A FEW weeks ago, it seemed the financial crisis wouldn’t spin completely out of control. The government knew what it was doing — at least the economic experts were saying so — and the Treasury had taken a stand against saving failing firms, letting Lehman Brothers file for bankruptcy. But since then we’ve had the rescue of the insurance giant A.I.G., the arranged sale of failing banks and we’ll soon see, in one form or another, the biggest taxpayer bailout of Wall Street in history. It seems clear that no one really knows what is coming next. Why?
Well, part of the reason is that economists still try to understand markets by using ideas from traditional economics, especially so-called equilibrium theory. This theory views markets as reflecting a balance of forces, and says that market values change only in response to new information — the sudden revelation of problems about a company, for example, or a real change in the housing supply. Markets are otherwise supposed to have no real internal dynamics of their own. Too bad for the theory, things don’t seem to work that way.
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