On The Economist view of what the crisis means for economics

The meltdown of modern economic theory.

The meltdown of modern economic theory.

The Economist has published on its last edition three articles on the impact of the crisis on economics as a science. The first article is a general view on the matter, the second has to do with macroeconomic debates and the third on the state of financial economics.

I think that readers will find it interesting to read the reflection of The Economist’s writers on this issue. How is it that economics got into this impasse?

Here are some excerpts that I found interesting in each of the articles.

What went wrong with economics

OF ALL the economic bubbles that have been pricked, few have burst more spectacularly than the reputation of economics itself.
Barry Eichengreen, a prominent American economic historian, says the crisis has “cast into doubt much of what we thought we knew about economics.”
Keynesians have become uncritical supporters of fiscal stimulus. Purists are vocal opponents. To outsiders, the cacophony underlines the profession’s uselessness.
Economists need to reach out from their specialised silos: macroeconomists must understand finance, and finance professors need to think harder about the context within which markets work. And everybody needs to work harder on understanding asset bubbles and what happens when they burst [is this a hidden appeal to study financial and economic history? – M. B.]. For in the end economists are social scientists, trying to understand the real world. And the financial crisis has changed that world.

The other-worldly philosophers

ROBERT LUCAS, one of the greatest macroeconomists of his generation, and his followers are “making ancient and basic analytical errors all over the place”. Harvard’s Robert Barro, another towering figure in the discipline, is “making truly boneheaded arguments”. The past 30 years of macroeconomics training at American and British universities were a “costly waste of time”.
To the uninitiated, economics has always been a dismal science. But all these attacks come from within the guild: from Brad DeLong of the University of California, Berkeley; Paul Krugman of Princeton and the New York Times; and Willem Buiter of the London School of Economics (LSE), respectively.
On the way up, macroeconomists were not wholly complacent. Many of them thought the housing bubble would pop or the dollar would fall. But they did not expect the financial system to break.

For Mr Krugman, we are living through a “Dark Age of macroeconomics”, in which the wisdom of the ancients has been lost.
What was this wisdom, and how was it forgotten? The history of macroeconomics begins in intellectual struggle. Keynes wrote the “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”, which was published in 1936, in an “unnecessarily controversial tone”, according to some readers. But it was a controversy the author had waged in his own mind. He saw the book as a “struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought” he had inherited from his classical predecessors.
Mr Volcker’s recession bottomed out in 1982. Nothing like it was seen again until last year. In the intervening quarter-century of tranquillity, macroeconomics also recovered its composure. The opposing schools of thought converged. The freshwater economists accepted a saltier view of policymaking. Their opponents adopted a more freshwater style of modelmaking. You might call the new synthesis brackish macroeconomics.
Modern macroeconomists worried about the prices of goods and services, but neglected the prices of assets. This was partly because they had too much faith in financial markets. If asset prices reflect economic fundamentals, why not just model the fundamentals, ignoring the shadow they cast on Wall Street?
It was also because they had too little interest in the inner workings of the financial system. “Philosophically speaking,” writes Perry Mehrling of Barnard College, Columbia University, economists are “materialists” for whom “bags of wheat are more important than stacks of bonds.” Finance is a veil, obscuring what really matters. As a poet once said, “promises of payment/Are neither food nor raiment”.
Convenience, however, is addictive. Economists can become seduced by their models, fooling themselves that what the model leaves out does not matter. It is, for example, often convenient to assume that markets are “complete”—that a price exists today, for every good, at every date, in every contingency. In this world, you can always borrow as much as you want at the going rate, and you can always sell as much as you want at the going rate.
Before the crisis, many banks and shadow banks made similar assumptions. They believed they could always roll over their short-term debts or sell their mortgage-backed securities, if the need arose. The financial crisis made a mockery of both assumptions. Funds dried up, and markets thinned out. In his anatomy of the crisis Mr Brunnermeier shows how both of these constraints fed on each other, producing a “liquidity spiral”.
What followed was a furious dash for cash, as investment banks sold whatever they could, commercial banks hoarded reserves and firms drew on lines of credit. Keynes would have interpreted this as an extreme outbreak of liquidity-preference, says Paul Davidson, whose biography of the master has just been republished with a new afterword. But contemporary economics had all but forgotten the term.

