Thoughts from the Frontline

Economists Are (Still) Clueless

June 15, 2013

Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

- John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform

There can be few fields of human endeavor in which history counts for so little as in the world of finance. Past experience, to the extent that it is part of memory at all, is dismissed as the primitive refuge of those who do not have insight to appreciate the incredible wonders of the present.

- John Kenneth Galbraith

Hitler must have been rather loosely educated, not having learned the lesson of Napoleon's autumn advance on Moscow.

- Sir Winston Churchill

US GDP has been slowly ramping up, only to fall back and then try once more to bring us back to the '90s. Stocks markets are volatile but seemingly moving higher in most of the developed world, except for Japan, where the current 20% drop comes hard on the heels of one of their frequent "end of the bear market forever" rallies of almost 90% – how many of those have we seen over the last 24 years? Europe is mostly in recession or Muddling Through with very slow growth. I continue to read from those who know China intimately that there is a real crisis brewing there. And over the last four weeks I have highlighted how desperate the situation is in Japan.

The main obsession in the US seems to be whether and when the Fed may stop its current round of massive QE. Every hint of "tapering" spurs volatility in the markets. If you are a forex (foreign exchange) trader, you are left breathless at the recent moves, sometimes a whole order of magnitude (10 times) larger than average. Get used to it: currency wars are likely to be a feature of the landscape for the rest of this decade. (My friend Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO, corrected me on stage recently, telling me the polite term du jour is "currency tensions." And compared to what I think is coming, we really are just in the tension phase. Later we will get to skirmishes and then full-fledged currency combat.)

At the same time, there are some things to be sanguine about, at least in the US. Corporate profits are at all-time highs. The housing market is finally doing well in most parts of the country, adding jobs and boosting GDP. We continue to find more oil and gas seemingly everywhere we look. There are no political races this summer to spoil the mood, since it's too early to for anyone to seriously run for president in 2016.

The economic forecasts of mainstream economists are quite positive, if not enirely optimistic, reflecting the current data. Should we not take heart from that? Alas, no. I have been working the last few months with my co-author of Endgame, Jonathan Tepper, on a longer paper  in which we discuss the economic affairs of the world. One of our pet amusements is to research just how bad economists really are at forecasting. (Of course, we ourselves get branded with that economist label from time to time, although most serious economists would rather not be associated with us.)

This week we look at some of our recent musings on that topic, triggered by a letter from a very serious economist who took umbrage when I wrote disparagingly about economists and forecasting a couple months ago.

But first, I announced last week that the initial group of videos from the 2013 Strategic Investment Conference is available. Well, now the final group of conference videos has also been uploaded. These videos feature some incredible speakers, including Nouriel Roubini, Charles Gave, Ian Bremmer, and my humble self. As a Mauldin Circle member, you can access the videos by logging in to your "members only" area of the Altegris website, www.altegris.com. Then click on the "SIC 2013" link in the upper left corner to view the videos and more. If you have forgotten your login information, simply click "Forgot Login?" and your information will be sent to you.

If you are not already a Mauldin Circle member, the good news is that this program is completely free. In order to join, you must, however, be an accredited investor. Please register here to be qualified by my partners at Altegris and added to the subscriber roster. Once you register, an Altegris representative will call you to provide access to the videos, transcripts, and summaries from selected speakers at our 2013 conference. My Altegris partners and I have worked hard to enhance the Mauldin Circle program, which provides exclusive access to alternative investment managers and other thought leaders.

Now, let's turn to that letter. Professor John Seater, a distinguished gentleman and economist from North Carolina State University, disagreed with my dismal view of economists and forecasting a couple of months back ("Assume a Perfect World").

I actually do read the comments to my letters (I learn a lot), and I understood his irritation. I went to his website (I find an amazing number of my readers can be found writing in their own venues and often write intriguingly) and read some of his papers. I found myself really liking them, especially the one on the relationship between growth and regulation. I would highly recommend it to all the congressional staffers who read my letter (and I know there are a lot of you). And then show it to your bosses. Make them read it. (Warning: you may have to translate it for them. It is written in a subdialect of English called academic economics. I'm not perfectly fluent in it myself, but I can get most of it if I read slowly.)

