Two reasons DSGE models are such spectacular failures

26 March, 2016 at 17:29 | Posted in Economics | 4 Comments

wpid-mmb9qajq9swpi8xxy76aThe unsellability of DSGE models — private-sector firms do not pay lots of money to use DSGE models — is one strong argument against DSGE.

But it is not the most damning critique of it.

To me the most damning critiques that can be levelled against DSGE models are the following two:

(1) DSGE models are unable to explain involuntary unemployment

In the basic DSGE models the labour market is always cleared – responding to a changing interest rate, expected life time incomes, or real wages, the representative agent maximizes the utility function by varying her labour supply, money holding and consumption over time. Most importantly – if the real wage somehow deviates from its ‘equilibrium value,’ the representative agent adjust her labour supply, so that when the real wage is higher than its ‘equilibrium value,’ labour supply is increased, and when the real wage is below its ‘equilibrium value,’ labour supply is decreased.

In this model world, unemployment is always an optimal choice to changes in the labour market conditions. Hence, unemployment is totally voluntary. To be unemployed is something one optimally chooses to be.

The D WordAlthough this picture of unemployment as a kind of self-chosen optimality, strikes most people as utterly ridiculous, there are also, unfortunately, a lot of neoclassical economists out there who still think that price and wage rigidities are the prime movers behind unemployment. DSGE models basically explains variations in employment (and a fortiori output) with assuming nominal wages being more flexible than prices – disregarding the lack of empirical evidence for this rather counterintuitive assumption.

Lowering nominal wages would not  clear the labour market. Lowering wages – and possibly prices – could, perhaps, lower interest rates and increase investment. It would be much easier to achieve that effect by increasing the money supply. In any case, wage reductions was not seen as a general substitute for an expansionary monetary or fiscal policy. And even if potentially positive impacts of lowering wages exist, there are also more heavily weighing negative impacts – management-union relations deteriorating, expectations of on-going lowering of wages causing delay of investments, debt deflation et cetera.

The classical proposition that lowering wages would lower unemployment and ultimately take economies out of depressions, was ill-founded and basically wrong. Flexible wages would probably only make things worse by leading to erratic price-fluctuations. The basic explanation for unemployment is insufficient aggregate demand, and that is mostly determined outside the labour market.

Obviously it’s rather embarrassing that the kind of DSGE models ‘modern’ macroeconomists use cannot incorporate such a basic fact of reality as involuntary unemployment. Of course, working with representative agent models, this should come as no surprise. The kind of unemployment that occurs is voluntary, since it is only adjustments of the hours of work that these optimizing agents make to maximize their utility.

(2) In DSGE models increases in government spending leads to a drop in private consumption

In the most basic mainstream proto-DSGE models one often assumes that governments finance current expenditures with current tax revenues.  This will have a negative income effect on the households, leading — rather counterintuitively — to a drop in private consumption although both employment an production expands. This mechanism also holds when the (in)famous Ricardian equivalence is added to the models.

Ricardian equivalence basically means that financing government expenditures through taxes or debts is equivalent, since debt financing must be repaid with interest, and agents — equipped with rational expectations — would only increase savings in order to be able to pay the higher taxes in the future, thus leaving total expenditures unchanged.


In the standard neoclassical consumption model — used in DSGE macroeconomic modeling — people are basically portrayed as treating time as a dichotomous phenomenon  today and the future — when contemplating making decisions and acting. How much should one consume today and how much in the future? Facing an intertemporal budget constraint of the form

ct + cf/(1+r) = ft + yt + yf/(1+r),

where ct is consumption today, cf is consumption in the future, ft is holdings of financial assets today, yt is labour incomes today, yf is labour incomes in the future, and r is the real interest rate, and having a lifetime utility function of the form

U = u(ct) + au(cf),

where a is the time discounting parameter, the representative agent (consumer) maximizes his utility when

u'(ct) = a(1+r)u'(cf).

This expression – the Euler equation – implies that the representative agent (consumer) is indifferent between consuming one more unit today or instead consuming it tomorrow. Typically using a logarithmic function form – u(c) = log c – which gives u'(c) = 1/c, the Euler equation can be rewritten as

1/ct = a(1+r)(1/cf),


cf/ct = a(1+r).

This importantly implies that according to the neoclassical consumption model changes in the (real) interest rate and consumption move in the same direction. And — it also follows that consumption is invariant to the timing of taxes, since wealth — ft + yt + yf/(1+r) — has to be interpreted as present discounted value net of taxes. And so, according to the assumption of Ricardian equivalence, the timing of taxes does not affect consumption, simply because the maximization problem as specified in the model is unchanged. As a result — households cut down on their consumption when governments increase their spendings. Mirabile dictu!

Benchmark DSGE models have paid little attention to the role of fiscal policy, therefore minimising any possible interaction of fiscal policies with monetary policy. This has been partly because of the assumption of Ricardian equivalence. As a result, the distribution of taxes across time become irrelevant and aggregate financial wealth does not matter for the behavior of agents or for the dynamics of the economy because bonds do not represent net real wealth for households.

Incorporating more meaningfully the role of fiscal policies requires abandoning frameworks with the Ricardian equivalence. The question is how to break the Ricardian equivalence? Two possibilities are available. The first is to move to an overlapping generations framework and the second (which has been the most common way of handling the problem) is to rely on an infinite-horizon model with a type of liquidity constrained agents (eg “rule of thumb agents”).

Camillo Tovar

out of the fryingYours truly totally agree that macroeconomic models have to abandon Ricardian equivalence nonsense. But replacing it with “overlapping generations” and “infinite-horizon” models — isn’t that — in terms of realism and relevance — just getting out of the frying pan into the fire? All unemployment is still voluntary. Intertemporal substitution between labour and leisure is still ubiquitous. And the specification of the utility function is still hopelessly off the mark from an empirical point of view.

As one Nobel laureate had it:

Ricardian equivalence is taught in every graduate school in the country. It is also sheer nonsense.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, twitter 

And as one economics blogger has it:

DSGE modeling is taught in every graduate school in the country. It is also sheer nonsense.

Lars Syll, twitter 



  1. Do you think either or both of these shortcoming relate to the exclusion from this modeling approach of an institutional and realistic money finance and a pervasive uncertainty motivating money finance?

  2. While I understand that models that don’t allow for involuntary unemployment are basically wrong and, well, stupid, what is the problem with Ricardian Equivalence and intertemporal budget constraints? I mean, I regularly calculate my utility function based on these important hypotheses and consume accordingly- sometimes I don’t eat for weeks at a time. Doesn’t everybody?

    Look at today for example. You have three great posts on March 26. I had calculated my consumption function of your blog based on at most 2 posts. With some wiggle room for a possibly long, detailed, comment. And more room because I like to read them several times before deciding if I understand them. (When the word ontological is used that is rarely the case). But today with only two reads of the 3 posts and by forgoing any self-editing of this comment, there will hopefully be time to subm -sorry, the agent’s indifference curve dictates an end to this comment

    • Jerry, ‘ontological’ seems to be a word a little bit too big for economists and it scares them. But this is a commonly used word across the social sciences, and economists must get used to it. It is in first year undergraduate texts in for example, international relations, and I would imagine political science and sociology as well. It is a fundamental methodological and philosophical concept.

      • Well, if it causes disutility to certain economists, I guess I’m all for it 🙂

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