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How can we Predict the Next Recession?

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Posted on Mon, 21 January 2013 22:15 | 0

A few thoughts on the "next recession" ... Forecasters generally have a terrible record at predicting recessions. There are many reasons for this poor performance. In 1987, economist Victor Zarnowitz wrote in "The Record and Improvability of Economic Forecasting" that there was too much reliance on trends, and he also noted that predictive failure was also due to forecasters' incentives. Zarnowitz wrote: "predicting a general downturn is always unpopular and predicting it prematurely—ahead of others—may prove quite costly to the forecaster and his customers".

Incentives motivate Wall Street economic forecasters to always be optimistic about the future (just like stock analysts). Of course, for the media and bloggers, there is an incentive to always be bearish, because bad news drives traffic (hence the prevalence of yellow journalism).

In addition to paying attention to incentives, we also have to be careful not to rely "heavily on the persistence of trends". One of the reasons I focus on residential investment (especially housing starts and new home sales) is residential investment is very cyclical and is frequently the best leading indicator for the economy. UCLA's Ed Leamer went so far as to argue that: "Housing IS the Business Cycle". Usually residential investment leads the economy both into and out of recessions. The most recent recovery was an exception, but it was fairly easy to predict a sluggish recovery without a contribution from housing.

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