Here's a quick sample from the paper's introduction:

We find that regulation added since 1949 has reduced the aggregate growth rate on average by about two percentage points over our sample period. As usual with the compound effect of growth rates, the accumulated effect of  a moderate change in the growth rate leads to large effects on the level over time. In particular, our estimates indicate that annual output by 2005 is about 28 percent of what it would have been had regulation remained at its 1949 level.

(You can read the paper here, and the rest of his recent publications are here. I should actually do a shorter letter on the regulation and growth topic, or even better, get the professor to write one.)

As a professor of economics (macroeconomics at that), I find this article multiply irritating.

First, about forecasting. It is always easy to poke fun at economic forecasts, especially because they usually turn out to be wrong, often by a large margin. However, before laughing them off, think about what is being asked of those forecasts and the economists making them by considering the following analogy. I presume that most of you reading this own a car and have a license to drive it. The license certifies you to be minimally competent drivers, sort of the way a Ph.D. certifies an economist to have a minimal command of economics. Nonetheless, it is very easy to prove that you are all incompetent fools who know nothing about how a car works or how to drive it and thus to prove that drivers' licenses are a big joke. Answer the following simple question: What will be the Mercator grid coordinates of your car exactly 2,190 hours from now (that's three months), what direction will it be traveling, and how fast will it be going? You obviously don't know. I have just proven that you are an incompetent driver and a fool deserving of ridicule because you claim to know the basics of how a car works and how it is to be used.

Asking an economist to predict where GDP (a far, far more complicated object than any automobile) will be in 3 months or a year and then ridiculing him for getting it wrong is exactly the same. An economist can tell you a lot about what makes GDP move around. Asking him to predict where GDP will be some months in the future, what direction it will be going, and how fast it will be going that way is very different. It is asking for an unconditional forecast without providing any information about what the driver (the American people and their government) wants to do, whether he will step on the brake or the accelerator, whether he will have the gears in forward or reverse, and so on. Of course economists get it wrong, and often wildly so, just the way you can't answer my question about your car.

Actually, professor, it is not the same. If I make a decision to do so, I can tell you with pretty good precision where my car will be in three months and at what speed it will be traveling. I can also give you a 98% probability of where I will be on Christmas Day, 2013.

But we do not ask economists to forecast the precise location of the economy a year hence. Just getting the direction (north or south?) right would be a good start.

The problem is that economists take these predictions so seriously, and so do politicians and investors. I think you might agree that the statistical probability that we will not have a recession in the US for the rest of the decade is quite low, yet not one budget projection assumes a slowdown, let alone a recession, which would absolutely devastate any budget as far as deficits are concerned. We act as if the business cycle has been repealed by an act of Congress.

I understand why we do forecasts. As humans, citizens, politicians, businessmen, and investors, we have to plan. I am guilty of making forecasts myself. However, if we do not want to be judged on our forecasting abilities, then we should not prognosticate, at least not in public. And we certainly shouldn't make our predictions sound so certain to the general public.

And with that as a set-up (and with apologies to the professor, who went on to list other irritating points in my April 13 letter), let's turn to a relevant excerpt from the paper that Jonathan Tepper and I are working on.

Economists Are (Still) Clueless

In November of 2008, as stock markets crashed around the world, the Queen of England visited the London School of Economics to open the New Academic Building. While she was there, she listened in on academic lectures. The Queen, who studiously avoids controversy and almost never lets people know what she's actually thinking, finally asked a simple question about the financial crisis: "How come nobody could foresee it?" No one could answer her.

