Archive for July, 2019

Dr. Shelton Remains Outspoken: She Should Have Known Better

I started blogging in July 2011, and in one of my first blogposts I discussed an article in the now defunct Weekly Standard by Dr. Judy Shelton entitled “Gold Standard or Bust.” I wrote then:

I don’t know, and have never met Dr. Shelton, but she has been a frequent op-ed contributor to the Wall Street Journal and various other publications of a like ideological orientation for 20 years or more, invariably advocating a return to the gold standard.  In 1994, she published a book Money Meltdown touting the gold standard as a cure for all our monetary ills.

I was tempted to provide a line-by-line commentary on Dr. Shelton’s Weekly Standard piece, but it would be tedious and churlish to dwell excessively on her deficiencies as a wordsmith or lapses from lucidity.

So I was not very impressed by Dr. Shelton then. I have had occasion to write about her again a few times since, and I cannot report that I have detected any improvement in the lucidity of her thought or the clarity of her exposition.

Aside from, or perhaps owing to, her infatuation with the gold standard, Dr. Shelton seems to have developed a deep aversion to what is commonly, and usually misleadingly, known as currency manipulation. Using her modest entrepreneurial skills as a monetary-policy pundit, Dr. Shelton has tried to use the specter of currency manipulation as a talking point for gold-standard advocacy. So, in 2017 Dr. Shelton wrote an op-ed about currency manipulation for the Wall Street Journal that was so woefully uninformed and unintelligible, that I felt obligated to write a blogpost just for her, a tutorial on the ABCs of currency manipulation, as I called it then. Here’s an excerpt from my tutorial:

[i]t was no surprise to see in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that monetary-policy entrepreneur Dr. Judy Shelton has written another one of her screeds promoting the gold standard, in which, showing no awareness of the necessary conditions for currency manipulation, she assures us that a) currency manipulation is a real problem and b) that restoring the gold standard would solve it.

Certainly the rules regarding international exchange-rate arrangements are not working. Monetary integrity was the key to making Bretton Woods institutions work when they were created after World War II to prevent future breakdowns in world order due to trade. The international monetary system, devised in 1944, was based on fixed exchange rates linked to a gold-convertible dollar.

No such system exists today. And no real leader can aspire to champion both the logic and the morality of free trade without confronting the practice that undermines both: currency manipulation.

Ahem, pray tell, which rules relating to exchange-rate arrangements does Dr. Shelton believe are not working? She doesn’t cite any. And, what, on earth does “monetary integrity” even mean, and what does that high-minded, but totally amorphous, concept have to do with the rules of exchange-rate arrangements that aren’t working?

Dr. Shelton mentions “monetary integrity” in the context of the Bretton Woods system, a system based — well, sort of — on fixed exchange rates, forgetting – or choosing not — to acknowledge that, under the Bretton Woods system, exchange rates were also unilaterally adjustable by participating countries. Not only were they adjustable, but currency devaluations were implemented on numerous occasions as a strategy for export promotion, the most notorious example being Britain’s 30% devaluation of sterling in 1949, just five years after the Bretton Woods agreement had been signed. Indeed, many other countries, including West Germany, Italy, and Japan, also had chronically undervalued currencies under the Bretton Woods system, as did France after it rejoined the gold standard in 1926 at a devalued rate deliberately chosen to ensure that its export industries would enjoy a competitive advantage.

The key point to keep in mind is that for a country to gain a competitive advantage by lowering its exchange rate, it has to prevent the automatic tendency of international price arbitrage and corresponding flows of money to eliminate competitive advantages arising from movements in exchange rates. If a depreciated exchange rate gives rise to an export surplus, a corresponding inflow of foreign funds to finance the export surplus will eventually either drive the exchange rate back toward its old level, thereby reducing or eliminating the initial depreciation, or, if the lower rate is maintained, the cash inflow will accumulate in reserve holdings of the central bank. Unless the central bank is willing to accept a continuing accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves, the increased domestic demand and monetary expansion associated with the export surplus will lead to a corresponding rise in domestic prices, wages and incomes, thereby reducing or eliminating the competitive advantage created by the depressed exchange rate. Thus, unless the central bank is willing to accumulate foreign-exchange reserves without limit, or can create an increased demand by private banks and the public to hold additional cash, thereby creating a chronic excess demand for money that can be satisfied only by a continuing export surplus, a permanently reduced foreign-exchange rate creates only a transitory competitive advantage.

