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On the Foundations of Hysteresis in Economic Systems

  • Rod Cross (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 16 October 2009

Hysteresis means literally “that which comes later,” being derived from the Greek verb ύστερέω. Thus, hysteresis effects, generally defined, are those that persist after the initial causes giving rise to the effects are removed.

During the course of the 1980s, it became increasingly fashionable to invoke hysteresis effects to explain economic phenomena. Two of the main areas of application were to unemployment and international trade. In the case of unemployment, distinctive features of labor markets, such as social norms that rule out wage-cutting in the face of rising unemployment, imply that “increases in unemployment have a direct impact on the ‘natural’ rate of unemployment” (Blanchard and Summers, 1988, p. 15). The implication for macroeconomic systems is that “temporary shocks can have a permanent effect on the level of employment” (Ibid., p. 307). In the case of international trade, hysteresis effects arise from the industrial economics of sunk costs: “the argument is that firms must incur sunk costs to enter new markets, and cannot recoup these costs if they exit.… thus foreign firms that entered the U.S. market when the dollar was high do not abandon their sunk cost investments when the dollar falls.” The implication for trade flows is “an effect which persists after the cause that brought it about has been removed” (Dixit, 1989, p. 205).

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Economics & Philosophy
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