Choosing the wrong pond to play in — H-P filter and RBC

10 August, 2015 at 08:45 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard students and faculty repeat the idea in seminars, that “all models are wrong”. This aphorism, attributed to George Box, is the battle cry of the Minnesota calibrator, a breed of macroeconomist, inspired by Ed Prescott, one of the most important and influential economists of the last century.

All models are wrong … all models are wrong …

Of course all models are wrong. That is trivially true: it is the definition of a model. But the cry has been used for three decades to poke fun at attempts to use serious econometric methods to analyze time series data. Time series methods were inconvenient to the nascent Real Business Cycle Program that Ed pioneered because the models that he favored were, and still are, overwhelmingly rejected by the facts. That is inconvenient.

hpEd’s response was pure genius. If the model and the data are in conflict, the data must be wrong. Time series econometrics, according to Ed, was crushing the acorn before it had time to grow into a tree. His response was not only to reformulate the theory, but also to reformulate the way in which that theory was to be judged. In a puff of calibrator’s smoke, the history of time series econometrics was relegated to the dustbin of history to take its place alongside alchemy, the ether, and the theory of phlogiston.

How did Ed achieve this remarkable feat of prestidigitation? First, he argued that we should focus on a small subset of the properties of the data. Since the work of Ragnar Frisch, economists have recognized that economic time series can be modeled as linear difference equations, hit by random shocks. These time series move together in different ways at different frequencies …

After removing trends, Ed was left with the wiggles. He proposed that we should evaluate our economic theories of business cycles by how well they explain co-movements among the wiggles. When his theory failed to clear the 8ft hurdle of the Olympic high jump, he lowered the bar to 5ft and persuaded us all that leaping over this high school bar was a success.

Keynesians protested. But they did not protest loudly enough and ultimately it became common, even among serious econometricians, to filter their data with the eponymous Hodrick Prescott filter …

By accepting the neo-classical synthesis, Keynesian economists had agreed to play by real business cycle rules. They both accepted that the economy is a self-stabilizing system that, left to itself, would gravitate back to the unique natural rate of unemployment. And for this reason, the Keynesians agreed to play by Ed’s rules. They filtered the data and set the bar at the high school level …

We don’t have to play by Ed’s rules … Once we allow aggregate demand to influence permanently the unemployment rate, the data do not look kindly on either real business cycle models or on the new-Keynesian approach. It’s time to get serious about macroeconomic science and put back the Olympic bar.

Roger Farmer

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