The Embarrassment Of Transparency

Over the past decade or so, “transparency” has become one of the buzzwords that has guided the Federal Reserve’s culture. The word was meant to convey the belief that central banking was best done for all to see in the full light of day, not in the murky back rooms of Washington and New York. The Fed seems to be on a mission to prove that its operations are benevolent, fair, predictable, and equitable. Part of that transparency movement took shape in 2007 when the Fed began publicizing its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) forecasts, which previously (to the frustration of investors) had been kept under wraps. Most of the Fed’s policy moves are tied to how strong, or how weak, it believes the economy will be in the coming year. As a result, its GDP forecast is perhaps the single most important estimate it makes.

So the good news for investors is that the Fed now tells us where it thinks the economy is headed. The bad news is it has been consistently, and sometimes spectacularly, wrong. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

In the eight years that the Fed has issued GDP forecasts in the prior Fall, only once, in 2010, did the actual economic performance come in the range of its expectations (referred to as its “central tendency.”) And even in that year, Fed forecasters did not manage to put the ball through the goal posts. Instead it just hit the upright (the low end of its range: 2.5% in actual growth vs. a central tendency of 2.5% to 3.5%). In all other years the Fed missed the mark completely on the downside. The tale of the tape tells the story: 

The biggest misses clearly came during the recession years of 2008 and 2009. The Fed clearly had no idea that trouble was brewing, or that the trouble would last once it started. In 2008 the actual growth came in 2.1% below the low end of its forecast range and 2.5% below the midpoint of its estimates. In 2009 it was 2.6% below the low end and 3.2% below the midpoint. 2011 wasn’t much better, with the Fed missing by 1.4% and 1.7% for the same criteria. The rest of the years had more pedestrian misses of less than a percentage point. But it never really hit the mark, and it consistently overbid by a significant margin.

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Author: Travis Esquivel

Travis Esquivel is an engineer, passionate soccer player and full-time dad. He enjoys writing about innovation and technology from time to time.

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