On Macroeconomics After the Financial Crisis

Short-Run Macro After the Crisis: The End of the “New” Neoclassical Synthesis?

By Oliver Landmann (Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg)

Abstract: The Financial Crisis of 2008, and the Great Recession in its wake, have shaken up macroeconomics. The paradigm of the “New” Neoclassical Synthesis, which seemed to provide a robust framework of analysis for short‐run macro not long ago, fails to capture key elements of the recent crisis. This paper reviews the current reappraisal of the paradigm in the light of the history of macroeconomic thought. Twice in the past 80 years, a major macroeconomic crisis led to the breakthrough of a new paradigm that was to capture the imagination of an entire generation of macroeconomists. This time is different. Whereas the pre‐crisis consensus in the profession is broken, a sweeping transition to a single new paradigm is not in sight. Instead, macroeconomics is in the process of loosening the methodological straightjacket of the “New” Neoclassical Synthesis, thereby opening a door for a return to its original purpose: the study of information and coordination in a market economy.

Persistent Link: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:fre:wpaper:27?

Reviewed by Catherine Dorman (final-year BSc Business Economics student, Bangor University, Wales)

Summary

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2014-02-08, and it addresses the impact that the recent financial crisis has had upon macroeconomic thought. Specifically in terms of how the New Neoclassical Synthesis has held up to scrutiny following the most recent economic debacle. Landmann offers an overview of the history and progression of macroeconomic thought from the “Keynesian revolution” (p.4) to New Neoclassical Synthesis economics, right up to modern day contemporary economics, and its response to current macroeconomic issues.

The purpose of Landmann’s paper is to explain how economics has evolved since the Keynesian school of thought emerged in the aftermath of the 1930s depression, and to show how the macroeconomic community has been left splintered as a result of the recent financial crisis, without a consensus in sight. It asks the questions: Why has this occurred? How did the New Neoclassical Synthesis fail to foresee or explain the worst economic downturn since the 1930s? Finally, it asks the all-important question: Is it necessarily a bad situation to be in? Or has having smashed the previous concept to pieces resulted in an environment in which macroeconomics can really explore and develop itself without the shackles of archaic and contextually inapplicable economic theory?

Prof. Dr. Oliver Landmann -Bild Schneider

Landmann introduces his paper by assessing the state of macroeconomic affairs, operating within a New Neoclassical Synthesis environment, in the run up to the financial crisis of 2008. The ‘Great Moderation’, described a period of economic constancy spanning from the 1980s to 2008, which was characterized by a continually stable business cycle (Davies and Kahn, 2008). Famously, Ben Bernanke, who coined the phrase ‘Great Moderation’, is quoted as having attributed this period of economic success to structural change, improved macroeconomic policies, and good luck (Bernanke, 2004). Ultimately, Landmann describes a period in which the great moderation had lulled the economic community into a false sense of stability, much like that described by Hymen Minsky (Minsky, 1992).

The next section of the paper is dedicated to creating a contextual understanding, and this is achieved through showing the evolution of economics thought from Keynes to the New Neoclassical Synthesis.

Consider Fig 1 for a brief overview of the changes of economic thought from the 1930s to 2008:

Fig. 1
Figure1

As is evident across each of these theories, their explanatory power tends to be relatively finite. In the case of Adam Smith and John Keynes’ theories, they were deconstructed and meshed in order to explain the economy’s operations at a specific point in time, and this came to be known as the Neoclassical Synthesis. This was largely credited to the work of Paul Samuelson during the 1950s (Samuelson, 1955). It took the underlying idea of Keynesian theory of underemployment, with the notion that monetary and fiscal policy can be employed to reduce this. It could therefore use classical equilibrium analysis to explain resource allocation and relative prices (p4). The economic policy was successfully adopted in developed countries as an effective treatment for the economy after the Second World War.

It was from the stability and growth that was created through the adoption of this macroeconomic approach, which helped to develop confidence in the prescriptive capabilities of economic theory. However, as history has taught us, ceteris paribus does not hold in reality. The theory was largely nullified in the 60’s and 70’s, because it had been unable to predict stagflation, and the Philips Curve was completely undermined (Motyovszki, 2013).
Consider Fig 2 for a concise history of the economic theory covered in this paper.

