The recession America was expecting never showed up.
Many economists spent early 2023 predicting a painful downturn, a view so widely held that some commentators started to treat it as a given. Inflation had spiked to the highest level in decades, and a range of forecasters thought that it would take a drop in demand and a prolonged jump in unemployment to wrestle it down.
Instead, the economy grew 3.1 percent last year, up from less than 1 percent in 2022 and faster than the average for the five years leading up to the pandemic. Inflation has retreated substantially. Unemployment remains at historic lows, and consumers continue to spend even with Federal Reserve interest rates at a 22-year high.
The divide between doomsday predictions and the heyday reality is forcing a reckoning on Wall Street and in academia. Why did economists get so much wrong, and what can policymakers learn from those mistakes as they try to anticipate what might come next?
It’s early days to draw firm conclusions. The economy could still slow down as two years of Fed rate increases start to add up. But what is clear is that old models of how growth and inflation relate did not serve as accurate guides. Bad luck drove more of the initial burst of inflation than some economists appreciated. Good luck helped to lower it again, and other surprises have hit along the way.
“It’s not like we understood the macro economy perfectly before, and this was a pretty unique time,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard economist and former Obama administration economic official who thought that lowering inflation would require higher unemployment. “Economists can learn a huge, healthy dose of humility.”
Economists, of course, have a long history of getting their predictions wrong. Few saw the global financial crisis coming earlier this century, even once the mortgage meltdown that set it off was well underway.