Hayek and Rational Expectations

In this, my final, installment on Hayek and intertemporal equilibrium, I want to focus on a particular kind of intertemporal equilibrium: rational-expectations equilibrium. In his discussions of intertemporal equilibrium, Roy Radner assigns a meaning to the term “rational-expectations equilibrium” very different from the meaning normally associated with that term. Radner describes a rational-expectations equilibrium as the equilibrium that results when some agents are able to make inferences about the beliefs held by other agents when observed prices differ from what they had expected prices to be. Agents attribute the differences between observed and expected prices to information held by agents better informed than themselves, and revise their own expectations accordingly in light of the information that would have justified the observed prices.

In the early 1950s, one very rational agent, Armen Alchian, was able to figure out what chemicals were being used in making the newly developed hydrogen bomb by identifying companies whose stock prices had risen too rapidly to be explained otherwise. Alchian, who spent almost his entire career at UCLA while also moonlighting at the nearby Rand Corporation, wrote a paper for Rand in which he listed the chemicals used in making the hydrogen bomb. When people at the Defense Department heard about the paper – the Rand Corporation was started as a think tank largely funded by the Department of Defense to do research that the Defense Department was interested in – they went to Alchian, confiscated and destroyed the paper. Joseph Newhard recently wrote a paper about this episode in the Journal of Corporate Finance. Here’s the abstract:

At RAND in 1954, Armen A. Alchian conducted the world’s first event study to infer the fuel material used in the manufacturing of the newly-developed hydrogen bomb. Successfully identifying lithium as the fusion fuel using only publicly available financial data, the paper was seen as a threat to national security and was immediately confiscated and destroyed. The bomb’s construction being secret at the time but having since been partially declassified, the nuclear tests of the early 1950s provide an opportunity to observe market efficiency through the dissemination of private information as it becomes public. I replicate Alchian’s event study of capital market reactions to the Operation Castle series of nuclear detonations in the Marshall Islands, beginning with the Bravo shot on March 1, 1954 at Bikini Atoll which remains the largest nuclear detonation in US history, confirming Alchian’s results. The Operation Castle tests pioneered the use of lithium deuteride dry fuel which paved the way for the development of high yield nuclear weapons deliverable by aircraft. I find significant upward movement in the price of Lithium Corp. relative to the other corporations and to DJIA in March 1954; within three weeks of Castle Bravo the stock was up 48% before settling down to a monthly return of 28% despite secrecy, scientific uncertainty, and public confusion surrounding the test; the company saw a return of 461% for the year.

Radner also showed that the ability of some agents to infer the information on which other agents are causing prices to differ from the prices that had been expected does not necessarily lead to an equilibrium. The process of revising expectations in light of observed prices may not converge on a shared set of expectations of the future based on commonly shared knowledge.

So rather than pursue Radner’s conception of rational expectations, I will focus here on the conventional understanding of “rational expectations” in modern macroeconomics, which is that the price expectations formed by the agents in a model should be consistent with what the model itself predicts that those future prices will be. In this very restricted sense, I believe rational expectations is a very important property that any model ought to have. It simply says that a model ought to have the property that if one assumes that the agents in a model expect the equilibrium predicted by the model, then, given those expectations, the solution of the model will turn out to be the equilibrium of the model. This property is a consistency and coherence property that any model, regardless of its substantive predictions, ought to have. If a model lacks this property, there is something wrong with the model.

But there is a huge difference between saying that a model should have the property that correct expectations are self-fulfilling and saying that agents are in fact capable of predicting the equilibrium of the model. Assuming the former does not entail the latter. What kind of crazy model would have the property that correct expectations are not self-fulfilling? I mean think about: a model in which correct expectations are not self-fulfilling is a nonsense model.

But demanding that a model not spout out jibberish is very different from insisting that the agents in the model necessarily have the capacity to predict what the equilibrium of the model will be. Rational expectations in the first sense is a minimal consistency property of an economic model; rational expectations in the latter sense is an empirical assertion about the real world. You can make such an assumption if you want, but you can’t claim that it is a property of the real world. Whether it is a property of the real world is a matter of fact, not a matter of methodological fiat. But methodological fiat is what rational expectations has become in macroeconomics.

In his 1937 paper on intertemporal equilibrium, Hayek was very clear that correct expectations are logically implied by the concept of an equilibrium of plans extending through time. But correct expectations are not a necessary, or even descriptively valid, characteristic of reality. Hayek also conceded that we don’t even have an explanation in theory of how correct expectations come into existence. He merely alluded to the empirical observation – perhaps not the most accurate description of empirical reality in 1937 – that there is an observed general tendency for markets to move toward equilibrium, implying that over time expectations do tend to become more accurate.