Fig. 2
Figure 2
(Source: Short-Run Macro After the Crisis: The End of the “New” Neoclassical Synthesis? By Oliver Landmann.)

The result of this was a new hybrid economic theory: New Classical economics. From this theory came the Real Business Cycle model, which argued that cycles result from the reactions of optimizing agents to real disturbances, for example, changes in technology.
In the 1970s, the New Neoclassical Synthesis emerged, with a combination of New Keynesianism and New Classical theories, and the basis of economic practice during the Great Moderation. It was felt amongst policy makers that the short term interest rate was enough of an instrument in economic management, and that the business cycle was believed to have been overcome (Aubrey, 2013).

Landmann’s paper addresses how the economic crash of 2008 threw macroeconomics into turmoil. The New Neoclassical Synthesis had not fully appreciated the effects of the financial market within its model, and the result was that it was inadequate as a means of remedying problems in the economy (Pike, 2012). Landmann makes a good point of acknowledging that although financial economics took great consideration of the behavioural antics of the banking sector, within the actual practiced model of the New Neoclassical Synthesis, these were fundamentally disconnected.

In light of this, the once unquestioned macroeconomic doctrine was suddenly under scrutiny. One of the greatest criticisms of the New Neoclassical Synthesis is its reliance upon “elegant” (p12) mathematical equations, which are often predictively insufficient due to the sheer number of assumptions that have to be made in order to create a working model. It doesn’t fully estimate factors such as irrationality and uncertainty (BBC NEWS, 2014) and the result of this is that the results can be wildly inaccurate (Caballero, 2010). This can also create coordination problems from assumptive behavioural models, such as the Robinson Crusoe model, which become overly stylized to the detriment of economic viability (Colander, 2009).

Consequentially, macroeconomics has begun to pay more focus to realistic behaviour, given that information is rarely perfect in actuality (Caballero, 2010; Sen, 1977).

Landmann concludes that out of the financial crisis, there has been a flood of new macroeconomic theories develop, and that the New Neoclassical Synthesis still has pedagogic merit. He does, however, primarily blame the era of Great Moderation for a period of complacency amongst economic academics. The simple acceptance of one concept of economics based purely on its merit during a stable business cycle, without inquisitive forethought into how it would respond when faced with an exogenous or endogenous shock, is Landmann’s greatest criticism.

Critique

This paper is incredibly relevant, and its themes and messages are certainly ones that economists need to be considering in the aftermath of such a fresh and colossal economic recession. There is perhaps an over simplification of some of the timeline of economics: broadly defining all economists during the Great Moderation as being one school of thought is unfair and inaccurate, but for the purpose of the paper, it is perhaps forgivable.

Landmann makes little mention of the pattern by which economic thought often evolves. Gul, Chaudhry and Faridi describe economic thought as developing from “quick fixes” (Gul et al. 2014: 11), and this would help to explain why, during the Great Moderation, very little new economic thought was developed: the need wasn’t there. Through their histories of economic development, Gul et al. (2014) and Landmann,suggest that macroeconomics is reactionary as opposed to precautionary, despite its attempts to be prophetic.

This echoes the “Lucas Critique”, the understanding that economic equations developed and implemented during one policy system, are unlikely to remain relevant or explanatorily applicable during another (Lucas, 1976).

Finally, it does little to explore the external factors that led to the period of Great Moderation. Globalisation had really taken a hold during this time, with containerization in full flow (at 90% of all non-bulk cargo worldwide being moved by containers on transport ships (C. E. Ebeling, 2009)), and advances in computation and communication technology (Bernanke, 2004) which helped to stabilize inventory stocks – something that is acknowledged as a contributory factor in cyclical fluctuations (McConnel and Quiros, 2000).

Ultimately, the paper makes the same conclusions that most macroeconomic papers do. There is no definitive explanation for everything that occurs within the economy, and certainly no blanket approach that will procure the most lucrative outcomes on every occasion. This paper goes a step further to explain why it can be damaging to rigidly subscribe to one theory of macroeconomics: it discourages continual change and forethought, which in turn can stunt the evolution of explanatory macroeconomic thought.

