Around mid-November 2020, I spoke to a bunch of macroeconomics students at IIM Ahmedabad on data in economics. After I had spoken, one of the questions asked was how can we use data to say things with absolute certainty (or something along similar lines).
My simple straightforward answer to the question was that we can’t. Over the years, economists had ended up portraying their subject as a science simply because it has a lot of mathematical equations built into it. But macroeconomics was always more of an art. Hence, we could say things with a reasonable amount of confidence, but never with total confidence.
I don’t think the student was convinced about what I said. And I don’t blame him for it because in the world that he lives in, economists, investors, analysts, politicians and just about everyone speaking to the world at large, is saying things with total confidence.
Let’s take the case of economists. Their economic growth forecasts are made to the precision of a single decimal point.
If we talk about investors, they forecast a stock market index reaching a particular level in a certain amount of time, with total confidence.
Analysts forecast the price of a stock or a commodity reaching a certain level at a certain point of time.
And let’s leave politicians out of this. Untangling their confidence levels will take a book.
The trouble is all this confidence comes in a world that keeps rapidly changing, where if we stick to our ideas all the time, we will largely turn out to be wrong.
As Dan Gardner writes in Future Babble—Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why Believe Them Anyway:
“The simple truth is no one really knows, and no one will know until the future becomes the present. The only thing we can say with confidence is that when that time comes, there will be experts who are sure they know what the future holds and people who pay far too much attention to them.”
And people pay far too much attention to experts who predict/forecast/comment confidently simply because confidence convinces. The audience is looking for a buy in and nothing helps get that more than the confidence of the expert talking.
Also, in these days of the social media, many a time we are simply looking for a confirmation of something that we already believe in. If the expert ends up saying something along those lines, he tends to become our go to man. Our echo chambers are really small.
Let’s take the case of the investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, a man known to make confident bold statements when it comes to the Indian economy and the stock market. He recently forecast that India will overtake China in the next 25 years. As he put it: “You may call me a fool… but I can tell you one thing – India will overtake China in the next 25 years.”
The media and the investors as usual lapped it up, without putting that simple question to him: How?
The Indian gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 was at $2.94 trillion. And that of China was at $11.54 trillion (World Bank data, 2010 constant US dollars). What this means is that if Chinese GDP stagnates at its current level for the next 25 years, India still needs to grow at 5.62% every year for the next 25 years to get where China currently is.
So, the chances of something like this happening are minimal, given the current state of things. But Mr Jhunjhunwala might know something that ordinary mortals like you and I, probably don’t.
The funny thing is that the Big Bull, as the media likes to call him, has made similar such forecasts in the past, which have gone horribly wrong. In October 2007, he had forecast that the Sensex will touch 50,000 points in the next six to seven years.
And he is not the only one making such forecasts. In June 2014, the domestic brokerage Karvy had forecast that the Sensex will touch 1,00,000 points by December 2020.
People making a living out of the stock market (or any other market for that matter) have an incentive in saying that future will be better than the present is. Many analysts make a living by simply doing this on the business news TV channels, on a regular basis.
The media looking for bold headlines to run, laps it up. And the investors who are more like sheep ready to be slaughtered, follow the sheep in front of them.
In fact, the trick is to make bold bigger forecasts and not small ones. I mean, if you currently forecast that Sensex is going to touch 55,000 points this year, no one is going to pay interest. But if you say Sensex is going to cross 1,00,000 points by 2023 or 2024, everyone is going to sit up and take interest.
An excellent example of this is Jhunjhunwala’s 2014 forecast on the stock market index Nifty touching 1,25,000 points by 2030.
Of course, if he turns out to be right, everyone will be dazzled by the forecast he had made. If he turns out to be wrong, no one will remember. Did you remember that Karvy had forecast the Sensex touching 1,00,000 points by December 2020? That’s how the game is played.
Big investors are trying to drive up stock prices, so that their investment portfolios can also gain in the process, which is why they publicly need to be seen as being confident.
A similar game is now played on the social media where traders claim to have generated a humongous amount of return in a short period of time. Of course, there is no way to verify this, except believing him or her.