I don’t say that currency manipulation is not possible. It is not only possible, but we know that currency manipulation has been practiced. But currency manipulation can occur under a fixed-exchange rate regime as well as under flexible exchange-rate regimes, as demonstrated by the conduct of the Bank of France from 1926 to 1935 while it was operating under a gold standard. And the most egregious recent example of currency manipulation was undertaken by the Chinese central bank when it effectively pegged the yuan to the dollar at a fixed rate. Keeping its exchange rate fixed against the dollar was precisely the offense that the currency-manipulation police accused the Chinese of committing.

I leave it to interested readers to go back and finish the rest of my tutorial for Dr. Shelton. And if you read carefully and attentively, you are likely to understand the concept of currency manipulation a lot more clearly than when you started.

Alas, it’s obvious that Dr. Shelton has either not read or not understood the tutorial I wrote for her, because, in her latest pronouncement on the subject she covers substantially the same ground as she did two years ago, with no sign of increased comprehension of the subject on which she expounds with such misplaced self-assurance. Here are some samples of Dr. Shelton’s conceptual confusion and historical ignorance.

History can be especially informative when it comes to evaluating the relationship between optimal economic performance and monetary regimes. In the 1930s, for example, the “beggar thy neighbor” tactic of devaluing currencies against gold to gain a trade export advantage hampered a global economic recovery.

Beggar thy neighbor policies were indeed adopted by the United States, but they were adopted first in the 1922 (the Fordney-McCumber Act) and again in 1930 (Smoot-Hawley Act) when the US was on the gold standard with the value of the dollar pegged at $4.86 $20.67 for an ounce of gold. The Great Depression started in late 1929, but the stock market crash of 1929 may have been in part precipitated by fears that the Smoot-Hawley Act would be passed by Congress and signed into law by President Hoover.

At any rate, exchange rates among most major countries were pegged to either gold or the dollar until September 1931 when Britain suspended the convertibility of the pound into gold. The Great Depression was the result of a rapid deflation caused by gold accumulation by central banks as they rejoined the gold standard that had been almost universally suspended during World War I. Countries that remained on the gold standard during the Great Depression were condemned to suffer deflation as gold became ever more valuable in real terms, so that currency depreciation against gold was the only pathway to recovery. Thus, once convertibility was suspended and the pound allowed to depreciate, the British economy stopped contracting and began a modest recovery with slowly expanding output and employment.

The United States, however, kept the dollar pegged to its $4.86 $20.67 an ounce parity with gold until April 1933, when FDR saved the American economy by suspending convertibility and commencing a policy of deliberate reflation (i.e. inflation to restore the 1926 price level). An unprecedented expansion of output, employment and income accompanied the rise in prices following the suspension of the gold standard. Currency depreciation was the key to recovery from, not the cause of, depression.

Having exposed her ignorance of the causes of the Great Depression, Dr. Shelton then begins a descent into her confusion about the subject of currency manipulation, about which I had tried to tutor her, evidently without success.

The absence of rules aimed at maintaining a level monetary playing field invites currency manipulation that could spark a backlash against the concept of free trade. Countries engaged in competitive depreciation undermine the principles of genuine competition, and those that have sought to participate in good faith in the global marketplace are unfairly penalized by the monetary sleight of hand executed through central banks.

Currency manipulation is possible only under specific conditions. A depreciating currency is not normally a manipulated currency. Currencies fluctuate in relative values for many different reasons, but if prices adjust in rough proportion to the change in exchange rates, the competitive positions of the countries are only temporarily affected by the change in exchange rates. For a country to gain a sustained advantage for its export and import-competing industries by depreciating its exchange rate, it must adopt a monetary policy that consistently provides less cash than the public demands or needs to satisfy its liquidity needs, forcing the public to obtain the desired cash balances through a balance-of-payments surplus and an inflow of foreign-exchange reserves into the country’s central bank or treasury.

