Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve and inarguably one of the most important economists today, has publicly chided his fellow economic brethren for their inability to correctly forecast the future. “Economics is a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong,” he told Princeton University graduates this May. “About the future, not so much.”
This week Bernanke and other central bankers will convene in Jackson Hole, Wyo., for their annual summer retreat. They’ll speculate, they’ll pontificate and they’ll ruminate about how to fix the sluggish U.S. economy and boost job growth. Solutions and proposals will be shared and debated. But very few of this year’s attendees will accurately predict how the U.S. or global economy will perform next year.
For these reasons investors are better off tuning out the economic noise, says Barry Ritholtz, CIO of The Ritholtz Group. “Economists distract investors from what’s important,” he tells The Daily Ticker.
Ritholtz points to the monthly nonfarm payrolls number as a perfect example of what he’s talking about — a data point that is closely tracked by investors, economists and policymakers. An upside surprise in the jobs report could lead to a 100-point spike in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Yet a number that misses the consensus estimate could send U.S. markets plunging. Ritholtz says these diversions confuse investors and cause them to take their eye off the [investing] ball. “The jobs report is overrated… it’s meaningless,” he says. “All we care about are the long-term trends: is the economy creating jobs? Are wages going up or are wages flat? What does this mean relative to inflation?”
Ritholtz lists 10 reasons why economists should not be taken too seriously in a recent Washington Post editorial. There are exceptions to every rule, and Ritholtz does name a handful of economists that he says are getting it right. When it comes to grading the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), Ritholtz does not hold back:
“The Fed overly relies on models,” he argues. “They’re kind of winging it. I think they’re doing the best they can do. They don’t have a cooperative Congress. They’re in uncharted waters. They’re flinging stuff against the barn wall to see what sticks.”