Archive for the 'sticky prices' Category

Price Stickiness Is a Symptom not a Cause

In my recent post about Nick Rowe and the law of reflux, I mentioned in passing that I might write a post soon about price stickiness. The reason that I thought it would be worthwhile writing again about price stickiness (which I have written about before here and here), because Nick, following a broad consensus among economists, identifies price stickiness as a critical cause of fluctuations in employment and income. Here’s how Nick phrased it:

An excess demand for land is observed in the land market. An excess demand for bonds is observed in the bond market. An excess demand for equities is observed in the equity market. An excess demand for money is observed in any market. If some prices adjust quickly enough to clear their market, but other prices are sticky so their markets don’t always clear, we may observe an excess demand for money as an excess supply of goods in those sticky-price markets, but the prices in flexible-price markets will still be affected by the excess demand for money.

Then a bit later, Nick continues:

If individuals want to save in the form of money, they won’t collectively be able to if the stock of money does not increase.There will be an excess demand for money in all the money markets, except those where the price of the non-money thing in that market is flexible and adjusts to clear that market. In the sticky-price markets there will nothing an individual can do if he wants to buy more money but nobody else wants to sell more. But in those same sticky-price markets any individual can always sell less money, regardless of what any other individual wants to do. Nobody can stop you selling less money, if that’s what you want to do.

Unable to increase the flow of money into their portfolios, each individual reduces the flow of money out of his portfolio. Demand falls in stick-price markets, quantity traded is determined by the short side of the market (Q=min{Qd,Qs}), so trade falls, and some traders that would be mutually advantageous in a barter or Walrasian economy even at those sticky prices don’t get made, and there’s a recession. Since money is used for trade, the demand for money depends on the volume of trade. When trade falls the flow of money falls too, and the stock demand for money falls, until the representative individual chooses a flow of money out of his portfolio equal to the flow in. He wants to increase the flow in, but cannot, since other individuals don’t want to increase their flows out.

The role of price stickiness or price rigidity in accounting for involuntary unemployment is an old and complicated story. If you go back and read what economists before Keynes had to say about the Great Depression, you will find that there was considerable agreement that, in principle, if workers were willing to accept a large enough cut in their wages, they could all get reemployed. That was a proposition accepted by Hawtry and by Keynes. However, they did not believe that wage cutting was a good way of restoring full employment, because the process of wage cutting would be brutal economically and divisive – even self-destructive – politically. So they favored a policy of reflation that would facilitate and hasten the process of recovery. However, there also those economists, e.g., Ludwig von Mises and the young Lionel Robbins in his book The Great Depression, (which he had the good sense to disavow later in life) who attributed high unemployment to an unwillingness of workers and labor unions to accept wage cuts and to various other legal barriers preventing the price mechanism from operating to restore equilibrium in the normal way that prices adjust to equate the amount demanded with the amount supplied in each and every single market.

But in the General Theory, Keynes argued that if you believed in the standard story told by microeconomics about how prices constantly adjust to equate demand and supply and maintain equilibrium, then maybe you should be consistent and follow the Mises/Robbins story and just wait for the price mechanism to perform its magic, rather than support counter-cyclical monetary and fiscal policies. So Keynes then argued that there is actually something wrong with the standard microeconomic story; price adjustments can’t ensure that overall economic equilibrium is restored, because the level of employment depends on aggregate demand, and if aggregate demand is insufficient, wage cutting won’t increase – and, more likely, would reduce — aggregate demand, so that no amount of wage-cutting would succeed in reducing unemployment.

To those upholding the idea that the price system is a stable self-regulating system or process for coordinating a decentralized market economy, in other words to those upholding microeconomic orthodoxy as developed in any of the various strands of the neoclassical paradigm, Keynes’s argument was deeply disturbing and subversive.

In one of the first of his many important publications, “Liquidity Preference and the Theory of Money and Interest,” Franco Modigliani argued that, despite Keynes’s attempt to prove that unemployment could persist even if prices and wages were perfectly flexible, the assumption of wage rigidity was in fact essential to arrive at Keynes’s result that there could be an equilibrium with involuntary unemployment. Modigliani did so by positing a model in which the supply of labor is a function of real wages. It was not hard for Modigliani to show that in such a model an equilibrium with unemployment required a rigid real wage.

Modigliani was not in favor of relying on price flexibility instead of counter-cyclical policy to solve the problem of involuntary unemployment; he just argued that the rationale for such policies had to be that prices and wages were not adjusting immediately to clear markets. But the inference that Modigliani drew from that analysis — that price flexibility would lead to an equilibrium with full employment — was not valid, there being no guarantee that price adjustments would necessarily lead to equilibrium, unless all prices and wages instantaneously adjusted to their new equilibrium in response to any deviation from a pre-existing equilibrium.

