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.
In a previous blog, Anyone got a crystal ball?, we reported on the Bank of England’s and other agencies’ difficulty in making forecasts. As the Governor, Mervyn King, said, “There is just enormous uncertainty out there.”
The Bank of England has just published its November Inflation Report. This quarterly publication gives forecasts of inflation, GDP and other indicators. It is clear that forecasting hasn’t become any easier. In his opening remarks, Dr. King says:
Continuing the recent zig-zag pattern, output growth is likely to fall back sharply in Q4 as the boost from the Olympics in the summer is reversed – indeed output may shrink a little this quarter. It is difficult to discern the underlying picture. It is probably neither as good as the zigs suggest nor as bad as the zags imply.
The Inflation Report looks at the various factors affecting aggregate demand, inflation, unemployment and aggregate supply. It is quite clear on reading the report why there is so much uncertainty.
A salutary lesson is to look back at previous forecasts and see just how wrong they have been. The chart above shows the forecasts for GDP made in the Inflation Reports of Nov 2012 and Aug 2011. You can see that they are significantly different and yet just 15 months apart. You might also like to compare the forecasts made a year ago (or even two!) about 2012 with the actual situation today. A good source for this is the Treasury’s Forecasts for the UK economy. This collates the forecasts from a range of independent forecasters.
The inaccuracy of forecasting is an inevitable consequence of a highly interdependent world economy that is subject to a range of economic shocks and where confidence (or lack of it) is a major determinant of aggregate demand. But when firms, governments, individuals and central banks have to make plans, it is still necessary to project into the future and try to forecast as accurately as possible – even though it might mean keeping your fingers firmly crossed.
Bank of England downgrades growth forecast for 2013 Daily Record (14/11/12)
A gloomy picture from the Old Lady Financial Times (14/11/12)
Will Britain’s post-recession economy be resurgent, stagnant or greener? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/11/12)
Economics must heed political risk Financial Times, Sebastian Mallaby (6/11/12)
European Commission autumn forecast: overoptimistic and in denial Social Europe Journal, Andrew Watt (7/11/12)
Bank of England gets long to-do list for overhaul Reuters, Sven Egenter (2/11/12)
Inflation Report, November 2012 Bank of England
Index of economic forecasts European Commission DGECFIN
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD
World Economic Outlook Reports IMF
Forecasts for the UK economy HM Treasury
- What was being forecast for economic growth and inflation for 2012 (a) one year ago; (b) two years ago?
- What are the main reasons for the inaccuracy of forecasts?
- How might forecasting be made more reliable?
- If sentiment is a key determinant of economic activity, how might politicians increase the confidence of firms and consumers? What are the political constraints on doing this?
- Explain the following statement from the Guardian article: “The problem … is that last decade’s tailwind has become this decade’s headwind.” Why is it difficult to forecast the strength of this ‘headwind’?
- How useful is it to use past trends as a guide to the future course of the economy?
At the start of the new decade, many commentators are getting out their crystal balls to take a look into the future. Below you will find a selection of their predictions, including six extracts from The Economist’s ‘The World in 2010’.
In 2009, the world economy shrank for the first time since 1945. Will it now bounce back, or will global recovery be slow, or will there be a ‘double-dip recession’ with output falling once more before sustained recovery eventally sets in? And what about particular economies? How will the UK fare compared with other countries? How will the USA and the eurozone perform? Will China and India be the powerhouses of global recovery?
Then there is the whole question of the financial sector. Is it now fixed? Will businesses and consumers have sufficient access to credit – is the credit crunch over? Has toxic debt been expunged from the banking system? Do banks now have sufficient capital?
And what about debt? Even though private-sector debt is falling in many countries as households and businesses scale back borrowing and as banks have imposed tighter lending criteria, public-sector debt is soaring around the world. Will financial markets continue to support these growing levels of sovereign debt? Will central banks have to continue with quantitative easing in order to support these levels of debt and to keep interest rates down?
Economic Outlook: 2010 may narrow gap Financial Times, Chris Flood (27/12/09)
CIPD Annual Barometer Forecast: UK economy to shed a further 250,000 jobs before unemployment peaks at 2.8 million in 2010 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) (21/12/09)
Unemployment ‘set to peak in 2010’ Guardian (29/12/09)
Unemployment ‘will peak at 2.8m’ in 2010 BBC News (29/12/09)
What employment prospects lie ahead in 2010? BBC News, Shanaz Musafer (3/1/10)
Money printing scheme is working, Bank of England says Times Online, Gráinne Gilmore and Francesca Steele (1/1/10)
Bank optimism rises as credit to business eases Guardian, Ashley Seager (31/12/09)
The world in 2010: China continues its unstoppable economic charge Independent, Alistair Dawber (2/1/10)
The US slowly emerges from the gloom of 2009 Independent, Alistair Dawber (2/1/10)
Year dominated by weak dollar Financial Times, Anjli Raval (2/1/10)
A year when tipsters took a tumble Times Online, David Wighton (1/1/10)
PMEAC pegs growth at 8% in ’10-11 Times of India (2/1/10)
China and the other Brics will rebuild a new world economic order The Observer, Ashley Seager (3/1/10)
Five countries that crashed and burned in the credit crunch face a hard road to recovery The Observer, Heather Stewart, Ashley Seager, David Teather, Richard Wachman and Zoe Wood (3/1/10)
HSBC goes out on a limb and predicts growth beyond dreams of Chancellor Times Online, Gráinne Gilmore (2/1/10)
Uncertainty dogs sterling Financial Times, Peter Garnham (2/1/10)
A tough year to forecast as recovery hangs in the balance Scotsman, George Kerevan (30/12/09)
Unstable equilibrium in 2010 BBC News blogs, Peston’s Picks (30/12/09)
Intriguing economic questions for 2010 BBC News blogs, Stephanomics (23/12/09)
The hard slog ahead The Economist (13/11/09)
In the wake of a crisis The Economist (13/11/09)
Now for the long term The Economist, Matthew Bishop (13/11/09)
Recessionomics The Economist, Anatole Kaletsky (13/11/09)
The World in 2010: From the editor The Economist, Michael Pilkington (13/11/09)
The hard slog ahead The Economist (13/11/09)
For forecasts of various economies and regions see
World Economic Outlook (OECD)
European Economic Forecast – autumn 2009 (European Commission)
Tables set A and Tables set B from World Economic Outlook (IMF)
- What is likely to happen to the major economies of the world in 2010?
- How much reliance should be placed on macroeconomic forecasts for the medium term (1 or 2 years)?
- For what reasons might the UK economy fare (a) better or (b) worse than forecast?
- Why has unemployment risen less in the UK, and many other countries too, during the current recession compared to previous recessions? Does the flexibility of labour markets affect the amount that unemployment rises during a period of declining aggregate demand?
- Why may the world face a ‘long hard slog’ in recovering from recession?
- Why is the world in 2010 ‘balanced precariously’ and why are there huge uncertainties? (See Robert Peston’s blog.)
- Why are China and India likely to see much faster rates of economic growth than the USA, the EU and Japan?
- What is likely to happen to stock markets over the coming 12 months? What will be the main factors influencing the demand for and supply of shares?
- What fiscal and monetary policies are most appropriate during the coming 12 months?