Economics = Economic science + economic engineering + economic management

One thing which I really miss in this crisis is the speeches by Bernanke (especially be Bernanke) where he explained key economic concepts and policies. Earlier such speeches were pretty common. Now they are rare (very rare) with most speeches on economic outlook and crisis.

Ok so this is one such rare speech. He speaks at Princeton University (his homeground) and talks like a professor (and not Chairman Bernanke). He says:

Although economists have much to learn from this crisis, as I will discuss, I think that calls for a radical reworking of the field go too far. In particular, it seems to me that current critiques of economics sometimes conflate three overlapping yet separate enterprises, which, for the purposes of my remarks today, I will call economic science, economic engineering, and economic management. Economic science concerns itself primarily with theoretical and empirical generalizations about the behavior of individuals, institutions, markets, and national economies. Most academic research falls in this category. Economic engineering is about the design and analysis of frameworks for achieving specific economic objectives. Examples of such frameworks are the risk-management systems of financial institutions and the financial regulatory systems of the United States and other countries. Economic management involves the operation of economic frameworks in real time–for example, in the private sector, the management of complex financial institutions or, in the public sector, the day-to-day supervision of those institutions.

With that taxonomy in hand, I would argue that the recent financial crisis was more a failure of economic engineering and economic management than of what I have called economic science. The economic engineering problems were reflected in a number of structural weaknesses in our financial system. In the private sector, these weaknesses included inadequate risk-measurement and risk-management systems at many financial firms as well as shortcomings in some firms’ business models, such as overreliance on unstable short-term funding and excessive leverage. In the public sector, gaps and blind spots in the financial regulatory structures of the United States and most other countries proved particularly damaging. These regulatory structures were designed for earlier eras and did not adequately adapt to rapid change and innovation in the financial sector, such as the increasing financial intermediation taking place outside of regulated depository institutions through the so-called shadow banking system.

In the realm of economic management, the leaders of financial firms, market participants, and government policymakers either did not recognize important structural problems and emerging risks or, when they identified them, did not respond sufficiently quickly or forcefully to address them. Shortcomings of what I have called economic science, in contrast, were for the most part less central to the crisis; indeed, although the great majority of economists did not foresee the near-collapse of the financial system, economic analysis has proven and will continue to prove critical in understanding the crisis, in developing policies to contain it, and in designing longer-term solutions to prevent its recurrence.

This is an interesting explanation and is quite true as well. Economics remains the same and basics apply everywhere and anywhere.  It is how we design economic systems and manage it which matters.

He then explains how economics helps understand this crisis. Though there were gaps and we did not understand the linkages between housing, finance and macroeconomics. Still we can understand the crisis by reading literature on bank runs (though run happened on i-banks broad idea was similar), information economics (this is interestign as few refer to this branch of economics) etc.

He then points to areas where economic research is needed. I am not covering everything so here is his summary:

In short, the financial crisis did not discredit the usefulness of economic research and analysis by any means; indeed, both older and more recent ideas drawn from economic research have proved invaluable to policymakers attempting to diagnose and respond to the financial crisis. However, the crisis has raised some important questions that are already occupying researchers and should continue to do so. As I have discussed today, more work is needed on the behavior of economic agents in times of profound uncertainty; on asset price bubbles and the determinants of market liquidity; and on the implications of financial factors, including financial instability, for macroeconomics and monetary policy. Much of that work is already under way at the Bendheim center and in the Department of Economics here at Princeton.

Interesting to see him advocate behavioral economics. Let me expand on this:

Most fundamentally, and perhaps most challenging for researchers, the crisis should motivate economists to think further about their modeling of human behavior. Most economic researchers continue to work within the classical paradigm that assumes rational, self-interested behavior and the maximization of “expected utility”–a framework based on a formal description of risky situations and a theory of individual choice that has been very useful through its integration of economics, statistics, and decision theory.9 An important assumption of that framework is that, in making decisions under uncertainty, economic agents can assign meaningful probabilities to alternative outcomes. However, during the worst phase of the financial crisis, many economic actors–including investors, employers, and consumers–metaphorically threw up their hands and admitted that, given the extreme and, in some ways, unprecedented nature of the crisis, they did not know what they did not know. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, there were too many “unknown unknowns.” The profound uncertainty associated with the “unknown unknowns” during the crisis resulted in panicky selling by investors, sharp cuts in payrolls by employers, and significant increases in households’ precautionary saving.

The idea that, at certain times, decisionmakers simply cannot assign meaningful probabilities to alternative outcomes–indeed, cannot even think of all the possible outcomes–is known as Knightian uncertainty, after the economist Frank Knight who discussed the idea in the 1920s. Although economists and psychologists have long recognized the challenges such ambiguity presents and have analyzed the distinction between risk aversion and ambiguity aversion, much of this work has been abstract and relatively little progress has been made in describing and predicting the behavior of human beings under circumstances in which their knowledge and experience provide little useful information.10 Research in this area could aid our understanding of crises and other extreme situations. I suspect that progress will require careful empirical research with attention to psychological as well as economic factors.

As I keep saying interesting times ahead for PhD scholars. There is such exciting work to do!

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