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.
In what follows we shall be concerned with the question what is meant by
capital structure; in what circumstances it might exist or continue to exist; what forms it might take in varying circumstances; and what effects its changes or its disappearance would have on the economic system.
Structure implies function. Even in a building which consisted of stones completely alike these stones would have different functions. Those which support the outer walls have a function different from that of those which form floors and ceilings. In an important sense each stone supports all those above it. Physical homogeneity, we see, is not incompatible with functional difference. In every plan the instruments and materials used are always ‘used together’ in order to attain a given end; their functional difference determines the structure of their mode of use.
In the same way, all capital goods derive their economic significance from their mode of use, or rather, from their actual and potential modes of use. In this book we have rejected the conception of capital as a homogeneous aggregate. We realize that a heterogeneous capital concept compels us to seek the ‘common denominator’ of these heterogeneous resources, the common criterion of their capital quality, in their ‘designed complementarity’, their mode of use within the framework of a plan. Each plan is a logical structure in which means and ends are co-ordinated by a directing and controlling mind. In the functional variety which is of the very essence of capital utilization plans capital resources exhibit those
structural relationships we shall have to study.
All capital goods are, directly or indirectly, instruments of production. Not all of them are man-made (e.g. mineral resources are not) but all of them are man-used. It is indeed characteristic of such ‘natural’ capital resources that but for the existence of man-made capital designed to be employed in conjunction with them, they would not even be economic
*39 The theory of capital is thus primarily a theory of the material instruments of production.
*40 It must have something to say about the role of capital goods in production plans, about the mode of their combined use. In other words, production plans are the primary object of the theory of capital. In the first place, the theory deals with the way in which capital goods are used in plans, i.e. with the capital structure of production plans. In the second place, it also deals with the consistency of such plans within the economic system as a whole, i.e. with the
plan structure of the economy. Since we are not interested in equilibrium (i.e. consistency) analysis for its own sake, our theory must also be able to deal with the more important cases of inconsistency of plans, and this means of disintegrating structures. In Chapter III we have had a glimpse of the consequences, for capital goods and their mode of use, of plan failure and plan revision. We must now, on a wider plane, apply this type of analysis to the consequences of capital regrouping for the economic system as a whole.
It follows from what has just been said that we have to distinguish between two types of capital complementarity:
plan complementarity, the complementarity of capital goods within the framework of one plan, and
structural complementarity, the over-all complementarity of capital goods within the economic system. The first type of complementarity is brought about
directly by entrepreneurial action. The making and revision of such plans is the typical function of the entrepreneur.
Our second type of complementarity is, if at all, brought about
indirectly by the market, viz. by the interplay of mostly inconsistent entrepreneurial plans. In Chapter III we have dealt with the first type of capital complementarity. In this chapter we shall be concerned with the second.
But it would be wrong to think of these two types of complementarity as the only possible forms of capital complementarity. The phenomenon of complementarity, of course,
extends as far as the realm of human plans and action. Wherever an action plan involves the use of specialized resources for whatever common purpose, complementarity is present. Complementarity is, in Professor Mises’ terminology, a
praxeological category. Within the narrower sphere of what is ordinarily regarded as economic action (
catallactic action) other forms of capital complementarity can and do exist. In Chapter VI we shall learn that where action has to be taken in such a way as to safeguard the future control of productive resources without as yet making detailed plans for the future, there arises the complementarity of the Investment Portfolio which refers not to productive resources as such, but to the titles to their control, not to operating assets but to securities.
Before going on it may be helpful, for the sake of conceptual clarity, to compare and contrast the concept of Capital Complementarity, as it has so far emerged, with the concept of complementarity currently in use. According to Professor Hicks, who formulated this definition, ‘Y is a substitute for X if the marginal rate of substitution of Y for money is diminished when X is substituted for money in such a way as to leave the consumer no better off than before. We must say that Y is complementary with X if the marginal rate of substitution of Y for money is increased when X is substituted for money.’ (Italics in original.)
