“The Record of Failure to Predict Recessions is Virtually Unblemished”

That’s Prakash Loungani from work published in 2001.

Recently, Loungani , working with Hites Ahir, put together an update – “Fail Again, Fail Better, Forecasts by Economists During the Great Recession” reprised in a short piece in VOX – “There will be growth in the spring”: How well do economists predict turning points?

Hites and Loungani looked at the record of professional forecasters 2008-2012. Defining recessions as a year-over-year fall in real GDP, there were 88 recessions in this period. Based on country-by-country predictions documented by Consensus Forecasts, economic forecasters were right less than 10 percent of the time, when it came to forecasting recessions – even a few months before their onset.


The chart on the left shows the timing of the 88 recession years, while the chart on the right shows the number of recession predicted by economists by the September of the previous year.

..none of the 62 recessions in 2008–09 was predicted as the previous year was drawing to a close. However, once the full realisation of the magnitude and breadth of the Great Recession became known, forecasters did predict by September 2009 that eight countries would be in recession in 2010, which turned out to be the right call in three of these cases. But the recessions in 2011–12 again came largely as a surprise to forecasters.

This type of result holds up to robustness checks

•First, lowering the bar on how far in advance the recession is predicted does not appreciably improve the ability to forecast turning points.

•Second, using a more precise definition of recessions based on quarterly data does not change the results.

•Third, the failure to predict turning points is not particular to the Great Recession but holds for earlier periods as well.

Forecasting Turning Points

How can macroeconomic and business forecasters consistently get it so wrong?

Well, the data is pretty bad, although there is more and more of it available and with greater time depths and higher frequencies. Typically, government agencies doing the national income accounts – the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) in the United States – release macroeconomic information at one or two months lag (or more). And these releases usually involve revision, so there may be preliminary and then revised numbers.

And the general accuracy of GDP forecasts is pretty low, as Ralph Dillon of Global Financial Data (GFD) documents in the following chart, writing,

Below is a chart that has 5 years of quarterly GDP consensus estimates and actual GDP [for the US]. In addition, I have also shown in real dollars the surprise in both directions. The estimate vs actual with the surprise indicating just how wrong consensus was in that quarter.


Somehow, though, it is hard not to believe economists are doing something wrong with their almost total lack of success in predicting recessions. Perhaps there is a herding phenomenon, coupled with a distaste for being a bearer of bad tidings.

Or maybe economic theory itself plays a role. Indeed, earlier research published on Vox suggests that application of about 50 macroeconomic models to data preceding the recession of 2008-2009, leads to poor results in forecasting the downturn in those years, again even well into that period.

All this suggests economics is more or less at the point medicine was in the 1700’s, when bloodletting was all the rage..


In any case, this is the planned topic for several forthcoming posts, hopefully this coming week – forecasting turning points.

Note: The picture at the top of this post is Peter Sellers in his last role as Chauncey Gardiner – the simple-minded gardener who by an accident and stroke of luck was taken as a savant, and who said to the President – “There will be growth in the spring.”

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