Archive for the 'John Muth' Category

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.

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Hayek and Intertemporal Equilibrium

I am starting to write a paper on Hayek and intertemporal equilibrium, and as I write it over the next couple of weeks, I am going to post sections of it on this blog. Comments from readers will be even more welcome than usual, and I will do my utmost to reply to comments, a goal that, I am sorry to say, I have not been living up to in my recent posts.

The idea of equilibrium is an essential concept in economics. It is an essential concept in other sciences as well, its meaning in economics is not the same as in other disciplines. The concept having originally been borrowed from physics, the meaning originally attached to it by economists corresponded to the notion of a system at rest, and it took a long time for economists to see that viewing an economy as a system at rest was not the only, or even the most useful, way of applying the equilibrium concept to economic phenomena.

What would it mean for an economic system to be at rest? The obvious answer was to say that prices and quantities would not change. If supply equals demand in every market, and if there no exogenous change introduced into the system, e.g., in population, technology, tastes, etc., it would seem that would be no reason for the prices paid and quantities produced to change in that system. But that view of an economic system was a very restrictive one, because such a large share of economic activity – savings and investment — is predicated on the assumption and expectation of change.

The model of a stationary economy at rest in which all economic activity simply repeats what has already happened before did not seem very satisfying or informative, but that was the view of equilibrium that originally took hold in economics. The idea of a stationary timeless equilibrium can be traced back to the classical economists, especially Ricardo and Mill who wrote about the long-run tendency of an economic system toward a stationary state. But it was the introduction by Jevons, Menger, Walras and their followers of the idea of optimizing decisions by rational consumers and producers that provided the key insight for a more robust and fruitful version of the equilibrium concept.

If each economic agent (household or business firm) is viewed as making optimal choices based on some scale of preferences subject to limitations or constraints imposed by their capacities, endowments, technology and the legal system, then the equilibrium of an economy must describe a state in which each agent, given his own subjective ranking of the feasible alternatives, is making a optimal decision, and those optimal decisions are consistent with those of all other agents. The optimal decisions of each agent must simultaneously be optimal from the point of view of that agent while also being consistent, or compatible, with the optimal decisions of every other agent. In other words, the decisions of all buyers of how much to purchase must be consistent with the decisions of all sellers of how much to sell.

The idea of an equilibrium as a set of independently conceived, mutually consistent optimal plans was latent in the earlier notions of equilibrium, but it could not be articulated until a concept of optimality had been defined. That concept was utility maximization and it was further extended to include the ideas of cost minimization and profit maximization. Once the idea of an optimal plan was worked out, the necessary conditions for the mutual consistency of optimal plans could be articulated as the necessary conditions for a general economic equilibrium. Once equilibrium was defined as the consistency of optimal plans, the path was clear to define an intertemporal equilibrium as the consistency of optimal plans extending over time. Because current goods and services and otherwise identical goods and services in the future could be treated as economically distinct goods and services, defining the conditions for an intertemporal equilibrium was formally almost equivalent to defining the conditions for a static, stationary equilibrium. Just as the conditions for a static equilibrium could be stated in terms of equalities between marginal rates of substitution of goods in consumption and in production to their corresponding price ratios, an intertemporal equilibrium could be stated in terms of equalities between the marginal rates of intertemporal substitution in consumption and in production and their corresponding intertemporal price ratios.

The only formal adjustment required in the necessary conditions for static equilibrium to be extended to intertemporal equilibrium was to recognize that, inasmuch as future prices (typically) are unobservable, and hence unknown to economic agents, the intertemporal price ratios cannot be ratios between actual current prices and actual future prices, but, instead, ratios between current prices and expected future prices. From this it followed that for optimal plans to be mutually consistent, all economic agents must have the same expectations of the future prices in terms of which their plans were optimized.

The concept of an intertemporal equilibrium was first presented in English by F. A. Hayek in his 1937 article “Economics and Knowledge.” But it was through J. R. Hicks’s Value and Capital published two years later in 1939 that the concept became more widely known and understood. In explaining and applying the concept of intertemporal equilibrium and introducing the derivative concept of a temporary equilibrium in which current markets clear, but individual expectations of future prices are not the same, Hicks did not claim originality, but instead of crediting Hayek for the concept, or even mentioning Hayek’s 1937 paper, Hicks credited the Swedish economist Erik Lindahl, who had published articles in the early 1930s in which he had articulated the concept. But although Lindahl had published his important work on intertemporal equilibrium before Hayek’s 1937 article, Hayek had already explained the concept in a 1928 article “Das intertemporale Gleichgewichtasystem der Priese und die Bewegungen des ‘Geltwertes.'” (English translation: “Intertemporal price equilibrium and movements in the value of money.“)