For our purposes this is not a useful definition. The reason for this does not, as one might think at first, lie in the fact that the Hicksian definition originated in the sphere of consumption and was meant to be applied primarily to consumer goods, whereas we are here concerned with capital complementarity as a form of factor complementarity. The real reason for the inadequacy of the Hicksian definition for our purposes lies in the fact that the world of the consumer, on which it is modeled, is conceived as a static world of instantaneous adjustment, while the type of process analysis to which we are committed compels us to regard adjustment as essentially
discontinuous. The increase in ‘the marginal rate of substitution of Y for money when X is substituted for money’ has to be regarded as an
instantaneous act of the consumer, quite irrespective of anything he may have thought or done or
planned before. It is, in effect, an immediate predictable ‘response’ to the situation confronting him. Nothing is said about the question why such a situation should arise, nor why the consumer should react in the manner postulated. No doubt the consumer had made a plan in accordance with which he acts. How did he make it? We are not told.
The fatal weakness of all mechanistic theories is that they must let human action appear ‘determinate’, if only by man’s own plans, and are thus prevented from understanding the acts of the mind which constitute these plans. A theory without plans cannot grasp planned action. A definition of complementarity couched in terms of instantaneous substitution clearly does not fit into a world of intermittently fixed capital coefficients.
Our emphasis on factor complementarity does not imply of course that factor substitution is unimportant. When, at discontinuous intervals in the form of plan revision, substitution takes place, it is, as we saw in Chapter III, most important and often has far-reaching consequences. What matters to us, however, is that once we have introduced the distinction between planned action and plan revision, factors may be complements in one
and substitutes in another situation. Suppose, for instance, that a store has four delivery vans, physically completely alike, each of which delivers goods in one quarter of the town. Are they complements or substitutes? Evidently, at the moment at which the production plan is made they are perfect substitutes for each other. But once the plan is set in motion they are turned into complements. If now one of them breaks down, the production plan for the whole town breaks down. The fact of the matter is that ‘factor complementarity and substitution are phenomena belonging to different provinces of the realm of action. Complementarity is a property of means employed to the same end, or a group of consistent ends. All the means jointly employed for the same end, or such ends, are necessarily complements. In other words, factor complementarity requires a
plan within the framework of which each factor has a function. It is therefore only with respect to a given plan that we can meaningfully speak of factor complementarity. Factors are complements
in so far as they fit into a production plan and participate in a productive process.
‘Substitution, on the other hand, is a phenomenon of change, the need for which arises whenever something has gone wrong with a prior plan. Factor substitution is a concomitant of plan revision, and can therefore only take place intermittently between our “periods”. And substitutability essentially indicates the ease with which a factor can be turned into an element of a plan.’
We now have to face the central problem of this chapter. What do we mean by
In the social sciences we mean by ‘structure’ a complex of relationships sufficiently stable in varying circumstances to display the firm outline of a clear and distinguishable pattern. Structural stability of such a complex thus does not require complete absence of external change impinging on it. It is true that the more violent the impact of such change, the less the pattern is likely to last. But as the social world is inevitably a world of unexpected change, any concept of stability applicable to it must refer to
internal coherence in the face of external change rather than to absence of the latter. Consistency of the relationships which constitute the complex is thus of the essence of the matter. In economics, for instance, the static equilibrium concept of neo-classical economics means at bottom nothing more than this. It does not require a
stationary world as its setting. If equilibrium means nothing more than consistency of a complex of relationships, it can be extended to the world of change if by ‘dynamic equilibrium’ we mean consistency of plans.
