Thoughts from the Frontline: Assume a Perfect World

John Mauldin |
An engineer, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on a deserted island. They are starving, when miraculously they find a box filled with canned food. What to do? They consider the problem, bringing their collective lifetimes of study and discipline to the task.Being the practical, straightforward sort, the engineer suggests that they simply find a rock and hit the cans until they break open. “No, no!” cry the chemist and economist, “we would spill too much food and the birds would get it!”

After a bit of thought, the chemist recommends that they start a fire and heat the cans. The pressure in the cans will force them open and the food will conveniently already be heated. But the engineer and economist object, pointing out correctly that the cans would likely explode and splatter the food all over the beach.

The economist, after carefully studying the cans and reading the labels, starts scrawling a series of equations in the sand, which eventually cover the entire beach. After much pondering, he excitedly announces, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” as he points to the final equation. They ask him to explain, with their visions of finally getting a meal causing them to regard the economist with a new sense of respect.

The economist clears his throat and begins, “First, assume a can opener …”

I am not sure how old that joke is, but it dates to about the time when economists discovered mathematics and models, which is to say, about the time when economists developed physics envy and decided they would like to be regarded as scientists rather than philosophers. This week we continue to look at the data and models developed by economists, with a view to understanding both their usefulness and their limitations. The specific data we will examine this week is inspired by the release of the President’s FY 2014 US budget proposal this week. While it and the House and Senate budget proposals may appear to be widely divergent, there are some underlying and quite disturbing similarities among them.

Specifically, all three proposals assume away the real world. It does not matter which version you prefer; they all lack the basic precautions and hedges that those of us involved with preparing family and business budgets make sure to include in our own forecasts. While whole books could be written about the underlying assumptions in these latest budget proposals, we will examine (hopefully briefly) just a few of the more glaringly problematic ones.

Assume a Perfect World

Like our castaways with their abundance of canned food but no can opener, a US budget forecaster is faced with the problem of predicting the fiscal future of a very large, very real economic system, but without a crystal ball. And as we saw last week, economists are not particularly good at telling us what happened in the year that just passed, let alone in the year to come. (And we often see national budgets that presume to extend out for ten years or more.)

The basic challenge is pretty simple. There is a need to forecast revenues and expenses. Expenses are the more straightforward of the two. Most government expenses are line items in a budget. “We project we will spend $5 billion a year fixing roads and bridges, $1 billion on our national parks, $925 billion on defense, etc.” Social Security, too, is straightforward. Healthcare involves a lot of guestimates, and unemployment costs go up and down with the economy.

Revenues are a bit trickier. Income tax revenues obviously go up and down with incomes, as do corporate taxes and Social Security and Medicare taxes. If there is a recession, revenues will fall. If you get an economic boom, then revenues could turn out better than projected. I think I remember some economists predicting in the mid-’90s that the rest of the decade would be flat or trend down – we had a boom. In the middle of the last decade I predicted a Muddle Through Economy, which to me meant 2% GDP growth, down from the average of 3% we had experienced for decades. Two percent turns out to have been slightly optimistic, although I remember more than a few people telling me I was just too bearish. I would be very happy if we could manage 2% average growth for the current decade. As I wrote a few months ago (here and here), there are several respected forecasters, including Jeremy Grantham and Robert Gordon, who think 1% (or less!) is more likely.

Last year we were at a real inflation-adjusted growth rate of 1.7%. Nominal growth of 3.5% for 2012 was the lowest since the end of WWII. So what do our intrepid budget forecasters predict for the next ten years? Not content to project that current trends will persist, they have whipped on their rose-colored glasses to deliver us bright promises of spectacular growth.

David Malpass writes Thursday in the Wall Street Journal that Obama’s 2013 budget projections make a prediction of 3.6% growth by 2016, with tax revenues up by 50%. But Obama may seem to be conservative if we look at the projections of the Congressional Budget Office.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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