Bruce Bartlett

Last Monday, President Bush issued his annual Economic Report. It is prepared by the Council of Economic Advisers, a group of three distinguished economists and an equally distinguished staff. Presently, they include N. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard, Harvey Rosen of Princeton and Kristin Forbes of M.I.T.

This year's report seems to be getting more than the usual amount of notice. Most of the press attention has focused on the economic forecast, especially for jobs. This forecast was actually prepared last year in conjunction with the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget. Its main purpose is to give government agencies something to use in planning their budgets.

Since the forecast was completed on Dec. 2, clearly it does not represent the administration's current thinking about how well the economy will do this year. In the intervening two and a half months, a great deal of new economic data has become available that probably would significantly alter the forecast were it to be redone today. Nevertheless, the press continues to treat the forecast numbers as if they are writ in stone.

The fact is that economic forecasting is not very good in general, and all administration forecasts tend to be fairly far off. For example, the last forecast made by Bill Clinton's CEA in January 2001 confidently predicted that there would be no recession. "Let me be clear," said CEA Chairman Martin Baily, "we don't think that we're going into a recession."

Of course, we now know that at the very moment Baily spoke we were on the brink of a recession and may already have been in one. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private research group that determines the official dates for business cycles, the most recent recession began in March 2001. However, recent data revisions suggest that it may have started in the fall of 2000, and it is possible that the NBER may move back the official start of the recession.

Another point to remember is that when an administration makes a forecast error, it is usually shared by the economics profession as a whole. For example, in May 2001 -- well after the recession had already begun -- less than a third of the "Blue Chip" economic forecasters were expecting any recession at all. If you can't forecast a recession when you are already in one, you are not likely to know when one is coming down the pike.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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