Posts Tagged ‘Robert Shiller’

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Those of us in economics are confronted on a regular basis with the fantasy of perfect markets. It’s the idea, produced and presumed by neoclassical economists, that markets capture all the relevant costs and benefits of producing and exchanging commodities. Therefore, the conclusion is, if a market for something exists, it should be allowed to operate freely, and, if it doesn’t exist, it should be created. Then, when markets are allowed to flourish, the economy as a whole will reach a global optimum, what is often referred to as Pareto efficiency.

OK. Clearly, in the real world, that’s a silly proposition. And the idea of “market imperfections” is certainly catching on.

I’m thinking, for example, of Robert Shiller (who, along with George Akerlof, recently published Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception):

Don’t get us wrong: George and I are certainly free-market advocates. In fact, I have argued for years that we need more such markets, like futures markets for single-family home prices or occupational incomes, or markets that would enable us to trade claims on gross domestic product. I’ve written about these things in this column.

But, at the same time, we both believe that standard economic theory is typically overenthusiastic about unregulated free markets. It usually ignores the fact that, given normal human weaknesses, an unregulated competitive economy will inevitably spawn an immense amount of manipulation and deception.

And then there’s Robert Reich, who focuses on the upward redistributions going on every day, from the rest of us to the rich, that are hidden inside markets.

For example, Americans pay more for pharmaceuticals than do the citizens of any other developed nation.

That’s partly because it’s perfectly legal in the U.S. (but not in most other nations) for the makers of branded drugs to pay the makers of generic drugs to delay introducing cheaper unbranded equivalents, after patents on the brands have expired.

This costs you and me an estimated $3.5 billion a year – a hidden upward redistribution of our incomes to Pfizer, Merck, and other big proprietary drug companies, their executives, and major shareholders.

We also pay more for Internet service than do the inhabitants of any other developed nation.

The average cable bill in the United States rose 5 percent in 2012 (the latest year available), nearly triple the rate of inflation.

Why? Because 80 percent of us have no choice of Internet service provider, which allows them to charge us more.

Internet service here costs 3 and-a-half times more than it does in France, for example, where the typical customer can choose between 7 providers.

And U.S. cable companies are intent on keeping their monopoly.

And the list of such market imperfections could, of course, go on.

The problem, as I see it, is that these critics tend to focus on the sphere of markets and to forget about what is happening outside of markets, in the realm of production, where labor is performed and value is produced. The critics’ idea is that, if only we recognize the existence of widespread market imperfections, we can make the market system work better (and nudge people to achieve better outcomes). My concern is that, even if all markets work perfectly, a tiny group at the top who perform no labor still get to appropriate the surplus labor of those who do.

Accepting that our task is to make imperfect markets work better makes us all look like fools. In the end, it does nothing to eliminate that fundamental redistribution going on every day, “from the rest of us to the rich,” which is hidden outside the market.

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I’ve been listening to and reading lots of financial pundits over the course of the past week—all of whom use the same lingo (the U.S. economy as the “cleanest shirt in the hamper,” the “deterioration in risk appetite” around the globe, and so on) and try to explain the volatility of the stock markets in terms of economic “fundamentals” (like the slowing of the Chinese economy, the prospect of deflation in Europe, and so on).

Me, I’m much more inclined to think of terms of uncertainty, unknowability, and “shit happens.”

Let’s face it: stock markets are speculative markets, in the sense that individual and institutional investors are always speculating (with the aid of computer programs) about how others view the market in order to make their bets—with fundamental uncertainty, unknowability, and the idea that shit happens. That is, they have hunches, and they have no idea if their hunches are correct until others respond—with the same amount of uncertainty, unknowability, and the idea that shit happens. And then all of them make up stories (using the lingo of the day and often referring to changes in the “fundamentals”) after the fact, to justify whatever actions they took and their advice to others.

That’s pretty much the view outlined by Robert Shiller. It’s all about stories characterized by uncertainty, unknowability, and shit happens.

In general, bubbles appear to be associated with half-baked popular stories that inspire investor optimism, stories that can neither be proved nor disproved. . .

the proliferation of such stories is a natural part of economic equilibrium. Successful people who value their careers rely on an instinctive sense for what pitch will sell. Who knows what the truth is, anyway?

As time goes on, the stories justifying investor optimism become increasingly shopworn and criticized, and people find themselves doubting them more and more. Even though people are asking themselves if prices are too high, they are slow to take action to sell. When prices make a sudden drop, as they did in recent days, people tend to become fearful, even if there is a subsequent rebound. With the drop they suddenly realize that their views might be shared by other people, and start looking for information that might confirm their belief. Some are driven to sell immediately. Others are slower, but they are all similarly motivated. The result is an irregular but large stock market decline over a year or more. . .

It is entirely plausible that the shaking of investor complacency in recent days will, despite intermittent rebounds, take the market down significantly and within a year or two restore CAPE ratios to historical averages. This would put the S. & P. closer to 1,300 from around 1,900 on Wednesday, and the Dow at 11,000 from around 16,000. They could also fall further; the historical average is not a floor.

Or maybe this could be another 1998. We have no statistical proof. We are in a rare and anxious “just don’t know” situation, where the stock market is inherently risky because of unstable investor psychology.

I would only add one correction: we always “just don’t know”—not just in anxious situations of volatility (such as during the past week), but also in more stable periods. In fact, we don’t even know if we’re in a volatile or stable period (until a new story becomes the common sense that what we’ve been through was volatile or stable) and we certainly don’t know how a stable situation becomes volatile (and vice versa).

Really, all we can say, when it comes to bubbles, is: shit happens.