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Армен Альберт Алчиан
(1914-2013)
Armen Albert Alchian
 
Источник: Economic Inquiry, Jul96, Vol. 34 Issue 3, p496, 10p
Jordan, Jerry L. & Gavin, William T.
ARMEN ALCHIAN'S CONTRIBUTION TO MACROECONOMICS
Armen Alchian's contributions to macroeconomics forged important paths that are still crucial to the understanding of monetary theory and monetary policy. We outline Alchian's examination of the fundamental role of money in society and his work (with Benjamin Klein) on the measurement of inflation. We also detail how, in research with Reuben Kessel, Alchian brought insight into the problems that followed the erratic inflation policies of the 1960s and 1970s, explained the effects of anticipated and unanticipated inflation on the real economy, and described the difficulty of identifying the effects of monetary shocks in macroeconomic data.
I. INTRODUCTION
This essay examines Alchian's contribution to the theory and practice of macroeconomics. We have the task of reviewing Alchian's contributions in an area that represents only a tiny fraction of his body of work. Citations to his work on the theory of the firm greatly outnumber those on money and inflation. Nevertheless, we find that many of the major developments in macroeconomics in the last two decades follow paths that were pointed out in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Armen Alchian, much of it in collaboration with Reuben Kessel. Alchian's ideas about macroeconomics were developed in a fertile environment at UCLA in conversations with colleagues such as Karl Brunner and Jack Hirshleifer, as well as with graduate students such as Allan Meltzer and Rachael and Ted Balbach.
A signature of Alchian's work was his great ability to clarify the issues. He was careful to distinguish the effects of money versus real shocks, of anticipated versus unanticipated inflation, and to work through the impact of an event to the general equilibrium consequences. He understood that real-world problems such as incomplete information might explain apparently noneconomic behavior, but unlike many macroeconomists of that time, he did not abandon microeconomic principles when explaining nominal/real interactions. Alchian's views were a clear contrast to those of prominent macroeconomists of the day who argued that aggregate monetary policies could not be used to stabilize the price level at full employment because of asymmetric rigidities in markets that prevented the downward adjustment of any nominal price as part of the process of adjusting relative prices.(n1)
The conventional wisdom of the day led to policies that ultimately caused two decades of accelerating and costly inflation. Both the rational expectations revolution and developments in modeling the microfoundations of business cycles were a reaction to this experience and to the apparent failure of standard macroeconomic analysis. Alchian's 1970 work on the effect of private information was one of the original articles in this microfoundation literature. Although he used a narrative approach rather than the highly structured mathematical models available to researchers today, Alchian was more than two decades ahead of the real business cycle economists in asking researchers to explore economic explanations fully before adopting explanations based on market failure, money illusion, and irrational behavior.
This paper is organized in four parts. The first part describes Alchian's work involving the fundamental role of money in society. King and Plosser [1986, 93] wrote, "But in the explosion of formal modeling of monetary economies in the postwar period, Brunner and Meltzer (1971) and Alchian (1977) stand nearly alone in stressing ... the idea that monetary arrangements economize on the information production that would otherwise be necessary to mitigate problems of moral hazard in the exchange of commodities."
The second part discusses Alchian and Klein's work on the measurement of inflation. This measurement problem appears to be more obvious when inflation is low and the variance of price indexes is dominated by real factors. This work was generally neglected at the time it was written, perhaps because inflation accelerated so rapidly that the real factors became less important. Now that inflation has declined to moderate levels, the measurement problems are resurfacing.
The third part of the paper documents Alchian's insight into the problems and intellectual developments that followed the erratic inflation policies of the U.S. government in the 1960s and 1970s. In a 1962 Journal of Political Economy article, he and Reuben Kessel set forth a description of the events that occur as an economy shifts from one steady-state inflation regime to another. This work revealed an understanding of the importance of credibility for the policymaker that was missing from much of the writing about macro policymaking in the subsequent three decades. In recent years, economists have worked out computable general equilibrium models that include financial sectors.(n2) Yet, we still do not have a satisfactory model of the transition from one inflation regime to another. Alchian and Kessel described a learning process in which asset markets adjusted immediately to revised expectations regarding monetary policy. Developing models of this learning process is one of the promising fields of research in monetary economics today.
