The Economist Oct 23rd 2021
DOES ANYONE really understand what is going on in the world economy? The pandemic has made plenty of observers look clueless. Few predicted $80 oil, let alone fleets of container ships waiting outside Californian and Chinese ports. As covid-19 let rip in 2020, forecasters overestimated how high unemployment would be by the end of the year. Today prices are rising faster than expected and nobody is sure if inflation and wages will spiral upward. For all their equations and theories, economists are often fumbling in the dark, with too little information to pick the policies that would maximise jobs and growth.
Yet, as we report this week, the age of bewilderment is starting to give way to greater enlightenment. The world is on the brink of a real-time revolution in economics, as the quality and timeliness of information are transformed. Big firms from Amazon to Netflix already use instant data to monitor grocery deliveries and how many people are glued to “Squid Game”. The pandemic has led governments and central banks to experiment, from monitoring restaurant bookings to tracking card payments. The results are still rudimentary, but as digital devices, sensors and fast payments become ubiquitous, the ability to observe the economy accurately and speedily will improve. That holds open the promise of better public-sector decision-making—as well as the temptation for governments to meddle.
The desire for better economic data is hardly new. America’s GNP estimates date to 1934 and initially came with a 13-month time lag. In the 1950s a young Alan Greenspan monitored freight-car traffic to arrive at early estimates of steel production. Ever since Walmart pioneered supply-chain management in the 1980s private-sector bosses have seen timely data as a source of competitive advantage. But the public sector has been slow to reform how it works. The official figures that economists track—think of GDP or employment—come with lags of weeks or months and are often revised dramatically. Productivity takes years to calculate accurately. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that central banks are flying blind.
Bad and late data can lead to policy errors that cost millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in lost output. The financial crisis would have been a lot less harmful had the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to near zero in December 2007, when America entered recession, rather than in December 2008, when economists at last saw it in the numbers. Patchy data about a vast informal economy and rotten banks have made it harder for India’s policymakers to end their country’s lost decade of low growth. The European Central Bank wrongly raised interest rates in 2011 amid a temporary burst of inflation, sending the euro area back into recession. The Bank of England may be about to make a similar mistake today.
The pandemic has, however, become a catalyst for change. Without the time to wait for official surveys to reveal the effects of the virus or lockdowns, governments and central banks have experimented, tracking mobile phones, contactless payments and the real-time use of aircraft engines. Instead of locking themselves in their studies for years writing the next “General Theory”, today’s star economists, such as Raj Chetty at Harvard University, run well-staffed labs that crunch numbers. Firms such as JPMorgan Chase have opened up treasure chests of data on bank balances and credit-card bills, helping reveal whether people are spending cash or hoarding it.
These trends will intensify as technology permeates the economy. A larger share of spending is shifting online and transactions are being processed faster. Real-time payments grew by 41% in 2020, according to McKinsey, a consultancy (India registered 25.6bn such transactions). More machines and objects are being fitted with sensors, including individual shipping containers that could make sense of supply-chain blockages. Govcoins, or central-bank digital currencies (CBDCs), which China is already piloting and over 50 other countries are considering, might soon provide a goldmine of real-time detail about how the economy works.
Timely data would cut the risk of policy cock-ups—it would be easier to judge, say, if a dip in activity was becoming a slump. And the levers governments can pull will improve, too. Central bankers reckon it takes 18 months or more for a change in interest rates to take full effect. But Hong Kong is trying out cash handouts in digital wallets that expire if they are not spent quickly. CBDCs might allow interest rates to fall deeply negative. Good data during crises could let support be precisely targeted; imagine loans only for firms with robust balance-sheets but a temporary liquidity problem. Instead of wasteful universal welfare payments made through social-security bureaucracies, the poor could enjoy instant income top-ups if they lost their job, paid into digital wallets without any paperwork.
The real-time revolution promises to make economic decisions more accurate, transparent and rules-based. But it also brings dangers. New indicators may be misinterpreted: is a global recession starting or is Uber just losing market share? They are not as representative or free from bias as the painstaking surveys by statistical agencies. Big firms could hoard data, giving them an undue advantage. Private firms such as Facebook, which launched a digital wallet this week, may one day have more insight into consumer spending than the Fed does.
