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In the Nation's Interest

We’re Not Really Sure What We’re Doing, But At Least We’re Doing Something.

The 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle is credited with giving economics the nickname "the dismal science" because of Thomas Malthus’ prediction that population growth would exceed the rate of growth of the food supply, and starvation would result—a truly dismal forecast.  But today, it seems appropriate to think of economics as a dismal science, not because of the outcomes it predicts, but because it is so bad at predicting any outcomes at all, or even understanding how the economy works.  It’s not just the now-famous question Queen Elizabeth asked British economists: ‘Why did no one see the financial crisis coming?’  It’s also: Can you help us get out of our current difficulties? And, oh, by the way, do you know how to prevent another crisis from happening? 

Last month’s annual spring meeting of the IMF and World Bank was the occasion for a conference devoted to assessing the lessons of the last five years since the financial crisis. 

The results of the IMF’s two-day conference on “lessons learned” was wonderfully summed up by Olivier Blanchard, Director of Research at the IMF.  “Navigating by Sight” was the theme Blanchard used to describe six areas of policy left in flux by the financial crisis. 

Let’s review Blanchard’s six policy areas:

  1. Financial regulation. Despite lack of agreement, national and global regulators are taking steps, including higher capital ratios, that are intended to make the global financial system safer.  In fact, there is no consensus among academics, regulators or bankers about the effects of such policies.  But doing something seems better than leaving the pre-2008 policies in place.

    George Akerlof said it’s hard to regulate economic activity when you can’t measure it.  Credit, for example, is pretty difficult to measure, when derivative contracts hide and multiply the amount of credit extended through the financial system.  In a slightly different vein, Joseph Stiglitz pointed out that macroeconomics has been almost entirely concerned with the measurement and analysis of aggregates, such as aggregate demand or aggregate income.  Yet the vulnerability of the system may be sensitive to the distribution of income or credit, not its aggregate.
  2. The role of the financial sector.  This is mostly concerned with how macroeconomics treats the financial sector, but there are implications for policy.  It is an understatement to say, as Blanchard does, that macroeconomics understates the role of financial factors.  The financial system, per se, is really not present at all in most macroeconomic models.  The economists’ well-known IS-LM model does not include finance.  Certainly, monetary policy is a critical part of such models.  But finance itself is rarely to be found.  Some academic work has been done over the past five years to address this problem, but there’s still a lot that economists don’t know.  Policy questions abound: Can central banks target financial stability?  Do they need to move from inflation targeting to nominal GDP targeting? What role does macroprudential oversight play?
  3. Macroprudential policy.  Macroprudential policy is the clearest ‘new thing’ to emerge from the crisis, the third leg of a wobbly macroeconomic policy stool that used to be supported only by monetary and fiscal policy.  Unfortunately, we don’t really know yet what this new stool leg is made of.  We cannot deduce how stable the stool is going to be.  But we know that government officials will be keeping an eye on financial imbalances, bubbles, and other risks, which sounds like a good idea even if we don’t know how it’s going to work.

    David Romer pointed out that this system, which essentially relies on the wisdom of regulators and central bankers, might not always work well.  And since we can expect to encounter additional financial crises in the future, we should pay more attention to other, less-discretionary fixes that might make the macroeconomy more robust-- including greater use of automatic stabilizers, such as unemployment insurance, which have received very little attention in post-crisis policy discussions.
  4. Implementing Regulatory Tasks. Avinash Dixit is credited with coining the acronyms MIP, MAP, and MOP to stand for microprudential, macroprudential, and monetary policy.  Whose responsibility should it be to carry out these policies?  How should they be coordinated?
  5. Sustainable debt.  What is the level of debt beyond which things fall apart?  We know high levels of debt are bad, except for when they are not.  And we know that there’s no a priori way of knowing when debt is too high.  Other than that, economists, regulators, and legislators are in total agreement.
  6. Multiple equalibria.  Which is to say that the economic system does not necessarily tend towards a unique and stable (and happy) equilibrium, where all markets clear based on normal supply and demand curves.   Debt markets, in particular, may be subject to multiple equilibria based on confidence and expectations. And the macroeconomy is subject to the same problem.  The problem is that if markets are unstable and a temporary equilibrium is not unique, then a disturbance has the potential to push the economy to an equilibrium at a depressed level rather than at a higher level of income and production.

    Economists generally believe that the government can play an important role in helping the economy finds its equilibrium at a “good,” that is, high, level of income and production.  It can do this through communication, or signaling.  The Federal Reserve Board’s policy statements are intended to have that effect.  The recent announcements by the Bank of Japan that it would substantially expand its monetary base is another example of how signaling can move a market to a better equilibrium if it has the hoped-for psychological effect.

    In this regard it’s worth noting a point by Akerlof that communication by the government through the financial crisis and recovery has been less than perfect. In his view, the government could have done a much better job at setting expectations and signaling how best to measure success, which could have had a positive feedback effect by boosting confidence and consequently greater economic activity.  But, again, who knows?

It seems there is enough doubt, uncertainty, and admitted ignorance among leading economists and economic policy makers to give new meaning to the term “Dismal Science.”