The fourth part documents Alchian's insight into the problem of understanding how nominal policies can have real effects. In "Effects of Inflation," he and Kessel explained how anticipated and unanticipated inflation could affect the real economy through wealth redistribution, our nominal tax code, and the tax effect on nominal balances. Even more important, Alchian and Kessel described how difficult it would be to identify the effects of monetary shocks in macroeconomic data. They clearly understood the identification problem that plagues almost all macroeconometric studies. Furthermore, methods they used three decades ago are once again being used at the frontier of monetary and macroeconomic research, although in a more rigorous mathematical setting.
II. WHY MONEY?
Any attempt to understand money must address the question of what it is and why it exists. Armen Alchian provided the starting point in "Why Money?"(n3) He argued that only by understanding the important functions of money could one fully understand how to formulate and evaluate monetary policy. In "Why Money?" Alchian outlined his intuition about why money evolved and why it matters.(n4) The ideas in this short article were passed around among UCLA students and faculty for many years before being published in the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking in 1977. It is an excellent example of Alchian's ability to clarify issues and make complicated ideas intelligible to the rest of us.
A society will use as money that commodity which economizes best on the use of other real resources in gathering information about relative prices and conducting transactions. Alchian said that "low recognition cost" is the key attribute of the entity that comes to serve as money. The ability to recognize the characteristics and quality of a good facilitates trade in that good. His simple example showed how the idea of money evolved as a way of reducing information costs in exchange.
In "Why Money?" Alchian explained how incomplete information, search costs, and heterogeneous goods may give rise to the use of a particular commodity as money. Indeed, he defined money as a commodity used in all, or in a dominant number of, exchanges. Alchian developed a numerical example to illustrate how information costs create an opportunity for specialists in trading. These specialists will have good information about traded goods and profit from the use of that information in facilitating exchange. Alchian demonstrated that if there is some good about which everyone is informed, then everyone will be a specialist in that good and it will be used as money.
The intuitive aspects of Alchian's analysis were illustrated in "Why Money?" This intuition is similar to that used by a variety of researchers in seeking a more fully developed theory of money. Ostroy and Starr [1990], for example, surveyed this literature, and Kiyotaki and Wright [1989] developed a theory of money based on search costs, emphasizing the role of money in reducing storage costs. Following the Alchian [1977] suggestion, Williamson and Wright [1994] built a search model of money with private information and goods with quality differences.
III. MEASURING INFLATION
"Price stability" or "zero inflation" is not as far out of our reach as it may have seemed fifteen years ago. The question then arises, How do we know when we have price stability? Exactly that question was asked by Charles Goodhart [1993] at a Bank of Japan conference in Tokyo. Goodhart based his entire paper on a two-decades-old study by Alchian and Klein [1973]. There, Goodhart asserted, "It is remarkable that, at a juncture when so much of macro and monetary economics has been recast in terms of dynamic interternporal utility maximization (e.g. Sargent 1987), that the same has rarely been done for the analysis of price inflation.(n5) This is so despite a cogently argued plea for this to be done in an excellent, but rarely referenced, article by Alchian and Klein..." (emphasis added). Goodhart concludes that monetary policies in several industrialized countries in recent years have been flawed because policymakers were wrong in "ignoring the message about inflation given by asset prices."(n6) Goodhart's goal of increasing understanding of the relation between inflation and the booms and busts in real estate finance would have been improved by digesting the analysis in Alchian and Kessel, discussed in the next section.
Goodhart quoted extensively from Alchian and Klein [1973] in order to establish the theoretical framework for his attempt to determine the appropriate deflator for permanent income. In their article, "on a Correct Measure of Inflation," Alchian and Klein discussed which measure of inflation is appropriate for use by the monetary authorities when intertemporal exchange is important.