The biggest danger is hubris. With a panopticon of the economy, it will be tempting for politicians and officials to imagine they can see far into the future, or to mould society according to their preferences and favour particular groups. This is the dream of the Chinese Communist Party, which seeks to engage in a form of digital central planning.
In fact no amount of data can reliably predict the future. Unfathomably complex, dynamic economies rely not on Big Brother but on the spontaneous behaviour of millions of independent firms and consumers. Instant economics isn’t about clairvoyance or omniscience. Instead its promise is prosaic but transformative: better, timelier and more rational decision-making. ■
Enter third-wave economics
Oct 23rd 2021
AS PART OF his plan for socialism in the early 1970s, Salvador Allende created Project Cybersyn. The Chilean president’s idea was to offer bureaucrats unprecedented insight into the country’s economy. Managers would feed information from factories and fields into a central database. In an operations room bureaucrats could see if production was rising in the metals sector but falling on farms, or what was happening to wages in mining. They would quickly be able to analyse the impact of a tweak to regulations or production quotas.
Cybersyn never got off the ground. But something curiously similar has emerged in Salina, a small city in Kansas. Salina311, a local paper, has started publishing a “community dashboard” for the area, with rapid-fire data on local retail prices, the number of job vacancies and more—in effect, an electrocardiogram of the economy.
What is true in Salina is true for a growing number of national governments. When the pandemic started last year bureaucrats began studying dashboards of “high-frequency” data, such as daily airport passengers and hour-by-hour credit-card-spending. In recent weeks they have turned to new high-frequency sources, to get a better sense of where labour shortages are worst or to estimate which commodity price is next in line to soar. Economists have seized on these new data sets, producing a research boom (see chart 1). In the process, they are influencing policy as never before.
This fast-paced economics involves three big changes. First, it draws on data that are not only abundant but also directly relevant to real-world problems. When policymakers are trying to understand what lockdowns do to leisure spending they look at live restaurant reservations; when they want to get a handle on supply-chain bottlenecks they look at day-by-day movements of ships. Troves of timely, granular data are to economics what the microscope was to biology, opening a new way of looking at the world.
Second, the economists using the data are keener on influencing public policy. More of them do quick-and-dirty research in response to new policies. Academics have flocked to Twitter to engage in debate.
And, third, this new type of economics involves little theory. Practitioners claim to let the information speak for itself. Raj Chetty, a Harvard professor and one of the pioneers, has suggested that controversies between economists should be little different from disagreements among doctors about whether coffee is bad for you: a matter purely of evidence. All this is causing controversy among dismal scientists, not least because some, such as Mr Chetty, have done better from the shift than others: a few superstars dominate the field.
Their emerging discipline might be called “third wave” economics. The first wave emerged with Adam Smith and the “Wealth of Nations”, published in 1776. Economics mainly involved books or papers written by one person, focusing on some big theoretical question. Smith sought to tear down the monopolistic habits of 18th-century Europe. In the 20th century John Maynard Keynes wanted people to think differently about the government’s role in managing the economic cycle. Milton Friedman aimed to eliminate many of the responsibilities that politicians, following Keynes’s ideas, had arrogated to themselves.
All three men had a big impact on policies—as late as 1850 Smith was quoted 30 times in Parliament—but in a diffuse way. Data were scarce. Even by the 1970s more than half of economics papers focused on theory alone, suggests a study published in 2012 by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist.
That changed with the second wave of economics. By 2011 purely theoretical papers accounted for only 19% of publications. The growth of official statistics gave wonks more data to work with. More powerful computers made it easier to spot patterns and ascribe causality (this year’s Nobel prize was awarded for the practice of identifying cause and effect). The average number of authors per paper rose, as the complexity of the analysis increased (see chart 2). Economists had greater involvement in policy: rich-world governments began using cost-benefit analysis for infrastructure decisions from the 1950s.
Second-wave economics nonetheless remained constrained by data. Most national statistics are published with lags of months or years. “The traditional government statistics weren’t really all that helpful—by the time they came out, the data were stale,” says Michael Faulkender, an assistant treasury secretary in Washington at the start of the pandemic. The quality of official local economic data is mixed, at best; they do a poor job of covering the housing market and consumer spending. National statistics came into being at a time when the average economy looked more industrial, and less service-based, than it does now. The Standard Industrial Classification, introduced in 1937-38 and still in use with updates, divides manufacturing into 24 subsections, but the entire financial industry into just three.
