to prevent, and not to facilitate, dealings. Where this is the case we have a
market in suspense, not a
market in operation. Professor Shackle, like the experts of the Uthwatt Committee, has become the victim of verbal confusion.
From this example it may be seen that the theory of expectations neglects the market process at its peril.
After this critical digression we must turn to a more constructive task. The reader, before whom we set certain ideas about expectations in the early part of this chapter, will no doubt expect us to give concrete shape to these ideas by embodying them in an analytical framework within which concrete problems can be solved and actual market processes rendered intelligible.
*25 But there is another reason, intrinsic to our argument, why we should make an attempt in this direction.
We have described a market economy in motion as an imperfect communications network. There are, however, important economic changes which do not find their expression in price changes. They constitute the phenomenon of
price inflexibility about which we shall have to say something in Chapter IV. There are also price changes which do not reflect major economic changes. We said above that in a market economy there are some price changes which transmit knowledge and are acted upon, and there are always others which are disregarded, often wrongly, and therefore become economically ‘functionless’.
*26 Evidently it is of great importance to us to find a generalization on which an adequate criterion of distinction between ‘significant’ (meaningful) and ‘functionless’ (meaningless) price movements can be based. If such a generalization could not be found it would become impossible to hold that prices integrate the market economy. All we could say would be: some do and some do not. There are many difficulties of course in finding such a generalization, foremost among which is one which directly reflects what we
have called the subjectivism of interpretation: the same price movement may be meaningful to one, and meaningless to another person. Nevertheless it seems to us possible to construct an analytical framework within which:
a. the distinction between meaningful and meaningless price movements can be given a clear meaning, and
b. the distinction can be seen to be practically significant: meaningful and meaningless price movements do in fact have different results.
It may even be possible to link the distinction with that between minor (‘random’) and major (‘permanent’) forces. We might say, for instance, that the market will tend to disregard price changes believed to be due to random causes while paying close attention to those it believes prompted by a change in the constellation of fundamental forces.
Such an analytical framework we find in what, following Dr. Lange, we call ‘The Practical Range’.
Let us suppose that on a market a ‘set of self-consistent expectations’ has had time to crystallize and to create a conception of a ‘normal price range’. Suppose that any price between £95 and £110 would be regarded as more or less ‘normal’, while a wider range of prices, say from £80 to £125, would be regarded as
possible. We thus have two ranges, an ‘inner range’ from 95 to 110 reflecting the prevailing conception of ‘normality’, and an ‘outer range’ associated with what is regarded as possible price change. Many economists have started their study of expectations with the notion of a ‘range’, usually in the form of a probability distribution, but only to discard it at the next moment in favour of a point, a ‘certainty-equivalent’, ‘to substitute for the most probable prices actually expected with uncertainty equivalent prices expected with certainty’.
*28. By contrast, we shall endeavour to show that the location and motion of actual prices within our ranges are of crucial importance for the formation of expectations, and that by compressing the range to a point we should lose the very frame of reference within which actual price changes can alone be meaningfully interpreted and shown to be relevant to the formation of expectations.
What is the significance of our two ranges for the formation and revision of expectations?
As long as actual prices move well within the inner range, between, say, 96 and 109, such price movements will probably be regarded as insignificant and due to random causes. In fact, where the ‘normality’ conception is strongly entrenched, it will be very difficult for the price to pass the limits. For as soon as the price approaches the upper or lower limit of the inner range, people will think that the movement ‘cannot go much farther’ and, anticipating a movement in reverse, will sell (near the upper limit) or buy (near the lower limit). In such a situation ‘inelastic expectations’ will tend to ‘stabilize’ prices within the inner range.
But suppose that in spite of sales pressure near the upper, and buying pressure near the lower limit, price either rises above 110 or falls below 95. Such an event will sooner or later give rise to second thoughts. As long as actual prices move within the outer range, between 110 and 125, or 80 and 95, it is true, nothing has happened which was not regarded as possible. But the more thoughtful market operators will take heed. The mere fact that in spite of the heavy ‘speculative’ pressure encountered near the limits of the inner range, and engendered by inelastic expectations and the sense of the ‘normality’ of the inner range, price could pass these limits at all is a pointer to the strength of the forces which must have carried it past such formidable obstacles. Such a movement can hardly be due to random causes.