Having been a junior colleague of Hayek’s in the early 1930s when Hayek arrived at the London School of Economics, and having come very much under Hayek’s influence for a few years before moving in a different theoretical direction in the mid-1930s, Hicks was certainly aware of Hayek’s work on intertemporal equilibrium, so it has long been a puzzle to me why Hicks did not credit Hayek along with Lindahl for having developed the concept of intertemporal equilibrium. It might be worth pursuing that question, but I mention it now only as an aside, in the hope that someone else might find it interesting and worthwhile to try to find a solution to that puzzle. As a further aside, I will mention that Murray Milgate in a 1979 article “On the Origin of the Notion of ‘Intertemporal Equilibrium’” has previously tried to redress the failure to credit Hayek’s role in introducing the concept of intertemporal equilibrium into economic theory.

What I am going to discuss in here and in future posts are three distinct ways in which the concept of intertemporal equilibrium has been developed since Hayek’s early work – his 1928 and 1937 articles but also his 1941 discussion of intertemporal equilibrium in The Pure Theory of Capital. Of course, the best known development of the concept of intertemporal equilibrium is the Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie (ADM) general-equilibrium model. But although it can be thought of as a model of intertemporal equilibrium, the ADM model is set up in such a way that all economic decisions are taken before the clock even starts ticking; the transactions that are executed once the clock does start simply follow a pre-determined script. In the ADM model, the passage of time is a triviality, merely a way of recording the sequential order of the predetermined production and consumption activities. This feat is accomplished by assuming that all agents are present at time zero with their property endowments in hand and capable of transacting – but conditional on the determination of an equilibrium price vector that allows all optimal plans to be simultaneously executed over the entire duration of the model — in a complete set of markets (including state-contingent markets covering the entire range of contingent events that will unfold in the course of time whose outcomes could affect the wealth or well-being of any agent with the probabilities associated with every contingent event known in advance).

Just as identical goods in different physical locations or different time periods can be distinguished as different commodities that cn be purchased at different prices for delivery at specific times and places, identical goods can be distinguished under different states of the world (ice cream on July 4, 2017 in Washington DC at 2pm only if the temperature is greater than 90 degrees). Given the complete set of state-contingent markets and the known probabilities of the contingent events, an equilibrium price vector for the complete set of markets would give rise to optimal trades reallocating the risks associated with future contingent events and to an optimal allocation of resources over time. Although the ADM model is an intertemporal model only in a limited sense, it does provide an ideal benchmark describing the characteristics of a set of mutually consistent optimal plans.

The seminal work of Roy Radner in relaxing some of the extreme assumptions of the ADM model puts Hayek’s contribution to the understanding of the necessary conditions for an intertemporal equilibrium into proper perspective. At an informal level, Hayek was addressing the same kinds of problems that Radner analyzed with far more powerful analytical tools than were available to Hayek. But the were both concerned with a common problem: under what conditions could an economy with an incomplete set of markets be said to be in a state of intertemporal equilibrium? In an economy lacking the full set of forward and state contingent markets describing the ADM model, intertemporal equilibrium cannot predetermined before trading even begins, but must, if such an equilibrium obtains, unfold through the passage of time. Outcomes might be expected, but they would not be predetermined in advance. Echoing Hayek, though to my knowledge he does not refer to Hayek in his work, Radner describes his intertemporal equilibrium under uncertainty as an equilibrium of plans, prices, and price expectations. Even if it exists, the Radner equilibrium is not the same as the ADM equilibrium, because without a full set of markets, agents can’t fully hedge against, or insure, all the risks to which they are exposed. The distinction between ex ante and ex post is not eliminated in the Radner equilibrium, though it is eliminated in the ADM equilibrium.

