An Echo Chamber of Boom and Bust

Robert Shiller says the global recovery in economic confidence is being driven by a social epidemic, the contagion of ideas, and huge feedback loops: 

An Echo Chamber of Boom and Bust, by Robert Shiller, Commentary, NY Times: The global signs of a recovery in economic confidence seem puzzling.

It is a large and diverse world, after all, so why should confidence have rebounded so quickly in so many places? … Economic analysts often turn to indicators like employment, housing starts or retail sales as causes of a recovery, when in fact they are merely symptoms. For a fuller explanation, look beyond the traditional economic links and think of the world economy as driven by social epidemics, contagion of ideas and huge feedback loops that gradually change world views. These social epidemics can travel as swiftly as swine flu: both spread from person to person and can reach every corner of the world in short order. …

The popularity of the term “green shoots” shows the kind of social epidemic underlying our changing thinking. The phrase was propelled in Britain by Shriti Vadera, the business minister, in January, and mutated into a more contagious form after Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, used it on “60 Minutes” on March 15.

The news media didn’t need to change the term for different cultures around the world. With nothing more than a quick translation — brotes verdes, pousses vertes, grüne Sprösslinge, etc. — it is now recognized as a symbol of a revival coming soon.

All of this suggests that a social epidemic is supporting renewed confidence. This confidence can keep growing by contagion, as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and we may see the markets and the economy recover further.

But in an economy that is still unstable, the stories could also morph into different forms, the price feedback could turn downward and the dynamic could turn ugly again — just as it has in the past.

It seems quite reasonable that the spread of information (wrong or right) can reinforce trends in economic activity, and hence magnify and propagate shocks, but as noted in a part of the article not included above, this doesn’t help us much with the problem of predicting turning points in economic activity. Predicting when the stories suddenly “morph into different forms … is actually very complex. And even when feedback mechanisms are straightforward, they can produce very strange outcomes, not predictable very far into the future…”

Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.