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What Is the Liquidity Trap?

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Tags Money and BanksMoney and Banking


Some economists such as a Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman are of the view that if the US were to fall into liquidity trap the US central bank should aggressively pump money and aggressively lower interest rates in order to lift the rate of inflation. This Krugman holds will pull the economy from the liquidity trap and will set the platform for an economic prosperity. In his New York Times article of January 11, 2012, he wrote,

If nothing else, we've learned that the liquidity trap is neither a figment of our imaginations nor something that only happens in Japan; it's a very real threat, and if and when it ends we should nonetheless be guarding against its return — which means that there's a very strong case both for a higher inflation target, and for aggressive policy ...(of the central bank).

But does it make sense that by means of more inflation the US economy could be pulled out of the liquidity trap?

The Origin of the Liquidity-Trap Concept

In the popular framework of thinking that originates from the writings of John Maynard Keynes, economic activity presented in terms of a circular flow of money. Spending by one individual becomes part of the earnings of another individual, and spending by another individual becomes part of the first individual's earnings.

Recessions, according to Keynes, are a response to the fact that consumers — for some psychological reasons — have decided to cut down on their expenditure and raise their savings.

For instance, if for some reason people have become less confident about the future, they will cut back on their outlays and hoard more money. Therefore, once an individual spends less, this worsens the situation of some other individual, who in turn also cuts his spending.

A vicious circle sets in: the decline in people's confidence causes them to spend less and to hoard more money, and this lowers economic activity further, thereby causing people to hoard more, etc.

Following this logic, in order to prevent a recession from getting out of hand, the central bank must lift the money supply and aggressively lower interest rates.

Once consumers have more money in their pockets, their confidence will increase, and they will start spending again, thereby re-establishing the circular flow of money, so it is held.

In his writings, however, Keynes suggested that a situation could emerge when an aggressive lowering of interest rates by the central bank would bring rates to a level from which they would not fall further.

This, according to Keynes, could occur because people might adopt a view that interest rates have bottomed out and that rates should subsequently rise, leading to capital losses on bond holdings. As a result, people's demand for money will become extremely high, implying that people would hoard money and refuse to spend it no matter how much the central bank tries to expand the money supply.

Keynes wrote,

There is the possibility, for the reasons discussed above, that, after the rate of interest has fallen to a certain level, liquidity-preference may become virtually absolute in the sense that almost everyone prefers cash to holding a debt which yields so low a rate of interest. In this event the monetary authority would have lost effective control over the rate of interest.1

Keynes suggested that, once a low-interest-rate policy becomes ineffective, authorities should step in and spend. The spending can be on all sorts of projects — what matters here is that a lot of money must be pumped, which is expected to boost consumers' confidence. With a higher level of confidence, consumers will lower their savings and raise their expenditure, thereby re-establishing the circular flow of money.

Do Individuals Save Money?

In the Keynesian framework the ever-expanding monetary flow is the key to economic prosperity. What drives economic growth is monetary expenditure. When people spend more of their money, this is seen as saving less.

Conversely, when people reduce their monetary spending in the Keynesian framework, this is viewed as saving more.

Observe that in the popular — i.e., Keynesian — way of thinking, savings is bad news for the economy: the more people save, the worse things become. (The liquidity trap comes from too much saving and the lack of spending, so it is held.)

However, to suggest that people could have an unlimited demand for money (hoarding money) that supposedly leads to a liquidity trap, as popular thinking has it, would imply that no one would be exchanging goods.

Obviously, this is not a realistic proposition, given the fact that people require goods to support their lives and well-being. (Please note: people demand money not to accumulate indefinitely but to employ in exchange at some point in the future).

Being the medium of exchange, money can only assist in exchanging the goods of one producer for the goods of another producer.

The state of the demand for money cannot alter the amount of goods produced, that is, it cannot alter so-called real economic growth.

Likewise, a change in the supply of money doesn't have any power to grow the real economy.

Contrary to popular thinking, a liquidity trap does not emerge in response to consumers' massive increases in the demand for money but comes as a result of very loose monetary policies, which inflict severe damage to the pool of real savings.

The Liquidity Trap and the Shrinking Pool of Real Savings

According to Mises,

"The sine qua non of any lengthening of the process of production adopted is saving, i.e., an excess of current production over current consumption. Saving is the first step on the way toward improvement of material well-being and toward every further progress on this way."2

As long as the rate of growth of the pool of real savings stays positive, this can continue to sustain productive and non-productive activities. Trouble erupts, however, when, on account of loose monetary and fiscal policies, a structure of production emerges that ties up much more consumer goods than the amount it releases. This excessive consumption relative to the production of consumer goods leads to a decline in the pool of real savings.

This in turn weakens the support for economic activities, resulting in the economy plunging into a slump. (The shrinking pool of real savings exposes the commonly accepted fallacy that the loose monetary policy of the central bank can grow the economy.)

Once the economy falls into a recession because of a falling pool of real saving, any government or central bank attempts to revive the economy must fail.

Not only will these attempts not revive the economy; they will deplete the pool of real savings further, thereby prolonging the economic slump.

Likewise, any policy that forces banks to expand lending "out of thin air" will further damage the pool and will reduce further banks' ability to lend.

Note that the essence of lending is real savings and not money as such. Real savings impose restrictions on banks' ability to lend. (Money is just the medium of exchange, which facilitates real savings.)

Also, note that without an expanding pool of real savings any expansion of bank lending is going to lift banks' nonperforming assets.

Contrary to Krugman, we suggest that if the US economy were to fall into a liquidity trap the reason for that is not a sharp increase in the demand for money, but because loose monetary policies have depleted the pool of real savings.

What is required in this case is not to generate more inflation but the exact opposite. Setting a higher inflation target, as suggested by Krugman, will only weaken the pool of real savings further and will guarantee that the economy will stay in a depressed state for a prolonged time.

  • 1. John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, MacMillan &
    Co. Ltd. (1964), p. 207.
  • 2. Ludwig Von Mises, Human Action, Contemporary Books, p.490.

Frank Shostak's consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments of financial markets and global economies. Contact: email.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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