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.
At an early stage of our enquiry we saw that treating capital resources as heterogeneous raises a problem of order; that where the number of relationships between the heterogeneous elements is large and their nature intricate, such order takes the form of a structure; and that in the world of planned human action such structural order ultimately rests on the complementarity of the means employed in a given area of action for distinct ends. We have found two forms of capital complementarity economically significant: the complementarity of the production plan as the direct result of entrepreneurial planning, and the complementarity of the structure of the economic system as a whole, based on the division of labour and capital, as the indirect result of the play of the market forces. We now have to ask whether other forms of capital complementarity exist and, if so, are economically significant.
Thus far, in studying capital complementarity, we have confined our attention mainly to capital goods in the sense of the instruments and materials of physical production. But in Chapter IV we have already learnt that the importance of capital goods lies not in their physical qualities but in the service streams to which they give rise. At the end of that chapter we came to see in the Stock Exchange, which is a market not for physical capital goods but for titles to them, an instrument for promoting consistent capital change.
We now have to take a further step in this direction. We have to ask whether capital complementarity exists outside the sphere of physical capital goods, and, if so, how such forms of capital complementarity are related to those with which we are already familiar. Is there, for instance, economically significant complementarity in a well-selected investment portfolio? If so, by what principles is this complementarity governed? Is there such a thing as an
asset structure of which
the forms of capital structure we have thus far studied are perhaps only particular instances?
In whatever field of action we find human conduct following a recognizable and intelligible order, we shall of course expect to find structural relationships. Without them there could be no theoretical social sciences. Men’s buying and selling of assets evidently follows such an order. The markets for assets do not offer a picture of chaos, they are governed by the familiar laws of the market. We therefore need not doubt that an
asset structure does exist. How it is related to the structure of physical capital hitherto studied is the main question to which this chapter is devoted.
Within the general context of the asset structure the role of money calls for special attention. It will be remembered that in Chapter III we found that, while there can be no production plan without it, we must not treat money as one of our fixed coefficients of production. Variations in the cash balance are our primary criterion of success or failure of the plan. In a world sufficiently dynamic to permit of unexpected change there must be at least one variable to register failure and success. But this fact still does not answer the question what precisely is the difference between money and other capital goods. Moreover, we now have to go farther and ask what is the relationship between money and other assets.
Money is an asset, but it is not a capital good like other elements of a production plan. That it is not, becomes clear as soon as we ask ourselves why and when it is required for carrying out a production project. A cash balance is necessary to buy labour, and current services of capital goods not physically controlled by the planners (water, electric power) during the plan period.
*70 But if, as we have to, we regard
these services themselves as ‘factor services’, i.e. as elements of the plan, we cannot at the same time treat the money that pays for them as a capital good: we should be guilty of double counting. Money is largely, so to speak, a capital good ‘by proxy’. It symbolizes, at the initiation of the plan, those current services we shall need later on but which, owing to their ‘current’ character, we cannot store until we need them. We store the money instead.
The relationship between money and other assets has been a prominent feature of recent attempts to generalize the theory of money, and to expand it into a general theory of assets.
*71 Economists who were trying to find a criterion of order for the classification of asset holdings of different composition, devised the notion of a ‘liquidity scale’ with money as the most liquid asset at one end and completely unsaleable assets at the other. All such endeavours, however, are marred from the outset by the dilemma of having to define ‘liquidity’ either in terms of money, thus ending up in tautology, or as merely a special case of general commodity preference. In the latter case money is made to lose its specific ‘asset’ character and function, i.e. to keep the firm out of the bankruptcy court, and is virtually reduced to the rank of ordinary goods. Such are the pleasure of generalization for those who do not stop to reflect upon the intrinsic differences of the objects of their manipulations.
There is a very good reason why we should continue to distinguish between money and other assets on the one hand, and consumer goods and services on the other: In the case of the latter our system of preferences is the ultimate datum behind which we cannot go, while in the case of assets relative preferences are the
explicandum. Why gramophone records with the music of Irving Berlin find a readier sale than those with the music of Schoenberg is a question about which the economist has nothing to say, but why in an inflation people come to prefer the most illiquid assets to money is a question he can hardly shirk. ‘Asset preference’ is not an ultimate determinant
in the sense in which a taste for tobacco is. We have to ask why at certain times certain people prefer one kind of asset to another. It follows that a theory of assets cannot be framed on the static model of the General Theory of Consumption. The composition of asset holdings and its changes make sense only as a response to change, expected and unexpected.