If you've suspected all along that economists are useless at the job of forecasting, you would be right. Dozens of studies show that economists are completely incapable of forecasting recessions. But forget forecasting. What's worse is that they fail miserably even at understanding where the economy is today. In one of the broadest studies of whether economists can predict recessions and financial crises, Prakash Loungani of the International Monetary Fund wrote very starkly, "The record of failure to predict recessions is virtually unblemished." He found this to be true not only for official organizations like the IMF, the World Bank, and government agencies but for private forecasters as well. They're all terrible. Loungani concluded that the "inability to predict recessions is a ubiquitous feature of growth forecasts." Most economists were not even able to recognize recessions once they had already started.

In plain English, economists don't have a clue about the future.

If you think the Fed or government agencies know what is going on with the economy, you're mistaken. Government economists are about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. Their mistakes and failures are so spectacular you couldn't make them up if you tried. Yet now, in a post-crisis world, we trust the same people to know where the economy is, where it is going, and how to manage monetary policy.

Central banks say they will know the right time to end the current policies of quantitative easing and financial repression and when to shrink the bloated monetary base. However, given their record at forecasting, how will they know? The Federal Reserve not only failed to predict the recessions of 1990, 2001, and 2007, it also didn't even recognize them after they had already begun. Financial crises frequently happen because central banks cut interest rates too late and hike rates too soon.

Trusting central bankers now is a big bet that (1) they'll know what to do, (2) they'll know when to do it. Sadly, given the track record, that is not a good wager. Unfortunately, the problem is not that economists are simply bad at what they do; it's that they're really, really bad. They're so bad that it cannot even be a matter of chance. The statistician Nate Silver points this out in his book The Signal and the Noise:

Indeed, economists have for a long time been much too confident in their ability to predict the direction of the economy. If economists' forecasts were as accurate as they claimed, we'd expect the actual value for GDP to fall within their prediction interval nine times out of ten, or all but about twice in eighteen years.

In fact, the actual value for GDP fell outside the economists' prediction interval six times in eighteen years, or fully one-third of the time. Another study, which ran these numbers back to the beginning of the Survey of Professional Forecasters in 1968, found even worse results: the actual figure for GDP fell outside the prediction interval almost half the time. There is almost no chance that economists have simply been unlucky; they fundamentally overstate the reliability of their predictions.

So economists are not only generally wrong, they're overly confident in their bad forecasts.

If economists were merely wrong at betting on horse races, their failure would be amusing. But central bankers have the power to create money, change interest rates, and affect our lives in multiple ways – and they don't have a clue.

Despite this, they remain perennially confident. There's no overestimating the hubris of central bankers. On 60 Minutes in December, 2010, Scott Pelley interviewed Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and asked him whether he would be able to do the right thing at the right time. The exchange was startling (at least to us):

Pelley: Can you act quickly enough to prevent inflation from getting out of control?

Bernanke: We could raise interest rates in 15 minutes if we have to. So, there really is no problem with raising rates, tightening monetary policy, slowing the economy, reducing inflation, at the appropriate time. Now, that time is not now.

Pelley: You have what degree of confidence in your ability to control this?

Bernanke: One hundred percent.

There you have it. Bernanke was not 95% confident, he was not 99% confident – no, he had zero doubts about his ability to know what is going on in the economy and what to do about it. We would love to have that sort of certainty about anything in life.

We're not just picking on Bernanke; we're picking on all central bankers who think they're infallible. The Bank of England has had by far the largest QE program relative to the size of its economy (though the Bank of Japan is about to show it a thing or two). It also has the worst forecasting track record of any bank, and the worst record on inflation. Sir Mervyn King, the head of the Bank of England, was asked if it would be difficult to withdraw QE. He very confidently replied, "I have absolutely no doubt that when the time comes for us to reduce the size of our balance sheet that we'll find that a whole lot easier than we did when expanding it."  (Are central bankers just naturally more overconfident than regular human beings, or are they smoking some powerful stuff at their meetings?)

Let's see whether this sort of absolute certainty is in any way warranted.

In his book Future Babble, Dan Gardner writes that economists are treated with the reverence the ancient Greeks bestowed on the Oracle of Delphi. But unlike the vague pronouncements from Delphi, economists' predictions can be checked against the future, and as Gardner says, "Anyone who does that will quickly conclude that economists make lousy soothsayers."