U.S. leadership is necessary to address this fundamental violation of free-trade practices and its distortionary impact on free-market outcomes. When the United States’ trading partners engage in currency manipulation, it is not competing — it’s cheating.

That is why it is vital to weigh the implications of U.S. monetary policy on the dollar’s exchange-rate value against other currencies. Trade and financial flows can be substantially altered by speculative market forces responding to the public comments of officials at the helm of the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan or the People’s Bank of China — with calls for “additional stimulus” alerting currency players to impending devaluation policies.

Dr. Shelton here reveals a comprehensive misunderstanding of the difference between a monetary policy that aims to stimulate economic activity in general by raising the price level or increasing the rate of inflation to stimulate expenditure and a policy of monetary restraint that aims to raise the relative price of domestic export and import-competing products relative to the prices of domestic non-tradable goods and services, e.g., new homes and apartments. It is only the latter combination of tight monetary policy and exchange-rate intervention to depreciate a currency in foreign-exchange markets that qualifies as currency manipulation.

And, under that understanding, it is obvious that currency manipulation is possible under a fixed-exchange-rate system, as France did in the 1920s and 1930s, and as most European countries and Japan did in the 1950s and early 1960s under the Bretton Woods system so well loved by Dr. Shelton.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the US dollar was chronically overvalued. The situation was not remediated until the 1960s under the Kennedy administration when consistently loose monetary policy by the Fed made currency manipulation so costly for the Germans and Japanese that they revalued their currencies upward to avoid the inflationary consequences of US monetary expansion.

And then, in a final flourish, Dr. Shelton puts her ignorance of what happened in the Great Depression on public display with the following observation.

When currencies shift downward against the dollar, it makes U.S. exports more expensive for consumers in other nations. It also discounts the cost of imported goods compared with domestic U.S. products. Downshifting currencies against the dollar has the same punishing impact as a tariff. That is why, as in the 1930s during the Great Depression, currency devaluation prompts retaliatory tariffs.

The retaliatory tariffs were imposed in response to the US tariffs that preceded the or were imposed at the outset of the Great Depression in 1930. The devaluations against gold promoted economic recovery, and were accompanied by a general reduction in tariff levels under FDR after the US devalued the dollar against gold and the remaining gold standard currencies. Whereof she knows nothing, thereof Dr. Shelton would do better to remain silent.

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Phillips Curve Musings: Second Addendum on Keynes and the Rate of Interest

In my two previous posts (here and here), I have argued that the partial-equilibrium analysis of a single market, like the labor market, is inappropriate and not particularly relevant, in situations in which the market under analysis is large relative to other markets, and likely to have repercussions on those markets, which, in turn, will have further repercussions on the market under analysis, violating the standard ceteris paribus condition applicable to partial-equilibrium analysis. When the standard ceteris paribus condition of partial equilibrium is violated, as it surely is in analyzing the overall labor market, the analysis is, at least, suspect, or, more likely, useless and misleading.

I suggested that Keynes in chapter 19 of the General Theory was aiming at something like this sort of argument, and I think he was largely right in his argument. But, in all modesty, I think that Keynes would have done better to have couched his argument in terms of the distinction between partial-equilibrium and general-equilibrium analysis. But his Marshallian training, which he simultaneously embraced and rejected, may have made it difficult for him to adopt the Walrasian general-equilibrium approach that Marshall and the Marshallians regarded as overly abstract and unrealistic.

In my next post, I suggested that the standard argument about the tendency of public-sector budget deficits to raise interest rates by competing with private-sector borrowers for loanable funds is fundamentally misguided, because it, too, inappropriately applies the partial-equilibrium analysis of a narrow market for government securities, or even a more broadly defined market for loanable funds in general.

