I saw Labour’s press release yesterday about the latest Treasury monthly statements. Basically, Treasury says ‘the economy’s a whole lot worse than we expected but we stand by our growth forecasts in the Budget’. Odd, because the Budget forecast 1.6% growth so far this year and it has actually been 0.7%. How good is Treasury at forecasting?
They release updated economic forecasts twice a year – in the Budget Economic and Fiscal Update (BEFU) and the Half-Yearly Economic and Fiscal Update (HYEFU) (or Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Update (PREFU) in election year).
When the BEFU is published, it’s half-way through May but the latest official GDP numbers are for the previously December (it takes about four months after a quarter ends for the GDP numbers to come out). Similarly, the HEFU is out later this month but will be forecasting from the September quarter onwards, despite the September quarter being over and the December quarter being half-done.
So, the first growth ‘forecasts’ Treasury has to make are for 2 quarters that are virtually finished already. Not surprisingly, it does reasonably well at that task. Over the past five years, Treasury’s ‘forecasts’ for these first two quarters have shown a strong 0.75 correlation to the real numbers.
But they’re often a long way out: the average growth rate per quarter in the past five years was 0.2%, while actual growth rate in each quarter was an average of 0.4% different from what Treasury forecast. So, Treasury was wrong by an average of twice the average growth rate.
So, Treasury’s record at predicting the present isn’t that great – they can see the trends but they’re not so good at pinpointing the actual numbers. So, how about predicting the actual future?
How does Treasury do at predicting the two quarters that begin after their forecast is published – eg. forecasting the growth in the September and December quarters of 2009 in Budget 2009 that was published in May?
Turns out they are really, really bad. Actually, they’re slightly worse than you would expect if you selected the numbers at random. These forecast figures show a -.01 correlation with the actual numbers – statistically, Treasury’s predictions bear no relationship to what actually happens six months after they’re made. As for the average gap between the latest prediction for a quarter and the actual growth rate, it’s a whopping 0.6%
The correlations improve when they predict further out but the gap between the growth rate they predict and reality doesn’t.
In Budget 2008, Treasury didn’t forecast the recession even though we were already four months into it. In Budget 2009, it forecast the recession would end in the coming September quarter when it had already ended in the March quarter.
In June of this year, the economy was 0.9% smaller than predicted this May, 1.8% bigger than predicted the previous Budget, and an enormous 10.6% smaller than forecast in Budget 2006.
That kind of error has very serious implications. Tax cuts that look ‘affordable’ suddenly become huge debt burdens – like the $1.5 billion we’ve borrowed so far for the April 1 2008 cut. Benefit spending and tax revenue turn out to be wildly out of whack from what was planned for.
Sure, there’s a major economic crisis going on and that makes things hard to predict. But Treasury’s inability to foretell the recession even once it had started, or to accurately estimate its depth and end point, or to get right the weakness of the ‘recovery’ that has followed so something fundamental is wrong. Treasury’s orthodox neoclassical economics simply can’t cope with bubbles, busts, and resource constraints. As Peter Lyons writing in the Herald last week noted:
“[according to the neoclassicists] crowd manias that lead to share market and housing bubbles simply do not happen. Markets are always efficient. The credit crunch and near-collapse of the world financial markets simply could not happen.”
John Maynard Keynes’ famous rebuke of the neoclassical equilibrium model has been proven true by Treasury’s failure to get its head around what is happening to the economy:
“Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again”
It is time that Treasury rid itself of the failed ideology of neoliberalism and the failed theoretical framework of neoclassicism and embraced resource and behavioral economics. Because, right now, it’s all but useless at telling us where the economy is heading.