The nearsightedness of economists is nothing new. In 1994 Paul Ormerod wrote a book called The Death of Economics. He pointed to economists' failure to forecast the Japanese recession after their bubble burst in 1989 or to foresee the collapse of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. Ormerod was scathing in his assessment of economists: "The ability of orthodox economics to understand the workings of the economy at the overall level is manifestly weak (some would say it was entirely non-existent)."

When most people think of economic forecasts, they almost always think of recessions, while economists think of forecasting growth rates or interest rates. But the average man in the street only wants to know, "Will we be in a recession soon?" And if the economy is actually in a recession he wants to know, "When will it end?" The reason he cares is that he knows recessions mean job cuts and firings.

Recessions lead to falls in GDP and spikes in the unemployment rate:

Unfortunately, economists are of little use to the man in the street. If you look at the history of the last three recessions in the United States, you will see that the inability of economists and central bankers to understand the state of the economy was so bad that you might be tempted to say they couldn't find their derrieres with both hands.

Economists have yet to corrrectly call a recession:

Let's remind ourselves what a recession is and how economists decide that one has started. A recession is a downturn in economic activity. Normally, a recession means unemployment goes up, GDP contracts, stock prices fall, and the economy weakens. The lofty body that decides when a recession has started or ended is the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research. It is packed with eminent economists – all extremely smart people. Unfortunately, their pronouncements are completely unusable in real time. Their dating of recessions is authoritative and more or less accurate, but this exercise in hindsight comes long after a recession has started or ended.

To give you an idea just how late recessions are officially called, let's look at the past three. The NBER dated the 1990-91 recession as beginning in August 1990 and ending in March 1991. It announced these facts in April 1991, by which time the recession was already over and the economy was growing again. The NBER was no faster at catching up with the recession that followed the dotcom bust. It wasn't until June 2003 that the NBER pinpointed the start of the 2001 recession – a full 28 months after the recession ended. The NBER didn't date the recession that started in December 2007 until exactly one year later. By that time, Lehman had gone bust, and the world was engulfed in the biggest financial cataclysm since the Great Depression.

The Federal Reserve and private economists also missed the onset of the last three US recessions – even after they had started. Let's look quickly at each one.

Starting with the 1990-91 recession, let's see what the head of the Federal Reserve – the man who is charged with running American monetary policy – was saying at the time. That recession started in August 1990, but one month before it began Alan Greenspan said, "In the very near term there's little evidence that I can see to suggest the economy is tilting over [into recession]." The following month – the month the recession actually started – he continued on the same theme: "... those who argue that we are already in a recession I think are reasonably certain to be wrong." He was just as clueless two months later, in October 1990, when he persisted, "... the economy has not yet slipped into recession." It was only near the end of the recession that Greenspan came around to accepting that it had begun.

The Federal Reserve did no better in the dotcom bust. Let's look at the facts. The recession started in March 2001. The tech-heavy NASDAQ Index had already fallen 50% in a full-scale bust. Even so, Chairman Greenspan declared before the Economic Club of New York on May 24, 2001, "Moreover, with all our concerns about the next several quarters, there is still, in my judgment, ample evidence that we are experiencing only a pause in the investment in a broad set of innovations that has elevated the underlying growth rate in productivity to a level significantly above that of the two decades preceding 1995."

Charles Morris, a retired banker and financial writer, looked at a decade's worth of forecasts by the professionals at the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, the crème de la crème of academic economists. In 2000, the council raised their growth estimates just in time for the dot-com bust and the recession of 2001-02. And in a survey in March 2001, 95% of American economists said there would not be a recession. (John forecast it in September 2000 in this letter). The recession had already started that March, and the signs of contraction were evident. Industrial production had already been contracting for five months.

