In part 1 I contrasted the way I think about how different speeds of deficit reduction in the UK or US today will influence interest rates on government debt with how at least some people in those markets say they think about the same issue. That was a particular example of a more general phenomenon. The macroeconomics coming from economists attached to financial institutions often seems to be rather different to the macroeconomics of academic economists. When it comes to an issue involving financial markets, then it seems obvious who mediamacro should believe. Those close to the markets surely must know more about how those markets work than some unworldly academic. This post will suggest a more nuanced view.
As is often the case in macroeconomics, it all depends on the time horizon. Are we talking about what may happen over the next few days or weeks, or are we talking about what will happen over the next few years?
In terms of very short term prediction, financial market economists beat academic economists hands down. The only thing most academic economists can usefully tell you is that it is unlikely you will outsmart market opinion. If you really want to try then you need lots of short term information and a good nose for how that short term information is interconnected. Most academics (there are exceptions) just do not have time to do that work. I always remember the reply an academic member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee gave to some MP who asked him about the implications of some latest data. I must have been doing some marking (grading) at the time that came out, was the reply.
Perhaps more surprisingly, those working in the markets are not as concerned about the longer term (what might happen in three or five years time) as you might expect. That is because money is made in predicting short term movements, and knowledge of where things are going over the next few years is a relatively weak guide to what might happen over the next few days. When I first started doing work on ‘equilibrium exchange rates’, I got a lot of queries from those in the markets, but the interest largely disappeared when I told them that ‘equilibrium’ meant where rates might be in about five years time.
This may surprise you because economists attached to financial market institutions often tell longer term stories, and sometimes they even produce detailed numerical forecasts of the type produced by central banks or governments. (See the list that the UK Treasury compiles for example.) But as I have often said, macroeconomic forecasts are only slightly better than guesswork. So it is only really worth putting any significant resources into producing a macro forecast if you are taking or seriously influencing decisions - like setting interest rates - where the costs of getting things wrong are extremely large. My suspicion is that financial sector macro forecasts are mainly there to give the impression of expertise to the institution’s clients.
I also suspect that economists working for financial institutions spend rather more time talking to their institution’s clients than to market traders. They earn their money by telling stories that interest and impress their clients. To do that it helps if they have the same worldview as their clients. Getting things right over the longer term seems less important, as Paul Krugman keeps complaining about in the context of those who have been predicting rapid inflation as a result of Quantitative Easing.
It is also useful if they leave their clients with the impression that they have some unique insight into how the markets work. So instead of suggesting - as an academic would - that markets are governed by basic principles, it is better to suggest that the market is like some capricious god, and they are one of a few high priests who can detect its mood. Now in the short term the market really can behave in volatile, unexpected and sometimes mysterious ways, but over the longer term there are some basic rules that markets obey.
The incentive system for academics is very different. They are judged by their peers. If they present stories to the media that differ greatly from conventional wisdom about theory or the empirical evidence, they will be given a hard time by their colleagues. They need to have an idea about how markets work to do good macroeconomics. They want to be more like scientists than high priests. (This has an unfortunate by-product. Most academics would rather not lose precious research time talking to journalists, particularly if the quotes they give may fail to contain the caveats normally demanded in academic work. In contrast talking to the media is part of a city economist’s job description.)
So who should journalists trust on the economy? If you want to know about the latest retail sales numbers or where the economy might be heading over the next few months, with a few exceptions financial economists are better bets than academic economists. If you have a more long term question, like how alternative speeds of deficit reduction will influence interest rates, then perhaps surprisingly you may tend to get a more reliable answer from academics. Like most things in economics, this is a tendency: there are some seasoned city economists who I would trust over many academics.
There is an important implication about political bias as well. Academic economists are no saints on this, but I do not think there is a clear average bias among academic macroeconomists towards the left or right. However partly because financial economists need to be good at telling stories that their clients find sympathetic, their worldview tends to be one where a smaller state is good for the economy, higher taxes on top incomes are a bad idea, markets are generally efficient and regulation is harmful.
If you think this is just self-serving conjecture, look at this evidence. The question of whether, in the UK, the 2013 recovery vindicated 2010 austerity was a no-brainer. Anyone who thinks about the logic for a moment will realise the answer is no, even if they think austerity was a good idea. To suggest otherwise would be to argue that it was a good idea to close half the economy down for a year, because growth in the following year would be fantastic. To answer yes to this question probably indicates political bias rather than lack of thought. When the Financial Times asked this question, only two out of twelve academics gave the answer yes. About half the city economists who were asked said yes.