In the theory of capital we can thus easily speak of a structure as long as utilization plans succeed and capital goods stay where they are. But as soon as plans have to be revised and factor combinations reshuffled, a structure in this sense no longer exists. We might thus define
capital structure negatively in terms of the absence of the regrouping of capital combinations. A capital structure, we might say, exists as long as the various capital goods remain neatly pigeon-holed in their respective capital combinations and are being replaced
by their replicas as they wear out. In other words, capital structure might be defined in terms of the constant composition of the capital combinations which form the material backbone of production plans. But this, of course, is an essentially static notion of capital structure. It is not incompatible with economic progress as long as we assume that progress takes preponderantly the form of new investment, that is to say, as long as we assume that new capital combinations take their place side by side with the existing ones without disturbing the latter. This, in fact, is how the Keynesians, Mr. Harrod and even Professor Hicks, conceive of economic progress. It is only when we realize that the distinction between
external capital change in the form of investment (formation of new capital combinations) and
internal capital change (regrouping) is entirely artificial and that one cannot take place without the other, that we come to doubt the usefulness of this notion of capital structure.
There is, however, another equally important reason why we cannot accept a definition of capital structure in terms of the constant composition of capital combinations. Not the individual capital goods but the service streams to which they give rise are the primary objects of our desires, and hence the ultimate determinants of the economic system. Capital goods are merely the
nodal points of the flows of input (of labour and other capital services) which they absorb, and of output (of intermediate or final products) which they emanate. The same capital good may give rise to service streams of very different kind. The same building may be used as a cotton mill or a toy factory, the same ship carry a cargo of coal or of bananas. Now, where a plant is switched over to the production of a different output stream, even although the capital combination of which it forms part need not undergo change, it will almost certainly affect the success of the production plans of those from whom it buys and to whom it sells. If so, the production change mentioned will make necessary the reshuffling of other capital combinations. Moreover, it is unlikely that a capital good can be turned over to another use without affecting its own mode of combination with other factors of production. Hence, there will have to be regrouping in the firm which starts the change as well as in those which are affected by it.
If this is so, what remains of our concept of the capital structure? Of course we can imagine, if we care to, a completely
stationary (as distinct from
static) world in which, year in year out, the same service streams flow into and out of each capital combination, and the same final products are dutifully swallowed by consumers. We could then have a capital structure defined not merely in terms of the constant composition of capital combinations but also of service streams. But what good would it do? The price of simplification is aridity. Such a conception would be quite inapplicable to a world of processes and change.
The result of our examination of the notion of capital structure thus appears to be that in dynamic reality there can be no such thing. If this were really so, it would entail grave consequences for the theory of capital and its application to actual problems. A morphological theory of capital such as ours, couched in terms of the heterogeneous resources we observe in reality, cannot do without a central concept which reduces chaos to order and indicates the pattern of that order. And what form other than that of structure could such a coherent pattern have?
Nor would the consequences be less grave if we attempted to apply our theory of capital. For instance, in Chapter VII we shall speak of ‘intersectional maladjustments’ as a feature of industrial fluctuations. Without a concept of structure as the norm from which all maladjustments can be regarded as deviations such a notion evidently can make no sense.
Confronted with the dilemma that in the theory of capital we cannot do without a central concept, but can find no such concept as could stand up to unexpected change, it seems that we must go back to fundamentals. A structure is a complex of relationships which exhibit a coherent pattern. The relationships exist between
entities. It is probable that when these entities undergo change, so will the relationships between them: probable but not necessary. We may imagine the entities changing in such a fashion that the complex of relationships between them remains unchanged; as ships in convoy may keep the same distance whether they sail in the North Sea or in the Caribbean, whether they carry a cargo of iron ore or of wool. In modern economics the notion of
intertemporal or dynamic equilibrium is a good example: ‘This sort of fictitious state of equilibrium which (irrespective of whether there is any reason to believe that it will actually come about) can be
conceived to comprise any sort of planned change, is indispensable if we want to apply the technique of equilibrium analysis at all to phenomena which are
ex definitione absent in a stationary state. It is in this sphere alone that we can usefully discuss equilibrium relations extending over time.’
