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The Fallacy of the Fiscal Theory of the Price Level

  • Willem H. Buiter

It is not common for an entire scholarly literature to be based on a fallacy, that is, 'on faulty reasoning; misleading or unsound argument'. The 'fiscal theory of the price level', recently re-developed by Woodford, Cochrane, Sims and others, is an example of a fatally flawed research programme. The source of the fallacy is an economic misspecification. The proponents of the fiscal theory of the price level do not accept the fundamental proposition that the government's intertemporal budget constraint is a constraint on the government's instruments that must be satisfied for all admissible values of the economy-wide endogenous variables. Instead they require it to be satisfied only in equilibrium. This economic misspecification has implications for the mathematical or logical properties of the equilibria supported by models purporting to demonstrate the properties of the fiscal approach. These include: overdetermined (internally inconsistent) equilibria; anomalies like the apparent ability to price things that do not exist; the need for arbitrary restrictions on the exogenous and predetermined variables in the government's budget constraint; and anomalous behaviour of the equilibrium' price sequences, including behaviour that will ultimately violate physical resource constraints. The issue is of more than academic interest. Policy conclusions could be drawn from the fiscal theory of the price level that would be harmful if they influenced the actual behaviour of the fiscal and monetary authorities. The fiscal theory of the price level implies that a government could exogenously fix its real spending, revenue and seigniorage plans, and that the general price level would adjust the real value of its contractual nominal debt obligations so as to ensure government solvency. When reality dawns, the result could be painful fiscal tightening, government default, or unplanned recourse to the inflation tax.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 7302.

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Date of creation: Aug 1999
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Publication status: published as Buiter, W. H. "The Fiscal Theory Of The Price Level: A Critique," Economic Journal, 2002, v112(481,Jul), 459-480.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7302
Note: IFM ME
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  1. Michael Woodford, 1998. "Doing Without Money: Controlling Inflation in a Post-Monetary World," Review of Economic Dynamics, Elsevier for the Society for Economic Dynamics, vol. 1(1), pages 173-219, January.
  2. Woodford, Michael, 1994. "Monetary Policy and Price Level Determinacy in a Cash-in-Advance Economy," Economic Theory, Springer, vol. 4(3), pages 345-80.
  3. Obstfeld, Maurice & Rogoff, Kenneth, 1983. "Speculative Hyperinflations in Maximizing Models: Can We Rule Them Out?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 91(4), pages 675-87, August.
  4. Willem H. Buiter, 1985. "A Fiscal Theory of Hyperdeflations? Some Surprising Monetarist Arithmetic," NBER Technical Working Papers 0052, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Maurice Obstfeld & Kenneth S. Rogoff, 1996. "Foundations of International Macroeconomics," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262150476, June.
  6. Matthew B. Canzoneri & Robert E. Cumby & Behzad T. Diba, 2001. "Is the Price Level Determined by the Needs of Fiscal Solvency?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(5), pages 1221-1238, December.
  7. Cochrane, John H, 2001. "Long-Term Debt and Optimal Policy in the Fiscal Theory of the Price Level," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 69(1), pages 69-116, January.
  8. Michael Woodford, 1996. "Control of the Public Debt: A Requirement for Price Stability?," NBER Working Papers 5684, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Obstfeld, Maurice & Rogoff, Kenneth, 1986. "Ruling out divergent speculative bubbles," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(3), pages 349-362, May.
  10. Bennett T. McCallum, . "Indeterminacy, Bubbles, and the Fiscal Theory of Price Level Determination," GSIA Working Papers 1998-19, Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business.
  11. Willem H. Buiter, 1998. "The Young Person's Guide to Neutrality, Price Level Indeterminacy, Interest Rate Pegs, and Fiscal Theories of the Price Level," NBER Working Papers 6396, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Woodford, Michael, 1995. "Price-level determinacy without control of a monetary aggregate," Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, Elsevier, vol. 43(1), pages 1-46, December.
  13. Lucas, Robert Jr., 1982. "Interest rates and currency prices in a two-country world," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 10(3), pages 335-359.
  14. Thomas J. Sargent & Neil Wallace, 1981. "Some unpleasant monetarist arithmetic," Quarterly Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, issue Fall.
  15. Sims, Christopher A, 1994. "A Simple Model for Study of the Determination of the Price Level and the Interaction of Monetary and Fiscal Policy," Economic Theory, Springer, vol. 4(3), pages 381-99.
  16. Dupor, Bill, 2000. "Exchange rates and the fiscal theory of the price level," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 45(3), pages 613-630, June.
  17. Leeper, Eric M., 1991. "Equilibria under 'active' and 'passive' monetary and fiscal policies," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 27(1), pages 129-147, February.
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