Why can't we predict economic crises before they happen?

In fact, some people view the recent crisis as just another “black swan event,” one of those outliers, as popularized by Nassim Taleb, that come out of the blue. And it’s clear that a lot of smart people simply didn’t see the housing bubble, the instability of our financial sector or the shock that came in 2007 and 2008.

But the theory of outlier events doesn’t actually say that they cannot eventually be predicted. Many of them can be, if the right questions are asked and we use new and better data. Hurricanes, for example, were once black-swan events. Now we can forecast their likely formation and path pretty well, enough to significantly reduce the loss of life.

Such predictions are a crucial challenge in economics, too, and they are why data collection need not be a dull or a routine field. If done correctly, it can be very revealing. The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 created a Financial Stability Oversight Council with a research arm, the Office of Financial Research, to help confront systemic risks. Perhaps these new organizations will improve our knowledge, mirroring the progress we have seen with hurricanes.