FPC Blog


Why do we still listen Economists when Vast Majority Forecasting Wrong?

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I have always been appalled with highly paid Ivy League economists and central bankers who sit in their Ivory Tower and pontificate what they think will happen to the economy…. From Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and Paul Kruger down the list.

They are treated with the reverence the ancient Greeks bestowed on the Oracle of Delphi and project this aura of such smartness despite the fact that they keep erring again and again.

If they were such smart asses, why they wouldn’t be making millions and hundreds of millions of dollars building, financing and trading companies than selling us a completely empty bag of goods? …. Go figure.

It looks in fact like there’s no overestimating the hubris of both central bankers and economists….And I am not just picking in here on Bernanke but 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.

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.

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.

I am afraid it looks like they are becoming more stupid than ever at every recession/crisis and we seem to never learn they are clueless and keep believing their crap more than ever.

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