By the same token the distribution of money holdings cannot adequately be explained by ‘liquidity preference’. Monetary change, as we saw in Chapter III, is sometimes the concomitant, and sometimes the ulterior consequence of other asset changes, unexpected and, as often as not, undesired. An explanation of such changes as ‘exchange governed by preference’ entirely misses the point. Not a theory of assets based on immutable (at least by endogenous forces) preference, but a Theory of Business Finance based on our knowledge of entrepreneurial action in response to change, expected and unexpected, is what we need. To set out at least the elements of such a theory, couched in terms of plan and process, is the main task of this chapter.
We shall start by classifying assets. Since, however, our purpose is praxeological, not merely taxonomic, since our interest is in assets
qua instruments of action and the structural relationships between them as channels for the transmission of knowledge, our mode of classification is governed by the relevance of our classes to planning and action.
In the first place we distinguish between
operating assets and
securities, i.e. between physical capital goods and money complementary to them on the one hand, and the titles which embody the control of production as well as define the recipients of payments, on the other hand. At each moment, superficially, the complementarity pattern of the former is governed by the exigencies of production planning, the structure of the latter by the ‘asset preference’ of the holders of titles. But in the same way as the technical exigencies of production planning reflect past experience and its interpretation in the form of expectations presently held, and are continuously changing as the latter are tested and present becomes past, asset preferences change and holdings are reshuffled as experience and new knowledge direct. To understand how
the two spheres of action interact is to understand how a market economy works.
Among the operating assets we have next to distinguish between
first-line assets, second-line assets, and
reserve assets. By first-line assets we mean those capital goods (machines, conveyor belts, lifts) whose services provide the input of the production plan right from the start. Second-line assets are those operating assets which, like spare parts, or money for wage payments, are planned to be put into operation at a definite point of time during the plan period. They will either be required physically or, as in the case of money, are capital assets only ‘by proxy’ and will later on be replaced by ‘real services’ of labour or other capital goods whose services will be hired. Reserve assets are those, like the cash reserve or reserve stocks, of which it is hoped that if all goes well they will not have to be thrown in at all. Reserve assets are therefore held against unforeseen contingencies, they are not meant to be brought into operation at a definite time. They are operating assets to which, in contrast to the others, no definite period of operation has been assigned in the plan. As we said above (p. 42), reserve assets are
complementary to the first- and second-line assets. Whether they ever will become complementary to them depends on chance.
In an uncertain world the universal need for reserve assets sets a limit to the fixity of the coefficients of production. We are now able to understand why unexpected changes in the magnitude of the reserve assets provide a criterion for success or failure of the plan: Success means that the reserves did not have to be thrown in, extreme failure means the complete exhaustion of the reserves.
If the plan turns out to be successful, it may be possible in the next period to absorb some of the reserve assets in an expansion of the original plan without increasing the risk. While a fall in reserve assets without an increase in other assets means that reserves thrown in have to replace casualties, and cannot serve to exploit success.
Next we have to classify securities. For our purpose we need go no further than drawing the general distinction between
debt-titles embodying the right to an income in
terms of currency units, and
equities embodying the right to participate in control and in residual income. We shall see that the various modes the relationship between debt and equity may assume, the ‘high’ or ‘low gear’ of the company’s capital, or, as we shall call it, its
control structure, is of considerable importance in determining the response to success and failure.
We are here dealing with a phenomenon which has been much affected by recent historical changes the impact of which is not always well understood. In the old family firm ownership and control were in the same hands, while unlimited liability confined the possibility of incurring debt to narrow proportions by making it very risky to both creditor and debtor. But it is wrong to think that in the modern company the link between equity ownership and control is entirely broken. The relationship, no longer one of identity, has merely been modified. Those who speak of complete ‘separation of ownership and control’ forget the impact of failure and crisis. They evidently think of conditions in which all plans succeed and expansion is easily financed by ‘ploughing back’ profits. But this need not be so. In a world of unexpected change a long and unbroken record of success is likely to be rare, and for our purposes the study of such cases is not likely to be very profitable. A theory of capital relationships based on the assumption of invariable success of plans is apt to lead to wrong conclusions when applied to a world of unexpected change.
