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World: As 2002 Approaches, Prognosticators And Analysts Look To The Future

  • Kathleen Moore

It's that time of the year, when pundits and forecasters look into the future to predict what's in store for the next 12 months. But since one of the defining moments of 2001 -- the 11 September attacks -- was beyond most people's imaginations, is there any real point in trying to look into the crystal ball? And what impact, if any, has 11 September had on the people whose business it is to make predictions?

Prague, 28 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Some predictions for the year 2002 include: The world economy will grow a fraction; the euro will quickly become a second currency in countries outside its zone; and it will take the U.S. a year to catch terror suspect Osama bin Laden.

Those are the views, at least, of the International Monetary Fund (IMF); Germany's finance minister; and Taiwanese astrologer Yu Hsue-hung -- respectively.

Any or all could eventually be proven right. Accurate forecasts are tricky to make -- even more so, some argue, since the unpredictable events of September, the fallout of which has affected everything from the global economy to U.S.-Russian relations to women's rights in Afghanistan.

IMF Chief Economist Kenneth Rogoff summed up the predicament earlier in December, when the Fund published its latest world economic outlook. "Whenever anyone is presenting forecasts, if they are not saying they are uncertain, you shouldn't be listening to them," he says. "This is a period still of greater-than-usual uncertainty."

Since a wild-card event such as the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington can happen any time and change our world dramatically, is there any point in trying to make predictions for the coming year?

Dan Johnson is associate editor of "Futurist" magazine, published by the World Future Society.

"There are two ways of looking at it," he says. "In the popular mind, it's: Did someone get something right, were they right or wrong? 'We're going to put someone on the moon.' Were they right or wrong? Well, they were right. 'Are we going to root out terrorism completely in the year 2002?' It depends on what we find."

Johnson says futurists analyze a broad range of factors to try and make such predictions as credible as possible. The skill, he says, is in being able to distinguish between what is possible and what is likely.

"It's not that there's a lack of information. There were plenty of reports that Pearl Harbor, for example, was vulnerable, and there were fairly recent reports just before the [September] attacks that something could be going on," he says. "But there were a lot of those, and people in the U.S. military and the navy were beginning to feel like these were all false alarms and this is all we're getting. If your experience is all false alarms, you're not as likely to see within those reports the trend that might help you prevent something like that from happening."

Trying to anticipate the future is also a big part of what keeps the world's financial markets moving.

Charles Robertson is an economist at ING Bank in London. He says major unpredictable events do pose a problem for forecasters, but that the only alternative is to have no forecasting at all.

Robertson says businesses and governments clearly need some foundation on which to base their budgets and plan for the future, and it's the job of other analysts to judge if these forecasts are realistic. He notes that many analysts were one step ahead of governments in predicting this year's economic recession.

"11 September -- yes, you get these wild-card factors, but they tend to intensify events that are already occurring. That's what happened on 11 September -- the U.S. economy was already in trouble, it just made things worse," he says. "So the direction was already clear enough, it's just the depth of the recession was the additional surprise. [A forecast is] a tool, it's not a prophecy. It's more just a tool for people to be able to make their own plans and judgments on the future."

Robertson says people in his line of work have changed their approach slightly in the wake of 11 September.

"People are being more cautious in their forecasts and they're trying to keep an eye on what's going on in the Middle East, what's going on with oil prices, what could happen with Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or wherever in terms of expansion of this war, because they would all have an impact on the global economy and on any economist's forecasts as a result," Robertson says. "So there is an element of people trying to take a more geopolitical view of the global economy -- not just simply a matter of supply and demand, which is what was running forecasts, I think, [before] 11 September. So there is more politics being considered, and people find that inherently very difficult to forecast, unfortunately, which then makes people more cautious in their forecasts."

He says the political sections of newspapers are the focus of greater analyst attention these days -- as are politicians who were previously dismissed as irrelevant to the workings of financial markets.

"Now the attention is focused more onto meetings between Moscow and the U.S., or meetings in the Middle East," he says. "And the movements of foreign ministers, for a change, may be something that people actually pay some attention to."

Sometimes, of course, the prognosticators do get it right. Johnson notes that some futurists -- such as Marvin Cetron, a prominent American forecaster -- warned eight years ago that the Pentagon and White House, among other buildings, were vulnerable to hijacked jets.

That theory was not published in full, but Cetron wrote in 1994 that terrorists were likely to pick targets that gave opportunities for high numbers of casualties. "Targets such as the World Trade Center not only provide the requisite casualties but, because of their symbolic nature, provide more bang for the buck," he wrote.

Johnson says Cetron "was suggesting -- and other futurists suggested this as well -- [that] since buildings are going to be under attack, governments take steps to prevent it; and hijacking an airliner and taking it into a building would be one logical new weapon to use. So that's what he was saying, that this kind of attack would fit the parameters of the terrorists' thinking. It would provide a huge number of casualties and would provide a huge psychological blow because of the World Trade Center's standing in the country. "

But as Johnson says, it's one thing to predict such threats -- and another to expect society to "reorganize itself" around them and take expensive precautions.