This is accompanied by other confident predictions of how the future is going to be. The idea is to sell some training programme that they are offering. And no one is going to buy a training programme from a trader who doesn’t sound confident.
For the economists, the game is a little different. They tend to treat their pet theories as gospel. So, an economist who believes in free markets will keep parroting the free market line on everything.
As Scott Galloway writes in his excellent book Post Corona—From Crisis to Opportunity:
“The libertarian argument… is that…regulation and redistribution is inefficient, that left to its own devices the market will regulate itself. If people value clean rivers, the argument goes, they won’t buy cars from companies that pollute. But history and human nature shows that this does not work.”
An excellent example of this is the river Ganga in India, which people keep polluting despite the fact that at the same time they look it as a holy river.
Galloway offers a few more examples. “Nobody wants to see children working eighteen hours a day in a clothing factory, but at the H&M outlet, the $10 T-shirt is an unmissable bargain… Nobody wants to die in a hotel fire, but after a long day of meetings, we aren’t going to inspect the sprinkler system before checking in.” The point being that some sort of regulation is necessary.
There is economic theory and then there is how things play out in real life. As Adam Grant writes in Think Again—The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know: “In theory confidence and competence go hand in hand. In practice, they often diverge.”
Other than continuing to believe in their pet theories, there is one more reason for economists to portray confidence. Over the years, they have sold their subject as a science, if not to others, at least to themselves in their heads. I mean the first step before convincing anyone else is to convince oneself first.
Hence, the economic growth figure is forecast to the precision of one decimal point. I have always wondered about how economic growth, which is something very complex and is impacted by so many factors, can be forecast in such a precise way.
Now, this is not to say that the forecasting economic growth is not important. It is very important, simply because without that governments and corporations won’t be able to plan for the future.
Without knowing the economic growth number for the next year, a government wouldn’t be able to forecast its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends expressed as a percentage of the country’s GDP. Without forecasting the fiscal deficit, the government wouldn’t know what kind of money it has to borrow in order to meet this gap. Without the government knowing the government’s borrowing target, the country’s central bank won’t be able to set the country’s monetary policy. And so on.
Nevertheless, the world would be a much better place if the economists started forecasting in ranges. Like, in 2020-21, the Indian economy is likely to contract by 8-10% or even 8-9%, rather than saying something as specific like the Indian economy is likely to contract by 8.3%. In this scenario, the governments could also forecast a range when it comes to their fiscal deficit.
As John Maynard Keynes is said to have supposedly remarked: “It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”
Hence, forecasting ranges and pointing towards the right direction is more important than being extremely precise about the economic growth.
As Tom Bergin writes in Free Lunch Thinking—How Economics Ruins the Economy:
“If economic models or theories can point us in the right direction and give us a reasonable estimate of the scale of a force or impact, they’re helpful. For example, if consumers are building up levels of personal debt that will require ever-rising house prices and wages to sustain – think the United States in 2006 –economists don’t need to tell us exactly how much a drop in GDP this situation will likely result in. If they can simply show the risks are unsustainable and material, this can prompt and inform government action and protect society.”
I learnt this the hard way. In 2013, when I first started writing about real estate, looking at the situation at hand, I started predicting a real estate bust very confidently. In the years to come, I turned out to be partly right, with parts of the country seeing a substantial fall in prices.
But the deep state of Indian real estate (the bankers, the builders and the politicians) essentially ensured that a real bust never really came. Of course, having learnt from this, now I point out more towards the perils of owning real estate at a price you cannot really afford because that is point people looking to buy a house to live in, essentially need to understand.
Also, one can more confidently say that the real estate sector will continue to remain moribund in the days to come, than confidently predict a bust. As far as investors are concerned, the real estate story has been over for a while.
Sometimes the confidence of economists comes from the prevailing narrative. As Daniel Acemoglu and James A Robinson write in Why Nations Fail – The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty:
“The most widely used university textbook in economics, written by Nobel Prize-winner Paul Samuelson, repeatedly predicted the coming economic dominance of the Soviet Union. In the 1961 edition, Samuelson predicted that Soviet national income would overtake that of the United States possibly by 1984, but probably by 1997. In the 1980 edition, there was little change in the analysis, though the two dates were delayed to 2002 and 2012.”