We have here ‘the case where these plans are fully adjusted to one another, so that it is possible for all of them to be carried out because the plans of any one member are based on the expectation of such actions on the part of the other members as are contained in the plans which those others are making at the same time. This is clearly the case where people know exactly what is going to happen for the reason that the same operations have been repeated time after time over a very long period. But the concept as such can also be applied to situations which are not stationary and where the same correspondence between plans prevails, not because people just continue to do what they have been doing in the past,
but because they correctly foresee what changes will occur in the actions of others.’
We shall distinguish between cases of
inconsistent capital change. By
structural maladjustment we shall mean inconsistent capital change, change which affects the flow of service streams from one capital combination to another, from production stage to production stage, in such a way as to deflect these streams from their expected courses, frustrating the expectations of those who had made preparations to receive the service streams in their particular ‘receptacles’, i.e. factor combinations, and, when transformed, to release them again.
Of consistent capital change, on the other hand, we may speak where ‘coincident expectations about the quantities and qualities of goods which will pass from one person’s possession into another’s will in effect co-ordinate all these different plans into one single plan, although this “plan” will not exist in any one mind. It can only be constructed.’
In reality, of course, such a state of coincident expectations could scarcely exist, at least in an industrial society in which the division of labour has evolved to any noticeable extent. But this does not mean that economic forces tending to make expectations consistent with each other (‘stabilizers’) do not exist here. It merely means that such forces do not operate in a vacuum, that often they meet with obstacles and sometimes with counterforces tending to deflect them from their courses. Sheer stubborn ignorance and unwillingness to learn on the part of some producers or consumers may be such an obstacle. But a more frequent form of obstacle is to be found in institutional prohibitions of the full use of whatever knowledge is already available, for instance in certain forms of the Patent Law.
We may also note that within a given economic system there may operate at the same time a number of what we may call ‘partially co-ordinating forces’ which, while each is calculated to integrate whatever part of the system is within its reach, in effect obstruct each other and tend to create general chaos. Most of the so-called ‘market stabilization’ schemes which were so popular in the 1930’s, as well as attempts to conceal the effects of malinvestment at one stage of production by means of ‘vertical integration’, are examples of it. Another example, perhaps better known and more widely discussed, is the destructive effect of national ‘planning’ policies on the world economy. By contrast, whatever degree of the international division of labour there still exists in the world is the result of competition, the individual pursuit of unconcerted and therefore initially by no means necessarily consistent plans. The complementarity of factors of production employed in primary producing and manufacturing countries and in international transport is the cumulative result of a continuous succession of substitutions. Thus continuous substitution serves to promote universal factor complementarity.
Our next task is to assess the strength and describe the
modus operandi of those forces which in a market economy bring expectations into consistency with each other, stabilize economic relationships, and integrate the economic system as a whole. Foremost among these forces is
the price system.
In a market economy, as we pointed out in Chapter II, prices are not merely exchange ratios between commodities and services but links in a market-wide system of economic communications. Through price changes knowledge is transmitted from any corner of any market to the rest of the system. On each market buyers and sellers, by varying their bids and offers, signal to each other the need for action. Buyers learn about their opportunities growing or shrinking, sellers receive notice of the need for adjustment. In this way every economic change has its market-wide repercussions. Suppose that an engineering firm finds a method of substituting a cheaper metal for a more expensive one in one of its products. The lower price of the metal thus far used will notify producers that they must look for other outlets, the higher price of the new metal asks its producers to increase supply. If the price of the engineering product is not reduced, high profits made will tell potential competitors where their opportunity lies; if price is reduced the public comes to know of its new opportunity. Similarly we can trace the effect on complementary factors and competing products. We may thus conclude that via knowledge transmitted through the price system economic change tends, in general, to give rise to expectations consistent with itself.
