The Infinite Elasticity of Credit

“Beautiful credit! The foundation of modern society. Who shall say this is not the age of mutual trust, of unlimited reliance on human promises? That is a peculiar condition of modern society which enables a whole country to instantly recognize point and meaning to the familiar newspaper anecdote, which puts into the speculator in lands and mines this remark: “I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two million dollars.”

Mark Twain (1873), The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today

 

I wanted to put our current predicament into historical context, and to demonstrate that the situation we find ourselves in is not novel. It differs quantitatively, but not qualitatively, from what has gone before – many times before in fact. Great cycles of expansion and contraction are part of the human condition, and there are patterns of boom and bust that continually repeat themselves, as they are thoroughly grounded in human nature.

Collective human optimism and pessimism are extremely powerful drivers, acting over very long time scales. They are powerful enough to drive tremendous cycles of socioeconomic expansion and contraction. As population grows and optimism increases during a long expansion phase, pressure emerges that can only be relieved by increasing the elasticity of the money supply, often in spite of existing rules intended to prevent this very dynamic in the name of maintaining sound money.

 

As a historical generalisation, it can be said that every time the authorities stabilise or control some quantity of money M, either in absolute or volume or growing along a predetermined trend line, in moments of euphoria, more will be produced.

Or if the definition of money is fixed in terms of particular liquid assets, and the euphoria happens to ‘monetise’ credit in new ways that are excluded from the definition, the amount of money defined in the old way will not grow, but its velocity will increase [..]

….My contention is the the process is endless: fix any M(i) and the market will create new forms of money in periods of boom to get around the limit and create the necessity to create a new variable M(j).

Charles Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes

 

There have been many examples of this process throughout history and it is instructive to look at such periods. For instance, the medieval expansion of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had very much this character. Continue reading “The Infinite Elasticity of Credit”