Do public spats damage macroeconomics? Greg Mankiw, of Harvard, recalls the angry exchanges in the 1980s between Robert Solow and Mr Lucas—both eminent economists who could not take each other seriously. This vitriol, he writes, attracted attention, much like a bar-room fist-fight. But he thinks it also dismayed younger scholars, who gave these macroeconomic disputes a wide berth.
By this account, the period of intellectual peace that followed in the 1990s should have been a golden age for macroeconomics. But the brackish consensus also seems to leave students cold. According to David Colander, who has twice surveyed the opinions of economists in the best American PhD programmes, macroeconomics is often the least popular class. “What did you learn in macro?” Mr Colander asked a group of Chicago students. “Did you do the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium model?” “We learned a lot of junk like that,” one replied.
The benchmark macroeconomic model, though not junk, suffers from some obvious flaws, such as the assumption of complete markets or frictionless finance. […] But the benchmark still matters. It formalises economists’ gut instincts about where the best analytical cuts lie. It is the starting point to which the theorist returns after every ingenious excursion. Few economists really believe all its assumptions, but few would rather start anywhere else.

Mr Krugman, thinks reform is more likely to come from within. Keynes, he observes, was a “consummate insider”, who understood the theory he was demolishing precisely because he was once convinced by it. In the meantime, he says, macroeconomists should turn to patient empirical spadework, documenting crises past and present [yet another plea in favour of economic history! – M. B.], in the hope that a fresh theory might later make sense of it all.
Macroeconomics began with Keynes, but the word did not appear in the journals until 1945, in an article by Jacob Marschak. He reviewed the profession’s growing understanding of the business cycle, making an analogy with other sciences. Seismology, for example, makes progress through better instruments, improved theories or more frequent earthquakes. In the case of economics, Marschak concluded, “the earthquakes did most of the job.”
Economists were deprived of earthquakes for a quarter of a century. The Great Moderation, as this period was called, was not conducive to great macroeconomics. Thanks to the seismic events of the past two years, the prestige of macroeconomists is low, but the potential of their subject is much greater. The furious rows that divide them are a blow to their credibility, but may prove to be a spur to creativity.

Efficiency and beyond

“There are models, and there are those who use the models,” says Myron Scholes, who in 1997 won the Nobel prize in economics for his part in creating the most widely used model in the finance industry—the Black-Scholes formula for pricing options. Mr Scholes thinks much of the blame for the recent woe should be pinned not on economists’ theories and models but on those on Wall Street and in the City who pushed them too far in practice.
Financial firms plugged in data that reflected a “view of the world that was far more benign than it was reasonable to take, emphasising recent inputs over more historic numbers,” says Mr Scholes. “Apparently, a lot of the models used for structured products were pretty good, but the inputs were awful.” Indeed, the vast majority of derivative contracts and securitisations have performed exactly as their models said they would. It was the exceptions that proved disastrous.
Mr Scholes knows whereof he speaks. Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), a hedge fund he founded with, among others, Robert Merton, a fellow Nobel laureate, skidded off the road in 1998. Since then, he has been pointing out dangers ignored or underestimated in the finance industry, such as the risk that liquid markets can dry up far faster than is typically assumed. (That did not stop Platinum Grove, the latest hedge fund in which he is involved, taking a big hit during the recent meltdown.)
In 2000, in his presidential address to the American Finance Association, Franklin Allen, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, asked: “Do financial institutions matter?” Lay people, he said, “might be surprised to learn that institutions play little role in financial theory.” Indeed they might. Mr Allen’s explanation was partly that the dominant theories had been shaped at a time when America, especially, was spared financial crises.
Not the least of the difficulties in the continuing crisis is working out exactly what went wrong and why—and who, including financial economists, should take the blame.

3 Responses to On The Economist view of what the crisis means for economics

  1. Ben says:

    To a certain extent I’m not sure to agree with the starting point of the articles: after all do any one attack the doctors if a patient dies? We know people die as we should know economies crash. If it hadn’t been the subprimes, it would have been the next weak link.
    Of course I cannot judge all the macro model nor the entire finance theory, but I’d say the speed with which the crisis was understood and chartered shows how well the economy’s understood (compare it any sociological trend, say murder rate, to grasp how far we are from the ‘shoot-and-pray’ position of many social scientists).
    Another problem is the growing habit to blame it on the “real world” while considering academics did a good job. We should be careful to research things that matter to the users rather than following the internal streams of our disciplines.

  2. Manuel says:

    After the crisis, economics as a discipline has to start a reflection on why it couldn’t allocate an optimal amount of scholars and resources to study the causes of the crisis.
    Even the most credible mainstream economists seemed disappointed after Lehman entered bankruptcy and the systemic risk increased to levels never seen before.
    There were of course economists as Roubini, Shiller, the Minskyan scholars at the Levy Institute and Marxists that alerted of a worsening in the financial and economic conditions. However, animal spirits run high. And I believe after McCloskey that economists should do better if they stop pretending they hold the last and true word on the measurable world and forecasting anything they can with their models.
    As for medical doctors, there are medical councils that determine (and sanction) whenever there is any negligence or misperformance in their practices. I think that perhaps committees will start awarding more empiric-oriented researchers in the following years, thus creating incentives to change the impasse in academic economics.

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