References

Aubrey, T., 2013. Profiting from Monetary Policy: Investing Through the Business Cycle. 1 ed. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

BBC NEWS, 2014. Did Hyman Minsky find the secret behind financial crashes?. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26680993 [Accessed 07 April 2014].

Bernanke, B. S., 2004. Remarks by Governor Ben S. Bernanke At the Meeting of the Eastern Economics Association Available at: http://www.federalreserve.gov/Boarddocs/Speeches/2004/20040220/ [Accessed 07 April 2014]

Ebeling, C. E. 2009. Evolution of a Box. Invention and Technology 23(4): 8-9.

Caballero, R. J., 2010. Macroeconomics After the Crisis: Time to Deal with the Pretense-of-Knowledge Syndrome. Journal of Economic Perspectives 24(4): 85-102.

Colander, D. C. et al., 2009. The Financial Crisis and the Systemic Failure of Academic. Kiel: Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Davies, S. J., and Kahn, J.A., 2008. Interpreting the Great Moderation: Changes in the Volatility of Economic Activity at the Macro and Micro Levels. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Available at: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:14048 [Accessed 07 April 2014]

Gul, E., Chaudhry, I. S. and Faridi, M. Z., 2014. The Classical-Keynesian Paradigm: Policy Debate in Contemporary Era. Munich: Munich Personal RePEc Archive. Available at: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/53920.htm [Accessed 07 April 2014]

Lucas, R. E., 1976. Econometric Policy Evaluation: A Critique. Carnegie‐Rochester, Carnegie‐Rochester Conference.

McCombie, J. S. L., and Pike, M., 2012. The End of the Consensus in Macroeconomic Theory? A Methodological Inquiry. Unpublished. Cambridge Centre for Economic and Public Policy WP02-12, Department of Land Economy: University of Cambridge. Available at: http://www.landecon.cam.ac.uk/research/real-estate-and-urban-analysis/ccepp/copy_of_ccepp-publications/wp02-12.pdf [Accessed 07 April 2014]

McConnell, M. M., and Perez Quiros, G., 2000. Output Fluctuations in the United States: What Has Changed Since the Early 1980s?. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Available at: http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/events/2000/march/structural-change-monetary-policy/output.pdf [Accessed 07 April 2014]

Minsky, H. P., 1992. The Financial Instability Hypothesis. New York: The Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

Motyovszki, G., 2013. The Evolution of the Phillips Curve Concepts and Their Implications for Economic Policy. Budapest: Central European University.

Samuelson, P., 1955. Economics. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sen, A. K., 1977. Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 6(4): 317-344.

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One thought on “On Macroeconomics After the Financial Crisis

  1. Oliver Landmann, University of Freiburg

    A thoughtful and very well researched review of this paper. Your point “that macroeconomics is reactionary as opposed to precautionary, despite its attempts to be prophetic” is intimately linked to the methodological schism between those who insist, as the New Classicals do, that all macro theory should be rigorously micro-founded, and those who are willing to go ahead with ad hoc models if that is what works to explain the facts. Interestingly, the one instance when macroeconomics was not only reactionary, but actually prescient was when Milton Friedman and Edmund Phelps correctly predicted the breakdown of the short-run Phillips Curve in the 1960s, relying on a model of rational behavior that took into account the important role of expectations. This was a triumph for the principle of microeconomic foundations and lent the New Classical School the credibility needed to make it the dominant school of thought in the 1970s. Unfortunately, what passes as acceptable microeconomic foundation, was defined in such a restrictive way by the New Classicals that macroeconomics lost sight of the imperfections of information and of the failures of coordination that were at the origin of the Financial Crisis of 2008.

    On the timing of events: Any timeline is inevitably rough, but nevertheless useful for organizing one’s understanding of the evolution of economic thought. With regard to your very useful Figure 1, just one minor quibble: New Classical Theory dates back to the Lucas 1972 JET paper and became all the rage in the 1970s (rather than the 1950s as stated in Figure 1). Finally, again referring to the timeline, it is important to emphasize that Keynesian economics began to become popular only in the late 1930s after Keynes had given it a definitive shape in the 1936 General Theory. The basic ideas were around earlier, but tragically failed to influence economic policy during the Great Depression of 1929-1933.

    Oliver Landmann
    University of Freiburg

    http://www.macro.uni-freiburg.de/news/home

    Reply

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