The basic idea is simple, yet profound. If most exchange were in goods to be consumed in the current period (in an agrarian, near-barter economy), the intertemporal value would not be important. As transactions in claims to future consumption increase, the intertemporal dimension becomes of interest. What is difficult to recognize is the future purchasing power of a currency.
The equation of exchange, MV = PT, has long been a useful way to organize our thoughts about money and prices. For issues involving intertemporal decisions, the right-hand side, PT, should be a measure of permanent income. Alchian and Klein and Goodhart argue that the answer to the question, "What is the appropriate deflator for permanent income?" is that it must include a complete set of asset prices--the present price of future consumption rights as well as of current consumption.
As Alchian [1977] argued, an entity must first become a commonly used medium of exchange in transactions involving current consumables before it takes on the characteristics of a unit of account or standard of value for contracts involving intertemporal exchanges. The process by which a monetary unit makes the transition to becoming a generally recognized numeraire for transactions including long-lived assets is not well understood. A problem in assessing the purchasing power of money exists because price indexes measure the price of current consumption--the ideal price index would also include the current price of future consumption.
When inflation is high and rising, almost any measure of inflation will serve policymakers' needs. There is a very high correlation among available measures of inflation and measures of money growth when the inflation rate is high. When output prices are changing very little, much less correlation is evident. Recently, as inflation has fallen to a steadily lower trend, measurement problems have become more obvious, and it is not surprising that we see a resurgence of interest in Alchian's work on this topic. In addition to Goodhart's paper, which includes references to work from the Bank of Japan, Wynne [1994] and Santoni and Moehring [1994] also build on the framework developed by Alchian and Klein [1973].
IV. THE EFFECTS OF INFLATION
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Armen Alchian and Reuben Kessel produced a variety of papers on the effects of inflation. Today, we tend to think about the U.S. inflation problem as something that began in the mid-1960s, worsened through the 1970s, and began to be cured in the 1980s. The goal for the 1990s is to take the inflation rate to zero, which has heightened interest in knowing how close or far away we are. Much of the analysis that Alchian and Kessel presented about the redistributional effects of inflation was written at a time when most price indices suggested that little inflation was occurring. "The Effects of Inflation," published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1962, contains many ideas that subsequently became conventional wisdom as experience with inflation worsened.
Alchian and Kessel began with a discussion of inflation and money demand in which they outline the problems that inflation will cause for economists who want to measure the demand for money. They noted that people would shift out of non-interest-bearing money and into close substitutes that provided both an investment return and some monetary services. Kessel and Alchian [1962, 523] provided a clear description of the rationale for Barnett's [1980] construction of the weights in the Divisia monetary index:
[T]he use of money in modern societies is a result of cost advantages, and ... the ratio of money to other assets held, particularly money substitutes, will change with these costs ... IA]t the margin, the difference in the yield between an interest-bearing security and money represents an equalizing difference that measures the difference in the money services of the two assets. A change in this difference attributable to changes in the yield of physical capital implies a change in the demand for money.
Alchian and Kessel understood that inflation expectations per se were important. They emphasized the difference between the effects of anticipated and unanticipated inflation. The authors [1962, 524] clearly anticipate ideas developed later by Friedman [1977], Lucas [1972], and Barro [1977]:
[T]he state of expectations about inflation is crucial for predicting the effects of inflation. If inflation is unanticipated, that is, if the holders of cash balances on the average expect the contemporaneous level of prices to persist, then one set of implications is generated. These are the economics of unanticipated inflation. But, if the holders of cash balances taken as a group expect the general level of prices to rise, then a second and quite different set of implications follow. These constitute the economics of anticipated inflation.
They go on to discuss in detail the economics of both anticipated and unanticipated inflation. A particularly interesting section in this article is a discussion of the transition from a steady state with price stability to a steady state with anticipated inflation. They were quite explicit in suggesting a procedure for modeling this problem [1962, 528]:
For a non-commodity money, short-run equilibrium conditions are non-existent. The stock of real balances adjusts, once a tax on money is recognized, to long run equilibrium conditions.
