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Consumer Surveys

Mises Daily: Thursday, December 07, 2000 by

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Frank Shostak

To gain an insight into the economic future, many economists follow a variety of consumer and business surveys. In these surveys, randomly selected consumers and businessmen are asked to provide their views about where the economy is heading.

If a survey shows that the majority are optimistic, this is supposed to be good news for the economy. Conversely if the majority of the surveyed are pessimistic it is seen as a bad omen for the future.

Is it valid to assume that surveys can tell us where the economy is heading? To some extent, these surveys can be a useful guide to reveal public expectations of the future. But the knowledge we can acquire from looking at them is limited because neither businesses nor consumers, as individuals or groups, are omniscient.

People’s expectations of the future, for example, can be warped by false signals stemming from government intervention.  There is no necessary reason why should we regard an opinion supported by a large percentage of people as any more credible than the view of any particular individual. Predicting the future is an entrepreneurial function, and entrepreneurs can be and often are wrong.  

Defenders of these survey argue as follows. Knowledge regarding future economic conditions is dispersed, so the chances of any one particular individual obtaining an accurate picture of the economy are very low. A large group of people selected randomly is therefore likely to yield the most accurate picture possible.

It is quite possible that a group of people will have in its possession a greater quantity of information than any given individual. However, more information does not necessarily mean the information will be qualitatively more accurate. To separate the wheat from the chaff, the information must be processed by means of a theoretical framework.

Whether a forecast  "makes sense" is determined not only by the amount of information available but also whether a theory, or thinking process, is in tune with reality. So long as the individuals surveyed haven't disclosed the theories behind their views, there is no compelling reason to regard various confidence or sentiment surveys as the basis for an accurate assessment of the future state of an economy. 

All economic forecasts of the future are based, in whole or in part, on historical data. The past knowledge of individuals that was instrumental in determining their past actions shapes and constrains individuals’ future values and know-how, thereby influencing future actions[1].  If it were otherwise, and the past didn’t have any effect on the future, a world of chaos would exist, where economic advancement wouldn’t take place. If the future is not related to the past, knowledge today will be regarded as useless tomorrow.

But according to Mises the knowledge of the future can only be qualitative,

Economics can predict the effects to be expected from resorting to definite measures of economic policies. It can answer the question whether a definite policy is able to attain the ends aimed at and, if the answer is in the negative, what its real effects will be. But, of course, this prediction can be only "qualitative". It cannot be "quantitative" as there are no constant relations between the factors and effects concerned.[2]

Given the view that expectations are the key driving force of the economy many economists hold that "positive" thinking and large dosages of "good" news can prevent bad expectations from developing and hence a fall in economic activity. Individuals are seen as driven by a mysterious psychology that is  susceptible to wild swings. It then becomes crucial not to upset this psychology in order to keep the economy prosperous.

This is why when the economy falls into a recession, economists quoted by the press are often very guarded in their speech. On this Rothbard wrote,

After the disaster of 1929, economists and politicians resolved that this must never happen again. The easiest way of succeeding at this resolve was, simply to define "depression" out of existence. From that point on, America was to suffer no further depressions. For when the next sharp depression came along, in 1937-38, the economists simply refused to use the dread name, and came up with a new, much softer-sounding word: "recession". From that point on, we have been through quite a few recessions, but not a single depression.

But pretty soon the word "recession" also became too harsh for the delicate sensibilities of the American public. It now seems that we had our last recession in 1957-58. For since then, we have only "downturns", or, even better, "slowdowns", or "sideways movements". So be of good cheer, from now on, depressions and even recessions have been outlawed by the semantic fiat of economists; from now on, the worst that can possibly happen to us are "slowdowns". Such are the wonders of the "New Economics".[3]

Again, this gentle talk stems from the fear that harsh language will upset people's confidence. In short, if people’s confidence is kept stable then stable economic activity will follow.

But this view is entirely misguided. What matters is not the stability of expectations, but whether these expectations correspond to reality. What is to be gained if every individual has been brainwashed to believe that things are fine while in reality the economy is falling apart?