It would seem, then, that there are three kinds of structure: The
Plan Structure based on technical complementarity, the
Control Structure based on high or low gear of the company’s capital, and the
Portfolio Structure based on people’s asset preference. These three structures are not independent of each other. Whether a given production plan with its accoutrement of plant, equipment, raw materials, etc., is at all feasible depends
inter alia on whether people are willing to take up the securities necessary to finance it, and this in its turn will depend on whether debentures, preference shares, or common stock are offered to them, and in what proportions.
Nor, as we pointed out already, can ‘asset preference’ be regarded as being independent of expectations regarding
managerial competence and conduct in making and carrying out plans. In this, too, it is very different from consumers’ preference, since a cigarette smoker in his choice is confined to what is available in the shops with no need to ponder the managerial efficiency of the makers of the various brands.
The scene is now set for our study of the dynamic relationships between the various classes of assets and the structures they form. We shall study the forces which ‘integrate’ our three structures into an over-all
asset structure, i.e. the forces bringing the decisions which shape them into consistency with each other. This they do, and can only do, by transmitting knowledge. It is of some importance that the actions they prompt will either take the form of money payments, or at least foreshadow or create the conditions for such payments.
Thus a new enterprise is started by somebody putting up money. At first all operating assets are money assets. Gradually, as the plan comes into operation, most of the money is exchanged for capital goods and ‘real services’ which become input, and so the plan structure begins to take shape. Conversely, when the enterprise is liquidated, all first- and second-line assets are turned into money which is then distributed to the holders of securities in the order of their claims. Between these two points of time we have to distinguish, first of all, between what happens in conditions of expected success, ‘success according to plan’, and in conditions of unexpected change.
As long as success is achieved ‘according to plan’ the structural relationships remain undisturbed. Reserve assets neither increase nor decrease, operating cash balances and stocks are being replenished out of gross revenue. A steady yield stream in the form of money payments flows from cash balances to the holders of securities who, getting what they expected to get, will probably see little reason for changing the composition of their portfolios. The picture is that of stationary conditions with a ‘steady income stream’ flowing year after year, giving no incentive to anybody to modify his conduct.
If success is unexpectedly great problems begin to arise. The surplus profits (‘surplus’, of course, in the sense of: unexpected) have to be assigned to somebody. They may be used for higher dividends or be ‘ploughed back’ or serve to pay
*72 In the first case they will, in addition to giving higher incomes, entail capital gains to shareholders, and hence change the total value as well as the composition of their portfolios. In the second case they will induce and make possible a new plan structure. In the third case they will modify the control structure. The decision will be made by the equity holders, but it is a well-known fact that the managers are as a rule able to influence their decision by withholding knowledge from them, by ‘hiding’ part of the surplus profits, in order to keep them under their own supervision.
We now come to the case of failure. Temporary failure need mean nothing worse than a temporary drain on the reserves. If there were ample reserves to start with, a reduction of cash reserves may suffice to enable the firm to weather the storm. But where the money cushion is inadequate, or the failure severe, other steps will have to be taken. The balance of operating assets may be upset. It may become impossible to replace such assets as they wear out. Sooner or later the need for a reshuffle of operating assets will present itself. Such a reshuffle will almost certainly involve a need for more money, partly because, as we saw in Chapter III, the proceeds from the sale of old capital goods may not cover the cost of the new, and partly because the cash balance has to be replenished. Thus both expansion following on success as well as reconstruction following failure cause the ‘demand for money’ to increase. But the conditions in which it is demanded, and the terms on which it is supplied, will differ in both cases. A successful enterprise will not ordinarily experience great difficulty in finding new money capital for expansion,
though the new capital may alter the control structure. With a record of success behind them the managers of successful companies as a rule are not easily discouraged by fear of losing control. In a successful company, moreover, this danger can in any case usually be averted by an issue of ‘rights’ to existing shareholders at par or above, but below the market price of the shares.
But financial reconstruction of an unsuccessful enterprise is a different matter, as the mere fact of the need for it transmits knowledge about the past performance of the management. Hence such reconstruction is usually postponed as long as is possible.
*74 A change in the control structure is now indicated. Whether or not the existing common stock is actually ‘written down’, its value will have declined, not as a result of any decline in ‘asset preference’, but as the result of events outside the control of the asset holders. It may be that debenture holders and other creditors have to take over the enterprise and to appoint a new management. Or, ultimately, they may even have to liquidate it.
