The following articles look at a recently published book by George Akerlof of the University of California, Berkeley, and Robert Shiller of Yale. They examine the role of what Keynes called ‘animal spirits’ and is the title of the book.
The motivation to make economic decisions (to buy, to sell, to invest, etc) may not be ‘rational’ in the sense of carefully weighing up marginal costs and marginal benefits. Rather it can be one of over-optimism in good times or over-pessimism in bad times. Just as individuals have ‘mood swings’, so there can be collective mood swings too. After all, confidence, or lack of it, is contagious. This motivation that drives people to action is what is meant by animal spirits.
But are animal spirits a blessing to be nurtured or a curse to be reined in? Should governments seek to constrain them?
An economic bestiary The Economist (26/3/09)
Good Government and Animal Spirits Wall Street Journal (23/4/09)
Irrational Exuberance New York Times (17/4/09)
Animal Spirits: A Q&A With George Akerlof Freakonomics: New York Times blog (30/4/09)
- Describe what is meant by ‘animal spirits’ and their effects on human behaviour.
- Why may animal spirits make economies less stable?
- How may animal spirits help to explain exchange rate overshooting?
- Discuss whether governments should seek to constrain animal spirits and make people more ‘rational’? Also consider what methods governments could/should use to do this?
Forecasting the future state of economies is difficult at the best of times. Forecasters frequently get it wrong. To see this, just look at forecasts for the current point in time made two or three years ago – or even six months ago, given the current dire circumstances. They were often way-off mark.
But why are forecasts often so inaccurate? The problem is that in the short run the state of the economy depends on the level of aggregate demand; and that, in turn, depends crucially on confidence – both of consumers and business. But confidence is a ‘will-o’-the-wisp’ thing. Confidence can evaporate with bad news, making the situation much worse. Likewise, good news can lead to rapidly growing optimism, which in turn stimulates consumption, investment and growth. Humans are fickle creatures – and the media do not help here, playing on fears or hyping-up good news.
The following articles look at forecasts made in April 2009, when economies around the world were deep in recession. Was this recession the start of something much worse? Or were economies soon to bounce back, taking up the slack created by the recession? Forecasters were being sorely tested. It will be interesting to see in a year’s time just how accurate, or inaccurate, they were.
Are there any signs of recovery? BBC News (16/4/09)
Merkel debates economic woes amid grim forecasts Guardian (22/4/09)
IMF is being unduly alarmist: Jeremy Warner Independent (24/4/09)
What the experts say: the shrinking economy Guardian (24/4/09)
Economic surveys signal that worst could be behind Europe EarthTimes (24/4/09)
Darling’s economic forecast “unrealistic” Moneywise (23/4/09)
Crisis deepens in Europe, Japan AsiaOne News (24/4/09)
IMF warns that worldwide slump will be deeper than thought Times Online (23/4/09)
World Economic Outlook: April 2009 IMF (24/4/09). See also webcast.
- Why do forecasters differ so markedly from each other?
- Other than an unexpected rise or fall in confidence, what else could make forecasts turn out to be wrong?
- To what extent is economic forecasting similar to and different from weather forecasting?
On 7 April, Brian Lenihan, Ireland’s Finance Minister, introduced an emergency Budget. He forecast that Irish real GDP would decline by some 8 per cent in 2009, that consumer prices would fall by 4 per cent (i.e. substantial negative inflation) and that unemployment, already at 11 per cent, would rise further. So what was his solution? Was it a massive fiscal stimulus to boost aggregate demand and turn the economy around? No: it was precisely the opposite. He announced substantial tax increases and cuts in government expenditure? Was this economic madness, or was there economic sense in the measures? The following articles explore the arguments.
Ireland’s shock therapy has got its merits Independent (9/4/09)
Ireland Faces ‘Challenge of Its Life’ BusinessWeek (8/4/09)
Few crumbs of comfort as incomes take severe hammering Irishtimes.com (10/4/09)
Republic’s Budget cuts ‘for the common good’ Belfast Telegraph (8/4/09)
Ireland unveils budget ‘challenge’ Financial Times (8/4/09)
Ireland unveils emergency budget BBC News (7/4/09)
When fiscal stimulus isn’t stimulating: Stephanie Flanders blog BBC News (7/4/09)
Ireland imposes emergency cuts Telegraph (8/4/09)
- Consider the arguments for and against the fiscal tightening measures adopted by the Irish government.
- Should the UK government also adopt a tighter fiscal stance?
- How important is investor confidence in determining the success of a Budget?
Every six months the OECD publishes its Economic Outlook. This gives annual (and some quarterly) macroeconomic data for each of the 30 OECD countries, for all 30 countries together and for the eurozone. There are 63 tables covering most of the major macroeconomic indicators, most going back 13 years with forecasts for the next two years. OECD Economic Outlook is normally published in June and December.
Similarly, every six months the European Commission’s Economic and Financial Affairs Directorate publishes its European Economy Statistical Annex. This gives annual data for 76 macroeconomic variables for each of the EU countries, plus the USA and Japan. Most of the tables go back to 1970 and forecast ahead for two years. There is also a separate publication, Economic Forecasts. The statistical appendix to this publication has 62 tables, again covering a range of macroeconomic data. The tables go back to 1992 and again forecast ahead for two years. There is a lot of useful commentary about the individual economies of the EU and other major economies, such as the USA, Japan, China and Russia. Both publications normally appear in May and November.
Another organisation to publish 6-monthly forecasts is the International Monetary Fund. The Statistical Appendix of the Word Economic Outlook (after clicking on this, go to link on right), normally published in April and October, gives macroeconomic data for most economies and regions of the world. Forecasts are made ahead for two years and for five years.
The state of the world economy was so severe in early 2009 and was deteriorating so rapidly that earlier forecasts proved far too optimistic. In early 2009, all three organisations published interim forecasts – the European Commission and the IMF in January and the OECD at the end of March. They painted a much bleaker picture than the forecasts published at the end of 2008. What will the next set of forecasts look like? Will they be even bleaker?
The following links take you to these interim forecasts and to articles commenting on them.
EU interim forecasts for 2009–2010: sharp downturn in growth European Commission, Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs (19/1/09)
World Economic Outlook Update IMF (28/1/09)
OECD Interim Economic Outlook, March 2009 OECD (31/3/09)
Global economy set for worst fall since WWII Times Online (31/3/09)
UK economy: We still need to take our medicine Times Online (1/4/09)
OECD predicts 4.3% contraction in richest economies this year Irish Times (1/4/09)
Global Slump Seen Deepening The Wall Street Journal (1/4/09)
Glimmers of hope, forecasts of gloom The Economist (2/4/09)
- Compare the forecasts for GDP growth, unemployment, inflation and output gaps for some of the major economies made by the OECD at the end of March with those made by the European Commission and the IMF in January and with those made by all three organisations in the autumn of 2008. Why, do you think, are there such large divergences in the forecasts?
- For what reasons might the OECD March forecasts turn out to be (a) much too pessimistic; (b) much too optimistic?
- In the light of the forecasts, should countries adopt further strongly expansionary fiscal policies – something rejected at the G20 summit in Early April (see news item Saving the world)?