In a similar way, stable expectations are said imply economic stability, so  many economists strongly recommend that government and central bank policies must be "transparent." If policies are made known in advance surprises will be avoided and volatility will be reduced.

Let us assume that the government presents a plan to raise personal taxes. How can the mere fact that this plan is made known to everybody prevent an erosion of individual's living standards? Even if politicians could succeed in convincing people that the tax increase is good for them, they cannot alter the fact that individuals’ after tax incomes will be reduced. Or let’s say that the  central bank makes it public knowledge that it will dramatically increase the money supply. How can the simple publication of this information prevent capital consumption and the development of a boom-bust economic cycle?

Stable expectations can’t undo the damage caused by loose monetary policies or by higher taxes. Moreover, irrespective of whether individuals are successful in identifying the facts of reality, opinions about facts do not change the facts themselves.

If we have identified that people’s real incomes are declining, this is a fact of reality. Regardless of people's views and their confidence it is this fact that will force the decline in consumer outlays. The fall in consumer outlays is not caused by the fall in consumer confidence, as the popular thinking appears to have it, but by the fact that consumers can no longer afford the previous level of outlays. 

Consumer expectations do not emerge in a vacuum but are part and parcel of every individual’s evaluation process, which is based on his views regarding the real world. In a free and unhampered market economy, whenever individuals form expectations that run contrary to the facts of reality this sets in place incentives for a renewed evaluation and different actions. The market will not permit prolonged mistaken evaluations.

 Let us assume that as a result of incorrect evaluation too much capital was invested in the production of cars, and too little invested in the production of houses. The effect of the over-investment in the production of car is to depress profits, because the excessive quantity of cars can only be sold at prices that are low in relationship to costs that went into making them. The effect of under-investment in the production of houses on the other hand, will lift its price in relation to cost, and thus will raise its profit.

This process will lead to a withdrawal of capital from cars and a channeling of it toward houses, implying that if investment goes too far in one direction, and not far enough in another, counteracting forces of correction will be set in motion[4]. In other words, in a free market the facts of reality will assert their dominance fairly quickly through peoples’ evaluation and therefore their actions.

This is, however, not so in a distorted market economy. By enforcing their policies, governments and central banks can set a platform for a prolonged deviation of expectations from the facts of reality. However, neither the government nor the central bank can indefinitely defy these facts. A classical case of this is the artificial lowering of interest rates by the central bank that results in boom-bust cycles.

 We can conclude that in a free, unhampered market economy, individual’s  expectations will have a tendency to change in tandem with real market conditions. This is in contrast to a hampered economy where government and central bank policies give rise to expectations that are out of sync with reality. Furthermore, what matters is not whether government and central bank policies are transparent, but whether these policies hurt individual’s well being.

 The popular view, that by means of opinion surveys one can discern the future direction of an economy, is problematic. The fact that a large group of people has expressed an opinion regarding future economic conditions doesn’t make it more accurate than the view expressed by any particular individual.

What matters here is not how many people have participated in an opinion survey but the framework of thinking they have employed in backing up their views. As long as their framework of thinking is not disclosed we should ensure that we are not too swayed by various opinion surveys.

Notwithstanding their shortcomings, surveys can be quite useful for detailing the present state of consumer and business financial conditions. Businesses reporting about their own activities can shed light on what is going on in the economy. This data, together with information regarding government and central bank policies, can be of some, but limited, assistance in generating intelligent guesses of future economic conditions.

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Frank Shostak, PhD, is a frequent contributor to Mises.org. Send him MAIL and see his outstanding Mises.org Archive. The author wishes to express his gratitude to Graham Talbot for helpful comments



[1] Hans-Hermann Hoppe  "On Certainty and Uncertainty, Or: How Rational Can Our Expectations Be?" Review Of Austrian Economics 10, no. 1 (1997): p 75

[2] ibid p 67

[3] Murray N. Rothbard, "Economic Depressions: Their Cause and Cure", Mises Institute p 65-66.

[4] George Reisman, The Government Against the Economy (Ottawa, ILL.:Janeson Books, 1985), p 5