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.

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.