Is too much expected of economists? When economic forecasts turn out to be wrong, as they often are, economists are criticised for having inaccurate or unrealistic models. But is this a fair criticism?
The following article by Richard Whittle from Manchester Metropolitan University looks at what economists can and cannot do. The article highlights two key problems for economic forecasting.
The first concerns human behaviour, which is influenced by a whole range of factors and can change very rapidly in response to changing circumstances. Moods of optimism or pessimism can quickly spread in response to a news item, such as measures announced by Donald Trump or latest data on growth or the housing market.
The second concerns the whole range of possible economic shocks. Such shocks, by their very nature, are hard to predict and can quickly make forecasts wrong. They could be a surprise election result, a surprise government policy change, a natural disaster, a war or a series of terrorist attacks. And these shocks, in turn, affect human behaviour. Consumption and investment may rise or fall as the events affect confidence and herd behaviour.
But is it a fair criticism of economics that it cannot foretell the future? Do economists, as the article says, throw up their hands and curse economics as a futile endeavour? Not surprisingly, the answer given is no! The author gives an analogy with medicine.
A doctor cannot definitely prevent illness, but can offer advice on prevention and hopefully offer a cure if you do get ill. This is the same for the work economists do.
Economists can offer advice on preventing crises or slowdowns but cannot definitively prevent them from happening. Economists can also offer robust advice on restoring growth, although when the advice is that the economy has grown too fast and should slow, it is often not welcomed by policy makers.
Helping understanding the various drivers in an economy and how humans are likely to respond to various incentives is a key part of what economists do. But making predictions with 100% certainty is asking too much of economists.
And just as medical professionals can predict that if you smoke, eat unhealthy food or take no exercise you are likely to be less healthy and die younger, but cannot say precisely when an individual will die, so too economists can predict that certain policy measures are likely to increase or decrease GDP or employment or inflation, but they cannot say precisely how much they will be affected.
As the article says, “the true value of the economist lies not in mystical fortune telling, but in achieving a better understanding of the nature of the economies in which we live and work.”
How to be an economist in 2017 The Conversation, Richard Whittle (24/1/17)
- For what reasons has economics been ‘in crisis’? What is the solution to this crisis?
- Look at some macroeconomic forecasts for a country of your choice made two years ago for today (see, for example, forecasts made by the IMF, OECD or a central bank). How accurate were they? Explain any inaccuracies.
- To what extent is economic forecasting like weather forecasting?
- What is meant by cumulative causation? Give some examples. Why does cumulative causation make economic forecasting difficult?
- How is the increased usage of contactless card payments likely to affect spending patterns? Explain why.
- Why is it difficult to forecast the effects of Brexit?
- How can economic advisors help governments in designing policy?
- Why do people tend to overweight high probabilities and underweight low ones?
One of the reasons why it is so hard to forecast economic growth and other macroeconomic indicators is that economies can be affected by economic shocks. Sometimes the effects of shocks are large. The problem with shocks is that, by their very nature, they are unpredictable or hard to predict.
A case in point is the current crisis in Ukraine. First there was the uprising in Kiev, the ousting of President Yanukovich and the formation of a new government. Then there was the seizing of the Crimean parliament by gunmen loyal to Russia. The next day, Saturday March 1, President Putin won parliamentary approval to invade Ukraine and Russian forces took control of the Crimea.
On Monday 3 March, stock markets fell around the world. The biggest falls were in Russia (see chart). In other stock markets, the size of the falls was directly related to the closeness of trade ties with Russia. The next day, with a degree of calm descending on the Crimea and no imminent invasion by Russia of other eastern parts of Ukraine, stock markets rallied.
What will happen to countries’ economies depends on what happens as the events unfold. There could be a continuing uneasy peace, with the West effectively accepting, despite protests, the Russian control of the Crimea. But what if Russia invades eastern Ukraine and tries to annex it to Russia or promote its being run as a separate country? What if the West reacted strongly by sending in troops? What if the reaction were simply sanctions? That, of course would depend on the nature of those sanctions.