But in reality the price system is not such an ideal system of economic communications as the picture just drawn might suggest. Our apparatus, we must remember, works by ‘translating’ demand and supply changes into price changes. Hence, whenever the translation does not take place, for instance, where prices are inflexible, our apparatus ceases to operate. Moreover, as we learnt before, transmission is often delayed and sometimes faulty. Where this is known to be the case the meaning of the messages received will lend itself to different, and perhaps contrasting, interpretations, both as to content and time of despatch. This all the more so where numerous, perhaps contradictory, messages follow each other within a short time over the same ‘wire’. In general we may say that in a market economy repeated inconsistent action is likely to be either the result of price inflexibility or of ‘functionless’ price movements. Such movements will be functionless where, for instance, there is a long delay in transmission, and
in particular where the delay is different for different markets so that at the moment of receipt of the messages it becomes impossible to reconstruct the chronological order in which the events to which they give expression actually occurred. Where simultaneous changes of data are not reflected by simultaneous price changes action based on prices will be either premature or delayed.
There can be little doubt that in modern industrial society
price inflexibility is a prominent phenomenon, and that it is likely to be on the increase. In the economic literature of the 1930’s the phenomenon has often been linked with the ‘growth of monopoly’. Mr. Paul Sweezy explained it as a feature of oligopoly.
*47 But the association of rigid prices with monopoly has been subjected to severe criticism by Professor Scitovszky
*48who showed that, on purely theoretical grounds, monopolists confronted with shifting inelastic demand curves would have no reason to keep their prices stable. More recently, Mr. Streeten
*49 has cast doubt on the applicability of the whole mechanism of equilibrium theory to the problem complex of price-output decisions in a situation in which producers know that their acts will have ulterior consequences on those of others (expectations being here, as so often in modern theory, the villain in the piece), and demand curves no longer have a clear meaning.
We believe that these somewhat unsatisfactory conclusions are the result of a failure to grasp the nature of the market as a vehicle for the transmission of knowledge, and of the vain attempt to analyse market processes in terms of equilibrium analysis, that is, to regard every market situation as a ‘state of rest’ instead of as a transitional stage of a continuous process.
It seems to us that we need to look at the whole problem in its historical setting. Inflexible prices characterize a market
situation in which the transmission of knowledge from buyers to sellers and vice versa is at least temporarily impeded. Rigid prices are ‘administered’ prices in a situation in which the ‘administrators’ regard the knowledge they can withhold (from buyers and competitors) as more valuable than the knowledge they might gain by experimenting with price variations. ‘Fear of spoiling the market’ is essentially fear of what consumers and competitors will do in the future with the knowledge derived from price change now.
Historically speaking, the most important cause of price rigidity has been the decline of the wholesale merchant.
*50 Here was a broker whose interest was primarily in maximizing turnover, and who could therefore be relied upon to offer manufacturers and charge retailers such prices as would enable him to accomplish this aim. Here was an ideal vehicle for the transmission of knowledge, since, unlike the consumer who spends his income on a large variety of goods and services and cannot afford to acquire expert information on each, it paid the wholesale merchant (in fact it was a condition of his economic survival) to acquire the latest information about alternative sources of supply and their respective qualities, and to make use of it. Here, in short, was a ‘middleman’ whose economic function was not so much to ‘distribute goods’ as to collect and impart information and to fix such prices as would maximize his turnover. And such prices evidently had to be flexible!
This is not the place to discuss the reasons for the decline of the wholesale merchant. We are not writing economic history, but merely endeavour to use historical facts to illustrate a theoretical argument. One reason for his decline is clearly the standardization of many products of modern industry. Those economists who are in the habit of denouncing product differentiation as one of the ‘wastes of competition’ and who extol standardization as the hallmark of efficiency, will welcome the decline of the wholesale merchant. They tell us that ‘distribution costs too much’. But their argument
appears to depend on the curious assumption that progress has come to an end, that all possible methods of production and their relative merits are already known today to everybody concerned, and that no further knowledge is to be gained by product differentiation, experiment, and market observation. In other words, these economists are really assuming that we are living in a stationary state! Others will doubt whether in a world of unexpected change the gains from standardization will in all cases outweigh the social loss caused by the disappearance of an economic agent capable of, and interested in, testing the market at frequent intervals. There are ‘economies’ which cost too much.
