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European economic forecasts: why do they get it wrong?

The European Central Bank's forecasts misread Europe’s economy three times out of four. And the European Commission, the OECD and the Bundesbank didn't do any better. What is wrong with the mainstream view of how the economy works?

The European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt. Shutterstock/Petronilo G. Dangoy Jr. All rights reserved.The European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt. Shutterstock/Petronilo G. Dangoy Jr. All rights reserved.

At year end we all assess the past and guess the future. We compare what we expected and what happened. We develop new expectations for the new year. In economic affairs this is particularly important, as expectations on growth are crucial for firms’ investment decisions, for government policies and for people’s chances to work. This is the job of hundreds of researchers that produce economic forecasts in advanced countries. The more uncertain the time, the more delicate their task. Let us see what they expected - and what did happen - for the European economy in these times of crisis.

Germany first. In the strongest EU economy 2012 GDP growth is now expected to be less than one percent compared to last year; the Bundesbank forecast of June 2011 had predicted a 1.8 percent growth. In 2013 the country is now expected to grow only by a modest 0.5 percent, while Frankfurt’s guess a year ago was an optimist 1.8 percent.

Let us do the math for the years 2009-2011, on which we already have definitive data and compare them with the estimates that the Bundesbank did in June and December of each year, published in its press releases. Out of the thirteen estimates made in the three year period between December 2008 and December 2011, ten were wrong by more than 0.4 percentage points and only three were right (with 0.3 percentage points divergence, or less). They even succeeded to mispredict in December 2010 the results for the same year. In what sense were they wrong? While in 2009 they underestimated the severity of the recession, one year later they underestimated the dynamism of German growth (at the expense of the rest of Europe).

Italy – as often happens – is an extreme case. For 2012 - definitive data are not available yet - the Italian government of Mario Monti – who has just resigned - expects GDP to decrease by 2.4 percent  (update of the Document on Economics and Finance, September 2012) and ISTAT, the National Institute for Statistics, predicts a 2.3 percent decline (Prospects for the Italian Economy, November 2012). Similarly, the European Commission (Autumn forecast) and the International Monetary Fund (World Economic Outlook - October 2012 Projections) both envisage a 2.3 percent decrease of Italian GDP.

What did they expect a year ago? In autumn 2011, the Berlusconi government in its closing weeks predicted a 0.6 percent growth (update of the Document on Economics and Finance 2011 - September 2011), the European Commission expected a small increase of 0.1 percent (Autumn forecast), whereas the IMF estimated a slight dip of 0.3 percent (World Economic Outlook - September 2011 - Projections). With the arrival of the “technical” government of Mario Monti official forecasts did not change, and only in very recent months the severity of Italy’s recession – resulting from the government’s austerity policies – found its way to official data.

Take now the eurozone as a whole, and the forecasts of the staff of the European Central Bank, as presented by the President at the periodic press conference. The ECB publishes outlook reports every four months (March, June, September, December) with estimates of a range between a minimum and maximum value. Let us take a long view - before the Mario Draghi era at the top of the Bank – and consider the forecasts for the years 2004-2011 made since June 2004. Out of a total of 61 estimates, 46 were incorrect – i.e. actual data were outside of the range between the maximum and minimum estimates - and only fifteen were right; three times out of four, ECB staff got the economy wrong.

The range between maximum and minimum can be large; two years ago, in December 2010, predictions for growth in 2012 had a minimum of 0.6 percent and a maximum of 2.8 percent. We already know that they missed the target; this year the eurozone's GDP is going to decline, but only last September did ECB’s predictions fall below zero.

What is wrong with the ECB? Its staff makes a systematic mistake: in “good” times, between 2005 and 2007 - before the 2008 crisis, the range of estimates was always lower than final data - too much pessimism. When the going got rough, the ECB did not understand it; it missed the financial crisis in 2008, and had no clue on the severe recession in 2009 - in the Euro zone GDP fell by 4.4 percent and one year before the ECB provided a range between 0 and -1 percent. Then the ECB caught up in pessimism for 2010 exactly when the eurozone – thanks to increased public expenditure as a reaction to the crisis – went through a recovery; all forecasts - even those made in December! - underestimated the 2 percent growth registered in that year.

ECB optimism has continued to this day, based on the idea that good results had to arrive from Europe-wide austerity policies. So, wrong guesses for the slow economy of 2011 and no clue for the recession of 2012; one year ago the range of ECB estimates for 2012 was between 0.4 percent and 1 percent. What about next year? For 2013 the ECB is now suggesting a range between -0.9 percent and 0.3 percent, a moderate pessimism that is likely to fail to anticipate a deepening of Europe’s recession.

Were all of these mistakes inevitable?  Let us look at the predictions about the eurozone made by other international organizations. OECD estimates - published in June and December – for the years 2010 to 2012 were wrong (0.4 percentage points difference or more with actual data) when made one year earlier, but those made in December were closer to actual data. The OECD too underestimated the small recovery of 2010 and failed to predict the recession in 2011 and 2012. It is now expecting a 0.4 percent fall of GDP in 2012 and a 0.1 percent decline in 2013.

The only international institution providing more accurate predictions has been the International Monetary Fund. If we consider the estimates made in October and April from 2009 up to now, relative to the years from 2009 to 2012, we find 80 percent of correct predictions (with a deviation of 0.3 percentage points or less). For the eurozone in 2012 the IMF is estimating a decline by 0.4 percent, a prediction made since January 2012 – that is likely to be correct - but during all year in 2011 even IMF predictions failed to anticipate the coming recession. What about 2013? The IMF is more optimistic than the OECD: the outlook published in October this year is expecting a 0.2 percent growth, scaled down compared to previous estimates.

What can we learn from these numbers? The crisis has shown how wrong the assumptions and assumed relationships at the core of mainstream economics were. They were at the root of economic policies that have proven to be disastrous. But the same assumptions and relationships are incorporated in the models used by the international organizations to make their estimates for the future.

The lesson from this evidence is that ideology blinds forecasters as well as politicians.

The most dramatic case is the failure of mainstream approaches to understand the negative effects austerity measures have had since 2011 on demand and income in the eurozone. At the ECB and European Commission, at the Bundesbank and OECD it was expected that spending cuts in 2011 and 2012 in the 'periphery' of Europe would only have modest effects. This is not what actually happened and the recession in 2012 hit the whole of the eurozone. The evidence has been provided by IMF studies - such as What Determines Government Spending Multipliers? by Giancarlo Corsetti, Andre Meier and Gernot Müller - and the analysis of the World Economic Outlook issued in October 2012 that showed how cuts in public budgets have an effect on income reduction much higher than the one expected by mainstream models.

Outside the ECB, the OECD and governments practicing budget cuts, however, there are thousands of economists who have never believed in the virtues of austerity and have long argued for a change of perspective. Criticisms of austerity policies from Paul Krugman (see for example End this depression now! Norton, 2012) or Nouriel Roubini are well known. We have now additional arguments for alternative policies from the Independent Annual Growth Survey and from the Euromemorandum 2013, launched last week with the support of 350 European economists.


This article was first published in the Social Europe Journal on January 8, 2012


About the authors

Mario Pianta is Professor of Economic Policy at Roma Tre University, and has been a fellow of the Centro Linceo Interdisciplinare of Accademia dei Lincei, the European University Institute and other international universities. He has worked on technology, employment, inequality, economic and industrial policy. He is active with the Italian civil society coalition on economic alternatives, Sbilanciamoci. His last book is Explaining inequality (Routledge).

Alessandro Bramucci is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Urbino and is completing a Master in International Economics at the Berlin School of Economics and Law.

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