Capital gains and losses accompany the success and failure of production plans. They are of great importance in a market economy, though modern economics with its emphasis on output and incomes has for too long tended to ignore them. Yet it is obvious that consumption will be strongly stimulated by capital gains and discouraged by losses. Moreover, as we just saw, capital losses may give rise to a demand for capital to finance reconstruction.
For our purpose in this chapter capital gains and losses are of importance mainly in that they reflect within the portfolio structure the success or failure of production plans, and thus record within one sphere the events that have taken place, or are about to take place, within another sphere. Their integrating quality is inherent in this function. Capital gains and losses modify the portfolio structure by affecting the relative values of the components of investment portfolios. If we wish to say that this structure is determined by relative preference for different classes of assets, we must nevertheless remember
that such preferences are not given to us as a ‘datum’, but merely reflect other economic processes and their interpretation by asset holders.
Capital gains and losses are not the direct result of money flows, though, as in the case of higher dividends, they may be an indirect result. Essentially they reflect in one sphere events, or the expectation of events, the occurrence of which in another sphere is indicated, and knowledge of which is transmitted, by changes in money flows.
Whether or not such capital gains and losses are accompanied by changes in the financial circulation is for us irrelevant. Whether or not a price change in a market is accompanied by much or little trading depends on the diffusion of expectations, on whether the whole market interprets an event in the same way, or whether there are marked differences of interpretation.
From this rather fragmentary survey of interrelationships in the capital sphere we conclude:
Firstly, that changes in the size of reserve assets, and particularly of the cash reserve, serve as primary criteria of success and failure. Money flows, on the other hand, by regulating the size of cash balances, integrate the over-all asset structure and make for consistent capital change. As long as money flows regularly from cash balances to title holders in such a way as to leave cash balances undepleted, it indicates planned success. Where the flow increases, it drains off excess cash and records unplanned success. When the flow ceases altogether, it records failure. When it is actually reversed, when money flows from title holders into cash balances, it corrects the size of the latter by replenishing them.
Secondly, processes involving transmission of knowledge bring the various constituents of the asset structure into consistency with each other, modifying the control structure and the composition of portfolios. In these processes revaluation of securities by the market plays a vital part. Capital gains and losses are changes in asset values reflecting changes in other elements of the asset structure. It is therefore, thirdly, impossible to treat the demand for securities as though it were a demand for consumption goods. In the theory of consumption we assume that all the consumer has to do is to
bring a number of ‘urges’, external data to him as to us, into a logical and coherent order. This is a problem in the Pure Logic of Choice. But the asset holder has to
apply the facts he learns about in the light of his knowledge. This is not a matter of pure logic.
Fourth, failure means loss of assets and the need to create new assets, short of complete liquidation of the enterprise. The creation of new assets means new investment opportunities. Even where the new assets are money assets this is so, for the money needed for cash balances to sustain production processes is ‘money for use’, not ‘idle money’. Its accumulation is merely the first step in a process of purchasing services. And to the extent to which failure has led to a loss of assets other than monetary, for instance, by under-maintenance of fixed capital or non-replacement of stocks, the investment opportunity opened up by the need for replacement is obvious. But if failure is not simply to be repeated, and except in the special case where failure is merely due to bad timing, replenishment of cash has to be accompanied by a reshuffle of other capital goods. This fact, as we shall see in Chapter VII, has some important consequences for ‘cheap money’ and similar policies. In a depression, to be sure, ‘cheap money’ has its part to play, but in conjunction with other forms of business reconstruction, not as a substitute for them!
We have so far assumed a simple type of asset structure in which all securities directly ‘represent’ operating assets. This of course need not be so. There are securities ‘representing’ other securities which on their part ‘represent’ further securities. Nor need these securities all belong to the same type: The equity of one company may consist of a loan to another, while the debentures issued by a third company may serve the purpose of financing the equity of a fourth. Such ‘securities pyramids’ may appear in various forms and serve various ends. Investment trusts are usually formed for the diversification of risk, while holding companies as often as not serve the purpose of centralization of control. What is of interest to us is that where control over a number of subsidiaries is vested in a holding company, the case is exactly parallel to that of entrepreneurial control over the operating assets in the ‘unit firm’: In both cases the unity of control engenders a unity of plan, so
that we have here a case of plan complementarity. It follows that in the same way as plan revision will often lead to a regrouping of operating assets in the simple case we considered in Chapter III, in the more complex cases the reshuffle of assets will take the form of a reshuffle of subsidiary companies forming part of the ‘General Plan’ control over which is vested in the holding company. In fact, in the modern world of large-scale enterprise the typical objects of reshuffling are as often as not whole subsidiary companies. The type of analysis presented in Chapter III is fully applicable to such cases.