The mists of time
Especially in times of rapid change, policymakers have operated in a fog. “If you look at the data right now…we are not in what would normally be characterised as a recession,” argued Edward Lazear, then chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, in May 2008. Five months later, after Lehman Brothers had collapsed, the IMF noted that America was “not necessarily” heading for a deep recession. In fact America had entered a recession in December 2007. In 2007-09 there was no surge in economics publications. Economists’ recommendations for policy were mostly based on judgment, theory and a cursory reading of national statistics.
The gap between official data and what is happening in the real economy can still be glaring. Walk around a Walmart in Kansas and many items, from pet food to bottled water, are in short supply. Yet some national statistics fail to show such problems. Dean Baker of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, using official data, points out that American real inventories, excluding cars and farm products, are barely lower than before the pandemic.
There were hints of an economics third wave before the pandemic. Some economists were finding new, extremely detailed streams of data, such as anonymised tax records and location information from mobile phones. The analysis of these giant data sets requires the creation of what are in effect industrial labs, teams of economists who clean and probe the numbers. Susan Athey, a trailblazer in applying modern computational methods in economics, has 20 or so non-faculty researchers at her Stanford lab (Mr Chetty’s team boasts similar numbers). Of the 20 economists with the most cited new work during the pandemic, three run industrial labs.
More data sprouted from firms. Visa and Square record spending patterns, Apple and Google track movements, and security companies know when people go in and out of buildings. “Computers are in the middle of every economic arrangement, so naturally things are recorded,” says Jon Levin of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Jamie Dimon, the boss of JPMorgan Chase, a bank, is an unlikely hero of the emergence of third-wave economics. In 2015 he helped set up an institute at his bank which tapped into data from its network to analyse questions about consumer finances and small businesses.
The Brexit referendum of June 2016 was the first big event when real-time data were put to the test. The British government and investors needed to get a sense of this unusual shock long before Britain’s official GDP numbers came out. They scraped web pages for telltale signs such as restaurant reservations and the number of supermarkets offering discounts—and concluded, correctly, that though the economy was slowing, it was far from the catastrophe that many forecasters had predicted.
Real-time data might have remained a niche pursuit for longer were it not for the pandemic. Chinese firms have long produced granular high-frequency data on everything from cinema visits to the number of glasses of beer that people are drinking daily. Beer-and-movie statistics are a useful cross-check against sometimes dodgy official figures. China-watchers turned to them in January 2020, when lockdowns began in Hubei province. The numbers showed that the world’s second-largest economy was heading for a slump. And they made it clear to economists elsewhere how useful such data could be.
Vast and fast
In the early days of the pandemic Google started releasing anonymised data on people’s physical movements; this has helped researchers produce a day-by-day measure of the severity of lockdowns (see chart 3). OpenTable, a booking platform, started publishing daily information on restaurant reservations. America’s Census Bureau quickly introduced a weekly survey of households, asking them questions ranging from their employment status to whether they could afford to pay the rent.
In May 2020 Jose Maria Barrero, Nick Bloom and Steven Davis, three economists, began a monthly survey of American business practices and work habits. Working-age Americans are paid to answer questions on how often they plan to visit the office, say, or how they would prefer to greet a work colleague. “People often complete a survey during their lunch break,” says Mr Bloom, of Stanford University. “They sit there with a sandwich, answer some questions, and that pays for their lunch.”
Demand for research to understand a confusing economic situation jumped. The first analysis of America’s $600 weekly boost to unemployment insurance, implemented in March 2020, was published in weeks. The British government knew by October 2020 that a scheme to subsidise restaurant attendance in August 2020 had probably boosted covid infections. Many apparently self-evident things about the pandemic—that the economy collapsed in March 2020, that the poor have suffered more than the rich, or that the shift to working from home is turning out better than expected—only seem obvious because of rapid-fire economic research.
It is harder to quantify the policy impact. Some economists scoff at the notion that their research has influenced politicians’ pandemic response. Many studies using real-time data suggested that the Paycheck Protection Programme, an effort to channel money to American small firms, was doing less good than hoped. Yet small-business lobbyists ensured that politicians did not get rid of it for months. Tyler Cowen, of George Mason University, points out that the most significant contribution of economists during the pandemic involved recommending early pledges to buy vaccines—based on older research, not real-time data.