That is a gross mistake, because the rate of interest is determined in a general-equilibrium system along with markets for all long-lived assets, embodying expected flows of income that must be discounted to the present to determine an estimated present value. Some assets are riskier than others and that risk is reflected in those valuations. But the rate of interest is distilled from the combination of all of those valuations, not prior to, or apart from, those valuations. Interest rates of different duration and different risk are embeded in the entire structure of current and expected prices for all long-lived assets. To focus solely on a very narrow subset of markets for newly issued securities, whose combined value is only a small fraction of the total value of all existing long-lived assets, is to miss the forest for the trees.

What I want to point out in this post is that Keynes, whom I credit for having recognized that partial-equilibrium analysis is inappropriate and misleading when applied to an overall market for labor, committed exactly the same mistake that he condemned in the context of the labor market, by asserting that the rate of interest is determined in a single market: the market for money. According to Keynes, the market rate of interest is that rate which equates the stock of money in existence with the amount of money demanded by the public. The higher the rate of interest, Keynes argued, the less money the public wants to hold.

Keynes, applying the analysis of Marshall and his other Cambridge predecessors, provided a wonderful analysis of the factors influencing the amount of money that people want to hold (usually expressed in terms of a fraction of their income). However, as superb as his analysis of the demand for money was, it was a partial-equilibrium analysis, and there was no recognition on his part that other markets in the economy are influenced by, and exert influence upon, the rate of interest.

What makes Keynes’s partial-equilibrium analysis of the interest rate so difficult to understand is that in chapter 17 of the General Theory, a magnificent tour de force of verbal general-equilibrium theorizing, explained the relationships that must exist between the expected returns for alternative long-lived assets that are held in equilibrium. Yet, disregarding his own analysis of the equilibrium relationship between returns on alternative assets, Keynes insisted on explaining the rate of interest in a one-period model (a model roughly corresponding to IS-LM) with only two alternative assets: money and bonds, but no real capital asset.

A general-equilibrium analysis of the rate of interest ought to have at least two periods, and it ought to have a real capital good that may be held in the present for use or consumption in the future, a possibility entirely missing from the Keynesian model. I have discussed this major gap in the Keynesian model in a series of posts (here, here, here, here, and here) about Earl Thompson’s 1976 paper “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory.”

Although Thompson’s model seems to me too simple to account for many macroeconomic phenomena, it would have been a far better starting point for the development of macroeconomics than any of the models from which modern macroeconomic theory has evolved.

Phillips Curve Musings: Addendum on Budget Deficits and Interest Rates

In my previous post, I discussed a whole bunch of stuff, but I spent a lot of time discussing the inappropriate use of partial-equilibrium supply-demand analysis to explain price and quantity movements when price and quantity movements in those markets are dominated by precisely those forces that are supposed to be held constant — the old ceteris paribus qualification — in doing partial equilibrium analysis. Thus, the idea that in a depression or deep recession, high unemployment can be cured by cutting nominal wages is a classic misapplication of partial equilibrium analysis in a situation in which the forces primarily affecting wages and employment are not confined to a supposed “labor market,” but reflect broader macro-economic conditions. As Keynes understood, but did not explain well to his economist readers, analyzing unemployment in terms of the wage rate is futile, because wage changes induce further macroeconomic effects that may counteract whatever effects resulted from the wage changes.

Well, driving home this afternoon, I was listening to Marketplace on NPR with Kai Ryssdal interviewing Neil Irwin. Ryssdal asked Irwin why there is so much nervousness about the economy when unemployment and inflation are both about as low as they have ever been — certainly at the same time — in the last 50 years. Irwin’s response was that it is unsettling to many people that, with budget deficits high and rising, we observe stable inflation and falling interest rates on long-term Treasuries. This, after we have been told for so long that budget deficits drive up the cost of borrowing money and also cause are a major cause of inflation. The cognitive dissonance of stable inflation, falling interest rates and rapidly rising budget deficits, Irwin suggested, accounts for a vague feeling of disorientation, and gives rise to fears that the current apparent stability can’t last very long and will lead to some sort of distress or crisis in the future.