You would have thought that failure to forecast two recessions in a row might have sharpened the wits of the Federal Reserve, the Council of Economic Advisers, and private economists. Maybe they would have tried to improve their methods or figured out why they had failed so miserably. You would be wrong. Because along came the Great Recession, and once again they completely missed the boat.

The Revenge of the Minsky Moment

Let's look at what the Fed was doing as the world was about to go up in flames in 2008. Recently, complete minutes of the Fed's October 2007 meeting were released. Keep in mind that the recession started two months later, in December. The word recession does not appear once in the entire transcript.

It gets worse. The month the recession started, the Federal Reserve was all optimistic laughter. Dr. David Stockton, the Federal Reserve chief economist, presented his views to Chairman Bernanke and the meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee on December 11, 2007. When you read the following quote, remember that, at the time, the Fed was already providing ample liquidity to the shadow banking system after dozens of subprime lenders had gone bust in the spring, the British bank Northern Rock had been nationalized and had spooked the European banking system, dozens of money market funds had been shut due to toxic assets, credit spreads were widening, stock prices had started to fall, and almost all the classic signs of a recession were evident. These included an inverted yield curve, which had received the casual attention of New York Fed economists even as it screamed recession. (John had pointed to it numerous times here in Thoughts from the Frontline.)

Read these words of the Fed's Chief Economist and weep. You can't make this stuff up:

Overall, our forecast could admittedly be read as still painting a pretty benign picture: Despite all the financial turmoil, the economy avoids recession and, even with steeply higher prices for food and energy and a lower exchange value of the dollar, we achieve some modest edging-off of inflation. So I tried not to take it personally when I received a notice the other day that the Board had approved more frequent drug-testing for certain members of the senior staff, myself included. [Laughter]

I can assure you, however, that the staff is not going to fall back on the increasingly popular celebrity excuse that we were under the influence of mind-altering chemicals and thus should not be held responsible for this forecast. No, we came up with this projection unimpaired and on nothing stronger than many late nights of diet Pepsi and vending-machine Twinkies.

All other government economists were equally awful. The President's Council of Economic Advisers' 2008 forecast saw positive growth for the first half of the year and foresaw a strong recovery in the second half. Note the date on the cartoon below: May 28, 2008!

Unfortunately, private-sector economists didn't do much better. With very few exceptions, they failed to foresee the financial and economic meltdown of 2008. Economists polled in the Survey of Professional Forecasters also failed to see a recession developing. They forecasted a slightly below -average growth rate of 2.4 percent for 2008, and they thought there was almost no chance of a recession as severe as the one that actually unfolded. In December 2007 a Businessweek survey showed that every single one of 54 economists surveyed actually predicted that the US economy would avoid a recession in 2008. The experts were unanimous that unemployment wouldn't be a problem, leading to the consensus conclusion that 2008 would be a good year.

As Nate Silver has pointed out, the worst thing about the bad predictions isn't that they were awful; it's that the economists in question were so confident in them. Now, this was a very bad forecast: far from growing by 2.4%, GDP actually shrank by 3.3% once the financial crisis hit. Yet these economists assigned only a 3% chance to the economy's shrinking by any margin at all over the whole of 2008, and they gave it only about a 1-in-500 chance of shrinking by 2 percent, as it did.

It is one thing to be wrong; it is quite another to be consistently and confidently and egregiously wrong.

As the global financial meltdown unfolded, Chairman Bernanke, too, continued to believe that the US would avoid a recession. Mind you, the recession had started in December 2007, yet in January '08 Bernanke told the press, "The Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession." Even after banks like Bear Stearns needed to be rescued, Bernanke continued seeing rainbows and candy-colored elves ahead for the US economy. He declared on June 9, 2008, "The risk that the economy has entered a substantial downturn appears to have diminished over the past month or so." At that stage, the economy had already been in a recession for the past six months!

Why do people listen to economists anymore? Scott Armstrong, an expert on forecasting at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has developed a "seer-sucker" theory: "No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers." Even if experts fail repeatedly in their predictions, most people prefer to have seers, prophets, and gurus tell them something – anything at all – about the future.

