“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology respectable”
This opening quotation might seem somewhat defeatist. Surely economic forecasting, given the importance of the economy’s performance on our investments, must be necessary. The problem is that in order to have a useful piece of information, that information must be both important and knowable. There is no doubting that the economy’s future performance is important information for us investors, but to what extent can we know it?
At the risk of using excessive quotations, there is a good story from Kenneth Arrow, who subsequently won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1972, about his time analysing long-range weather forecasts in World War II. He came to the conclusion that there was no difference between the forecasts and pure chance, and communicated this finding to his superiors. The following is the memorable reply that he received: “The Commanding General is well aware that the forecasts are no good. However, he needs them for planning purposes.”
Which leads me on to inflation, without a doubt the economic piatto del giorno being served up in all current market analyses. Following a 2020 – 2021 in which it was decided, essentially on a global basis, to close down pretty much every non-essential activity and subsequently to apply massive amounts of government stimulus in the hopes of starting things back up again, we are finding a large number of anomalous economic effects. I imagine many people will have their own stories to tell, but my particular one is this: my son got to the point where he needed a new bicycle, having outgrown his previous one. A couple of years ago, this would have been as easy as going down to the local bike shop, choosing the model and swiping my credit card. This time, however, the bike shop told me that they hadn’t had a delivery of new bikes in two months due to logistics problems. They were, however, very happy to take my son’s old bike, a buyer for which was found in a matter of hours.
There have been plenty of variations on this theme in recent times, and it would appear that the process of economic restarting, with its attendant logistics issues, has fed into the current levels of inflation that are being reported. However, it seems unwise to extrapolate one observable trend and conclude that there is some inevitability about inflation remaining at its current high levels. This is the essential problem with economics: modelling extremely complicated systems such as economies is all but impossible: there are simply too many factors to take into consideration and the interactions between them all are unclear.