This fact, as we shall see in the next chapter, is of some significance in business fluctuations. The regrouping of assets made necessary by a ‘crisis’, i.e. plan failure in large sectors of the economy, cannot as a rule be confined to reshuffling of first-line assets and replenishing cash balances. Whole concerns and, perhaps, industries may have to be regrouped and reorganized. The challenge of widespread failure to true entrepreneurship can rarely be met by making minor adjustments.
All this has some bearing on the question of the location of entrepreneurial control in modern joint-stock enterprise. We hear it often said that in the modern industrial world the managers who make decisions about investment, production, and sales
are ‘the entrepreneurs’, while capital owners have been reduced to a merely passive role. The ‘separation of ownership and control’ is the phrase used to describe this state of affairs. In fact the shareholder is already widely regarded as a mere rentier, dependent for his living on the exertions of the allegedly more active members of the enterprise, and unable to influence events. The calm and unruffled atmosphere in which most company meetings take place is offered as evidence for this thesis. If it were true it would of course obviate our concept of the control structure. If equity ownership has nothing to do with control and the making of decisions, the whole structural scheme we have presented would fall to the ground.
But the argument appears to be based on a fundamental praxeological misconception. No doubt, he who decides on
action is ‘active’; but so is he who creates the conditions in which the decision-maker acts. We have endeavoured to explain that the asset structure of the enterprise is a complex network of relationships, transmitting knowledge and the incentive to action from one group to another. The notion of the capital owner as a merely passive recipient of residual income is clearly incompatible with that view.
In point of fact the manager and the capital owner are each active in his own distinct sphere, but their spheres of action are interrelated by virtue of mutual orientation. For either the other’s action is a datum of his own action. The manager’s plans concern operating assets. He operates and regroups them as his plans succeed or fail. The availability of new capital for expansion in case of success or reconstruction in case of failure is for him a datum. The capital owner’s plans concern securities. He has to regroup them in the same way as the manager regroups his operating assets, and managerial decisions determine the scope of his operations as his decisions determine that of the manager. It is true that the modern shareholder rarely takes the trouble of opposing managerial decisions with which he happens to disagree at the company meeting. But this is so because he has a more effective way of voting against these decisions: He sells.
Our main argument in this chapter has been based on a simple division of assets into operating assets and securities. But we saw in the case of the holding company controlling a number of subsidiaries that it is sometimes impossible to draw such a clear dividing line. In such cases it often becomes impossible to say when, for instance, a certain sale or purchase of securities involves a ‘managerial decision’ and when it does not. In the same way it becomes impossible to disentangle profits and capital gains. If by entrepreneurial decisions we mean decisions involving the making and revising of plans, there is no difference between changing a production plan and changing the composition of an investment portfolio. They are both exactly the same type of action.
For the sake of terminological clarity it is desirable to call an ‘entrepreneur’ anybody who is concerned with the management of assets.
*75 At the end of Chapter I we pointed out
that, as regards capital, the function of the entrepreneur consist in specifying and modifying the concrete form of the capital resources committed to his care.
We might then distinguish between the capitalist-entrepreneur and the manager-entrepreneur. The only significant difference between the two lies in that the specifying and modifying decisions of the manager presuppose and are consequent upon the decisions of the capitalist. If we like, we may say that the latter’s decisions are of a ‘higher order’.
Thus a capitalist makes a first specifying decision by deciding to invest a certain amount of capital, which probably, though not necessarily, exists in the money form, in Company A rather than in Company B, or rather than to lend it to the government. The managers of Company A then make a second specifying decision by deciding to use the capital so received in building or extending a department store in one suburb rather than another suburb, or another city. The manager of this local department store makes further specifying decisions, and so on, until the capital has been converted into concrete assets.
All these decisions are specifying decisions. In principle, there is no difference between them, and there seems little point in drawing dividing lines between those who make them. It is only when we realize what the heterogeneity of capital means that we come to understand what an entrepreneur is and does.
Economica, August 1938, and K.E. Boulding: ‘A Liquidity Preference Theory of Market Prices’,
Economica, May 1944.
Profits, Interest and Investment, 1939, pp. 119-20.
Chapter 7, CAPITAL IN THE TRADE CYCLE