So, we have cataloged the incredible failures of economists to predict the future or even to understand the present. Now think of the vast powers Fed economists have to print money and move interest rates. When you contemplate the consummate skill that would actually be required to manage post-Great Recession policies, you realize they're really just flying blind. If that reality doesn't scare the living daylights out of you, you're not paying attention.

The longer the Federal Reserve sticks to its current policy, the more likely that policy will end in tears. Call it the Revenge of the Minsky Moment.

Monaco, Cyprus, Croatia, Switzerland, and Las Vegas

I leave Sunday evening for Monaco to deliver a speech at GAIM. Then, after a weekend in France, where I will meet with a few friends and associates, I fly to Cyprus, where I have a very aggressive schedule of meetings with people who are dealing with their current crisis. That should make for an interesting letter as I report back to you. Then I take a ridiculously early flight to eventually wind up in Split, Croatia, to spend the weekend with David McWilliams and his family at his summer vacation home on an island off the coast. Finally, I'll make my way to Geneva before returning home.

Then on July 6 and 7 I'll be in Las Vegas. Reid Walker, friend and recovering hedge fund manager based here in Dallas, is organizing an event during the World Series of Poker, on the theme of the intersection between investing and poker skills. This is just an entirely different world for me. I will not be entering the tournament – I know my limitations! But talking to some of the best players in the world and meeting Nate Silver and some of the other speakers will make for a fun weekend. The event is not cheap, but you can get a 10% discount by putting in the code "Mauldin10". Let me know if you're coming, and we'll get together for a meal. You can read more about the conference and register here. And here's an article in Hedge Fund Intelligence about Reid and the event.

Work on the apartment has started, although now it's demolition time. And we are still refining plans. The focus is now turning to the media room and toy department, which I am designing with the goal of making sure the kids and grandkids have reasons to come over every now and then. We have to think not just about what the latest technology is, but about what it might be in the next ten years, so we can wire for it now. It really costs a lot to go back and re-wire in a high rise after everything is done. And the choices are so varied. We are looking at a few designs and businesses that might help with them; but if you are an expert or know of one, I would appreciate a little input.

I don't want to leave you without mentioning the great highlight reel that my Mauldin Economics team has produced of our Investing in the New Normal webinar. You can view it right here, and it's not too late to register (for free) for the whole event.

OK, it's time to hit the send button. This is Father's Day weekend, and my kids are all going to be in one place for a day. I am really looking forward to that. Life goes by so fast. Tomorrow I will be going to see my mother, who will celebrate her 96th birthday in August. None of her ten brothers and sisters made it past 95, although almost all lived into their 90s, and Grandfather was 98 when he passed. Mother is getting visibly weaker, although she is mentally still quite active. And then I get to hang out with grandkids on Sunday. The cycle of life has me in a contemplative mood, but in a good way. Have a great week!

Your forecasting he won't lose money in Vegas analyst,

John Mauldin

Discuss This

13 comments

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Tom Ervin

June 17, 2013, 11:52 a.m.

And so, who profits? Qui bono? Who gains by the wrong predictions?

1) Some of the economists, who are clever enough to get paid.
2) Some investors who are lucky enough to be right, despite much bad information.
3) Some advisors who profit from stirring the pot.
4) Others?  All of the above?

One is reminded of that wonderful recent book on risk (help me, John) and probability of prediction(s) about weather, in wartime. The meteorologist admitted he could not possibly predict the weather on certain future dates being considered for invasions—not with any reliability at all. The officers however, said, “The admirals need this for their planning!”

John Beeler

June 17, 2013, 8:32 a.m.

John: I saw this article on Zer Hedge today and thought it did a good job of confirming your idout sing eg econmists.

Regards


Guest Post: Market Punditry As Astrology!

Originally posted at Monty Pelerin’s World blog,

Is recent market behavior the beginning of a market turndown? No one knows, although it is easy to find people providing “answers.” The value of these predictions approach those of astrologers and fortune-tellers. What follows are some thoughts regarding markets.

carlos.guberman@gmail.com

June 17, 2013, 8:17 a.m.