Additionally, because all trades in the ADM model have been executed before “time” begins, it seems impossible to rationalize holding any asset whose only use is to serve as a medium of exchange. In his early writings on business cycles, e.g., Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle, Hayek questioned whether it would be possible to rationalize the holding of money in the context of a model of full equilibrium, suggesting that monetary exchange, by severing the link between aggregate supply and aggregate demand characteristic of a barter economy as described by Say’s Law, was the source of systematic deviations from the intertemporal equilibrium corresponding to the solution of a system of Walrasian equations. Hayek suggested that progress in analyzing economic fluctuations would be possible only if the Walrasian equilibrium method could be somehow be extended to accommodate the existence of money, uncertainty, and other characteristics of the real world while maintaining the analytical discipline imposed by the equilibrium method and the optimization principle. It proved to be a task requiring resources that were beyond those at Hayek’s, or probably anyone else’s, disposal at the time. But it would be wrong to fault Hayek for having had to insight to perceive and frame a problem that was beyond his capacity to solve. What he may be criticized for is mistakenly believing that he he had in fact grasped the general outlines of a solution when in fact he had only perceived some aspects of the solution and offering seriously inappropriate policy recommendations based on that seriously incomplete understanding.

In Value and Capital, Hicks also expressed doubts whether it would be possible to analyze the economic fluctuations characterizing the business cycle using a model of pure intertemporal equilibrium. He proposed an alternative approach for analyzing fluctuations which he called the method of temporary equilibrium. The essence of the temporary-equilibrium method is to analyze the behavior of an economy under the assumption that all markets for current delivery clear (in some not entirely clear sense of the term “clear”) while understanding that demand and supply in current markets depend not only on current prices but also upon expected future prices, and that the failure of current prices to equal what they had been expected to be is a potential cause for the plans that economic agents are trying to execute to be modified and possibly abandoned. In the Pure Theory of Capital, Hayek discussed Hicks’s temporary-equilibrium method a possible method of achieving the modification in the Walrasian method that he himself had proposed in Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle. But after a brief critical discussion of the method, he dismissed it for reasons that remain obscure. Hayek’s rejection of the temporary-equilibrium method seems in retrospect to have been one of Hayek’s worst theoretical — or perhaps, meta-theoretical — blunders.

Decades later, C. J. Bliss developed the concept of temporary equilibrium to show that temporary equilibrium method can rationalize both holding an asset purely for its services as a medium of exchange and the existence of financial intermediaries (private banks) that supply financial assets held exclusively to serve as a medium of exchange. In such a temporary-equilibrium model with financial intermediaries, it seems possible to model not only the existence of private suppliers of a medium of exchange, but also the conditions – in a very general sense — under which the system of financial intermediaries breaks down. The key variable of course is vectors of expected prices subject to which the plans of individual households, business firms, and financial intermediaries are optimized. The critical point that emerges from Bliss’s analysis is that there are sets of expected prices, which if held by agents, are inconsistent with the existence of even a temporary equilibrium. Thus price flexibility in current market cannot, in principle, result in even a temporary equilibrium, because there is no price vector of current price in markets for present delivery that solves the temporary-equilibrium system. Even perfect price flexibility doesn’t lead to equilibrium if the equilibrium does not exist. And the equilibrium cannot exist if price expectations are in some sense “too far out of whack.”

Expected prices are thus, necessarily, equilibrating variables. But there is no economic mechanism that tends to cause the adjustment of expected prices so that they are consistent with the existence of even a temporary equilibrium, much less a full equilibrium.

Unfortunately, modern macroeconomics continues to neglect the temporary-equilibrium method; instead macroeconomists have for the most part insisted on the adoption of the rational-expectations hypothesis, a hypothesis that elevates question-begging to the status of a fundamental axiom of rationality. The crucial error in the rational-expectations hypothesis was to misunderstand the role of the comparative-statics method developed by Samuelson in The Foundations of Economic Analysis. The role of the comparative-statics method is to isolate the pure theoretical effect of a parameter change under a ceteris-paribus assumption. Such an effect could be derived only by comparing two equilibria under the assumption of a locally unique and stable equilibrium before and after the parameter change. But the method of comparative statics is completely inappropriate to most macroeconomic problems which are precisely concerned with the failure of the economy to achieve, or even to approximate, the unique and stable equilibrium state posited by the comparative-statics method.

Moreover, the original empirical application of the rational-expectations hypothesis by Muth was in the context of the behavior of a single market in which the market was dominated by well-informed specialists who could be presumed to have well-founded expectations of future prices conditional on a relatively stable economic environment. Under conditions of macroeconomic instability, there is good reason to doubt that the accumulated knowledge and experience of market participants would enable agents to form accurate expectations of the future course of prices even in those markets about which they expert knowledge. Insofar as the rational expectations hypothesis has any claim to empirical relevance it is only in the context of stable market situations that can be assumed to be already operating in the neighborhood of an equilibrium. For the kinds of problems that macroeconomists are really trying to answer that assumption is neither relevant nor appropriate.

