Friday, March 16, 2007

More noise from the markets

Those wacky economic analysts are at it again. Since I enjoy Paul Mason’s cheeky-chappie appearances as the business correspondent on BBC2’s Newsnight, and because I am told he is indeed a nice chap, I don’t wish to cast aspersions. But his article on the world economy in New Statesman last week (12 March, p.16) showed the kind of thing that passes as routine in the world of quotidian economics. “When the world’s most powerful people gathered amid the snows of Davos in late January, there was a tangible warm glow being given off by the economic cycle… Six weeks later, the financial markets are in turmoil and what was first shrugged off as a ‘correction’ is being seriously monitored as a potential crash.”

OK, so the forecasts were wrong again. Big news. And so the ‘cycle’ somehow stopped ‘cycling’ (or, as economists would say, the cycle changed earlier than expected, which their ‘cycles’, uniquely in science, are permitted to do). Big news again. But get this as the ‘explanation’ offered by the head of strategy at the consulting firm Accenture: “People had undervalued risk, assuming that because the economy is benign there’s not going to be volatility.” I love it. These impressive words – “undervaluing risk”, overlooking “volatility” – translate to something simple: “people forgot that the economy fluctuates”. People thought that because things were good, they were going to stay good.

Now, the idea that market traders were unrealistically optimistic is not especially shaming for them. This is just Keynes’ old “animal spirits” at work, as ever they are. But what a weird situation it causes when analysts are called upon to explain the consequences. These savants, whose salaries would make your eyes water, sagely pronounce, “ah yes, well the market did something unexpected because traders guessed wrong. They imagined that the market was not going to fluctuate, though it always does.” Ah, thanks for clearing that one up.

At root, this transmutation of the bleeding obvious into lucrative analysis stems yet again from the fact that market agents behave in a way that we all recognize as thoroughly human and natural, but which is not permitted in traditional economics. So to those who monitor and interpret the economy, it looks like wisdom of the highest order.


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