- The Goofy Origins and Dismal Track Record of Modern Economic Forecasting
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Financial-sector pundits on television compete to predict what the next jobs or earnings report will say, or which stocks are set to rise and fall. Government agencies and private consulting firms forecast economic ups and downs for the countries of the world for decades into the future. Some of the prophecies are free; others appear in subscription-only newsletters for investors hoping to get an edge on their rivals.
Tracing the parallel lives of business-publishing entrepreneurs, academics, and public officials, Friedman shows not only where our contemporary forecasting ecosystem came from, but also its considerable influence on present-day economic thought and practice. Economic forecasting only diverged from traditional soothsaying in the early 20th century—a point that Friedman underlines by opening with the story of the astrologer Evangeline Adams.
She became a household name at the start of the Depression, famous for the mystical investment advice she dispensed on her radio program, in her newsletter, and in a Washington Post column. IN THE LATE 19TH and early 20th centuries, the emergence of giant corporations and a burgeoning stock market created demand from investors for intermediaries who could make sense of the newly complex business scene.
It was becoming clear that cycles of boom and recession, though poorly understood, were not bugs but features to use a contemporary metaphor of the new mass-production economy.
More people than ever—buyers and suppliers in the world of business, stock market speculators—were anxiously seeking guidance about where to put their money, and when. Unlike Babson, Moody had no overarching model or theory of economic cycles, and he never published a description of his methods. But he, too, believed the chaotic economy could be navigated only by analyzing tremendous amounts of information, including contrary to what Babson believed specific information about the workings of individual businesses.
Babson, Moody, and other forecasters in the financial industry soon had to contend with Irving Fisher, an ambitious professor of economics at Yale. Fisher was among the first academics to combine economics with high-level math; he believed that sufficiently sophisticated theories could reveal not only the when of economic change, but also the why, allowing enlightened business leaders to act in ways that minimized economic disruption.
In the s, Fisher found a mass audience with a weekly business-page insert that he sold to newspapers across the country. Herbert Hoover, who was secretary of commerce for most of the s before becoming president, liked the idea that solid data, combined with an understanding of business cycles, could show businessmen the right path.
To that end, he tasked the Department of Commerce with gathering economic data on a scale that was unprecedented. Today, of course, it is a massive fixture of the forecasting ecosystem. Random guesses, he concluded, were as accurate as carefully calculated predictions.
The Goofy Origins and Dismal Track Record of Modern Economic Forecasting
It comes as little surprise that men who were so sure they could foresee the economic future were often drawn to enterprises that were pseudoscientific or faddish. Wednesday, Jul Mostly Cloudy. Thunder showers. Mostly cloudy. Partly cloudy. Thursday, Jul Very hot and sunny. Friday, Jul Saturday, Jul Sunday, Jul Light rain.
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