A Primer on Equilibrium

After my latest post about rational expectations, Henry from Australia, one of my most prolific commenters, has been engaging me in a conversation about what assumptions are made – or need to be made – for an economic model to have a solution and for that solution to be characterized as an equilibrium, and in particular, a general equilibrium. Equilibrium in economics is not always a clearly defined concept, and it can have a number of different meanings depending on the properties of a given model. But the usual understanding is that the agents in the model (as consumers or producers) are trying to do as well for themselves as they can, given the endowments of resources, skills and technology at their disposal and given their preferences. The conversation was triggered by my assertion that rational expectations must be “compatible with the equilibrium of the model in which those expectations are embedded.”

That was the key insight of John Muth in his paper introducing the rational-expectations assumption into economic modelling. So in any model in which the current and future actions of individuals depend on their expectations of the future, the model cannot arrive at an equilibrium unless those expectations are consistent with the equilibrium of the model. If the expectations of agents are incompatible or inconsistent with the equilibrium of the model, then, since the actions taken or plans made by agents are based on those expectations, the model cannot have an equilibrium solution.

Now Henry thinks that this reasoning is circular. My argument would be circular if I defined an equilibrium to be the same thing as correct expectations. But I am not so defining an equilibrium. I am saying that the correctness of expectations by all agents implies 1) that their expectations are mutually consistent, and 2) that, having made plans, based on their expectations, which, by assumption, agents felt were the best set of choices available to them given those expectations, if the expectations of the agents are realized, then they would not regret the decisions and the choices that they made. Each agent would be as well off as he could have made himself, given his perceived opportunities when the decision were made. That the correctness of expectations implies equilibrium is the consequence of assuming that agents are trying to optimize their decision-making process, given their available and expected opportunities. If all expected opportunities are correctly foreseen, then all decisions will have been the optimal decisions under the circumstances. But nothing has been said that requires all expectations to be correct, or even that it is possible for all expectations to be correct. If an equilibrium does not exist, and just because you can write down an economic model, it does not mean that a solution to the model exists, then the sweet spot where all expectations are consistent and compatible is just a blissful fantasy. So a logical precondition to showing that rational expectations are even possible is to prove that an equilibrium exists. There is nothing circular about the argument.

Now the key to proving the existence of a general equilibrium is to show that the general equilibrium model implies the existence of what mathematicians call a fixed point. A fixed point is said to exist when there is a mapping – a rule or a function – that takes every point in a convex compact set of points and assigns that point to another point in the same set. A convex, compact set has two important properties: 1) the line connecting any two points in the set is entirely contained within the boundaries of the set, and 2) there are no gaps between any two points in set. The set of points in a circle or a rectangle is a convex compact set; the set of points contained in the Star of David is not a convex set. Any two points in the circle will be connected by a line that lies completely within the circle; the points at adjacent edges of a Star of David will be connected by a line that lies entirely outside the Star of David.

If you think of the set of all possible price vectors for an economy, those vectors – each containing a price for each good or service in the economy – could be mapped onto itself in the following way. Given all the equations describing the behavior of each agent in the economy, the quantity demanded and supplied of each good could be calculated, giving us the excess demand (the difference between amount demand and supplied) for each good. Then the price of every good in excess demand would be raised, the price of every good in negative excess demand would be reduced, and the price of every good with zero excess demand would be held constant. To ensure that the mapping was taking a point from a given convex set onto itself, all prices could be normalized so that they would have the property that the sum of all the individual prices would always equal 1. The fixed point theorem ensures that for a mapping from one convex compact set onto itself there must be at least one fixed point, i.e., at least one point in the set that gets mapped onto itself. The price vector corresponding to that point is an equilibrium, because, given how our mapping rule was defined, a point would be mapped onto itself if and only if all excess demands are zero, so that no prices changed. Every fixed point – and there may be one or more fixed points – corresponds to an equilibrium price vector and every equilibrium price vector is associated with a fixed point.

