The Fed Goes 0 for 4

"To entrust to science … more than scientific method can achieve may have deplorable effects." -- Hayek

What if the Federal Reserve consistently gets it wrong?

Consistent wrongness is the verdict on the Fed recently confessed by the Federal Reserve itself.

EagleFRB

Image Courtesy of the Federal Reserve Board

 

As Dr. Benn Steil, director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations recently wrote, "Why We Can't Believe the Fed," in the Wall Street Journal:

If the Fed has a good handle on where the economy is heading over the next several years, then its pledges of extended low rates and a 2% inflation target imply little risk of its needing to change course and jar the markets. But how good is the Fed's actual track record on predicting the economy?

The Fed studied its own staff's forecasting performance over the period 1986 to 2006. It found that the average root mean squared error—or the deviation from the actual result—for the staff's next-year gross domestic product (GDP) forecasts was 1.34, compared with 1.29 by what the Fed describes as a "large group" of private forecasters. That is, the Fed's predicting performance was worse than that of market-watchers outside the Fed. For next-year CPI forecasts, the error term was 1.03 for Fed staff, and only 0.93 for private forecasters. The Fed's conclusion? In its own words, its "historical forecast errors are large in economic terms."

How about the Fed's longer-term predictions? The Fed started publishing the Board of Governors' and Reserve Banks' three-year forecasts in October 2007. At that time, the GDP growth forecasts among this group of 17 ranged from 2.2% to 2.7%. Actual 2010 GDP growth was 3%, outside the Fed's range.

The Fed forecasters told us that unemployment in 2010 would be in a range between 4.6% and 5%. In fact, it averaged about twice that, or 9.6%. The forecasters further predicted that both Personal Consumption Expenditures inflation (PCE, similar to CPI) and core PCE inflation would be in a range from 1.5% and 2%. The former came in at 1.3% and the latter at 1%, again outside the Fed's range. The Fed's scorecard on its 2007 three-year forecasts: 0 for 4.

In short, the Fed's premise that it can speak with authority about the future is flawed. During the two decades to 2006, its own experts were worse than outside ones in predicting one-year economic data. Since the start of the crisis in 2007, its three-year predictions have been worthless.

This poor track record in practice comes, of course, as no surprise to those who have been paying attention to empirical results rather than grandiose meritocratic pretense. 

Hayek, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, famously flagged the hubris to which our elites are subject decisively and unsparingly:

"There is as much reason to be apprehensive about the long-run dangers created in a much wider field by the uncritical acceptance of assertions which have the appearance of being scientific as there is with regard to the problems I have just discussed. What I mainly wanted to bring out by the topical illustration is that certainly in my field, but I believe also generally in the sciences of man, what looks superficially like the most scientific procedure is often the most unscientific, and, beyond this, that in these fields there are definite limits to what we can expect science to achieve. This means that to entrust to science — or to deliberate control according to scientific principles — more than scientific method can achieve may have deplorable effects. The progress of the natural sciences in modern times has of course so much exceeded all expectations that any suggestion that there may be some limits to it is bound to arouse suspicion. Especially all those will resist such an insight who have hoped that our increasing power of prediction and control, generally regarded as the characteristic result of scientific advance, applied to the processes of society, would soon enable us to mould society entirely to our liking. It is indeed true that, in contrast to the exhilaration which the discoveries of the physical sciences tend to produce, the insights which we gain from the study of society more often have a dampening effect on our aspirations; and it is perhaps not surprising that the more impetuous younger members of our profession are not always prepared to accept this. Yet the confidence in the unlimited power of science is only too often based on a false belief that the scientific method consists in the application of a ready-made technique, or in imitating the form rather than the substance of scientific procedure, as if one needed only to follow some cooking recipes to solve all social problems. It sometimes almost seems as if the techniques of science were more easily learned than the thinking that shows us what the problems are and how to approach them.

"The conflict between what in its present mood the public expects science to achieve in satisfaction of popular hopes and what is really in its power is a serious matter because, even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power. It is often difficult enough for the expert, and certainly in many instances impossible for the layman, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science."

With all respect due to the Fed's candor and humility in acknowledging its consistently bad predictions (and, consequently, policy measures taken upon the basis of those predictions) it is time for a more fundamental distinction to be made by policy makers "between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science."  It is time for a restoration of a monetary policy based not upon the acknowledged flawed discernment of elite civil servants but upon convertibility of currency to a defined weight of gold. 

As Lehrman Institute founder and chairman Lewis E. Lehrman recently summed it up:  "The gold standard is a modern, digital, information-sharing, global operating standard. Moreover, it is a stable, networking, efficient, price transmission system in the form of a stable international monetary standard."

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