I’m not going to try to reassure Ryssdal and Irwin that there will never be another crisis. I certainly wouldn’t venture to say that all is now well with the Republic, much less with the rest of the world. I will just stick to the narrow observation that the bad habit of predicting the future course of interest rates by the size of the current budget deficit has no basis in economic theory, and reflects a colossal misunderstanding of how interest rates are determined. And that misunderstanding is precisely the one I discussed in my previous post about the misuse of partial-equilibrium analysis when general-equilibrium analysis is required.

To infer anything about interest rates from the market for government debt is a category error. Government debt is a long-lived financial asset providing an income stream, and its price reflects the current value of the promised income stream. Based on the price of a particular instrument with a given duration, it is possible to calculate a corresponding interest rate. That calculation is just a fairly simple mathematical exercise.

But it is a mistake to think that the interest rate for that duration is determined in the market for government debt of that duration. Why? Because, there are many other physical assets or financial instruments that could be held instead of government debt of any particular duration. And asset holders in a financially sophisticated economy can easily shift from one type of asset to another at will, at fairly minimal transactions costs. So it is very unlikely that any long-lived asset is so special that the expected yield from holding that asset varies independently from the expected yield from holding alternative assets that could be held.

That’s not to say that there are no differences in the expected yields from different assets, just that at the margin, taking into account the different characteristics of different assets, their expected returns must be fairly closely connected, so that any large change in the conditions in the market for any single asset are unlikely to have a large effect on the price of that asset alone. Rather, any change in one market will cause shifts in asset-holdings across different markets that will tend to offset the immediate effect that would have been reflected in a single market viewed in isolation.

This holds true as long as each specific market is relatively small compared to the entire economy. That is certainly true for the US economy and the world economy into which the US economy is very closely integrated. The value of all assets — real and financial — dwarfs the total outstanding value of US Treasuries. Interest rates are a measure of the relationship between expected flows of income and the value of the underlying assets.

To assume that increased borrowing by the US government to fund a substantial increase in the US budget deficit will substantially affect the overall economy-wide relationship between current and expected future income flows on the one hand and asset values on the other is wildly implausible. So no one should be surprised to find that the recent sharp increase in the US budget deficit has had no perceptible effect on the interest rates at which US government debt is now yielding.

A more likely cause of a change in interest rates would be an increase in expected inflation, but inflation expectations are not necessarily correlated with the budget deficit, and changing inflation expectations aren’t necessarily reflected in corresponding changes in nominal interest rates, as Monetarist economists have often maintained.

So it’s about time that we disabused ourselves of the simplistic notion that changes in the budget deficit have any substantial effect on interest rates.

Phillips Curve Musings

There’s a lot of talk about the Phillips Curve these days; people wonder why, with the unemployment rate reaching historically low levels, nominal and real wages have increased minimally with inflation remaining securely between 1.5 and 2%. The Phillips Curve, for those untutored in basic macroeconomics, depicts a relationship between inflation and unemployment. The original empirical Philips Curve relationship showed that high rates of unemployment were associated with low or negative rates of wage inflation while low rates of unemployment were associated with high rates of wage inflation. This empirical relationship suggested a causal theory that the rate of wage increase tends to rise when unemployment is low and tends to fall when unemployment is high, a causal theory that seems to follow from a simple supply-demand model in which wages rise when there is an excess demand for labor (unemployment is low) and wages fall when there is an excess supply of labor (unemployment is high).

Viewed in this light, low unemployment, signifying a tight labor market, signals that inflation is likely to rise, providing a rationale for monetary policy to be tightened to prevent inflation from rising at it normally does when unemployment is low. Seeming to accept that rationale, the Fed has gradually raised interest rates for the past two years or so. But the increase in interest rates has now slowed the expansion of employment and decline in unemployment to historic lows. Nor has the improving employment situation resulted in any increase in price inflation and at most a minimal increase in the rate of increase in wages.

In a couple of previous posts about sticky wages (here and here), I’ve questioned whether the simple supply-demand model of the labor market motivating the standard interpretation of the Phillips Curve is a useful way to think about wage adjustment and inflation-employment dynamics. I’ve offered a few reasons why the supply-demand model, though applicable in some situations, is not useful for understanding how wages adjust.

