24th January 2012
Regular readers of mine and Kevin Murphy's will know we are not universally complimentary about macroeconomic forecasts, but we are hardly alone in this. After all we did not come up with the line: "Economists have correctly predicted nine of the last five recessions", we just happen to think it's quite appropriate.
Another one that is not ours is "the function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable". At this time of year, however, when practitioners of both arts are at their most productive, it may be instructive to consider the real function of economic forecasts – although the point of astrology we will leave to others to dissect.
Economics is an unusual discipline in that economists are seldom wrong. That is because, by the time whatever happens actually happens, the writing on the wall means they will have revised their forecasts to take that into account. That, of course, is like corporate analysts claiming they correctly predicted a business's earnings when, three weeks before its results, management gently "guide" consensus towards a reasonable figure, seeking to avoid a positive or negative profit shock on the day of results.
However, in many ways, that is actually the point. A major function of economic forecasts – and this may come as a shock to a number of supporters, not to mention a few of the practitioners themselves – is not to predict the future but to act as a mechanism for informing people what is happening on a gradual basis.
Nobody wants to find out suddenly that the economy is in recession – just as no company wants to be seen suddenly to issue a large profits warning. In each case it is more preferable for expectations to be guided down over a period of time in order to allow people to grow more comfortable with the new situation and not to provoke panic.
Again, something similar occurs with ratings agencies. As we have seen more than once over the last 12 months, an economy or a government will not suddenly be downgraded but there will be talk about the possibility for months before even moving to "negative watch". Once again, it is a way of allowing people gently to adjust their thinking to deal with a new reality.
Of course, it would be foolish to argue that economists stop making forecasts.
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