Before going on, I ought to make an important observation that is often ignored. The mathematical proof of the existence of an equilibrium doesn’t prove that the economy operates at an equilibrium, or even that the equilibrium could be identified under the mapping rule described (which is a kind of formalization of the Walrasian tatonnement process). The mapping rule doesn’t guarantee that you would ever discover a fixed point in any finite amount of iterations. Walras thought the price adjustment rule of raising the prices of goods in excess demand and reducing prices of goods in excess supply would converge on the equilibrium price vector. But the conditions under which you can prove that the naïve price-adjustment rule converges to an equilibrium price vector turn out to be very restrictive, so even though we can prove that the competitive model has an equilibrium solution – in other words the behavioral, structural and technological assumptions of the model are coherent, meaning that the model has a solution, the model has no assumptions about how prices are actually determined that would prove that the equilibrium is ever reached. In fact, the problem is even more daunting than the previous sentence suggest, because even Walrasian tatonnement imposes an incredibly powerful restriction, namely that no trading is allowed at non-equilibrium prices. In practice there are almost never recontracting provisions allowing traders to revise the terms of their trades once it becomes clear that the prices at which trades were made were not equilibrium prices.

I now want to show how price expectations fit into all of this, because the original general equilibrium models were either one-period models or formal intertemporal models that were reduced to single-period models by assuming that all trading for future delivery was undertaken in the first period by long-lived agents who would eventually carry out the transactions that were contracted in period 1 for subsequent consumption and production. Time was preserved in a purely formal, technical way, but all economic decision-making was actually concluded in the first period. But even though the early general-equilibrium models did not encompass expectations, one of the extraordinary precursors of modern economics, Augustin Cournot, who was way too advanced for his contemporaries even to comprehend, much less make any use of, what he was saying, had incorporated the idea of expectations into the solution of his famous economic model of oligopolistic price setting.

The key to oligopolistic pricing is that each oligopolist must take into account not just consumer demand for his product, and his own production costs; he must consider as well what actions will be taken by his rivals. This is not a problem for a competitive producer (a price-taker) or a pure monopolist. The price-taker simply compares the price at which he can sell as much as he wants with his production costs and decides how much it is worthwhile to produce by comparing his marginal cost to price ,and increases output until the marginal cost rises to match the price at which he can sell. The pure monopolist, if he knows, as is assumed in such exercises, or thinks he knows the shape of the customer demand curve, selects the price and quantity combination on the demand curve that maximizes total profit (corresponding to the equality of marginal revenue and marginal cost). In oligopolistic situations, each producer must take into account how much his rivals will sell, or what prices they will set.

It was by positing such a situation and finding an analytic solution, that Cournot made a stunning intellectual breakthrough. In the simple duopoly case, Cournot posited that if the duopolists had identical costs, then each could find his optimal price conditional on the output chosen by the other. This is a simple profit-maximization problem for each duopolist, given a demand curve for the combined output of both (assumed to be identical, so that a single price must obtain for the output of both) a cost curve and the output of the other duopolist. Thus, for each duopolist there is a reaction curve showing his optimal output given the output of the other. See the accompanying figure.cournot

If one duopolist produces zero, the optimal output for the other is the monopoly output. Depending on what the level of marginal cost is, there is some output by either of the duopolists that is sufficient to make it unprofitable for the other duopolist to produce anything. That level of output corresponds to the competitive output where price just equals marginal cost. So the slope of the two reaction functions corresponds to the ratio of the monopoly output to the competitive output, which, with constant marginal cost is 2:1. Given identical costs, the two reaction curves are symmetric and the optimal output for each, given the expected output of the other, corresponds to the intersection of the two reaction curves, at which both duopolists produce the same quantity. The combined output of the two duopolists will be greater than the monopoly output, but less than the competitive output at which price equals marginal cost. With constant marginal cost, it turns out that each duopolist produces one-third of the competitive output. In the general case with n oligoplists, the ratio of the combined output of all n firms to the competitive output equals n/(n+1).

Cournot’s solution corresponds to a fixed point where the equilibrium of the model implies that both duopolists have correct expectations of the output of the other. Given the assumptions of the model, if the duopolists both expect the other to produce an output equal to one-third of the competitive output, their expectations will be consistent and will be realized. If either one expects the other to produce a different output, the outcome will not be an equilibrium, and each duopolist will regret his output decision, because the price at which he can sell his output will differ from the price that he had expected. In the Cournot case, you could define a mapping of a vector of the quantities that each duopolist had expected the other to produce and the corresponding planned output of each duopolist. An equilibrium corresponds to a case in which both duopolists expected the output planned by the other. If either duopolist expected a different output from what the other planned, the outcome would not be an equilibrium.