Of course nothing of this sort happened, and the Soviet Union broke up in December 1991. But those were the days, and the narrative framed around the success of the Soviet style of economics, driven by its Five-Year Plans, was very popular. Samuelson was not the only one to be seduced by it. In fact, an entire generation was.
Interestingly, the economist Phillip Tetlock has carried out extensive research on experts and their predictions. Gardner, from whose book I have quoted above, documents this in Future Babble.
As he writes:
“Tetlock recruited 284 experts— political scientists, economists, and journalists—whose jobs involve commenting or giving advice on political or economic trends…Over many years, Tetlock and his team peppered the experts with questions. In all, they collected an astonishing 27,450 judgments about the future.”
It turned out that the expert predictions were no more accurate than random guesses. As Gardner writes: “Experts who did particularly badly… were not comfortable with complexity and uncertainty. They sought to “reduce the problem to some core theoretical theme.” This means that they had this one big idea and they stuck to it, without trying to realign their view to the new information coming in.
An excellent example of this is all the gold bulls who came out of the woodwork post the financial crisis of 2008. They talked about gold reaching very high price levels (The highest I encountered was $55,000 per ounce).
As a journalist I interviewed many such individuals and the confidence they had in their forecasts was amazing. In that round, gold didn’t even touch $2,000 per ounce. But the audience lapped the interviews I did. Why? Because these experts exuded confidence in their interviews, even though they eventually turned out to be wrong.
In 2012, when I turned into a freelance writer, I exuded the same confidence on gold while writing about it. And when the prices actually started to fall, it sort of struck at a core belief I had developed over the years and it took me a couple of years to get around to the whole thing.
As Grant writes: “When a core belief is questioned… we tend to shut down rather than open up. It’s as if there’s a miniature dictator living inside our heads, controlling the flow of facts to our minds.” This is referred to as totalitarian ego and a decade later I can see this ego among many bitcoin experts, whenever one questions the entire idea of bitcoin as money, and that has me worried.
Now getting back to Gardner and Tetlcok. Experts who did better than the average of the group that Tetlock had recruited had no template or no big idea. They tried to synthesise information from multiple sources.
As Tetlock writes: “Most of all, these experts were comfortable seeing the world as complex and uncertain—so comfortable that they tended to doubt the ability of anyone to predict the future. That resulted in a paradox: The experts who were more accurate than others tended to be much less confident that they were right.”
This explains why most business TV news anchors, podcasters, YouTuber, social media influencers, etc., who are popular, sound very confident. They believe in this one big idea, which sounds sensible to people, irrespective of whether it is right in the real world or not, and they keep hammering it over and over again, to their audience.
It also explains why guys who are normally right about things aren’t really popular with the media or the public at large. This is simply because they are not totally confident about what they are saying. They have their ifs and buts built into what they say and are constantly revising the information in their heads. And as and when they feel like it, they are ready to revise their views as well. This constant revision comes across as lack of confidence to the world at large. Tetlock called such experts foxes and experts who believed in that one big thing as hedgehogs.
The categorisations were from an essay written by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in which Berlin had recalled a small part of an ancient Greek poem. “The fox knows many things… but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” After knowing this, it is easy to figure out who is a fox and who is a hedgehog.
As Gardner writes:
“If you hear a hedgehog make a long-term prediction, it is almost certainly wrong. Treat it with great skepticism. That may seem like obscure advice, but take a look at the television panels, magazines, books, newspapers, and blogs where predictions flourish. The sort of expert typically found there is the sort who is confident, clear, and dramatic. The sort who delivers quality sound bites and compelling stories. The sort who doesn’t bother with complications, caveats, and uncertainties. The sort who has One Big Idea.”
Hence, the kind of expert found in the media is the kind of expert who is more likely to be wrong. One of the key findings that emerged from Tetlock’s data was: “The bigger the media profile of an expert, the less accurate his predictions are.”
In a world filled with confident forecasts, this is a very important point that needs to be kept in mind. If we really need to make sense of the world we are in, we need to figure out who the foxes are and follow them, however mentally disconcerting it might be. The hedgehogs need to be discarded.