I must say that there are many things missed in the letter regarding theory and forecasting. First of all, any economist must be aware of the so called “Lucas critique”, which stress the difficulties of trying to forecast based on past behavior.
Secondly, and more on the grounds of every human being, forecasting is talking about the future, and as so, it is uncertain. As clearly John Seater points out in a comment to this letter, it is easier to miss than to hit in the target.
Third, taking also the response on the letter to Seater´s example, I’ll ask Mr Mauldin what if in the moment that you are about to ride your car in the direction you were supposed to, the road is blocked? Or one of your tires is flat? Or more to the spirit of economic theory, what if you are invited to a conference extremely well paid, what would you do: take your car and go the supposed direction, or forget the car and get the conference?
And last, one more thing regarding economic thought and some misconceptions about it, we do make rational choices all the time, but it does not mean that we know in advance perfectly how the world is going to be in the future. As in my question in the previous paragraph, it might be rational to take the car to make your point, until you are invited to the conference, and your preference gets a shock, that change you rational path of choices.

bob erickson

June 17, 2013, 5:07 a.m.

Professor John Seater analogy is specious.  His response makes my point.  ‘Without any special effort I can tell you months in advance where my car is going to be. Granted one cannot predict catastrophe’s. Besides I singularly have total control over the car.  I, nor most individuals have any control over the economy, the actions by government bodies, etc.  As was pointed out by someone, in economics, history has little validity to predict future reality.  So if it is virtually impossible to predict the future, DON’T.

Wayne Bamber

June 16, 2013, 7:53 p.m.

Well done John. This article needed to be written in the worst way. For those who are looking for a reason for the corruption of economics, there was a book published about 1968 called Keynes at Harvard, Economic deception as a Political Credo by Zygmund Dobbs. It is a history of the Fabian Society. You can read it on the internet. If you read it ask yourself how far along do you think they are in their master plan with both the president and the Fed Chairman of the country professing to be Keynsians.

jdshier@pathcom.com

June 16, 2013, 7:32 a.m.

Dear Mr Maudlin,

Scott Armstrong’s point is not relevant.  The human desire to know what will happen explains the appeal of astrology and other seers; it does not explain why economists claim in the name of a scientific discipline to be so all knowing.  What he misses as does your piece is the conflict economists are in.  Like all conflicts of interest, those who find themselves in one are likely either to be blind to the issue or believe themselves able to surmount their bias.  The power that comes with being a central banker cannot exist with the admission of ignorance and the inability to know what effect one’s actions will cause.  In the private realm one’s livelihood and the livelihoods of one’s colleagues depend on knowledge.  Humility is not a good career quality.

One other point: the chart showing the record of actual vs forecast GDP suggests that the forecasts are 100 day (or so) moving averages of GDP.  The forecasts miss both the highs and the lows. Perhaps economists who claim an ability to forecast should show an ability to do better.

Yours truly,

Joseph Shier

Charley Sweet 3

June 16, 2013, 3:14 a.m.

Matt wrote: “Is it a wonder that no economist, not even Nobel Price Winners, are billionaires?”

Well, there were the LTCM guys; they did OK ... for a while.

A. Dorrance

June 16, 2013, 2:37 a.m.

This can be summarized thusly: experts can’t predict the future. A valid point, but what’s the need to repeat it?

In the experts’ defense, they are required to do predictions, because without them, policymakers would be acting blindly.

This is written implicitly asking “Why don’t the ‘experts’ see what I see?” They’d be asking the same of you (and of all of us).

John Seater

June 16, 2013, 1:12 a.m.

I thank John for his kind words about my academic research.  I also thank him for the respectful treatment of my previous comments on his previous comments.  The man is a true gentleman who understands and adheres to the rules of civil debate.  For those interested in my article on regulation and growth that he mentioned, it is now forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Growth. Volume 18 Number 2.