We can now recognize that Cournot’s solution anticipated John Nash’s concept of an equilibrium strategy in which player chooses a strategy that is optimal given his expectation of what the other player’s strategy will be. A Nash equilibrium corresponds to a fixed point in which each player chooses an optimal strategy based on the correct expectation of what the other player’s strategy will be. There may be more than one Nash equilibrium in many games. For example, rather than base their decisions on an expectation of the quantity choice of the other duopolist, the two duopolists could base their decisions on an expectation of what price the other duopolist would set. In the constant-cost case, this choice of strategies would lead to the competitive output because both duopolists would conclude that the optimal strategy of the other duopolist would be to charge a price just sufficient to cover his marginal cost. This was the alternative oligopoly model suggested by another French economist J. L. F. Bertrand. Of course there is a lot more to be said about how oligopolists strategize than just these two models, and the conditions under which one or the other model is the more appropriate. I just want to observe that assumptions about expectations are crucial to how we analyze market equilibrium, and that the importance of these assumptions for understanding market behavior has been recognized for a very long time.

But from a macroeconomic perspective, the important point is that expected prices become the critical equilibrating variable in the theory of general equilibrium and in macroeconomics in general. Single-period models of equilibrium, including general-equilibrium models that are formally intertemporal, but in which all trades are executed in the initial period at known prices in a complete array of markets determining all future economic activity, are completely sterile and useless for macroeconomics except as a stepping stone to analyzing the implications of imperfect forecasts of future prices. If we want to think about general equilibrium in a useful macroeconomic context, we have to think about a general-equilibrium system in which agents make plans about consumption and production over time based on only the vaguest conjectures about what future conditions will be like when the various interconnected stages of their plans will be executed.

Unlike the full Arrow-Debreu system of complete markets, a general-equilibrium system with incomplete markets cannot be equilibrated, even in principle, by price adjustments in the incomplete set of present markets. Equilibration depends on the consistency of expected prices with equilibrium. If equilibrium is characterized by a fixed point, the fixed point must be mapping of a set of vectors of current prices and expected prices on to itself. That means that expected future prices are as much equilibrating variables as current market prices. But expected future prices exist only in the minds of the agents, they are not directly subject to change by market forces in the way that prices in actual markets are. If the equilibrating tendencies of market prices in a system of complete markets are very far from completely effective, the equilibrating tendencies of expected future prices may not only be non-existent, but may even be potentially disequilibrating rather than equilibrating.

The problem of price expectations in an intertemporal general-equilibrium system is central to the understanding of macroeconomics. Hayek, who was the father of intertemporal equilibrium theory, which he was the first to outline in a 1928 paper in German, and who explained the problem with unsurpassed clarity in his 1937 paper “Economics and Knowledge,” unfortunately did not seem to acknowledge its radical consequences for macroeconomic theory, and the potential ineffectiveness of self-equilibrating market forces. My quarrel with rational expectations as a strategy of macroeconomic analysis is its implicit assumption, lacking any analytical support, that prices and price expectations somehow always adjust to equilibrium values. In certain contexts, when there is no apparent basis to question whether a particular market is functioning efficiently, rational expectations may be a reasonable working assumption for modelling observed behavior. However, when there is reason to question whether a given market is operating efficiently or whether an entire economy is operating close to its potential, to insist on principle that the rational-expectations assumption must be made, to assume, in other words, that actual and expected prices adjust rapidly to their equilibrium values allowing an economy to operate at or near its optimal growth path, is simply, as I have often said, an exercise in circular reasoning and question begging.

Making Sense of Rational Expectations

Almost two months ago I wrote a provocatively titled post about rational expectations, in which I argued against the idea that it is useful to make the rational-expectations assumption in developing a theory of business cycles. The title of the post was probably what led to the start of a thread about my post on the econjobrumors blog, the tenor of which  can be divined from the contribution of one commenter: “Who on earth is Glasner?” But, aside from the attention I received on econjobrumors, I also elicited a response from Scott Sumner

David Glasner has a post criticizing the rational expectations modeling assumption in economics:

What this means is that expectations can be rational only when everyone has identical expectations. If people have divergent expectations, then the expectations of at least some people will necessarily be disappointed — the expectations of both people with differing expectations cannot be simultaneously realized — and those individuals whose expectations have been disappointed will have to revise their plans. But that means that the expectations of those people who were correct were also not rational, because the prices that they expected were not equilibrium prices. So unless all agents have the same expectations about the future, the expectations of no one are rational. Rational expectations are a fixed point, and that fixed point cannot be attained unless everyone shares those expectations.

Beyond that little problem, Mason raises the further problem that, in a rational-expectations equilibrium, it makes no sense to speak of a shock, because the only possible meaning of “shock” in the context of a full intertemporal (aka rational-expectations) equilibrium is a failure of expectations to be realized. But if expectations are not realized, expectations were not rational.