Still, Mr Faulkender says that the special support for restaurants that was included in America’s stimulus was influenced by a weak recovery in the industry seen in the OpenTable data. Research by Mr Chetty in early 2021 found that stimulus cheques sent in December boosted spending by lower-income households, but not much for richer households. He claims this informed the decision to place stronger income limits on the stimulus cheques sent in March.
Shaping the economic conversation
As for the Federal Reserve, in May 2020 the Dallas and New York regional Feds and James Stock, a Harvard economist, created an activity index using data from SafeGraph, a data provider that tracks mobility using mobile-phone pings. The St Louis Fed used data from Homebase to track employment numbers daily. Both showed shortfalls of economic activity in advance of official data. This led the Fed to communicate its doveish policy stance faster.
Speedy data also helped frame debate. Everyone realised the world was in a deep recession much sooner than they had in 2007-09. In the IMF’s overviews of the global economy in 2009, 40% of the papers cited had been published in 2008-09. In the overview published in October 2020, by contrast, over half the citations were for papers published that year.
The third wave of economics has been better for some practitioners than others. As lockdowns began, many male economists found themselves at home with no teaching responsibilities and more time to do research. Female ones often picked up the slack of child care. A paper in Covid Economics, a rapid-fire journal, finds that female authors accounted for 12% of economics working-paper submissions during the pandemic, compared with 20% before. Economists lucky enough to have researched topics before the pandemic which became hot, from home-working to welfare policy, were suddenly in demand.
There are also deeper shifts in the value placed on different sorts of research. The Economist has examined rankings of economists from IDEAS RePEC, a database of research, and citation data from Google Scholar. We divided economists into three groups: “lone wolves” (who publish with less than one unique co-author per paper on average); “collaborators” (those who tend to work with more than one unique co-author per paper, usually two to four people); and “lab leaders” (researchers who run a large team of dedicated assistants). We then looked at the top ten economists for each as measured by RePEC author rankings for the past ten years.
Collaborators performed far ahead of the other two groups during the pandemic (see chart 4). Lone wolves did worst: working with large data sets benefits from a division of labour. Why collaborators did better than lab leaders is less clear. They may have been more nimble in working with those best suited for the problems at hand; lab leaders are stuck with a fixed group of co-authors and assistants.
The most popular types of research highlight another aspect of the third wave: its usefulness for business. Scott Baker, another economist, and Messrs Bloom and Davis—three of the top four authors during the pandemic compared with the year before—are all “collaborators” and use daily newspaper data to study markets. Their uncertainty index has been used by hedge funds to understand the drivers of asset prices. The research by Messrs Bloom and Davis on working from home has also gained attention from businesses seeking insight on the transition to remote work.
But does it work in theory?
Not everyone likes where the discipline is going. When economists say that their fellows are turning into data scientists, it is not meant as a compliment. A kinder interpretation is that the shift to data-heavy work is correcting a historical imbalance. “The most important problem with macro over the past few decades has been that it has been too theoretical,” says Jón Steinsson of the University of California, Berkeley, in an essay published in July. A better balance with data improves theory. Half of the recent Nobel prize went for the application of new empirical methods to labour economics; the other half was for the statistical theory around such methods.
Some critics question the quality of many real-time sources. High-frequency data are less accurate at estimating levels (for example, the total value of GDP) than they are at estimating changes, and in particular turning-points (such as when growth turns into recession). In a recent review of real-time indicators Samuel Tombs of Pantheon Macroeconomics, a consultancy, pointed out that OpenTable data tended to exaggerate the rebound in restaurant attendance last year.
Others have worries about the new incentives facing economists. Researchers now race to post a working paper with America’s National Bureau of Economic Research in order to stake their claim to an area of study or to influence policymakers. The downside is that consumers of fast-food academic research often treat it as if it is as rigorous as the slow-cooked sort—papers which comply with the old-fashioned publication process involving endless seminars and peer review. A number of papers using high-frequency data which generated lots of clicks, including one which claimed that a motorcycle rally in South Dakota had caused a spike in covid cases, have since been called into question.
Whatever the concerns, the pandemic has given economists a new lease of life. During the Chilean coup of 1973 members of the armed forces broke into Cybersyn’s operations room and smashed up the slides of graphs—not only because it was Allende’s creation, but because the idea of an electrocardiogram of the economy just seemed a bit weird. Third-wave economics is still unusual, but ever less odd. ■