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Real business cycle theory: wisdom or whimsy?

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  • Martin S. Eichenbaum

Abstract

This paper assesses the empirical plausibility of the view that aggregate productivity shocks account for most of the variability in post World War II US output. We argue that the type of evidence forwarded by proponents of this proposition is too fragile to be believable. First, our confidence in the evidence is fundamentally affected once we abandon the fiction that we actually know the true values of the structural parameters of standard Real Business Cycle (RBC) models. What the data are telling us is that, while productivity shocks play some role in generating the business cycle, there is simply an enormous amount of uncertainty about just what percent of aggregate fluctuations they actually do account for. The answer could be 70% as Kydland and Prescott (1989) claim, but the data contain almost no evidence against either the view that the answer is really 5% or that the answer is really 200%. Second, we show that point estimates of the importance of technology shocks are extremely sensitive to small perturbations in the theory. Allowing for labor hoarding behavior in an otherwise standard RBC model reduces the ability of technology shocks to account for aggregate fluctuations by 50%. This finding provides some support for the view that many of the movements in the Solow residual which are labelled as productivity shocks may be an artifact of labor hoarding type phenomena.
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Suggested Citation

  • Martin S. Eichenbaum, 1990. "Real business cycle theory: wisdom or whimsy?," Working Paper Series, Macroeconomic Issues 90-13, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
  • Handle: RePEc:fip:fedhma:90-13
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Prescott, Edward C., 1986. "Theory ahead of business-cycle measurement," Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, Elsevier, vol. 25(1), pages 11-44, January.
    2. Hansen, Lars Peter, 1982. "Large Sample Properties of Generalized Method of Moments Estimators," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 50(4), pages 1029-1054, July.
    3. Hansen, Gary D., 1985. "Indivisible labor and the business cycle," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 16(3), pages 309-327, November.
    4. Hodrick, Robert J & Prescott, Edward C, 1997. "Postwar U.S. Business Cycles: An Empirical Investigation," Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, Blackwell Publishing, vol. 29(1), pages 1-16, February.
    5. Leamer, Edward E, 1983. "Let's Take the Con Out of Econometrics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 73(1), pages 31-43, March.
    6. Kydland, Finn E & Prescott, Edward C, 1982. "Time to Build and Aggregate Fluctuations," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 50(6), pages 1345-1370, November.
    7. Blanchard, Olivier Jean, 1989. "A Traditional Interpretation of Macroeconomic Fluctuations," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(5), pages 1146-1164, December.
    8. Rogerson, Richard, 1988. "Indivisible labor, lotteries and equilibrium," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 21(1), pages 3-16, January.
    9. Christiano, Lawrence J & Eichenbaum, Martin, 1992. "Current Real-Business-Cycle Theories and Aggregate Labor-Market Fluctuations," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(3), pages 430-450, June.
    10. Robert J. Gordon, 1979. "The "End-of-Expansion" Phenomenon in Short-Run Productivity Behavior," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 10(2), pages 447-462.
    11. Evans, Charles L., 1992. "Productivity shocks and real business cycles," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 29(2), pages 191-208, April.
    12. Hall, Robert E, 1988. "The Relation between Price and Marginal Cost in U.S. Industry," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 96(5), pages 921-947, October.
    13. Kydland, Finn E. & Prescott, Edward C., 1988. "The workweek of capital and its cyclical implications," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 21(2-3), pages 343-360.
    14. Robert E. Hall, 1989. "Invariance Properties of Solow's Productivity Residual," NBER Working Papers 3034, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    15. Lucas, Robert Jr., 1972. "Expectations and the neutrality of money," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 4(2), pages 103-124, April.
    16. King, Robert G. & Rebelo, Sergio T., 1993. "Low frequency filtering and real business cycles," Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, Elsevier, vol. 17(1-2), pages 207-231.
    17. Kydland, Finn E & Prescott, Edward C, 1991. "Hours and Employment Variation in Business Cycle Theory," Economic Theory, Springer;Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory (SAET), vol. 1(1), pages 63-81, January.
    18. Lawrence H. Summers, 1986. "Some skeptical observations on real business cycle theory," Quarterly Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, vol. 10(Fall), pages 23-27.
    19. Burnside, Craig & Eichenbaum, Martin & Rebelo, Sergio, 1993. "Labor Hoarding and the Business Cycle," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 101(2), pages 245-273, April.
    20. Hansen, Gary D., 1997. "Technical progress and aggregate fluctuations," Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, Elsevier, vol. 21(6), pages 1005-1023, June.
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