I see two mistakes here. Not everyone must have identical expectations in a world of rational expectations. Now it’s true that there are ratex models where people are simply assumed to have identical expectations, such as representative agent models, but that modeling assumption has nothing to do with rational expectations, per se.

In fact, the rational expectations hypothesis suggests that people form optimal forecasts based on all publicly available information. One of the most famous rational expectations models was Robert Lucas’s model of monetary misperceptions, where people observed local conditions before national data was available. In that model, each agent sees different local prices, and thus forms different expectations about aggregate demand at the national level.

It is true that not all expectations must be identical in a world of rational expectations. The question is whether those expectations are compatible with the equilibrium of the model in which those expectations are embedded. If any of those expectations are incompatible with the equilibrium of the model, then, if agents’ decision are based on their expectations, the model will not arrive at an equilibrium solution. Lucas’s monetary misperception model was a clever effort to tweak the rational-expectations assumption just enough to allow for a temporary disequilibrium. But the attempt was a failure, because Lucas could only generate a one-period deviation from equilibrium, which was too little for the model to pose as a plausible account of a business cycle. That provided Kydland and Prescott the idea to discard Lucas’s monetary misperceptions idea and write their paper on real business cycles without adulterating the rational expectations assumption.

Here’s what Muth said about the rational expectations assumption in the paper in which he introduced “rational expectations” as a modeling strategy.

In order to explain these phenomena, I should like to suggest that expectations, since they are informed predictions of future events, are essentially the same as the predictions of the relevant economic theory. At the risk of confusing this purely descriptive hypothesis with a pronouncement as to what firms ought to do, we call such expectations “rational.”

The hypothesis can be rephrased a little more precisely as follows: that expectations of firms (or, more generally, the subjective probability distribution of outcomes) tend to be distributed, for the same information set, about the prediction of the theory (or the “objective” probability distributions of outcomes).

The hypothesis asserts three things: (1) Information is scarce, and the economic system generally does not waste it. (2) The way expectations are formed depends specifically on the structure of the relevant system describing the economy. (3) A “public prediction,” in the sense of Grunberg and Modigliani, will have no substantial effect on the operation of the economic system (unless it is based on inside information).

It does not assert that the scratch work of entrepreneurs resembles the system of equations in any way; nor does it state that predictions of entrepreneurs are perfect or that their expectations are all the same. For purposes of analysis, we shall use a specialized form of the hypothesis. In particular, we assume: 1. The random disturbances are normally distributed. 2. Certainty equivalents exist for the variables to be predicted. 3. The equations of the system, including the expectations formulas, are linear. These assumptions are not quite so strong as may appear at first because any one of them virtually implies the other two.

It seems to me that Muth was confused about what the rational-expectations assumption entails. He asserts that the expectations of entrepreneurs — and presumably that applies to other economic agents as well insofar as their decisions are influenced by their expectations of the future – should be assumed to be exactly what the relevant economic model predicts the expected outcomes to be. If so, I don’t see how it can be maintained that expectations could diverge from each other. If what entrepreneurs produce next period depends on the price they expect next period, then how is it possible that the total supply produced next period is independent of the distribution of expectations as long as the errors are normally distributed and the mean of the distribution corresponds to the equilibrium of the model? This could only be true if the output produced by each entrepreneur was a linear function of the expected price and all entrepreneurs had identical marginal costs or if the distribution of marginal costs was uncorrelated with the distribution of expectations. The linearity assumption is hardly compelling unless you assume that the system is in equilibrium and all changes are small. But making that assumption is just another form of question begging.

It’s also wrong to say:

But if expectations are not realized, expectations were not rational.

Scott is right. What I said was wrong. What I ought to have said is: “But if expectations (being divergent) could not have been realized, those expectations were not rational.”

Suppose I am watching the game of roulette. I form the expectation that the ball will not land on one of the two green squares. Now suppose it does. Was my expectation rational? I’d say yes—there was only a 2/38 chance of the ball landing on a green square. It’s true that I lacked perfect foresight, but my expectation was rational, given what I knew at the time.

I don’t think that Scott’s response is compelling, because you can’t judge the rationality of an expectation in isolation, it has to be judged in a broader context. If you are forming your expectation about where the ball will fall in a game of roulette, the rationality of that expectation can only be evaluated in the context of how much you should be willing to bet that the ball will fall on one of the two green squares and that requires knowledge of what the payoff would be if the ball did fall on one of those two squares. And that would mean that someone else is involved in the game and would be taking an opposite position. The rationality of expectations could only be judged in the context of what everyone participating in the game was expecting and what the payoffs and penalties were for each participant.

