A New Look at Uncertainty Shocks: Imperfect Information and Misallocation
Uncertainty faced by individual firms appears to be heterogeneous. In this paper, I construct new empirical measures of firm-level uncertainty using data from the I/B/E/S and Compustat. These new measures reveal persistent differences in the degree of uncertainty facing individual firms not reflected by existing measures. Consistent with existing measures, I find that the average level of uncertainty across firms is countercyclical, and that it rose sharply at the start of the Great Recession. I next develop a heterogeneous firm model with Bayesian learning and uncertainty shocks to study the aggregate implications of my new empirical findings. My model establishes a close link between the rise in firms’ uncertainty at the start of a recession and the slow pace of subsequent recovery. These results are obtained in an environment that embeds Jovanovic’s (1982) model of learning in a setting where each firm gradually learns about its own productivity, and each occasionally experiences a shock forcing it to start learning afresh. Firms differ in their information; more informed firms have lower posterior variances in beliefs. An uncertainty shock is a rise in the probability that any given firm will lose its information. When calibrated to reproduce the level and cyclicality of my leading measure of firm-level uncertainty, the model generates a prolonged recession followed by anemic recovery in response to an uncertainty shock. When confronted with a rise in firm-level uncertainty consistent with advent of the Great Recession, it explains 79 percent of the observed decline in GDP and 89 percent of the fall in investment.
"Subjective uncertainty is about the "unknown unknowns". When, as today, the unknown unknowns dominate, and the economic environment is so complex as to appear nearly incomprehensible, the result is extreme prudence, [. . . ], on the part of investors, consumers and firms." Olivier Blanchard (2012)