Disequilibrium economics is a logical impossibility

This is going to be super abstract, potentially infuriating and probably wrong.

I sometimes hear people talk about „disequilibrium economics“ and I think I know what they have in mind. Equilibrium is often associated with a system at rest. That’s the physicist’s notion of equilibrium: a ball sitting at the bottom of a bowl, a planet moving around the sun in a stable orbit, etc. Disequilibrium is something not at rest: you hit the ball and it jiggles around inside the bowl, a planet collides with another and flies off its orbit.

Economists have a different notion of equilibrium. Indeed, they have several different notions depending on the context. But basically, an economic equilibrium is a consistency condition imposed on a model by the economist. It follows that „disequilibrium economics“ is a logical impossibility.

Let me explain. Economists build models to explain certain real-world phenomena, say bank runs. Inside these models there are agents, e.g. savers, banks, firms, each described by their preferences, beliefs and constraints. For instance, a saver wants to keep her money in the bank as long as she believes she will get it back eventually. Whether she can get it back depends on the number of savers who demand their money back. As long as most of them don’t want to withdraw their money, everything is fine. However, if there is a critical mass of savers who want their money back, the bank needs to liquidate its assets prematurely at „fire-sale“ prices, which means it cannot repay all the savers’ deposits in full. You have two equilibria: one in which nobody runs on the banks, the banks carry their investments to maturity, everyone gets repaid; another one in which everyone runs, the banks liquidate their investments prematurely, people don’t get repaid in full.

Only the first of these equilibria can sensibly be characterized as „a system at rest“. In the second equilibrium, nothing is at rest: there is chaos in the streets, banks go bust and people get hurt.

What characterizes both equilibria are two conditions:

  1. Everyone is doing the right thing given their preferences, beliefs, and constraints. The saver who runs on the bank is doing the right thing: Given that everyone else runs, she should run, too, or else she will get nothing. This is called rational behavior, but it should really be called consistent behavior. It’s behavior that is consistent with an agent’s preferences, beliefs and constraints.
  2. Things need to add up. Or to put in fancier language: individual decisions need to be consistent with each other. The total value of deposits repaid cannot exceed the total value of assets held by the banks. If there are 10 cookies and I want to eat 8 and you want to eat 5, that’s not an equilibrium. It’s a „disequilibrium“. It’s a logical impossibility.

If you’re a behavioral economist, you may take issue with condition (1). You may argue that people often don’t do the right thing, they are confused about their beliefs and they don’t understand their constraints very well. That’s fine with me. Let agents do their behavioral thing and make mistakes. (Although you must be explicit about which mistake out of the approximately infinite number of mistakes they could make they actually do make.) But still, things need to add up. I may be mistaken to want 8 cookies and you may be confused to want 5, but there are still only 10 cookies. Behavioral economics still needs condition (2).

If you’re a first-year undergrad, you may think equilibrium means that markets clear. Then you learn about asymmetric information and realize that things like credit rationing can occur in equilibrium. And you learn about the search models. Adding up constraints may be inequality constraints.

Finally, you cannot „test for equilibrium“ with data. Equilibrium is that which your model predicts. If your prediction is contradicted by the data, it’s because your model is wrong, not because there is „disequilibrium“. I have heard econometricians talk about error correction models where they call the error correction term a measure of „disequilibrium“. What they mean by that is that their economic model can only explain the long-run relationship between variables (the cointegration part), from which there are unexplained short-run deviations. But that just means the model is wrong for these short-run movements.

Equilibrium means consistency at the individual and at the aggregate level. It doesn’t mean stable, it doesn’t mean perfect. In fact, it is completely devoid of empirical content in and of itself. It only becomes meaningful in the context of a concrete model. And without it, economic models wouldn’t make any sense.