I want to do three things in this comment: (1) defend my previous remark about people asking the impossible of economists and then ridiculing them for not achieving it, (2) mention some evidence that economic forecasts provide useful information, and (3) add my own comments about economic forecasting.

(1) I used the analogy of driving a car to make the point of what people are asking of economists.  John quoted my analogy in today’s comment, so I won’t repeat it here.  John goes on to say my analogy is wrong because he could, if he put his mind to it, be pretty sure where his car would be in three months and he also is pretty sure where it would be on Christmas day.  John’s comment actually strengthens my own point.  *If John put his mind to it,...*  Exactly.  If he were to go out of his way to be in a particular place on a particular date, he could do it.  In other words, if he were to alter his normal behavior for the specific purpose of proving my analogy wrong, he could do it.  True enough, but that’s got nothing to do with the point I was making.  My point was very simple: if you don’t go out of your way to behave abnormally, you generally will not be able to tell me the exact position, heading, and velocity of your car three months from now.  If you want to really sharpen the analogy, let’s change it from your car to the car of someone you barely know.  Then you have no control over the car, but I am asking you to predict where it will be in three months.  You say you know how a car works, and you even know the driver, though barely, so give me a good prediction.  You can’t do it.  That is what economists are asked to do.

(2) In today’s post, John goes on at length about economic forecasts being worthless.  His argument is almost entirely by anecdote. Economists didn’t predict this recession, or they missed that downturn.  However, when he cites actual statistical evidence, it shows that economic forecasts do provide useful information.  Specifically, he quotes from Nate Silver:

“In fact, the actual value for GDP fell outside the economists’ prediction interval six times in eighteen years, or fully one-third of the time. Another study, which ran these numbers back to the beginning of the Survey of Professional Forecasters in 1968, found even worse results: the actual figure for GDP fell outside the prediction interval almost half the time.”

Now, Silver’s point is that economists (or to be more precise, economic forecasters) overstate the accuracy of their forecasts, and he is right (see below).  BUT, notice that he finds they are “right” fully two-thirds or at least one-half of the time!  That is not bad when you think about what they are trying to do.  They are not just trying to say “up” or “down” but to give actual numbers at specific times in the future, such as “up by 1/2 of 1% in three months” or “up by 2.3% in one year.”  Numbers are a continuum, and these guys are trying to pick a point on the number line that will hold at some specific time in the future.  That’s much, much harder than predicting a coin flip.  With a coin flip, you have to do much better than 50-50 to be able to say you can forecast.  Picking a number out of continuum (albeit on a restricted interval of the number line) literally has a zero probability of being right, so the forecasters rarely hit the number right on the head.  That’s why they provide “confidence intervals.”  That economic forecasters can get a number inside a reasonable confidence interval 2/3 or 1/2 the time tells me that they really do have something useful to say, especially when you remember that they are not driving the car.

(3) I am not an economic forecaster, so I have nothing personal at stake in this debate.  Forecasters overstate the accuracy of their forecasts.  Why?  Because they are paid to do so.  People pay big bucks for dramatic forecasts.  That’s what people like to hear.  People also remember single events that stand out and forget the rest.  A broken clock is right twice a day.  Similarly, some forecasters routinely predict recessions, and when one finally comes along, they can claim to have foreseen it.  People remember the one they got right and forget all those that they got wrong.  Given incentives like that, it is no wonder forecasters overstate their case.  That’s not an excuse, just an explanation.  I myself find forecasters’ overselling distasteful, but maybe that’s one reason I am just an academic and not a forecaster.

didefa@gmail.com

June 16, 2013, 12:47 a.m.

John,

Outstanding thought-provoking letter, as usual.  Or should I say, despair-provoking.

So, economists are “irritated” by accusations of being wrong future seers.  But they are simply terrified by being accused of being “right self-fulfilling prophets.”

That’s why they won’t predict bad economic news, especially if they have the honor of being famous planners and advisers to the government.

Always thank you for what you do,

Dino de Falco, Austin, TX

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