Some of the possibilities could have serious effects on the world economy and especially the Russian economy and the economies of those with strong economic ties to Russia, such as those European countries relying heavily on gas and oil imports from Russia through the pipeline network.
Economists are often criticised for poor forecasts. But when economic shocks can have large effects and when they are hard to predict by anyone, not just economists, then it is hardly surprising that economic forecasts are sometimes highly inaccurate.
What Wall Street is watching in Ukraine crisis USA Today (3/3/14)
Ukraine’s economic shock waves – magnitude uncertain Just Auto, Dave Leggett (7/3/14)
Ukraine: The end of the beginning? The Economist (8/3/14)
Russia will bow to economic pressure over Ukraine, so the EU must impose it The Guardian, Guy Verhofstadt (6/3/14)
Russia paying price for Ukraine crisis CNN Money, Mark Thompson (6/3/14)
Ukraine Crimea: Russia’s economic fears BBC News, Nikolay Petrov (7/3/14)
How Russia’s conflict with Ukraine threatens vital European trade links The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (8/3/14)
Will a Russian invasion of Ukraine push the west into an economic war? Channel 4 News, Paul Mason (2/3/14)
Who loses from punishing Russia? BBC News, Robert Peston (4/3/14)
Should Crimea be leased to Russia? BBC News, Robert Peston (7/3/14)
The Ukraine Economic Crisis Counter Punch, Jack Rasmus (7-9/3/14)
UK price rise exposes failure to prepare for food and fuel shocks The Guardian, Phillip Inman (2/3/14)
- What sanctions could the West realistically impose on Russia?
- How would sanctions against Russia affect (a) the Russian economy and (b) the economies of those applying the sanctions?
- Which industries would be most affected by sanctions against Russia?
- Is Russia likely to bow to economic pressure from the West?
- Should Crimea be leased to Russia?
- Is the behaviour of stock markets a good indication of people’s expectations about the real economy?
- Identify some other economic shocks (positive and negative) and their impact.
- Could the financial crisis of 2007/8 be described as an economic shock? Explain.
Business leaders and politicians pay a great deal of attention to economic forecasts. And yet these forecasts often turn out to be quite wrong. Very few economists predicted the banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent credit crunch and recession. And the recently released 2010 Q4 growth figures for the UK economy, which showed a decline in real GDP of 0.5%, took most people by surprise.
What is more, forecasters often disagree. If, for example, you look at the forecasts made by various panel members for Consensus Forecasts, you can see the divergence between their various predictions.
So why is economic forecasting so unreliable? Is it the fault of economic models? Or are there too many unpredictable factors that can impact on economies – factors such as business and consumer confidence, or political events, or natural disasters, such as the recent floods in Australia, South Africa and Brazil? Will economic forecasting always be a very inexact science?
Davos 2011: Why do economists get it so wrong? BBC News, Tim Weber (27/1/11)
Popular Semi-Science Slate, Robert J. Shiller (24/1/11)
Fed Often Gets It Wrong In Its Forecasts on US Economy American Public Media, Justin Wolfers (26/1/11)
Don’t bet on economic forecasting CNBC, Jeff Cox (21/9/10)
Forecasts for the UK economy HM Treasury
Econ Stats: The Economic Statistics and Indicators Database Economy Watch (large database of worldwide annual statistics, including forecasts to 2015)
World Economic Outlook IMF (follow link in right-hand panel)
OECD Economic Outlook: Statistical Annex OECD
European Economic Forecasts European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs DG
- For what reasons may economic forecasts turn out to be wrong?.
- To what extent is economic forecasting like weather forecasting? Which is harder and why?
- Wo what extent can the poor accuracy of economic forecasts be blamed on the application of the ‘wrong type of economics’?
- How much variation is there in the independent forecasts of the UK economy reported by the Treasury (see HM Treasury link above)?
- Using the HM Treasury link, compare the forecasts made of 2010 in January 2010 with those made of 2010 in January 2011. Attempt an explanation of the differences.