This quote suggests that economists should model people's beliefs about current and prospective monetary policies. Recently, Sargent [1993] suggested that the profession has finally developed the models and technology to address this learning problem in a useful way. There is also practical work being developed along these lines at the Bank of Canada.(n7)
Clearly, Alchian and Kessel were not the first economists to remark on the differential effects of anticipated versus unanticipated inflation. Indeed, they cite Irving Fisher [1930] on the subject. It is interesting to note, however, that while most members of the profession were using the assumption of rigid wages and prices to understand the real effects of nominal policies, Alchian and Kessel were approaching the problem in a way that has survived the rational expectations and microfoundation revolutions.
With the experience of a long period of accelerating inflation, followed by a disinflation policy, we are able to see more clearly not only the effects of inflation, but also the transition from a world where people expected and experienced price stability, to a world with persistently higher-than-expected inflation. In 1962 [footnote 19], Alchian and Kessel could write:
The sequence in which this analysis is developed, in particular presenting the economics of unanticipated inflation before that of anticipatory inflation, corresponds to the temporal sequence of economic events during an inflation. In this light, the inflations of the United States during the last century failed to reach the anticipated stage whereas the German inflation following World War I went through all three stages.
V. THE REAL MACROECONOMIC EFFECTS OF INFLATIONARY POLICY
Even though Alchian recognized why price theory was inadequately developed to understand the welfare consequences of inflationary policies, he also maintained that it was important to use price theory to understand why monetary forces may not be the only or even the most important cause of fluctuations in real variables. This is a major theme of current research in macroeconomics. Perhaps three of the most important developments in macroeconomics over the last two decades have been (1) the realization that we should reject noneconomic explanations for macro phenomena until we have exhausted the price-theoretic explanations; (2) the focus on identification in macroeconometrics; and (3) the use of historical episodes to reexamine price theoretic explanations of macroeconomic phenomena. The first of these points is made quite explicitly in Alchian [1970, 27], in which he showed how the presence of information costs could lead optimizing agents to choose unemployment:
And macroeconomic theory does not explain why demand decreases cause unemployment rather than immediate wage and price adjustments in labor and nonhuman resources. Instead, administered prices, monopolies, minimum wage laws, union restrictions, and "natural" inflexibilities of wages and prices are invoked.
This paper attempts to show that economic theory is capable of being formulated--consistently with each person acting as an individual utility, or wealth, maximizer without constraints imposed by competitors, and without conventions or taboos about wages or prices- so as to imply shortages, surpluses, unemployment, queues, idle resources, and nonprice rationing with price stability.
In even earlier work with Kessel, Alchian was well ahead of his time in promoting all three of these ideas.(n8)
Data and Price Theory
The hypothesis that monetary inflation raised output prices before wages, thereby raising profits, was conventional wisdom in 1960. It was grounded in a widespread acceptance of the notion that the labor market did not work like other markets. This wage-lag hypothesis was the forerunner of the Keynesian Phillips Curve. In the late 1950s, Armen Alchian, working with Reuben Kessel, wrote two papers showing that there was scant empirical evidence supporting this wage-lag hypothesis. After reviewing six episodes that were considered evidence in favor of the wage lag hypothesis, they found only two in which the raw facts concurred: the North and the South in the period covering the Civil War. They wrote [1960, 58]:
For these (two) cases, the wage-lag hypothesis has to compete with price theory. For the one case that has been studied in great detail, that of the North during the Civil War, price theory offers a more satisfactory explanation.
Alchian and Kessel criticized the use of noneconomic ideas to explain phenomena when a price-theoretic explanation is at hand. They clearly advocated starting with microeconomic principles in order to understand macroeconomic phenomena [1960, 56]:
The acceptance by Lerner of the wagelag explanation of the fall in real wages is inconsistent with another interpretation of the events of the time that may be found in his own papers. He indicates that much of Southern capital was highly specialized to the production of cotton for an international market and that the Northern blockade sharply reduced the productivity of this capital. Lerner also reports that excises, either in the form of taxes or payments in kind, constituted an important means of war finance. In fact, Lerner implicitly presents a hypothesis that explains the fall in real wages by nonmonetary phenomena, but he explicitly accepts the thesis that the fall in real wages is attributable to inflation.
