General equilibrium theory

Walras was the first to lay down a research program widely followed by 20th-century economists. In particular, the Walrasian agenda included the investigation of when equilibria are unique and stable— Walras' Lesson 7 shows neither uniqueness, nor stability, nor even existence of an equilibrium is guaranteed. Walras also proposed a dynamic process by which general equilibrium might be reached, that of the tâtonnement or groping process.

The tâtonnement process is a model for investigating stability of equilibria. Prices are announced (perhaps by an "auctioneer"), and agents state how much of each good they would like to offer (supply) or purchase (demand). No transactions and no production take place at disequilibrium prices. Instead, prices are lowered for goods with positive prices and excess supply. Prices are raised for goods with excess demand. The question for the mathematician is under what conditions such a process will terminate in equilibrium where demand equates to supply for goods with positive prices and demand does not exceed supply for goods with a price of zero. Walras was not able to provide a definitive answer to this question (see Unresolved Problems in General Equilibrium below).

If an industry uses little of a factor of production, a small increase in the output of that industry will not bid the price of that factor up. To a first-order approximation, firms in the industry will experience constant costs, and the industry supply curves will not slope up. If an industry uses an appreciable amount of that factor of production, an increase in the output of that industry will exhibit increasing costs. But such a factor is likely to be used in substitutes for the industry's product, and an increased price of that factor will have effects on the supply of those substitutes. Consequently, Sraffa argued, the first-order effects of a shift in the demand curve of the original industry under these assumptions includes a shift in the supply curve of substitutes for that industry's product, and consequent shifts in the original industry's supply curve. General equilibrium is designed to investigate such interactions between markets.

Continental European economists made important advances in the 1930s. Walras' arguments for the existence of general equilibrium often were based on the counting of equations and variables. Such arguments are inadequate for non-linear systems of equations and do not imply that equilibrium prices and quantities cannot be negative, a meaningless solution for his models. The replacement of certain equations by inequalities and the use of more rigorous mathematics improved general equilibrium modeling.

Three important interpretations of the terms of the theory have been often cited. First, suppose commodities are distinguished by the location where they are delivered. Then the Arrow-Debreu model is a spatial model of, for example, international trade.

These interpretations can be combined. So the complete Arrow–Debreu model can be said to apply when goods are identified by when they are to be delivered, where they are to be delivered and under what circumstances they are to be delivered, as well as their intrinsic nature. So there would be a complete set of prices for contracts such as "1 ton of Winter red wheat, delivered on 3rd of January in Minneapolis, if there is a hurricane in Florida during December". A general equilibrium model with complete markets of this sort seems to be a long way from describing the workings of real economies, however, its proponents argue that it is still useful as a simplified guide as to how real economies function.

Basic questions in general equilibrium analysis are concerned with the conditions under which an equilibrium will be efficient, which efficient equilibria can be achieved, when an equilibrium is guaranteed to exist and when the equilibrium will be unique and stable.

The first welfare theorem is informative in the sense that it points to the sources of inefficiency in markets. Under the assumptions above, any market equilibrium is tautologically efficient. Therefore, when equilibria arise that are not efficient, the market system itself is not to blame, but rather some sort of market failure.

Even if every equilibrium is efficient, it may not be that every efficient allocation of resources can be part of an equilibrium. However, the second theorem states that every Pareto efficient allocation can be supported as an equilibrium by some set of prices. In other words, all that is required to reach a particular Pareto efficient outcome is a redistribution of initial endowments of the agents after which the market can be left alone to do its work. This suggests that the issues of efficiency and equity can be separated and need not involve a trade-off. The conditions for the second theorem are stronger than those for the first, as consumers' preferences and production sets now need to be convex (convexity roughly corresponds to the idea of diminishing marginal rates of substitution i.e. "the average of two equally good bundles is better than either of the two bundles").

When technology is modeled by (linear combinations) of fixed coefficient processes, optimizing agents will drive endowments to be such that a continuum of equilibria exist:

Some have questioned the practical applicability of the general equilibrium approach based on the possibility of non-uniqueness of equilibria.

In a typical general equilibrium model the prices that prevail "when the dust settles" are simply those that coordinate the demands of various consumers for various goods. But this raises the question of how these prices and allocations have been arrived at, and whether any (temporary) shock to the economy will cause it to converge back to the same outcome that prevailed before the shock. This is the question of stability of the equilibrium, and it can be readily seen that it is related to the question of uniqueness. If there are multiple equilibria, then some of them will be unstable. Then, if an equilibrium is unstable and there is a shock, the economy will wind up at a different set of allocations and prices once the convergence process terminates. However, stability depends not only on the number of equilibria but also on the type of the process that guides price changes (for a specific type of price adjustment process see Walrasian auction). Consequently, some researchers have focused on plausible adjustment processes that guarantee system stability, i.e., that guarantee convergence of prices and allocations to some equilibrium. When more than one stable equilibrium exists, where one ends up will depend on where one begins. The theorems that have been mostly conclusive when related to the stability of a typical general equilibrium model are closed related to that of the most local stability.

A model organized around the tâtonnement process has been said to be a model of a centrally planned economy, not a decentralized market economy. Some research has tried to develop general equilibrium models with other processes. In particular, some economists have developed models in which agents can trade at out-of-equilibrium prices and such trades can affect the equilibria to which the economy tends. Particularly noteworthy are the Hahn process, the Edgeworth process and the Fisher process.

The data determining Arrow-Debreu equilibria include initial endowments of capital goods. If production and trade occur out of equilibrium, these endowments will be changed further complicating the picture.

In a real economy, however, trading, as well as production and consumption, goes on out of equilibrium. It follows that, in the course of convergence to equilibrium (assuming that occurs), endowments change. In turn this changes the set of equilibria. Put more succinctly, the set of equilibria is path dependent... [This path dependence]

Until the 1970s general equilibrium analysis remained theoretical. With advances in computing power and the development of input–output tables, it became possible to model national economies, or even the world economy, and attempts were made to solve for general equilibrium prices and quantities empirically.

Let us beware of this dangerous theory of equilibrium which is supposed to be automatically established. A certain kind of equilibrium, it is true, is reestablished in the long run, but it is after a frightful amount of suffering.

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

It is as absurd to assume that, for any long period of time, the variables in the economic organization, or any part of them, will "stay put," in perfect equilibrium, as to assume that the Atlantic Ocean can ever be without a wave.