Economics in Denial

PARIS – In an exasperated outburst, just before he left the presidency of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet complained that, “as a policymaker during the crisis, I found the available [economic and financial] models of limited help. In fact, I would go further: in the face of the crisis, we felt abandoned by conventional tools.”

Trichet went on to appeal for inspiration from other disciplines – physics, engineering, psychology, and biology – to help explain the phenomena he had experienced. It was a remarkable cry for help, and a serious indictment of the economics profession, not to mention all those extravagantly rewarded finance professors in business schools from Harvard to Hyderabad.

So far, relatively little help has been forthcoming from the engineers and physicists in whom Trichet placed his faith, though there has been some response. Robert May, an eminent climate change expert, has argued that techniques from his discipline may help explain financial-market developments. Epidemiologists have suggested that the study of how infectious diseases are propagated may illuminate the unusual patterns of financial contagion that we have seen in the last five years.

These are fertile fields for future study, but what of the core disciplines of economics and finance themselves? Can nothing be done to make them more useful in explaining the world as it is, rather than as it is assumed to be in their stylized models?