The particular reason that I want to focus on here is Keynes’s argument in chapter 19 of the General Theory (though I express it in terms different from his) that supply-demand analysis can’t explain how wages and employment are determined. The upshot of his argument I believe is that supply demand-analysis only works in a partial-equilibrium setting in which feedback effects from the price changes in the market under consideration don’t affect equilibrium prices in other markets, so that the position of the supply and demand curves in the market of interest can be assumed stable even as price and quantity in that market adjust from one equilibrium to another (the comparative-statics method).

Because the labor market, affecting almost every other market, is not a small part of the economy, partial-equilibrium analysis is unsuitable for understanding that market, the normal stability assumption being untenable if we attempt to trace the adjustment from one labor-market equilibrium to another after an exogenous disturbance. In the supply-demand paradigm, unemployment is a measure of the disequilibrium in the labor market, a disequilibrium that could – at least in principle — be eliminated by a wage reduction sufficient to equate the quantity of labor services supplied with the amount demanded. Viewed from this supply-demand perspective, the failure of the wage to fall to a supposed equilibrium level is attributable to some sort of endogenous stickiness or some external impediment (minimum wage legislation or union intransigence) in wage adjustment that prevents the normal equilibrating free-market adjustment mechanism. But the habitual resort to supply-demand analysis by economists, reinforced and rewarded by years of training and professionalization, is actually misleading when applied in an inappropriate context.

So Keynes was right to challenge this view of a potentially equilibrating market mechanism that is somehow stymied from behaving in the manner described in the textbook version of supply-demand analysis. Instead, Keynes argued that the level of employment is determined by the level of spending and income at an exogenously given wage level, an approach that seems to be deeply at odds with idea that price adjustments are an essential part of the process whereby a complex economic system arrives at, or at least tends to move toward, an equilibrium.

One of the main motivations for a search for microfoundations in the decades after the General Theory was published was to be able to articulate a convincing microeconomic rationale for persistent unemployment that was not eliminated by the usual tendency of market prices to adjust to eliminate excess supplies of any commodity or service. But Keynes was right to question whether there is any automatic market mechanism that adjusts nominal or real wages in a manner even remotely analogous to the adjustment of prices in organized commodity or stock exchanges – the sort of markets that serve as exemplars of automatic price adjustments in response to excess demands or supplies.

Keynes was also correct to argue that, even if there was a mechanism causing automatic wage adjustments in response to unemployment, the labor market, accounting for roughly 60 percent of total income, is so large that any change in wages necessarily affects all other markets, causing system-wide repercussions that might well offset any employment-increasing tendency of the prior wage adjustment.

But what I want to suggest in this post is that Keynes’s criticism of the supply-demand paradigm is relevant to any general-equilibrium system in the following sense: if a general-equilibrium system is considered from an initial non-equilibrium position, does the system have any tendency to move toward equilibrium? And to make the analysis relatively tractable, assume that the system is such that a unique equilibrium exists. Before proceeding, I also want to note that I am not arguing that traditional supply-demand analysis is necessarily flawed; I am just emphasizing that traditional supply-demand analysis is predicated on a macroeconomic foundation: that all markets but the one under consideration are in, or are in the neighborhood of, equilibrium. It is only because the system as a whole is in the neighborhood of equilibrium, that the microeconomic forces on which traditional supply-demand analysis relies appear to be so powerful and so stabilizing.

However, if our focus is a general-equilibrium system, microeconomic supply-demand analysis of a single market in isolation provides no basis on which to argue that the system as a whole has a self-correcting tendency toward equilibrium. To make such an argument is to commit a fallacy of composition. The tendency of any single market toward equilibrium is premised on an assumption that all markets but the one under analysis are already at, or in the neighborhood of, equilibrium. But when the system as a whole is in a disequilibrium state, the method of partial equilibrium analysis is misplaced; partial-equilibrium analysis provides no ground – no micro-foundation — for an argument that the adjustment of market prices in response to excess demands and excess supplies will ever – much less rapidly — guide the entire system back to an equilibrium state.