In 2006, it might have been rational to forecast that housing prices would not crash. If you lived in many countries, your forecast would have been correct. If you happened to live in Ireland or the US, your forecast would have been incorrect. But it might well have been a rational forecast in all countries.

The rationality of a forecast can’t be assessed in isolation. A forecast is rational if it is consistent with other forecasts, so that it, along with the other forecasts, could potentially be realized. As a commenter on Scott’s blog observed, a rational expectation is an expectation that, at the time the forecast is made, is consistent with the relevant model. The forecast of housing prices may turn out to be incorrect, but the forecast might still have been rational when it was made if the forecast of prices was consistent with what the relevant model would have predicted. The failure of the forecast to be realized could mean either that forecast was not consistent with the model, or that between the time of the forecast and the time of its realization, new information,  not available at the time of the forecast, came to light and changed the the prediction of the relevant model.

The need for context in assessing the rationality of expectations was wonderfully described by Thomas Schelling in his classic analysis of cooperative games.

One may or may not agree with any particular hypothesis as to how a bargainer’s expectations are formed either in the bargaining process or before it and either by the bargaining itself or by other forces. But it does seem clear that the outcome of a bargaining process is to be described most immediately, most straightforwardly, and most empirically, in terms of some phenomenon of stable and convergent expectations. Whether one agrees explicitly to a bargain, or agrees tacitly, or accepts by default, he must if he has his wits about him, expect that he could do no better and recognize that the other party must reciprocate the feeling. Thus, the fact of an outcome, which is simply a coordinated choice, should be analytically characterized by the notion of convergent expectations.

The intuitive formulation, or even a careful formulation in psychological terms, of what it is that a rational player expects in relation to another rational player in the “pure” bargaining game, poses a problem in sheer scientific description. Both players, being rational, must recognize that the only kind of “rational” expectation they can have is a fully shared expectation of an outcome. It is not quite accurate – as a description of a psychological phenomenon – to say that one expects the second to concede something; the second’s readiness to concede or to accept is only an expression of what he expects the first to accept or to concede, which in turn is what he expects the first to expect the second to expect the first to expect, and so on. To avoid an “ad infinitum” in the description process, we have to say that both sense a shared expectation of an outcome; one’s expectation is a belief that both identify the outcome as being indicated by the situation, hence as virtually inevitable. Both players, in effect, accept a common authority – the power of the game to dictate its own solution through their intellectual capacity to perceive it – and what they “expect” is that they both perceive the same solution.

Viewed in this way, the intellectual process of arriving at “rational expectations” in the full-communication “pure” bargaining game is virtually identical with the intellectual process of arriving at a coordinated choice in the tacit game. The actual solutions might be different because the game contexts might be different, with different suggestive details; but the intellectual nature of the two solutions seems virtually identical since both depend on an agreement that is reached by tacit consent. This is true because the explicit agreement that is reached in the full communication game corresponds to the a prioir expectations that were reached (or in theory could have been reached) jointly but independently by the two players before the bargaining started. And it is a tacit “agreement” in the sense that both can hold confident rational expectation only if both are aware that both accept the indicated solution in advance as the outcome that they both know they both expect.

So I agree that rational expectations can simply mean that agents are forming expectations about the future incorporating as best as they can all the knowledge available to them. This is a weak common sense interpretation of rational expectations that I think is what Scott Sumner has in mind when he uses the term “rational expectations.” But in the context of formal modelling, rational expectations has a more restrictive meaning, which is that given all the information available, the expectations of all agents in the model must correspond to what the model itself predicts given that information. Even though Muth himself and others have tried to avoid the inference that all agents must have expectations that match the solution of the model, given the information underlying the model, the assumptions under which agents could hold divergent expectations are, in their own way, just as restrictive as the assumption that agents hold convergent expectations.

In a way, the disconnect between a common-sense understanding of what “rational expectations” means and what “rational expectations” means in the context of formal macroeconomic models is analogous to the disconnect between what “competition” means in normal discourse and what “competition” (and especially “perfect competition”) means in the context of formal microeconomic models. Much of the rivalrous behavior between competitors that we think of as being essential aspects of competition and the competitive process is simply ruled out by the formal assumption of perfect competition.


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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