But the force that carried the price past the limits, while strong, need not be a permanent force. It may spend itself sooner or later. The market will therefore judge the significance of price movements within the outer range by the supplementary criterion of the time factor. If prices relapse soon and return to the inner range this will of course confirm the prevailing notion of normality. But if they stay within the outer range, gradually opinion will swing round. First some, and then others, will come to revise their notion of ‘normal price’. Such revision will express itself in a new willingness to buy at a price, say 118, at which formerly one would have sold, or to sell at a price, say 88, at which formerly one would have bought. This means that a price movement,
once it has been strong enough to overcome resistant pressure at the limits of the inner range, and reached the outer range, will probably sooner or later be carried further by the very speculative forces which formerly resisted it. This is readily seen if we reflect that the sales and purchases near the limits must have been at the expense of normal stocks, so that a price of 115 would probably now find the market with low stocks, and a price of 90 with an accumulation of excess stocks which are now a mere relic of the unsuccessful speculation of the ‘normalists’. A fast movement within the outer range may therefore be just as much due to re-stocking (positive or negative) as to the operation of more permanent forces. This is why in such a situation the market keeps a close eye on stock variations.
*29. In fact, in dynamic conditions price movements have always to be interpreted with an eye on the ‘statistical position’ of the market which thus becomes a second supplementary criterion for diagnosis.
Once the price passes the limits of the outer range, rises above 125 or falls below 80, an entirely new situation faces us. The market, shocked out of its sense of normality, will have to revise its diagnosis of the permanent forces governing a ‘normal situation’. It must now become clear to everybody that the hypothesis about the constellation of fundamental forces which formed the basis of our range structure has been tested and has failed. But while the failure of an experiment may invalidate a hypothesis, it does not by itself suggest a new one. It follows by no means that the really operative forces will be recognized at once. That must depend on the insight, vigilance, and intelligence of the market. Experience shows, for instance, that an inflation is hardly ever recognized as such in its initial stages, at least in a society which has no prior experience of it. Almost invariably, at one point or another in this early phase, people will think that prices are already ‘too high’, will defer purchases and postpone investment plans. In this way, they will, by their very failure to understand the
modus operandi of the fundamental force, mitigate its impact for a time by reducing ‘effective demand’. And if, as is not impossible, the inflation stops early enough, they
may be right after all! But it is more likely that they will be wrong. And in so far as their action entails the undermaintenance of capital, the ultimate results for society may well be disastrous.
We may conclude that price movements within the inner range will be disregarded and thus be ‘functionless’. Price change beyond the limits of the inner range may or may not be meaningful, but judgment will here have to depend on supplementary criteria such as the time factor and concomitant variations in the size of stocks. It is only when prices move beyond the outer range altogether that they become unquestionably ‘meaningful’, can no longer be disregarded, and convey a ‘message’. But while the negative content of the message is clear enough, viz. the invalidation of the hypothesis which formed the basis of the former range structure, its positive content is less so. The message still requires interpretation, and this will depend upon the insight and intelligence of the men in the market.
Our concept of the Range Structure, composed of inner and outer range, seems thus vindicated as a useful tool of analysis, and our refusal to exchange it for a ‘certainty-equivalent’ would appear to be justified. For our concept permits us to draw a distinction between price phenomena which are consistent with the existing structure of expectations, fall ‘within the ranges’, and thus cause no disappointment, and, on the other hand, phenomena inconsistent with the existing structure of expectations, which fall ‘outside the ranges’ a revision of which they necessitate. We noticed that as long as the price movement is confined to within the inner range it does not provide relevant new information but merely confirms the soundness of the diagnosis which found its expression in the existence of this range, while movements within the outer range provide information of problematical value which, to be useful, has to be supplemented by observation of other phenomena. As soon, however, as the price moves beyond the limits of the outer range, the inadequacy of the diagnosis on which the ranges were based becomes patent. A new situation has arisen which requires a new diagnosis and thus a new mental effort.
It remains true that, by and large, price changes integrate a market economy by spreading new knowledge. But not
all price changes are equally significant in this respect. Their significance has to be assessed with respect to a ‘given’ structure of expectations which finds its expression in a system of ranges. Their practical effect will depend on how quickly the men in the market come to understand what has happened and revise their expectations. To impede price change is therefore to withhold knowledge from the market. On the other hand, it is possible to have ‘misleading’ price movements. About them more will be said in later chapters.
Price Flexibility and Employment, p. 31
Expectations, Investment and Income, 1938, p. 64.
Economica, November 1945, p. 249.
Expectations in Economics, 1949, p. 249.
Uncertainty and Profit, Chapter VII, especially pp. 224-32, and L. v. Mises:
Human Action, Chapter VI, especially pp. 106-15.
Expectations in Economics, 1949, p. 127.
Expectations in Economics, 1949, p. 91. (His italics.)
inconsistent capital change.
Review of Economic Studies, June 1996
Chapter 3, PROCESS ANALYSIS AND CAPITAL THEORY