Economists are a rare breed. They're often astute thinkers who gather tons of information, run it through their blenders and pour out sage counsel and advice to their constituents.

Seldom, however, do they venture beyond their ivy towers and into the gritty, grimy world where they can see with their own eyes trends that could quite possibly sharpen their forecasting skills.

This occurred to me during a session entitled "Business Planning for an Uncertain Future" at the recent Detroit Section meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV.

Although the session covered numerous issues including market shifts, regulatory pressures and the like, the chief focus was the collapse of Asian economies with rippling effects in South America and Russia - the subject of our extensive 1999 State of the Industry package beginning on page 26.

The learned panel included Laurence H. Meyer, a member of the Federal Reserve System board of governors; Martin B. Zimmerman, Ford Motor Co.'s executive director-governmental relations and corporate economics; and Pierre Loewe, managing director of Strategos, a think tank specializing in strategic planning.

To his credit, Mr. Loewe says he doesn't believe in forecasts. "No one can predict the future," he says, recalling a story in Britain's Economist published in 1984. The magazine asked disparate groups of people to forecast how the European economy would fare five years ahead. Surprisingly, or maybe not, a band of London "dustmen" (here they're called garbage men) came closest, beating out corporate finance executives and the finance ministers of four European nations.

Mr. Zimmerman, who says that even though he may have once been a London dustman "you won't find it on my resume," concedes that conventional economic wisdom often misses the mark. "Everyone said in the '70s that oil would hit $60 a barrel, but that didn't happen. And everyone in the '80s said Japan was the winner and the U.S. was done for, but that didn't happen either."

Everyone also apparently thought Thailand's boom would never end, yet in the summer of '97 the Thai baht dropped 30% almost overnight, triggering what has become a global economic meltdown.

"It's unusual for a small country (like Thailand) to overheat like it did," says Mr. Meyer. "Thailand was a high flyer in GDP (gross domestic product) for 30 years with growth rates of 6% to 8% a year."

I'm not a student of Thai economics, but I happened to be in Bangkok when the baht tumbled. It didn't surprise me. There were signs everywhere of excess: Too many new hotels, condos and office buildings half-built and practically abandoned. Too many suddenly wealthy families with fleets of luxury cars inching their way through Bangkok's notoriously sludge-like traffic. Easy come, easy go - and then a screeching halt.

Still, foreign automakers, including Ford (with its Mazda affiliate) and General Motors Corp. visualized big things for Thailand as they each spent hundreds of millions there on new capacity. Both projects since have stumbled, although arguably they'll pay off one day as each of the big U.S. companies revive their expansion drive in Asia, where they are virtual unknowns at the moment.

I also visited Brazil, likewise a then-hot market, in 1997. Automotive investments were pouring in by the billions, based on forecasts of South American growth. But as proof that Brazil's economy was not as robust as generally thought, it was the first major economy to hit the skids following the Thai crisis. Others caught in the downdraft included Malaysia and Indonesia, followed by Russia and now Japan.

Despite some vivid warning signs, in each case the spreading malaise caught the experts off guard. "I call them shocks," says Ford's Mr. Zimmerman. "We're in a period of extreme volatility - a period when the company economist becomes a psychiatrist."

Still, he quickly adds, the basics of the U.S. economy remain strong. Although declining to forecast 1999 U.S. car and truck sales ("Wait 'til December"), "I think we'll avoid a recession," says Mr. Zimmerman.

Forecasting in your home market, of course, is not as tough as analyzing what's happening abroad. Yet in these days of globalization, tiny Thailand's troubles can reverberate and cause chaos far outside its own borders.

"There's sort of a rush to the exits," says the Fed's Mr. Meyer. "People are not doing a good job of distinguishing between the issues, and there are totally different issues in each country."

Meantime, Mr. Zimmerman can observe tongue-in-cheek that "No matter what forecast we make during the day, one will be right."

He and his fellow economists might come closer to hitting the mark if they were to see what's out there for themselves, going beyond their traditional numbers and economic models and getting a close-up physical and emotional look at the landscape.

But that may not happen soon. "We want to learn from the aftermath" of the current crisis, says Mr. Zimmerman. Which just may be too late.