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The Economist on the failure of economics

Friday, July 17, 2009

The venerable Economist magazine must be feeling at least a little bit tarnished after the heavy (and well-deserved) criticism that has been directed toward the profession that they have represented since 1843 though, admittedly, they cover much more than economics.

In this report, they offer up a heavy dose of introspection:

What went wrong with economics

OF ALL the economic bubbles that have been pricked, few have burst more spectacularly than the reputation of economics itself. A few years ago, the dismal science was being acclaimed as a way of explaining ever more forms of human behaviour, from drug-dealing to sumo-wrestling. Wall Street ransacked the best universities for game theorists and options modellers. And on the public stage, economists were seen as far more trustworthy than politicians. John McCain joked that Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve, was so indispensable that if he died, the president should “prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him.”
Yes, the profession clearly peaked (along with the housing bubble) when Freakonomics was published in 2006, but, more importantly, it's been some time since I've thought about that quip from a very different John McCain in late-1999.

It's aging well...

From Wikiquote comes the complete text and a reference at CNN. McCain said, "I would not only reappoint Mr. Greenspan -- if Mr. Greenspan should happen to die, God forbid -- I would do like was did in the movie, 'Weekend at Bernie's.' I'd prop him up and put a pair of dark glasses on him and keep him as long as we could".

That may have produced a better outcome that what actually occurred between 2000 and 2006 when the former Fed Chairman retired.

Hmmm... back to The Economist:
In the wake of the biggest economic calamity in 80 years that reputation has taken a beating. In the public mind an arrogant profession has been humbled. Though economists are still at the centre of the policy debate—think of Ben Bernanke or Larry Summers in America or Mervyn King in Britain—their pronouncements are viewed with more scepticism than before. The profession itself is suffering from guilt and rancour. In a recent lecture, Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel prize in economics in 2008, argued that much of the past 30 years of macroeconomics was “spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst.” Barry Eichengreen, a prominent American economic historian, says the crisis has “cast into doubt much of what we thought we knew about economics.”
There are three main critiques: that macro and financial economists helped cause the crisis, that they failed to spot it, and that they have no idea how to fix it.

The first charge is half right. Macroeconomists, especially within central banks, were too fixated on taming inflation and too cavalier about asset bubbles. Financial economists, meanwhile, formalised theories of the efficiency of markets, fuelling the notion that markets would regulate themselves and financial innovation was always beneficial. Wall Street’s most esoteric instruments were built on these ideas.
The charge that most economists failed to see the crisis coming also has merit. To be sure, some warned of trouble. The likes of Robert Shiller of Yale, Nouriel Roubini of New York University and the team at the Bank for International Settlements are now famous for their prescience. But most were blindsided. And even worrywarts who felt something was amiss had no idea of how bad the consequences would be.

That was partly to do with professional silos, which limited both the tools available and the imaginations of the practitioners. Few financial economists thought much about illiquidity or counterparty risk, for instance, because their standard models ignore it; and few worried about the effect on the overall economy of the markets for all asset classes seizing up simultaneously, since few believed that was possible.
What about trying to fix it? Here the financial crisis has blown apart the fragile consensus between purists and Keynesians that monetary policy was the best way to smooth the business cycle. In many countries short-term interest rates are near zero and in a banking crisis monetary policy works less well. With their compromise tool useless, both sides have retreated to their roots, ignoring the other camp’s ideas. Keynesians, such as Mr Krugman, have become uncritical supporters of fiscal stimulus. Purists are vocal opponents. To outsiders, the cacophony underlines the profession’s uselessness.
They would have been well served to make the point that many Wall Street economists (and whatever the equivalent street is in London) are bound to serve their masters who much prefer rosy predictions than the alternative.

It is no coincidence that most bearish economists in recent years have few ties to the banking industry, financial media outlets like CNBC, or investment banking where optimism seems to be a prerequisite for the job.

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Blissex said...

«They would have been well served to make the point that many Wall Street economists (and whatever the equivalent street is in London) are bound to serve their masters who much prefer rosy predictions than the alternative.»

These are what I call the "sell-side economists". Indeed most of the academic economists in the USA are sell-side, as being extremely optimistic about uncompetitive (free) markets, lack of rules, trillions for deference to banks, etc. are very, very rewarding in career and income terms.

Businesses, in particular financial businesses, do not give extremely well paid "consultancies" and "expert witness" fees to realistic economists of course.

Blissex said...

For illustration of the benefits for sell-side economists in the USA, there is a very explicit appendix to a book about called "high stakes, no prisoners". It is quite serious.

Shalom P. Hamou said...

Read the Tract: "Plea for a New World Economic Order.", which explains the nature and causes of economic depressions and proposes a plausible alternative solution.

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