Wednesday, 16 April 2008

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Credit crunch. Financial meltdown. Recession. Depression. Worst economic outlook since the 30's.

The effects are here to see - property slump, stock market volatilty, mortgage availability drying up. No-one seriously denies that the economy in the UK, like that of our former colonial friends across the water, faces some real challenges right now.

Most pundits lay the blame at the door of the US (and to a lesser extent British) banking sector, which was seemingly only too willing over the last decade or so to lend money to, as it turned out, uncreditworthy housebuyers.

The newsreels scream of impending doom, TV economists are wheeled out on every news programme to make us squirm with prophecies of job losses, house repossessions, rampant inflation and economic doldrums.

People love to frighten people. And people love to be frightened. Underneath all of the paranoia and despondency, what is really happening? Is there a solid economic reason for the gloom? Or are we talking ourselves into it - a self-fulfilling prophecy?

There's an awful lot of psychology at play here, and some physiology as well it would seem.

So has the credit crunch come about not because of real, but perceived losses in the UK/US housing markets? If a bank starts to consider some of its mortgagees are looking shaky, fair enough - it should write down its assets. But if a fellow bank overreacts to this and writes its own debts down too, perhaps beyond what is really financially and economically necessary, then a domino effect can start. Like the butterfly causing the hurricane, the entire system starts to work itself into a frenzy of impairing its investments. Talk of a trillion dollars worth of asset 'realignment' must surely show that either the analysts have been using their calculators wrongly for an awfully long time, or that perhaps the tail is now wagging the dog.

Markets don't work in isolation from the rest of human life. When times are good, people (including analysts and brokers) can get swept along with the bonhomie and markets rise. Every now and then someone realises that things aren't quite so great and there's a 'correction', a burst of shortlived pain while the market takes a reality check. But when panic sets in - such as when queues start to line up outside of Northern Rock as depositors freak out at rumours that their cash is at risk - then things can go pretty bad pretty quick. The herd instinct comes to the forebrain and like lemmings we hurl ourselves over the edge. The more the pundits hit the gloom button, the more we believe it.

Now I'm not saying there is not really a financial problem happening right now; clearly the market needed a correction. But ask is there not some incongruity here between what the commentators are saying and what the indicators reveal?

Of the write-downs of mortgage assets, what proportion have actually gone bad?

In this hard pressed UK economy, why is unemployment falling? According to the chief economist of the Chartered Institure of Personnel and Development, "Even allowing for lags between output, jobs and unemployment the UK labour market is still behaving as though the economy were chugging along very nicely rather than on the verge of a significant slowdown,"

OK, the stock market has been on a rollercoaster ride. But it stands today at over 6,000 - not the best it has ever been but look at how stocks have moved over the long term and it's hardly a disaster. And here we are, in the middle of a financial crisis.

It's so very difficult to see where the current problems will end up, but I firmly believe that in large part they were started by the snowball effect, one bad story begetting another until the finance world became paralysed with fear. A bank falls, the others look around to see who will be next. The contagion spreads until it happens again. In panic, the hatches are battened down. Interest rate cuts are not passed on to consumers as the banks hoard profits to cover book losses, losses that may never have materialised in the first place. Governments get involved, as morally they feel they must. But their very intervention pours petrol on the flames, confirms to the doom-mongers that they were right all along.

That's the psychology, and it will take an outbreak of common sense to bring us back to normality. My guess is that it will take some months. Bad news stories take so much longer to die than good ones.

And the physiology? Apparently researchers at the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair have correlated high testosterone levels in city traders with competitiveness and willingness to take risks.

So the next time your portfolio takes a plunge, perhaps it's because your broker just took out a subscription to FHM!

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