We saw in Chapter II that even where all prices are flexible all price movements are not equally significant in spreading knowledge, and that there are always some price movements which are functionless. In order to cope with this problem we introduced in Chapter II, following Dr. Lange, the concept of the Practical Range which we divided into an inner and an outer range. We found that this concept can be used in such a way as to permit 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.
Functionless price movements are thus those which, confined to within the inner ranges, can cast no doubt and thus throw no light on the feasibility of plans. Hence they convey no new information. It is only when prices cross the limits of the ranges that the ‘alarm bell rings’. Then at least those plans in which the respective price estimates played an important part will require revision.
In Chapter II we confined our analysis of the interaction of price change and expectations to a single market. We shall now extend it to price relationships between a number of markets.
All entrepreneurial action, viz. the making and revision of plans, is governed by expected profits. Profits depend on prices and costs. Where all relevant costs and prices rise
pari passu (as in the classical theory of inflation) profitability remains unaffected. If, for instance, all costs and prices relevant to a given plan cross the upper limits of inner and outer ranges at the same moment, their effects neutralize each other. Where all the alarm bells ring at the same moment, those telling of gain as well as those telling of loss, no plan revision would be called for.
But in reality this is of course not likely to happen. Prices and costs are not equally flexible, where flexible do not move at equal rates, and even if they did, their outer and inner ranges would prove to be of unequal magnitude. We therefore find that for instance in an inflation all bells will not ring at the same time, and the fictitious intervals thus convey misleading information: the plans will look more successful than they actually are. Expansion programmes prompted by fictitious profits will be started which would not have been started if the inevitable subsequent rise in costs had been foreseen. Thus there is Malinvestment, the waste of capital resources in plans prompted by misleading information.
For some enterprises, to be sure, the profits may be ‘real’ enough. For instance, a young and heavily indebted industry may be able to pay off part of its debt out of such paper profits. But the ‘knowledge’ thus spread is none the less fictitious and action based on it must lead to failure. Others will react to these events by investing capital in the industry which later on will be lost. This is one, though probably the most important, case of inconsistent capital change. The effect of such misguided investment on incomes and employment will be discussed in detail in Chapter VII. There we shall see that at least one kind of industrial fluctuation has its chief cause in inconsistent capital change due to partial failure of the price mechanism.
We have seen that the integrating forces of the price system, tending to bring expectations and the plans based on them into consistency with each other, do not operate unimpeded. There are counterforces among which Price Inflexibility, the force of economic inertia, is perhaps the most notable. But even where this force is eventually overcome, it will not be overcome everywhere at the same moment. Time intervals arise which by robbing some of the price messages of their
original meaning create problems of their own. Behind them all there lurks ultimately the problem of interpretation. For in our communications system there does not exist a clear and definite code which would permit us to find the ‘factual content’ of the messages. Some of them are meaningless, others are not. And each message, as we saw, makes sense only within a given frame of reference, a framework of plans largely governed by the structure of expectations.
It is only when held against what they were expected to be, that the ‘facts of a situation’ begin to tell a story. In the whole field of human action, and therefore also in the sciences studying it, observation without interpretation is futile. All interpretation requires a pre-existent structure of thought to serve as a frame of reference.
It would be wrong to think that a market economy, when faced with the problems just outlined, could, or in the ordinary course of events would, find no answer to them. History shows that whenever left sufficiently free from political interference to evolve its responses to such challenges, the market economy has ‘grown’ the institutions necessary to deal with them. In particular, it has evolved institutions to protect the integrating forces of the price system from the disintegrating forces just described. Among these institutions
forward markets and the
Stock Exchange call for our particular attention.
