Economists | timiacono.com - Part 3

How to Save Economics?

Following yesterday’s generally well received diatribe about the shortcomings of  the world’s economists, this Time Magazine commentary was stumbled upon that makes some of the same points, absent what I thought were important references to The Shining.

After the financial crisis of 2008, the Queen of England asked economists, “Why did no one see the credit crunch coming?” Three years later, a group of Harvard under­graduate students walked out of introductory economics and wrote, “Today, we are walking out of your class, ­Economics 101, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.”

What has happened? Rebellion from both above and below suggests that economists, who were recently at the core of power and social leadership in our society, are no longer trusted. Not long ago, the principal theories of economics appeared to be the secular religion of society. Today, economics is a discipline in disrepute.

First, economists should resist overstating what they actually know.

Second, economists have to recognize the shortcomings of high-powered mathematical models, which are not substitutes for vigilant observation. Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow saw this danger years ago when he exclaimed, “The math takes on a life of its own because the mathematics pushed toward a tendency to prove theories of mathematical, rather than scientific, interest.”

Financial-market models, for instance, tend to be constructed with building blocks that assume stable and anchored expectations. But the long history of financial crises over the past 200 years belies that notion.

And that is why few economists saw the financial crisis coming – because they had their noses buried in models that failed to properly reflect what was happening in the real world.

I’ll never forget former Fed Chief Alan Greenspan’s remarks before Congress in 2004 or 2005 when he said there was virtually no stress in the banking system when, at the time, the real action was in the now-defunct  “shadow banking” system.

Apparently, Fed economists didn’t see the need to model that.

On Economists and Psychopaths

After reading through some of the recently released transcripts from the 2006 Federal Reserve policy meetings, it occurred to me for about the thousandth time that economists are particularly ill-suited to oversee an economy where the financial system is, from time to time, run by psychopaths each trying to one-up the other.

During normal times, economists’ models of how the world works seem to function reasonably well, but when a multi-decade orgy of money and credit creation came to a head a few years back, they were completely unaware of how badly some people were acting and how contagious this was.

The central bank meets this week and is expected to revamp how they communicate their thinking about monetary policy to the world, but, maybe they should spend more time figuring out how to better observe what’s going on in the world – looking beyond the charts, tables, and models that they had their noses buried in back in 2006, oblivious to the looming crisis in housing and credit markets.

It was all there to see for anyone willing to make a modest effort to get out into the real world and look around.

Wild-eyed buyers lined up for blocks to buy new condos and mortgage brokers with barely a high school education were raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in commissions by peddling all kinds of “exotic” mortgages to borrowers who, in many cases, didn’t really understand what they were signing.

As we’ve come to find out, there was a good deal of fraud involved here by both lenders and borrowers as few seemed to care about how their individual actions might affect others in the fullness of time.

You might say that a good asset bubble brings out the psychopath in many of us.

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Mishkin’s 2006 “Smidgen” Moment

Dean Baker’s commentary from last week that delved into the 2006 meeting transcripts of the Federal Reserve’s policy committee – Alan Greenspan’s ship of fools – contains this noteworthy section featuring former governor Frederic Mishkin that provides more evidence that economists are particularly ill-suited to run the economy.

Here’s what Frederick Mishkin, a Federal Reserve Board governor who later played a starring role in the movie Inside Job, had to say about the risks from the housing market in that same December 2006 meeting:

“I don’t see any indications that we will have big spillovers to other sectors from weak housing and motor vehicles.

In that sense, there’s a slight concern about a little weakness, but the right word is I guess a ’smidgen,’ not a whole lot.

At that last meeting of the year, the major concern expressed was about inflation. Several FOMC members expressed concern that the unemployment rate at the time (4.5%) was too low to keep inflation in check. They hoped that slower growth in 2007 would raise the unemployment rate to a level consistent with stable inflation. They certainly got their wish about a growth slowdown, although they did have to wait until 2008 to feel its full effect.

If you haven’t already clicked on the link to the Inside Job excerpt in the quoted text, you can do so here. I don’t know about you, but, I just never get tired of watching that clip.

The Fed’s Housing Bubble Laughter

The Federal Reserve transcripts from 2006 released ten days ago continue to reverberate around the internet as the central bank has become a laughing stock for being so unaware of the U.S. housing bubble that was inflating to dangerous levels throughout the year.

Dean Baker’s Alan Greenspan’s ship of fools from last week is well worth reading if for no other reason than to learn what former Fed governor Frederic Mishkin was thinking late that year and I recently came across this item at The Daily Staghunt blog that charted how much laughter appeared in the transcripts over the years.

While Fed economists are purportedly a funny lot, it does look pretty bad to see increasing joviality at a time when they could have been doing something about the housing bubble.

The FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) meets this week and they are expected to announce of a new communication initiative with two key features – expanded interest-rate projections and an explanation of their objectives for inflation and employment. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will surely discuss these in detail in the press conference after the meeting and, though normally keen on audience engagement, he’ll probably be hoping that he’s not asked about the 2006 transcripts.

If we’re really lucky, someone will ask him about this chart.

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