Archive for the 'A. W. Phillips' Category

Why Theories of National Income Based on Accounting Identities Are Nonsensical and Error-Ridden, Part IV

In my previous post, I tried to relate the discussion of accounting identities to the familiar circular-flow diagram with injections into and leakages out of the flows of income, expenditure and output. My hopes that framing the discussion in terms of injections and leakages, with investment viewed as an injection into, and savings as a withdrawal out of, the flows of income and expenditure would help clarify my position about accounting identities were disappointed, as defenders of those accounting identities were highly critical of the injections-leakages analogy, launching a barrage of criticism at my argument that the basic macroeconomic model of income determination should not be understood in terms of the income-expenditure or the investment-savings identities.

I think that criticism of the injections-leakages analogy was, for the most part, misplaced and a based on a misunderstanding of what I have been aiming to do, but much of the criticism was prompted by my incomplete or inadequate explanation of my reasoning. So, before continuing with my summary of Lipsey’s essay on the subject, on which this series is based, I need to address at least some of the points that have been made by my (and Lipsey’s) various critics. In the course of doing so, I believe it will be helpful if I offer a revised version of Lipsey’s Table 1, which I reproduced in part III of this series.

First, I am not saying that the standard accounting identities are wrong. Definitions are neither right nor wrong, but they may be useful or not useful depending on the context. In everyday conversation, we routinely ascribe one of many possible meanings to particular words used by selecting one of the many possible definitions as that which is most likely to make an entire sequence of words – a phrase, a clause, or a sentence – meaningful. Our choice of which definition to use is generally determined by the context in which the word appears. Choosing one definition over another doesn’t mean that others are not valid, just that the others would not work as well or at all in the context in which the word in question appears. Working with an inappropriate definition in a given context can lead, as we all know from personal experience, to confusion, misunderstanding and error. Defining savings and investment to be equal in every state of the world is certainly possible, and doing so is not invalid, but doing so is not necessarily useful in the context of formulating a macroeconomic theory of income determination.

There are two reasons why defining savings and investment to be identically equal in all states of the world is not useful in a macroeconomic theory of income. First, if we define savings and investment (or income and expenditure) to be identically equal, we can’t solve, either algebraically or graphically, the system of equations describing the model for a unique equilibrium. According to the model, aggregate expenditure is assumed to be a function of income, but if income and expenditure are identical, expenditure is simply identical to itself, so the system of equations described by the model collapses onto the 45-degree line representing the expenditure-income identity.

Second, even if we interpret the equality of income and expenditure as an ex ante equilibrium condition, while asserting that identity between income and expenditure must always hold ex post, the ex post definitional equality tells us nothing about the adjustment process that restores equilibrium when, owing to some parameter change that disturbs a pre-existing equilibrium, the ex ante equilibrium condition does not hold. For a dynamic adjustment path to take the model from one equilibrium to another via a sequence of discrete adjustments, the model must incorporate some lags. Without lags, the adjustment would be instantaneous, and the model would move from its old equilibrium to a new equilibrium in one fell swoop. But in the course of a sequence of partial adjustments, savings and investment will typically have to be defined by the model so that they are not equal, and this will be reflected in the implied course of savings and investment if the model is worked out period-by-period. Or if you were to observe the Phillips machine (a hydraulic macroeconomic model built by A. W. Phillips of Phillips Curve fame) in action, you could actually see that the savings and investment flows were of unequal magnitudes as machine responded to a change in the settings and moved from one hydraulic equilibrium to another.

It is a common mistake, and the primary object of Richard Lipsey’s scorn in his essay, to attribute causal significance to the savings-investment identity, as if it were the force of the identity itself that guided the dynamic adjustment, when, in reality, the identity, which can always be recovered if one does all the necessary accounting and classifies all the transactions according to the accounting conventions, is irrelevant to the adjustment path. Doing the accounting does not explain how the model moves from the old to a new equilibrium; it just assures us that nothing has been omitted from a final description of what has happened. Rather, the causal mechanism driving the adjustment process can be described using the intuitive idea that income changes because there are injections (in the form of investment) into the income and expenditure flows and leakages (in the form of savings) out of those flows, and when the injections and leakages are unequal in magnitude, the discrepancy between the injections and the leakages causes a corresponding change in the income and expenditure flows.