In saying that the market economy, for speed of adjustment and, in general, operational efficiency, depends on the price system as a network of communications, we have thus far assumed that the content of the messages transmitted refers to events that have actually ‘happened’, i.e. to events of the past. But this need not be so. It is precisely the economic function of forward markets to spread knowledge not about what is or has been, but about what people think will be. In this way, while the future will always remain uncertain, it is possible for the individual to acquire knowledge about other people’s expectations and to adjust his own accordingly, expressing his own views about future prices by buying or selling forward, thus adding his own mite to the formation of market opinion as expressed in forward prices. In other words, forward markets tend to bring expectations into
consistency with each other.
*52 They are on the side of the stabilizers.
In reality forward trading is usually limited to a small number of commodities, and even trading in these is as a rule confined to a few future dates (three months, six months, twelve months ahead). The
Stock Exchange, on the other hand, offers an instance of trading in ‘continuous futures’. If I buy a share I buy not merely this year’s dividend and next year’s dividend but, in principle, an infinite and continuous series of dividends, a ‘yield stream’. In buying it I thus express explicitly a series of expectations about dividends, and implicitly an expectation about the future yield from other assets I might have bought instead. To the extent to which my action has an effect on the price of the share, and unless of course this effect is offset by somebody else’s sale at the
former price, the series of my expectations becomes manifest in the price change. Every purchase or sale which modifies a price conveys to the market knowledge about somebody’s expectations. If the directors of a company announce a bold expansion programme, the effect of their announcement on the price of their shares tells them whether or not the market agrees with their expectations: If price falls it means that the market takes a less optimistic view of the company’s prospects, and such a price fall will convey a warning signal to the directors that they must walk warily.
The Stock Exchange is a market in ‘continuous futures’. It has therefore always been regarded by economists as the central market of the economic system and a most valuable economic barometer, a market, that is, which in its relative valuation of the various yield streams reflects, in a suitably ‘objectified’ form, the articulate expectations of all those who wish to express them. All this may sound rather platitudinous and might hardly be worth mentioning were it not for the fact that it differs from the Keynesian theory of the Stock Exchange which is now so much
In order to defend our own view it is therefore necessary to enter upon a critical discussion of the Keynesian view of the economic function of the Stock Exchange. This view is
summed up in the famous sentence, ‘When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.’
*53 How did Keynes arrive at this conclusion?
The marginal efficiency of capital is one of the main pillars of the Keynesian edifice. It is defined in terms of prospective yield and supply price of capital assets. The latter, we are explicitly told, is ‘not the market price at which an asset of the type in question can actually be purchased in the market’,
*54 but the cost of a newly produced asset.
Stock Exchange prices of ‘existing assets’ thus seem to be excluded from the scope of the definition. Later on, however, we are told that ‘a high quotation for existing equities
involves (our italics) an increase in the marginal efficiency of the corresponding type of capital’.
*55 Whether or not this conflicts with the earlier definition depends on our interpretation of the word ‘involves’. This could probably be interpreted to mean no more than ‘has an influence on’, the vehicle of this influence having to be sought in ‘prospective yield’.
But this point of consistency in the definition of investment is perhaps of minor significance. Far more important is Keynes’ attitude to the fundamental question: Is the Stock Exchange a suitable instrument for bringing long-term expectations into consistency; is it capable of giving rise to a, socially ‘objectified’,
market opinion to guide investment decisions? Here Keynes’ answer is a clear and unqualified ‘No’. ‘For most of these persons are, in fact, largely concerned, not with making superior long-term forecasts of the probable yield of an investment over its whole life, but with foreseeing changes in the conventional basis of valuation a short time ahead of the general public.’
*57 This is ‘an inevitable result of an investment market organized along the lines described. For it is not sensible to pay 25 for an investment of which you believe the
prospective yield to justify a value of 30, if you also believe that the market will value it at 20 three months hence.’
