(As an aside, I would note that Beatrice Cherrier has written about the preference for tractable (simplicity) of mathematical models in "What is the Cost of 'Tractable' Economic Models," and in a follow up article. Much of what she discusses appears to overlap my thinking about the existing methodology, although I believe that I have a different view. My suggestion is to look at non-forecastable economic models, and tractable (or reduced order) non-forecastable models would be the most interesting. A non-tractable non-forecastable model might provide the best fit to reality, but its complexity would also make it difficult to draw any conclusions from it; this is essentially my concern with agent-based models. Since I was in the middle of laying out my logic, I was not able to work in a longer comparison to her arguments.)
IntroductionIn an earlier article ("Forecastability and Economic Modelling"), I introduced the concept of forecastability, which is a property of economic models. If a model is forecastable, we can accurately forecast future values of model variables based solely on the history of publicly known time series, and public knowledge of exogenous variables (such as policy variables). It would take a significant amount of work to do a survey, but the author's guess is that the bulk of standard economic models are forecastable, as this represents a methodological bias.
My earlier article outlined the definition of exact forecastability: can we forecast the future of economic variables in the model exactly, given the history of public information? This is too strong a condition, as any form of measurement noise would make such perfect forecasts impossible. For example, if GDP growth equals 2% every period plus an unknown random noise signal that takes values in the range [-0.1, 0.1], the best forecast is 2%, but the forecast always be slightly off (with probability 1).
We need to have a weaker condition: given a "small" unknown "disturbance" to the model in question, can we generate a forecast with "small" forecast errors? This formulation could be quantified, but it will depend upon the nature of the "disturbances."
There are four obvious categories of disturbances to a model to consider.
- Measurement errors. We cannot read off the true values of economic variables. (One issue is that if the economic models encompass a full set of national accounts, we could use accounting identities to cut through the noise.)
- Model parameters change over time.
- "Forces" external to the model which impact variables. These are common in engineering model analysis, for example, a wind gust can hit a plane. However, such disturbances are somewhat difficult to square with models that represent a closed set of national accounts.
- Model error: the true model is another model that is "close" to the base case model in question. This is tied to the notion of model robustness, which was the key insight of post-1980s control theory. (Mainstream economists have dipped into 1960s optimal control theory, but they have largely refused to pay attention to the evolution of control theory since then.) Although the notion of two models being close to each other sounds vague, we can quantify this using operator norms.
The multiplicity of sources of disturbances makes a generalisation of the notion of "small disturbances" difficult. As a result, I would argue that we should instead worry about analysing models with a focus on the properties of their forecast errors rather than the precise nature of the generalisation of exact forecastability.
Forecastability and FalsifiabilityOne popular defense of economic models is that they are "teaching models," I use the same defense for my use of stock-flow consistent models myself. This defense is invoked by both mainstream and heterodox economists. I find the heterodox tradition more congenial, as the literary criticism wing of post-Keynesian economics has kept the claims about the teaching models in line; the mainstream tradition no longer has this mechanism to enforce common sense.
As an additional disclaimer, I am only discussing here the part of economics that I have labelled "bond market economics": the components of economics that might be of interest to bond investors. This is actually a relatively wide field, as it does cover all of fiscal and monetary policy, as well as economic modelling. Political economy matters, but that is not my expertise.
It is very easy to savage the notion of teaching models: if they do not offer any useful predictions about real world behaviour, why are we teaching them to students? In particular, why choose one model for teaching, and not the model which suggests the exact opposite conclusion? If economics consists of an art of choosing the right model for each task, in what sense can economists' conclusions be falsified?
I cannot hope to answer such criticisms. However, examining the forecastability of models offers a rigorous counter-attack to people who demand predictions from economic models. If we can show that non-forecastable models generate the sort of forecast errors that we see when we attempt to make forecasts in the real world, we can then argue that the best approximation to the real world consists of models that cannot be used in forecasting. (The conclusions may be less nihilistic: we may be able to say when the models work, and when they do not.)
My intuition about this is derived from the literary criticisms of mathematical modeling from the post-Keynesian tradition. In my view, the key to advancement is to pin down the mathematical properties of the models that make them non-forecastable.
Next StepsSo far, my discussion of forecastability has been mainly literary. It is acting as an introduction to the more mathematical analysis that I hope to produce. There may be an elegant way of summarising my views mathematically, but I do not yet see such a summary. Instead, we will need to plod through some mathematical models, and examine the properties of the forecast errors that they produce. Even if there is no elegant theorem at the end of this, we will have a test bed of examples that give a new view on modelling problems.
As a spoiler for my upcoming discussion of an example, it seems to me that economists have grown so accustomed to the failure of mathematical models of the economy, they tend to not consider what would happen if a mathematical model is correct. They (and others, particularly physicists) want to compare themselves to physics, when the modelling problems are much closer to engineering. In engineering, we are habituated to a mixture of success and failure of theoretical models. In particular, engineers are habituated to seeing models that should work based on fundamental physics fail, yet ugly seat-of-pants approximations work perfectly fine. In any event, when confronted with a mathematical model of the economy, the better question would be to ask: what would happen if this is the correct model, instead of just looking for a statistical test to reject it.
(c) Brian Romanchuk 2018