One commenter pointed out that, even in the numerical example (taken from Lipsey’s essay) that I gave in my earlier post, the sequence of adjustments preserved the definitional equality between savings and investment and income and expenditure, even though the verbal explanation of the adjustment process showed that the equality of savings and investment required a rather forced interpretation of the meaning of savings: the difference between the cash balance expected at the end of a period and the actual cash balance at the end of the period. This peculiar interpretation of savings and its equality with investment reflected the way that Lipsey chose to introduce a lag between expenditure and income into the model: by assuming that income was disbursed by businesses to households at the end of the period in which households provide services to businesses. The income received at the end of one period is then used to finance consumption expenditures and savings in the following period.

I should have pointed out that if one made the trivial adjustment in the expenditure-income lag, so that incomes earned in one period are not at the end of the current period, but at the beginning of the following period, then income and expenditure and savings and investment would not remain equal over the course of the adjustment from the old to the new equilibrium. The sequence of adjustments under the alternative assumption is shown in Table 1 below.

Of course, if we assume that there is a one-period lag between expenditure and income, one could define something called total savings, which would be household savings plus business savings, where business savings is defined as the difference between cash held by businesses at the end of the current period and cash held by businesses at the end of the previous period. And total savings is identically equal to investment. However, it is important to bear in mind that from the point of view of the simple income-expenditure model, the relevant causal variable in determining equilibrium is not total savings, but household savings.

Why do I say that household savings, not business savings, is the relevant causal factor in determining equilibrium income in the simple income-expenditure model? The reason should be obvious: the solution for equilibrium in the simple income-expenditure model is Y = A/(1 – MPC), where A represents the autonomous component of consumption plus planned investment by business firms and MPC is the marginal propensity to consume by households, so that (1 – MPC) is the marginal propensity to save (MPS) . . . by households!

In this setup, business savings is a pure residual adjusting to make up the difference between household savings and investment. When household savings exceeds investment, businesses accumulate their holdings of cash, and when investment is greater than household saving, businesses reduce their accumulate cash. The operation of the banking system might be relevant at this point, but that analysis would take this discussion to a whole new level, which I am not going to get started on at this point.

I will close at this point by just saying that I think that I have provided an answer to the following comment on my previous post asking what is gained by introducing an alternative set of definitions of saving and investment under which savings and investment are equal only in equilibrium, but not otherwise:

But let’s just say you have a system of accounts where definitions are different and saving is different from investment. I can do a mathematical transformation to a new set of variables in which standard identities hold. What is the point of writing so much? Absolutely nothing.

The point of course is that by defining savings and investment so that they are equal only in equilibrium, we now have a system of two linear equations in two unknowns that can be solved for a unique solution, something that cannot be done if savings and investment are identically equal. Second, when we have defined savings and investment so that they can be unequal, but define their equality to be a condition of equilibrium, we can write the following dynamic relationships characterizing the system:

dY/dt = 0 <=> I = S

dY/dt > 0 <=> I > S

dY/dt < 0 <=> I < S

where I and S are defined under the behavioral assumptions in this example as actual investment by businesses and saving by households. The precise definition of I and S would depend, in each particular case, on the specific behavioral assumptions about the underlying lag structure of the model for that particular case. The definitional equality of total savings and investment has no causal significance, but simply reflects the fact that total savings is defined in such a way that it must equal investment.

The definitional equality of savings and investment, as Scott Sumner has observed, is exactly analogous to the quantity identity MV ≡ PY, when V is treated not as the reciprocal of the amount of money demanded as a fraction of income — which is to say as a measurable magnitude understood to be a function of specifiable independent variables — but simply as a residual whose value, by definition, must always be identically equal to PY/M. The quantity identity, lacking being consistent with all possible states of the world, because V is defined not as an independent variable, but as a mere residual. The quantity identity is therefore of no use in describing the dynamic process of adjustment to a change in the quantity of money or what in telling us what are the causes of such a process.

UPDATE (3/29/15): In writing a response to Jamie’s comment, I realized that in the third paragraph after the table above, I misstated the relationship between business savings and the difference between investment and household savings. I have made the correction, and apologize for not being more careful.

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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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