Chicago Booth will be performing site maintenance on the community until approximately 12:00 p.m. Central Time on Wednesday, September 25th. We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience.
AUTHOR
Picture of Raghu Rajan

Raghu Rajan

Eric J. Gleacher Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Full bio »

Raghuram Rajan is the Eric J. Gleacher Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Dr. Rajan is also currently an economic advisor to the Prime Minister of India. Prior to resuming teaching in 2007, Dr. Rajan was the Economic Counselor and Director of Research (in plain English, the Chief Economist) at the International Monetary Fund (from 2003). Since then, he has chaired the Indian government’s Committee on Financial Sector Reforms, which submitted its report in September 2008.

Dr. Rajan’s research interests are in banking, corporate finance, and economic development, especially the role finance plays in it. His papers have been published in all the top economics and finance journals, and he has served on the editorial board of the American Economic Review and the Journal of Finance.  He has written Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy (Princeton University Press) which won the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year 2010 award. He has also co-authored Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists with Luigi Zingales .

Dr. Rajan is a senior advisor to Booz and Co, on the academic advisory board of Moodys, and on the international advisory board of Bank Itau-Unibanco. He is a director of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and on the Comptroller General of the United State’s Advisory Council. Dr. Rajan is the President (elect) of the American Finance Association and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In January 2003, the American Finance Association awarded Dr. Rajan the inaugural Fischer Black Prize, given every two years to the financial economist under age 40 who has made the most significant contribution to the theory and practice of finance.

THE BOOK

Financial Times/Goldman Sachs "2010 Best Business Book of the Year"


Available on Amazon.com
$17.79. Buy now »
February 05

Why Did Economists Not Spot the Crisis?

CHICAGO – At the height of the financial crisis, the Queen of England asked my friends at the London School of Economics a simple question, but one for which there is no easy answer: Why did academic economists fail to foresee the crisis?

 

There have been several responses to that query. One is that economists simply lacked models that could account for the behavior that led to the crisis. Another is that economists were blinkered by an ideology according to which a free and unfettered market could do no wrong.

Finally, an answer that is gaining ground is that the system bribed economists to stay silent.

 

In my view, the truth lies elsewhere.

 

It is not true that we academics did not have useful models to explain what happened. If you believe that the crisis was caused by a shortage of liquidity, we had plenty of models analyzing liquidity shortages and their effects on financial institutions. If you believe that the blame lies with greedy bankers and unthinking investors, lulled by the promise of a government bailout, or with a market driven crazy by irrational exuberance, we had studied all this too, in great detail.

 

Economists had even analyzed the political economy of regulation and deregulation, so we could have understood why some US politicians pushed the private sector into financing affordable housing, while others deregulated private finance. Yet, somehow, we did not bring all this understanding to bear and collectively shout out our warnings.

 

Perhaps the reason was ideology: we were too wedded to the idea that markets are efficient, market participants are rational, and high prices are justified by economic fundamentals. But some of this criticism of “market fundamentalism” reflects a misunderstanding. The dominant “efficient markets theory” says only that markets reflect what is publicly known, and that it is hard to make money off markets consistently – something verified by the hit that most investor portfolios took in the crisis. The theory does not say that markets cannot plummet if the news is bad, or if investors become risk-averse.

 

Critics argue that the fundamentals were deteriorating in plain sight, and that the market (and economists) simply ignored it. But hindsight distorts analysis. We cannot point to a lonely Cassandra like Robert Shiller of Yale University, who regularly argued that house prices were unsustainable, as proof that the truth was ignored. There are always naysayers, and they are often wrong. There were many more economists who believed that house prices, though high, were unlikely to fall across the board.

 

Of course, these expectations could have been distorted by ideology – it is hard to get into the past minds of economists. But there is a better reason to be skeptical of explanations relying on ideology. As a group, neither behavioral economists, who think that market efficiency is a joke, nor progressive economists, who distrust free markets, predicted the crisis.

 

Could it be corruption? Some academic economists consult for banks or rating agencies, give speeches to investor conferences, serve as expert witnesses, and carry out sponsored research. It would be natural to suspect us of bias. The bias could be implicit: our worldview is shaped by what our friends in industry believe. Or it may be an explicit bias: an economist might write a report that is influenced by what a sponsor wants to hear, or give testimony that is purely mercenary.

 

There are enough instances of possible bias that the issue cannot be ignored. One remedy would be to ban all interaction between economists and the corporate world. But if economists are confined to the ivory tower, we may be unbiased but also ignorant of practicalities – and thus even less capable of predicting problems. One way to restore trust may be disclosure – for economists to declare a monetary interest in a particular analysis and, more generally, to explain who pays us. A number of universities are moving in this direction.

 

But I believe that corruption is not the main reason that the profession missed the crisis. Most economists have very little interaction with the corporate world, and these “unbiased” economists were no better at forecasting the crisis.

 

I would argue that three factors largely explain our collective failure: specialization, the difficulty of forecasting, and the disengagement of much of the profession from the real world.

 

Like medicine, economics has become highly compartmentalized – macroeconomists typically do not pay attention to what financial economists or real-estate economists study, and vice versa. Yet, in order to see the crisis coming, you had to know something about each of these areas, just like it takes a good general practitioner to recognize an exotic disease. Because the profession rewards only careful, well-supported, but necessarily narrow analysis, few economists try to span sub-fields.

 

Even if they did, they would shy away from forecasting. The main advantage that academic economists’ have over professional forecasters may be their greater awareness of established relationships between factors. What is hardest to forecast, though, are turning points – when the old relationships break down. While there may be some factors that signal turning points – a run-up in short-term leverage and asset prices, for example, often presages a bust – they are not infallible predictors of trouble to come.

 

The meager professional rewards for breadth, coupled with the inaccuracy and reputational risk associated with forecasting, leads to disengagement for most academics. And it may well be that academic economists have little to say about short-term economic movements, so that forecasting, with all its errors, is best left to professional forecasters.

 

The danger, though, is that disengagement from short-term developments leads academic economists to ignore medium-term trends that they can address. If so, the true reason why academics missed the crisis could be far more mundane than inadequate models, ideological blindness, or corruption and thus far more worrisome; many simply were not paying attention!

 

Comments (30)

  • 2/21/13 - redrock<a href="http://www.redrockmortgages.com.au/low-doc-loans">low doc loans australia</a>
  • 2/21/13 - redrocka href="/bad-credit-home-loans">Home Loans With Bad Credit</a>
  • 4/13/12 - cliffnoah88Today I’m going to share a very important tip for learning how to stop anxiety naturally that...  Show Full Comment