The lack of automatic market forces that return a system not in the neighborhood — for purposes of this discussion “neighborhood” is left undefined – of equilibrium back to equilibrium is implied by the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu Theorem, which shows that, even if a unique general equilibrium exists, there may be no rule or algorithm for increasing (decreasing) prices in markets with excess demands (supplies) by which the general-equilibrium price vector would be discovered in a finite number of steps.

The theorem holds even under a Walrasian tatonnement mechanism in which no trading at disequilibrium prices is allowed. The reason is that the interactions between individual markets may be so complicated that a price-adjustment rule will not eliminate all excess demands, because even if a price adjustment reduces excess demand in one market, that price adjustment may cause offsetting disturbances in one or more other markets. So, unless the equilibrium price vector is somehow hit upon by accident, no rule or algorithm for price adjustment based on the excess demand in each market will necessarily lead to discovery of the equilibrium price vector.

The Sonnenschein Mantel Debreu Theorem reinforces the insight of Kenneth Arrow in an important 1959 paper “Toward a Theory of Price Adjustment,” which posed the question: how does the theory of perfect competition account for the determination of the equilibrium price at which all agents can buy or sell as much as they want to at the equilibrium (“market-clearing”) price? As Arrow observed, “there exists a logical gap in the usual formulations of the theory of perfectly competitive economy, namely, that there is no place for a rational decision with respect to prices as there is with respect to quantities.”

Prices in perfect competition are taken as parameters by all agents in the model, and optimization by agents consists in choosing optimal quantities. The equilibrium solution allows the mutually consistent optimization by all agents at the equilibrium price vector. This is true for the general-equilibrium system as a whole, and for partial equilibrium in every market. Not only is there no positive theory of price adjustment within the competitive general-equilibrium model, as pointed out by Arrow, but the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu Theorem shows that there’s no guarantee that even the notional tatonnement method of price adjustment can ensure that a unique equilibrium price vector will be discovered.

While acknowledging his inability to fill the gap, Arrow suggested that, because perfect competition and price taking are properties of general equilibrium, there are inevitably pockets of market power, in non-equilibrium states, so that some transactors in non-equilibrium states, are price searchers rather than price takers who therefore choose both an optimal quantity and an optimal price. I have no problem with Arrow’s insight as far as it goes, but it still doesn’t really solve his problem, because he couldn’t explain, even intuitively, how a disequilibrium system with some agents possessing market power (either as sellers or buyers) transitions into an equilibrium system in which all agents are price-takers who can execute their planned optimal purchases and sales at the parametric prices.

One of the few helpful, but, as far as I can tell, totally overlooked, contributions of the rational-expectations revolution was to solve (in a very narrow sense) the problem that Arrow identified and puzzled over, although Hayek, Lindahl and Myrdal, in their original independent formulations of the concept of intertemporal equilibrium, had already provided the key to the solution. Hayek, Lindahl, and Myrdal showed that an intertemporal equilibrium is possible only insofar as agents form expectations of future prices that are so similar to each other that, if future prices turn out as expected, the agents would be able to execute their planned sales and purchases as expected.

But if agents have different expectations about the future price(s) of some commodity(ies), and if their plans for future purchases and sales are conditioned on those expectations, then when the expectations of at least some agents are inevitably disappointed, those agents will necessarily have to abandon (or revise) the plans that their previously formulated plans.

What led to Arrow’s confusion about how equilibrium prices are arrived at was the habit of thinking that market prices are determined by way of a Walrasian tatonnement process (supposedly mimicking the haggling over price by traders). So the notion that a mythical market auctioneer, who first calls out prices at random (prix cries au hasard), and then, based on the tallied market excess demands and supplies, adjusts those prices until all markets “clear,” is untenable, because continual trading at disequilibrium prices keeps changing the solution of the general-equilibrium system. An actual system with trading at non-equilibrium prices may therefore be moving away from, rather converging on, an equilibrium state.