It is worth pointing out that when the idea of rational expectations was introduced by John Muth in the early 1960s, he did so in the context of partial-equilibrium models in which the rational expectation in the model was the rational expectation of the equilibrium price in a paraticular market. The motivation for Muth to introduce the idea of a rational expectation was idea of a cobweb cycle in which producers simply assume that the current price will remain at whatever level currently prevails. If there is a time lag between production, as in agricultural markets between the initial application of inputs and the final yield of output, it is easy to generate an alternating sequence of boom and bust, with current high prices inducing increased output in the following period, driving prices down, thereby inducing low output and high prices in the next period and so on.

Muth argued that rational producers would not respond to price signals in a way that led to consistently mistaken expectations, but would base their price expectations on more realistic expectations of what future prices would turn out to be. In his microeconomic work on rational expectations, Muth showed that the rational-expectation assumption was a better predictor of observed prices than the assumption of static expectations underlying the traditional cobweb-cycle model. So Muth’s rational-expectations assumption was based on a realistic conjecture of how real-world agents would actually form expectations. In that sense, Muth’s assumption was consistent with Hayek’s conjecture that there is an empirical tendency for markets to move toward equilibrium.

So while Muth’s introduction of the rational-expectations hypothesis was an empirically progressive theoretical innovation, extending rational-expectations into the domain of macroeconomics has not been empirically progressive, rational expectations models having consistently failed to generate better predictions than macro-models using other expectational assumptions. Instead, a rational-expectations axiom has been imposed as part of a spurious methodological demand that all macroeconomic models be “micro-founded.” But the deeper point – a point that Hayek understood better than perhaps anyone else — is that there is a huge difference in kind between forming rational expectations about a single market price and forming rational expectations about the vector of n prices on the basis of which agents are choosing or revising their optimal intertemporal consumption and production plans.

It is one thing to assume that agents have some expert knowledge about the course of future prices in the particular markets in which they participate regularly; it is another thing entirely to assume that they have knowledge sufficient to forecast the course of all future prices and in particular to understand the subtle interactions between prices in one market and the apparently unrelated prices in another market. The former kind of knowledge is knowledge that expert traders might be expected to have; the latter kind of knowledge is knowledge that would be possessed by no one but a nearly omniscient central planner, whose existence was shown by Hayek to be a practical impossibility.

Standard macroeconomic models are typically so highly aggregated that the extreme nature of the rational-expectations assumption is effectively suppressed. To treat all output as a single good (which involves treating the single output as both a consumption good and a productive asset generating a flow of productive services) effectively imposes the assumption that the only relative price that can ever change is the wage, so that all but one future relative prices are known in advance. That assumption effectively assumes away the problem of incorrect expectations except for two variables: the future price level and the future productivity of labor (owing to the productivity shocks so beloved of Real Business Cycle theorists). Having eliminated all complexity from their models, modern macroeconomists, purporting to solve micro-founded macromodels, simply assume that there is but one or at most two variables about which agents have to form their rational expectations.

Four score years since Hayek explained how challenging the notion of intertemporal equilibrium really is and the difficulties inherent in explaining any empirical tendency toward intertempral equilibrium, modern macroeconomics has succeeded in assuming all those difficulties out of existence. Many macroeconomists feel rather proud of what modern macroeconomics has achieved. I am not quite as impressed as they are.


3 Responses to “Hayek and Rational Expectations”

  1. 1 Boyan June 19, 2017 at 3:13 am

    David, thanks for another wonderful post. To play the devil’s advocate, my query is this: Can we not conceive of the agents in an economy is a multitude of sector/price-specialising people, who have expert knowledge of their respective product/price of interest? Wouldn’t that get us closer to the imaginary idea of aggregate rational expectations as dictated by modern macro? After all, if everyone can achieve substantially good guesses of the expected/self-fulfilling price, and that results in an n-sector economy-wide price/product equilibrium, would not that approximate the aggregate (n-sector economy-wide) idea of rational expectations?


  2. 2 lambsanger June 24, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    Reading this along side with “Thompson’s Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory Part 2” is fantastic as it’s a direct application of information problems with lagged expectations of certain actors leading to the story of the reverse multiplier.

  1. 1 Artikel über Wirtschaft und Investment 25.6.17 | Pipsologie Trackback on June 24, 2017 at 11:39 pm

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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