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Fortune Tellers:
The Story of America’s First Economic Forecasters
Walter A. Friedman

Winner of the 2015 Hagley Prize in Business History, Hagley Museum and Library and Business History Conference

Paperback | 2016 | $19.95 | £14.95 | ISBN: 9780691169194
288 pp. | 5 3/4 x 9 | 28 halftones.
Hardcover | 2013 | $29.95 | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691159119
288 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 28 halftones.
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The period leading up to the Great Depression witnessed the rise of the economic forecasters, pioneers who sought to use the tools of science to predict the future, with the aim of profiting from their forecasts. This book chronicles the lives and careers of the men who defined this first wave of economic fortune tellers, men such as Roger Babson, Irving Fisher, John Moody, C. J. Bullock, and Warren Persons. They competed to sell their distinctive methods of prediction to investors and businesses, and thrived in the boom years that followed World War I. Yet, almost to a man, they failed to predict the devastating crash of 1929.

Walter Friedman paints vivid portraits of entrepreneurs who shared a belief that the rational world of numbers and reason could tame--or at least foresee--the irrational gyrations of the market. Despite their failures, this first generation of economic forecasters helped to make the prediction of economic trends a central economic activity, and shed light on the mechanics of financial markets by providing a range of statistics and information about individual firms. They also raised questions that are still relevant today. What is science and what is merely guesswork in forecasting? What motivates people to buy forecasts? Does the act of forecasting set in motion unforeseen events that can counteract the forecast made?

Masterful and compelling, Fortune Tellers highlights the risk and uncertainty that are inherent to capitalism itself.

Walter A. Friedman is a historian at Harvard Business School and the author of Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America.


"[C]arefully wrought."--James Grant, Wall Street Journal

"The book is a great read, based as it is around the personalities of these early forecasters. . . . I can see a terrific movie in the 'forecasting wars' of the 1920s as these larger-than-life, quintessentially can-do Americans competed with each other to call the stock market, win followers and make a fortune."--Diane Coyle, Enlightened Economist blog

"Fortune Tellers is a marvel too. It is scholarship of the highest quality, without shortcuts or gimmicks. We may not be able to trust the forecasters, but when it comes to their stories we are in excellent hands."--Pietra Rivoli, Financial Times

"Friedman's well-crafted work is highly recommended to students of economics and others interested in the history of economic forecasting."--Library Journal

"[Fortune Tellers] . . . reminds readers that the economy remains too complex for anyone to consistently make reliable predictions about it."--Alan Wallace, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

"In Fortune Tellers, Walter Friedman shows not only where our contemporary forecasting ecosystem came from, but also its considerable influence on present-day economic thought and practice."--Michael Lind, Pacific Standard

"The book is fun reading, but what makes it especially interesting for any regular consumer of modern economic forecasts is how little today's forecasters have improved on the methods of the 1910s and 1920s."--Justin Fox, Harvard Business Review blog

"In a series of short biographical narratives of the first men to take up forecasting as a profession, Friedman shows how economic predictions became an integral part of the way businessmen and government officials made decisions, and how the foundations were laid for the kind of sophisticated economic modeling that we now rely on."--James Surowiecki, Democracy

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Table of Contents:

Preface ix
Introduction 1
Chapter 1 Roger W. Babson: The Rule of Past Patterns 12
"The fundamental law of 'action reaction' "
Chapter 2 Irving Fisher: The Economy as a Mathematical Model 51
"The velocity of money"
Chapter 3 John Moody: The Bright Light of Transparency 86
"An aggregation of over 440 large industrial, franchise and transportation Trusts"
Gallery of Business and Forecasting Charts
Chapter 4 C. J. Bullock and Warren Persons: The Harvard ABC Chart 128
"The statistician . . . attempts to find a specific analogy existing in an orderly universe"
Chapter 5 Wesley Mitchell and Herbert Hoover: Forecasting as Policy 166
"If we could foresee the business cycle, there would be none"
Chapter 6 Visions of the Future 194
Postscript 209
Acknowledgments 213
Notes 217
Index 261

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