Staff Report 200

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Tobin's q and Asset Returns: Implications for Business Cycle Analysis

Lawrence J. Christiano - Consultant
Jonas D. M. Fisher

Published November 1, 1995

The marginal cost of plant capacity, measured by the price of equity, is significantly procyclical. Yet, the price of a major intermediate input into expanding plant capacity, investment goods, is countercyclical. The ratio of these prices is Tobin's q. Following convention, we interpret the fact that Tobin's q differs from unity at all, as reflecting that there are diminishing returns to expanding plant capacity by installing investment goods ("adjustment costs"). However, the phenomenon that interests us is not just that Tobin's q differs from unity, but also that its numerator and denominator have such different cyclical properties. We interpret the sign switch in their covariation with output as reflecting the interaction of our adjustment cost specification with the operation of two shocks: one which affects the demand for equity and another which shifts the technology for producing investment goods. The adjustment costs cause the two prices to respond differently to these two shocks, and this is why it is possible to choose the shock variances to reproduce the sign switch. These model features are incorporated into a modified version of a model analyzed in Boldrin, Christiano and Fisher (1995). That model incorporates assumptions designed to help account for the observed mean return on risk free and risky assets. We find that the various modifications not only account for the sign switch, but they also continue to account for the salient features of mean asset returns. We turn to the business cycle implications of our model. The model does as well as standard models with respect to conventional business cycle measures of volatility and comovement with output, and on one dimension the model significantly dominates standard models. The factors that help it account for prices and rates of return on assets also help it account for the fact that employment across a broad range of sectors moves together over the cycle.

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