All the theory of general equilibrium tells us is that if all trading takes place at the equilibrium set of prices, the economy will be in equilibrium as long as the underlying “fundamentals” of the economy do not change. But in a decentralized economy, no one knows what the equilibrium prices are, and the equilibrium price in each market depends in principle on what the equilibrium prices are in every other market. So unless the price in every market is an equilibrium price, none of the markets is necessarily in equilibrium.

Now it may well be that if all prices are close to equilibrium, the small changes will keep moving the economy closer and closer to equilibrium, so that the adjustment process will converge. But that is just conjecture, there is no proof showing the conditions under which a simple rule that says raise the price in any market with an excess demand and decrease the price in any market with an excess supply will in fact lead to the convergence of the whole system to equilibrium. Even in a Walrasian tatonnement system, in which no trading at disequilibrium prices is allowed, there is no proof that the adjustment process will eventually lead to the discovery of the equilibrium price vector. If trading at disequilibrium prices is allowed, tatonnement is hopeless.

So the real problem is not that prices are sticky but that trading takes place at disequilibrium prices and there is no mechanism by which to discover what the equilibrium prices are. Modern macroeconomics solves this problem, in its characteristic fashion, by assuming it away by insisting that expectations are “rational.”

Economists have allowed themselves to make this absurd assumption because they are in the habit of thinking that the simple rule of raising price when there is an excess demand and reducing the price when there is an excess supply inevitably causes convergence to equilibrium. This habitual way of thinking has been inculcated in economists by the intense, and largely beneficial, training they have been subjected to in Marshallian partial-equilibrium analysis, which is built on the assumption that every market can be analyzed in isolation from every other market. But that analytic approach can only be justified under a very restrictive set of assumptions. In particular it is assumed that any single market under consideration is small relative to the whole economy, so that its repercussions on other markets can be ignored, and that every other market is in equilibrium, so that there are no changes from other markets that are impinging on the equilibrium in the market under consideration.

Neither of these assumptions is strictly true in theory, so all partial equilibrium analysis involves a certain amount of hand-waving. Nor, even if we wanted to be careful and precise, could we actually dispense with the hand-waving; the hand-waving is built into the analysis, and can’t be avoided. I have often referred to these assumptions required for the partial-equilibrium analysis — the bread and butter microeconomic analysis of Econ 101 — to be valid as the macroeconomic foundations of microeconomics, by which I mean that the casual assumption that microeconomics somehow has a privileged and secure theoretical position compared to macroeconomics and that macroeconomic propositions are only valid insofar as they can be reduced to more basic microeconomic principles is entirely unjustified. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about reconciling macroeconomics with microeconomics; it just means that the validity of proposition in macroeconomics is not necessarily contingent on being derived from microeconomics. Reducing macroeconomics to microeconomics should be an analytical challenge, not a methodological imperative.

So the assumption, derived from Modigliani’s 1944 paper that “price stickiness” is what prevents an economic system from moving automatically to a new equilibrium after being subjected to some shock or disturbance, reflects either a misunderstanding or a semantic confusion. It is not price stickiness that prevents the system from moving toward equilibrium, it is the fact that individuals are engaging in transactions at disequilibrium prices. We simply do not know how to compare different sets of non-equilibrium prices to determine which set of non-equilibrium prices will move the economy further from or closer to equilibrium. Our experience and out intuition suggest that in some neighborhood of equilibrium, an economy can absorb moderate shocks without going into a cumulative contraction. But all we really know from theory is that any trading at any set of non-equilibrium prices can trigger an economic contraction, and once it starts to occur, a contraction may become cumulative.

It is also a mistake to assume that in a world of incomplete markets, the missing markets being markets for the delivery of goods and the provision of services in the future, any set of price adjustments, however large, could by themselves ensure that equilibrium is restored. With an incomplete set of markets, economic agents base their decisions not just on actual prices in the existing markets; they base their decisions on prices for future goods and services which can only be guessed at. And it is only when individual expectations of those future prices are mutually consistent that equilibrium obtains. With inconsistent expectations of future prices, the adjustments in current prices in the markets that exist for currently supplied goods and services that in some sense equate amounts demanded and supplied, lead to a (temporary) equilibrium that is not efficient, one that could be associated with high unemployment and unused capacity even though technically existing markets are clearing.

So that’s why I regard the term “sticky prices” and other similar terms as very unhelpful and misleading; they are a kind of mental crutch that economists are too ready to rely on as a substitute for thinking about what are the actual causes of economic breakdowns, crises, recessions, and depressions. Most of all, they represent an uncritical transfer of partial-equilibrium microeconomic thinking to a problem that requires a system-wide macroeconomic approach. That approach should not ignore microeconomic reasoning, but it has to transcend both partial-equilibrium supply-demand analysis and the mathematics of intertemporal optimization.

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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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