Here is where the rational-expectations hypothesis comes in. The rational-expectations assumption posits that revisions of previously formulated plans are never necessary, because all agents actually do correctly anticipate the equilibrium price vector in advance. That is indeed a remarkable assumption to make; it is an assumption that all agents in the model have the capacity to anticipate, insofar as their future plans to buy and sell require them to anticipate, the equilibrium prices that will prevail for the products and services that they plan to purchase or sell. Of course, in a general-equilibrium system, all prices being determined simultaneously, the equilibrium prices for some future prices cannot generally be forecast in isolation from the equilibrium prices for all other products. So, in effect, the rational-expectations hypothesis supposes that each agent in the model is an omniscient central planner able to solve an entire general-equilibrium system for all future prices!

But let us not be overly nitpicky about details. So forget about false trading, and forget about the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorem. Instead, just assume that, at time t, agents form rational expectations of the future equilibrium price vector in period (t+1). If agents at time t form rational expectations of the equilibrium price vector in period (t+1), then they may well assume that the equilibrium price vector in period t is equal to the expected price vector in period (t+1).

Now, the expected price vector in period (t+1) may or may not be an equilibrium price vector in period t. If it is an equilibrium price vector in period t as well as in period (t+1), then all is right with the world, and everyone will succeed in buying and selling as much of each commodity as he or she desires. If not, prices may or may not adjust in response to that disequilibrium, and expectations may or may not change accordingly.

Thus, instead of positing a mythical auctioneer in a contrived tatonnement process as the mechanism whereby prices are determined for currently executed transactions, the rational-expectations hypothesis posits expected future prices as the basis for the prices at which current transactions are executed, providing a straightforward solution to Arrow’s problem. The prices at which agents are willing to purchase or sell correspond to their expectations of prices in the future. If they find trading partners with similar expectations of future prices, they will reach agreement and execute transactions at those prices. If they don’t find traders with similar expectations, they will either be unable to transact, or will revise their price expectations, or they will assume that current market conditions are abnormal and then decide whether to transact at prices different from those they had expected.

When current prices are more favorable than expected, agents will want to buy or sell more than they would have if current prices were equal to their expectations for the future. If current prices are less favorable than they expect future prices to be, they will not transact at all or will seek to buy or sell less than they would have bought or sold if current prices had equaled expected future prices. The dichotomy between observed current prices, dictated by current demands and supplies, and expected future prices is unrealistic; all current transactions are made with an eye to expected future prices and to their opportunities to postpone current transactions until the future, or to advance future transactions into the present.

If current prices for similar commodities are not uniform in all current transactions, a circumstance that Arrow attributes to the existence of varying degrees of market power across imperfectly competitive suppliers, price dispersion may actually be caused, not by market power, but by dispersion in the expectations of future prices held by agents. Sellers expecting future prices to rise will be less willing to sell at relatively low prices now than are suppliers with pessimistic expectations about future prices. Equilibrium occurs when all transactors share the same expectations of future prices and expected future prices correspond to equilibrium prices in the current period.

Of course, that isn’t the only possible equilibrium situation. There may be situations in which a future event that will change a subset of prices can be anticipated. If the anticipation of the future event affects not only expected future prices, it must also and necessarily affect current prices insofar as current supplies can be carried into the future from the present or current purchases can be postponed until the future or future consumption shifted into the present.

The practical upshot of these somewhat disjointed reflections is, I think,primarily to reinforce skepticism that the traditional Phillips Curve supposition that low and falling unemployment necessarily presages an increase in inflation. Wages are not primarily governed by the current state of the labor market, whatever the labor market might even mean in macroeconomic context.

Expectations rule! And the rational-expectations revolution to the contrary notwithstanding, we have no good theory of how expectations are actually formed and there is certainly no reason to assume that, as a general matter, all agents share the same set of expectations.

The current fairly benign state of the economy reflects the absence of any serious disappointment of price expectations. If an economy is operating not very far from an equilibrium, although expectations are not the same, they likely are not very different. They will only be very different after the unexpected strikes. When that happens, borrowers and traders who had taken positions based on overly optimistic expectations find themselves unable to meet their obligations. It is only then that we will see whether the economy is really as strong and resilient as it now seems.

Expecting the unexpected is hard to do, but you can be sure that, sooner or later, the unexpected is going to happen.


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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