November 30th, 2011
in Op Ed
by Lee Adler, Wall Street Examiner
In a report released on Black Friday around 6 PM, when nobody is around, let alone paying attention, except for crazy people like me, the NY Fed posted a mea culpa on just how lousy its economic forecasts have been, a function which I had already performed over a year ago (The Fed – Clueless, Delusional, or Both?). The author of the report stated the crux of the failure thusly:
One source for such metrics is a paper by Reifschneider and Tulip (2007). They analyzed the forecast error performance of a range of public and private forecasters over 1986 to 2006 (that is, roughly the period that most economists associate with the Great Moderation in the United States).
On the basis of their analysis, one could have expected that an October 2007 forecast of real GDP growth for 2008 would be within 1.3 percentage points of the actual outcome 70 percent of the time. The New York Fed staff forecast at that time was for growth of 2.6 percent in 2008. Based on the forecast of 2.6 percent and the size of forecast errors over the Great Moderation period, one would have expected that 70 percent of the time, actual growth would be within the 1.3 to 3.9 percent range. The current estimate of actual growth in 2008 is-3.3 percent, indicating that our forecast was off by 5.9 percentage points.
Using a similar approach to Reifschneider and Tulip but including forecast errors for 2007, one would have expected that 70 percent of the time the unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2009 should have been within 0.7 percentage point of a forecast made in April 2008. The actual forecast error was 4.4 percentage points, equivalent to an unexpected increase of over 6 million in the number of unemployed workers. Under the erroneous assumption that the 70 percent projection error band was based on a normal distribution, this would have been a 6 standard deviation error, a very unlikely occurrence indeed.
He then went on to enumerate the 3 big reasons the Fed had gotten it wrong:
- Misunderstanding of the housing boom. Staff analysis of the increase in house prices did not find convincing evidence of overvaluation (see, for example, McCarthy and Peach  and Himmelberg, Mayer, and Sinai ). Thus, we downplayed the risk of a substantial fall in house prices. A robust approach would have put the bar much lower than convincing evidence.
- A lack of analysis of the rapid growth of new forms of mortgage finance. Here the reliance on the assumption of efficient markets appears to have dulled our awareness of many of the risks building in financial markets in 2005-07. However, a March 2008 New York Fed staff report by Ashcraft and Schuermann provided a detailed analysis of how incentives were misaligned throughout the securitization process of subprime mortgages—meaning that the market was not functioning efficiently.
- Insufficient weight given to the powerful adverse feedback loops between the financial system and the real economy. Despite a good understanding of the risk of a financial crisis from mid-2007 onward, we were unable to fully connect the dots to real activity until 2008. Eventually, by building on the insights of Adrian and Shin (2008), we gained a better grasp of the power of these feedback loops.
He then added that perhaps the biggest reason for the failure was “complacency,” with which I heartily concur, but to which I would also add hubris and stupidity.
At the beginning of the piece the author cited a Turbotax Tim Geithner quote:
Our best plan is to plan for constant change and the potential for instability, and to recognize that the threats will constantly be changing in ways we cannot predict or fully understand.
Adding to that the author wrote,
“The quotations from Keynes and Geithner at the start of this post capture the importance of constantly striving to ensure that policy is robust to unexpected events. As explained in much of the recent work of the 2011 Nobel Prize–winning economist Tom Sargent, the unexpected events for which policymakers need to make provision have the characteristic of being the most likely unlikely bad event. The collapse in housing prices and its propagation to the economy certainly fit this description.”
This is what I would call the “Nobody could have foreseen” fallacy, a tool often used by the professional economist and economic pundit class. I guess that I and the countless thousands of others who frequented this and other bearish websites at the time of the top of the housing bubble, who did foresee what was coming, must be the “nobody” that the pros refer to.
It’s good to be nobody or not so good, because even though nobody took precautions, nobody ultimately took the hit. Because in this case, nobody was prepared for what happened, and nobody took steps to both protect and profit from it, while the rest of the Wall Street seers and the Fedheads, who are all somebody, didn’t foresee it. As a result somebody got their asses kicked. But that hasn’t stopped them, because Uncle Sam bailed them out, spending nobody’s money, and nobody’s children’s and grandchildren’s futures to do it. So in that sense, it’s better to be somebody, even though somebody initially took the loss that nobody saw coming, until the US government bailed them out on behalf of nobody.
I wrote the following comment on the NY Fed Liberty Street blog. I don’t know if it will still be there in the morning, so here it is.
The excuse that most other professional forecasters didn’t foresee it is just that, an excuse. Some professional forecasters did see it. They were derided as Cassandras and dismissed by Wall Street and Fed insiders, who are only beholden to each other, and to their own delusions.
Millions of amateur economic forecasters who frequented the financial message boards and blogs saw what was happening and what was coming. They had one important advantage. They live in the real world, not inside the Beltway, not within the marble halls and equally hardened thought processes of the Fed, and not in the ivory towers of academia, a word which sounds like a disease, because it is a disease. Not only do these environments cause delusional thinking, they attract delusional people. The same is true of policy makers.
I call it elitist personality disorder. It leads to delusions of grandeur, delusions of omniscience and omnipotence, and the unwillingness to take responsibility for failure and incompetence, instead engaging in blame shifting.
Postscript. Yep, less than a half hour later, they pulled my comment. I left a subsequent comment which isn’t fit for a family oriented website like this one.
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About The Author
Lee Adler is the editor and publisher of The Wall Street Examiner, host of Radio Free Wall Street, and moderator of the Wall Street Examiner Forums and Bears Chat, and the Stool Pigeons Wire – Capitalstool.com.