As economists have developed more detailed economic models for the purpose of explaining macro phenomena, the data requirements have become more demanding. Kessel and Alchian [1960, 57] demonstrated the importance of being careful about the use of macro data, both in their criticism of existing work and in producing new evidence:
These data of Hansen's contain an unfortunate bias in favor of the wage-lag hypothesis for the entire time interval with which he was concerned. Starting with 1890, Hansen uses weekly earnings rather than hourly earnings. If leisure is a superior good, and if the real hourly earnings per capita rise, then weekly earnings understate real wages because of the substitution of leisure for income from work.
Alchian and Kessel concluded this paper by offering new evidence. They examined the wage bills and equity values of U.S. firms during the inflationary period from 1940 to 1952. They showed that the average equity value for a firm rose faster, the lower its ratio of wages to equity. They also provided evidence that the inflation was not fully expected. They sorted the firms by net monetary debtor status and found that those with relatively more monetary debt had the greatest rise in equity value. In a multiple correlation analysis in which they controlled for the presence of net monetary debt, they again found a negative relation between the wage intensity of a firm and the change in its equity value over this period of rising inflation.
This work was important because it presented evidence that inflation did not necessarily benefit firms at the expense of workers, a common misconception associated with the belief that inflation reduced real wages. It also showed that managers did not have systems in place to protect their firms from the high and variable inflation that occurred during this period. Many new developments in cash and portfolio management have emerged since this paper was written. one of the things we have learned is that it is difficult, if not impossible, for firms to hedge completely against the costs of inflation.
Econometric Practice and the Phillips Curve
The growing acceptance of these three developments--the use of price theory, careful identification, and use of historical episodes--in modern macro research may have been driven by a reaction against the continued use of the Phillips Curve as a framework for setting monetary policy. As mentioned above, the wage-lag hypothesis is a forerunner of the modern Phillips Curve hypothesis. It is interesting to note that in two recent presentations of evidence in favor of the latter, well-known economists repeated some of the very mistakes that Alchian and Kessel warned against thirty-four years ago.
Blinder [1987] attempted to measure the output loss associated with the decision to lower inflation in the early 1980s. He attributed all of the increase in unemployment above the 5.9 percent rate in 1979 to the disinflation policy. Even though he was aware of the expected real effects of the structural adjustments occurring at the time, he chose to ignore them. In another recent study, Princeton economist Laurence Ball did much the same thing, attributing all of the decline in output during recessionary periods to the reduction of inflation.(n9)
The Alchian and Kessel criticism of evidence in favor of the wage-lag hypothesis applies with equal force to such recent evidence in support of the Phillips Curve hypothesis. In 1960, they wrote:
For any time series of real wages, there exists a fantastically difficult problem of imputing changes in the level of real wages to one or the other of two classes of variables, i.e., real or monetary 'forces. only if one is able to abstract from the effects of real forces can one determine the effect of inflation upon an observed time series of real wages. [p. 44]
Compare this statement to a comment by Stephen Cecchetti [1994, 189] on Larry Ball's paper, "What Determines the Sacrifice Ratio?":
Ball assumes that a monetary shock induces the recessions that he observes, and that the path of output and inflation declines during each of the episodes he examines are caused solely by the shift to tight money. But in order to measure the impact of monetary policy, we need to identify the policy shocks.
VI. CONCLUSION
On occasions throughout his career, Armen Alchian turned his attention to applying fundamental economic principles to issues in the realm of macroeconomics. Some of the topics he addressed are still the most important issues in monetary theory and monetary policy. He asked the essential question, "Why Money?" He worked through clear examples showing how money would arrive endogenously in a world with private information and heterogeneous goods.
