The IMF Working Papers series is designed to make IMF staff research available to a wide audience. Almost 300 Working Papers are released each year, covering a wide range of theoretical and analytical topics, including balance of payments, monetary and fiscal issues, global liquidity, and national and international economic developments.
Recent turmoil in financial and commodities markets has renewed questions regarding how well markets discover equilibrium prices, particularly when those markets are highly complex. A relatively new critique questions whether markets can realistically find equilibrium prices if computers cannot. For instance, in a simple exchange economy with Leontief preferences, the time required to compute equilibrium prices using the fastest known techniques is an exponential function of the number of goods. Furthermore, no efficient technique for this problem exists if a famous mathematical conjecture is correct. The conjecture states loosely that there are some problems for which finding an answer (i.e., an equilibrium price vector) is hard even though it is easy to check an answer (i.e., that a given price vector is an equilibrium). This paper provides a brief overview of computational complexity accessible to economists, and points out that the existence of computational problems with no best solution algorithm is relevant to this conjecture.