The Bank of England has admitted to a Michael Fish moment - but economists have plenty to learn from weather forecasters

 
Andrew Cave
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Storm Doris Arrives In The UK
As Storm Doris sweeps across the UK, what are the parallels between weather and economic forecasting? (Source: Getty)

So British economists are like the nation's most notorious weatherman when it comes to Brexit? That's what the Bank of England (BoE) has reasserted before the Commons Treasury Select Committee.

The nation's number crunchers, said BoE chief economist Andy Haldane, mostly thought Britain's economy would crumble and growth would go into reverse following a Yes vote in last year's EU referendum.

Despite a savaging of the pound and a jolt to markets, neither happened and the FTSE100 index recovered to post a new record high. Growth forecasts are still respectable. So far at least, the economists got it wrong.

Cue Haldane's meteorological metaphor, digging up the Michael Fish weather forecasting horror show of October 1987, just as it approaches its 30th anniversary.

"It wasn't me after all"

Anyone over voting age at the time knows what happened. BBC weatherman Fish, perhaps as familiar to viewers in that era of four TV channels as, say, Graham Norton is now, made a joke about a caller who had asked if her son would be safe from a hurricane approaching Florida.

The storms would miss her location, he said, adding that there were some mighty breezes over Europe too and that Spain would have a windy time.

But the Spanish wind was diverted north, the eye of the storm instead settled on Hastings, East Sussex and 18 people were killed across southern England in a tempest that felled 15 million trees, blocked roads and railways, caused a ferry to run aground and cut off electricity and telephone services for days.

Fish was vilified, though he has since made a decent fist of laughing it off. His website contains a link to the fateful broadcast, as well as recommending "Michael Fish forecast" coffee mugs and retro fridge magnets. Now semi-retired, he calls himself Michael "Hurricane" Fish, does after-dinner speeches and took part in the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics. Aged 72, he still records a weekly online weather forecast.

He still takes issue with how he was characterised back in October 1987, however. His website says the forecast was "misreported" at the time and links to a press cutting of the official Met Office inquiry into the handling of the hurricane forecast under the caption: "See. It wasn't me after all."

I met Fish over dinner a few years ago and he was adamant that his recorded weather programme has been edited, amalgamating the storm that did not reach Florida with the one that hit Britain. Some 20 years after the affair, he still seemed mortified.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the affair in 2012, he penned an article attempting to put the record straight. "Yes, I did say: 'Don’t worry, a hurricane is not on the way,' in an earlier broadcast," he stated, "but I was talking about Florida and I went on to say: 'batten down the hatches. There’s some very windy weather on the way'. Clear enough, except for the press! Florida did not get a hurricane either, and our ‘storm’ wasn’t a hurricane."

Fish, who accepts that the 1987 forecast will be engraved on his tombstone, also holds that the Met Office did no worse than any other national metereological forecasting service in not anticipating the storm."

Read more: Why economic forecasting is the easiest job out there

Big improvements

In the aftermath of Storm Doris , it's maybe worth reflecting again on the real connection between this unfortunate meteorologist and the pre-emptive angst of economic weather-watchers.

Haldane defended his choice of metaphor at the Treasury Committee hearing, saying the 1987 forecasting blunder was selected because it had a happy ending, as the accuracy of weather forecasting has since improved. The BofE's own forecasting has also made "big improvements" since the financial crisis of 2008, he stressed, and while more forecasting errors were likely or possible, they should not occur on the same scale as before.

That's about as far as the analogy goes. Weather and economic forecasting are both still a combination of art and science.

Fish was reassuring in the face of an imminent disaster; the too-gloomy economists predicted a perfect storm that has still to arrive.

"Our models are just not that good"

Yet Britain's weather is still famously changeable and economics continues to work in cycles. There will be more adverse meteorological events and recessions. The skies will still open and busts will still follow booms.

Will one arrive happen by the end of March 2019, Theresa May's supposed date for Britain to leave the EU? Could electoral events in The Netherlands, France and Germany see it make an appearance sooner? Could Donald Trump have an impact?

The Bank of England doesn't know. "We are not going to forecast the next financial crisis; we are not going to forecast the next economic recession. Our models are just not that good," Gertjan Vlighe, a member of its Monetary Policy Committee, told MPs.

Funnily enough, Fish has a similar view of weather forecasting. "This was a rare event," he stated of the 1987 storm. "Nothing like it had occurred since 7-8 December 1703. There were also comparable storms on 28 February 1662 and 23 January 1362. This was a one-in-300 years event that shook everyone. But another severe storm swept across England on 25th January 1990 - just 27 months later."

With completely accurate long and even mid-range forecasting currently beyond the capability of either profession, maybe the Bank of England would do best to leave this one alone.

All manner of meteorological and economic weather could arrive before Britain ever leaves the EU.

Let's leave the judgments until then. And for heavens sake, three decades on from his personal nadir, let's give poor old Michael Fish a break.

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