Having shown how information costs defined money and its role in society, he moved on to policy questions involving the effects of inflation. He and Kessel challenged the conventional wisdom that workers were systematically underpaid during inflations. They were careful to distinguish between anticipated and unanticipated inflation. They accurately described the transition from a regime of relative price stability to a regime of ongoing inflation. This analysis was done in the early 1960s, well before most Americans were aware that the U.S. government had embarked on a sustained devaluation of the dollar. As we return to the moderate inflation rates of that era, Alchian's questions about the role of asset prices in measuring the purchasing power of money are once again of considerable interest.
Today, policymakers are actively engaged in research that Armen Alchian began more than thirty years ago. For several years now, both central bank and academic economists have been involved in attempts to restore the application of microeconomic theory to macro policy issues. We have sought "correct" measures of inflation, and we continue to investigate and challenge the conventional wisdom that discretionary monetary policy can have systematic and welfare-enhancing effects on real output.
Empirical research in economics is difficult even when grounded in good theory. Policymakers often ask questions that are beyond the scope of existing methods. Sometimes economists have responded by changing the questions--asking only those for which the models and data seem to provide answers. Alchian always started with careful formulation of the questions, then challenged us to continue developing models and methods so that we can answer the questions that matter.
(n1.) For example, in analyzing the causes of and cures for the 1955-1957 inflationary period, Charles L. Schultze [1959,12] wrote:
Excess aggregate demand has been the basic cause of all of our major inflations, including the postwar conversion inflation. And for a short while in late 1955 there seemed to be some excess aggregate demand. But the major thesis of this study is that the creeping inflation of 195557 is different in kind from such classical inflations, and that mild inflation may be expected in a dynamic economy whenever there occur rapid shifts in the mix of final demands. It is, in effect, a feature of the dynamics of resource adjustment where prices and wages tend to be rigid downward. Moreover, it gives a secular upward bias to the price level so long as the major depressions which "broke" the ratchet in the past are avoided in the future.
Another prominent Keynesian, Otto Eckstein [1958, 249-50], voiced similar ideas: Turning to the inflation of the last three years, which was largely caused by the investment boom, we find that the incidence of the inflation was very uneven. The rise in the Consumer Price Index was largely due to the rising cost of services, caused by such long-rim factors as the lack of productivity rise in this sector, the rising cost of medical care, and so on. But there also was substantial inflation in the wholesale prices of finished goods. These rises were concentrated m the steel industry, m some branches of the machinery industry and 1 or 2 other fields, where prices rose by about 30 percent from 1953 to 1957, while finished goods prices of manufacturing as a whole only rose by 10 percent. This suggests that a considerable part of the inflation can be blamed on specific shortages. Them was certainly no general state of excess demand, since unemployment never reached particularly low levels, and the utilization rates in many industries were below levels desired by the industries.
(n2.) See, for example, Fuerst [1992] and Christiano and Eichenbaum [1992].
(n3.) See Alchian [1977].
(n4.) Brunner and Meltzer [1971] formalized the idea and extended it in a simple general equilibrium framework.
(n5.) Goodhart [1993, footnote 1] cites Shibuya [1992] as "the main recent exception" to this generalization and notes that Shibuya cites earlier works by Pollak [1975], Carlson [1989], and Shigehara [1990].
(n6.) Goodhart [1993, 31].
(n7.) see Ricketts, Rose, and Laxton [1993] for the work being done at the sank of Canada, and Bullard and Duffey [1994] for an application to U.S. policy
(n8.) See Kessel and Alchian [1960].
(9.) See Ball [1994] and the comment following by Cecchetti.
REFERENCES
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------. "Why Money?" Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, February 1977, 133-40.
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------. "Redistribution of Wealth through Inflation." Science, September 4, 1959, 535-39.
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Shigehara, Kumiharu. "Shisankakaku No Hendo To Infureshon (Asset Price Movement and Inflation)." Kinyu Kenkyu, July 1990.
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(*) President and Chief Executive officer, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland; and Vice President and Research Coordinator, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. This paper was presented at the 69th Annual Western Economic Association International Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 2,1994.
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