It is readily seen that the defect criticized by Keynes is not a defect of investment markets as such, but a defect of investment markets without a provision for forward trading. Where forward trading exists, a person holding the views described could express his short-term view by selling the investment at any price above 20 for three months ahead, while expressing his long-term view by buying it, say, 18 months forward at a price below 30. If everybody did it arbitrage would do the rest by bringing the forward prices for various future dates into line with each other. Price expectations involve intertemporal price relations, and intertemporal price relations cannot be made explicit, hence cannot be adequately expressed, without an intertemporal market. All we can conclude from Keynes’ argument is not that the Stock Exchange cannot make yield expectations consistent, but that without forward trading it cannot do so.
But this is not all. Keynes not merely failed to realize the real nature of the specific problem he was facing, viz. intertemporal price inconsistency expressing itself in divergent expectations. He was probably unaware of the importance, perhaps even of the existence, of the class of problems of which this is one: problems of the transmission of knowledge. There is very little evidence that he grasped the economic function of the market as an institution through which people exchange knowledge with each other. The Keynesian world is a world in which there are two distinct classes of actors: the skilled investor, ‘who, unperturbed by the prevailing pastime, continues to purchase investments on the best genuine long-term expectations he can frame’,
*59 and, on the other hand, the ignorant ‘game-player’. It does not seem to have occurred to Keynes that either of these two may learn from the other, and that, in particular, company directors and even the managers of investment trusts may be the wiser for learning from the market what it thinks about their actions. In this Keynesian world the managers and directors already know all about the future and have little to gain from devoting their attention to
misera plebs of the market. In fact, Keynes strongly feels that they should not! This pseudo-Platonic view of the world of high finance forms, we feel, an essential part of what Schumpeter called the ‘Keynesian vision’. This view ignores progress through exchange of knowledge because the ones know already all there is to be known whilst the others never learn anything. The view stands in clear and irreconcilable contrast to the view of the role of knowledge in society we have consistently endeavoured to set forth in this book. The reader will not be surprised to learn that our conclusions on the subject of the Stock Exchange are equally irreconcilable with those of Keynes.
We hold that the Stock Exchange by facilitating the exchange of knowledge tends to make the expectations of large numbers of people consistent with each other, at least more consistent than they would have been otherwise; and that through the continual revaluation of yield streams it promotes
consistent capital change and therefore economic progress. This, of course, is not to say that the Stock Exchange makes inconsistent capital change impossible: merely, that company directors who ignore the signals of the market do so at their peril, and that in the long run a market economy substitutes entrepreneurs who can read the signs of the times for those who cannot.
Principles of Economics (transl. by James Dingwall and Bert F. Hoselitz), 1950, p. 155; and F. A. Hayek:
Pure Theory of Capital, 1941, pp. 63-4.
Value and Capital, 1939, p. 44.
Economica, May 1947, p. 110.
Pure Theory of Capital, 1941, pp. 18-19.
Journal of Political Economy, August 1939, pp. 568-73.
Journal of Political Economy, October 1941.
Review of Econ. Studies, Vol. XVIII, No.2, pp. 103-14.
The Economic Problem,pp. 19-23 and 34-43, and N. Kaldor: ‘The Economic Aspects of Advertising’,
Review of Econ. Studies, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, pp. 16-18. Neither of these two authors must be held responsible for what we say in the text.
Value and Capital, pp. 135-40, and J. K. Eastham:
An Introduction to Economic Analysis, 1950, pp. 162-4.
General Theory of Employment, p. 159.
The Rate of Interest, p. 7, n. 1). We doubt whether the charge of confusion can be sustained. By using the words ‘corresponding type of capital’ in the passage quoted above Keynes appears to have drawn the relevant distinction.
General Theory of Employment, p. 155.
Chapter 5, CAPITAL STRUCTURE AND ECONOMIC PROGRESS