Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller explains how compelling stories are what really shape our economy — from bitcoin to Trump's presidency - Business Insider UK - Canada News Media
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Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller explains how compelling stories are what really shape our economy — from bitcoin to Trump's presidency – Business Insider UK

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  • Robert Shiller is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, a professor at Yale University, and the author of “Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events.
  • Shiller explains how compelling stories can impact actual economic outcomes. 
  • Shiller says the mysterious story of Satoshi Nakamoto was what really drove the price and popularity of bitcoin. 
  • He also says the Laffer curve became an important part of tax policy because of the powerful story, not because of an actual basis in economics. 
  • Shiller says this is the one place where he will gladly praise President Trump. According to Shiller, Trump is great at reading audiences, experimenting with narratives, and he is never boring. 
  • The Nobel Prize winner explains that these stories matter just as much as or more than the truth. And that these narrative disruptions make it very difficult to make long-term economic predictions. 

Robert Shiller sat down with Business Insider during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to discuss his most recent book and how it applies to the current economic landscape. Following is a transcript of the video. 

Silverstein: So, your new book “Narrative Economics” is a topic that you’ve been interested in for a very long time. Can you explain to me what narrative economics is?

Shiller: A lot of people think about narratives these days, it’s a new trend. But they tend not to be economists or financial analysts. Maybe they think about it, but they don’t research it. I think that major economic events, successes and failures alike, are typically driven by stories that went viral. And we don’t have a deep understanding of events until we understand, we start studying the narratives.

Silverstein: And can you give me examples of something recent that happened because of a narrative, a strong narrative?

Shiller: Yeah. OK, the, the Great Recession. We named it the Great Recession in honor of another narrative, which is the Great Depression. Now you would think that people would be forgetting about the Great Depression. That was 1929 and well into the ’30s. Like 10 years of economic slowdown. But it’s a long time ago. You think people are forgetting about it. But they’re not. And in fact, in the early 2000s, references to that exploded. I count, I count these things, how often they come back in the news media.

So, and then we named it the Great Recession. It’s obviously a reference to the Great Depression. And so people became scared and they stopped spending. They didn’t stop spending, but they cut back. You know they think, should we go on a cruise this year? Well, maybe not. You know, I feel a little unsettled. It’s going to cost a lot of money. If people cut back on their consumption enough that we have a recession. And these stories impact the economy in a way that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be happening. Yeah. A lot of economists seem to think, want to think, that it must be something about technology, or productivity, or maybe what the central bank did. But I think it’s, it’s more generated in people’s minds.

Silverstein: And what’s so strong about the bitcoin story?

Shiller: Oh yeah, I use that as Chapter 1 of my book. It’s an example of how good stories create economic events. And in the case where — I think it’s clearly traceable to the story. Now I’m not going to even comment on whether bitcoin is a good idea or not. It doesn’t matter. I’m just looking at the story.

The story was that a man named Satoshi Nakamoto had an invention which he promulgated on the internet around 2008. And, it’s the greatest, most wonderful invention in a long, long time. It ties into stories about anarchism. Anarchists don’t like government. Well, bitcoin didn’t ask anybody’s permission. They didn’t go to any regulator to start their bitcoin. And it’s not even tied to a country. It’s international. We’re all cosmopolitans now. It just seems like a good story.

And then they put a little mystery into it. Satoshi Nakamoto has never been spotted by anyone who tells us about these things. How could it be? He’s one of the most famous people in the world now. And yet no one has met him. So maybe he doesn’t exist. Maybe there is a committee, maybe it’s a conspiracy. Who knows? But somebody wrote a nice paper that was, it just has an excitement. I can see people transform. When I bring it up in my class, my students react, they wake up when I bring up bitcoin.

Silverstein: How do you separate out the story from what’s real? And how much can the story affect what becomes real?

Shiller: It isn’t a single story, every telling of the story is a little different. There’s a core idea in the story. And, how do you tell whether it’s a real story or not? That takes work. And in the case of bitcoin, it’s kind of difficult to think through it. It’s not — it’s impressive. It’s not easy. But you can work at it. The problem is, if you reach a decision about bitcoin one way or the other, it’ll never get out, because it can’t compete with the narrative quality of the original story.

Silverstein: Can you tell me about the Laffer curve, something that I think a lot of people take to be fact, but you say that a lot of the strength from it comes from this very simple story?

Shiller: Yes, so I’ll tell you a story. In 1974, an economist named Art Laffer was having dinner at the Two Continents restaurant, a nice restaurant in Washington DC. And he was having it with Donald Rumsfeld, who was the secretary of defense for the United States — really big shot guy — and Dick Cheney, who would soon become vice president of the United States. So a bunch of the — and also Jude Wanniski, who is a writer for the Wall Street Journal who wrote the story up.

laffer curve

Dr. Arthur Laffer, Economist and professor at University of Southern California, with “Laffer Curve” on blackboard, Feb. 23, 1981.

AP Photo


And in that story, Art Laffer draws a diagram on a napkin, called the Laffer curve, which illustrates, I won’t get into the details, but supposedly illustrates dramatically how taxes can hurt incentives and destroy the economy. And that even if you, if you actually cut taxes, you may collect more taxes even though you cut, because people will be so much more affluent, they’ll be working and producing. Nice story. It went viral. But not in 1974. It wasn’t until in 1978, when Jude Wanniski wrote a book, a best-selling book called “The Way the World Works,” and he tells this story about the dinner. And afterwards, people want to know the whole story. They ask about the napkin. The napkin is a visual image that enhances the story.

And there it is. It’s now many years later — the Laffer curve went through a typical epidemic. It expanded right after 1978. And everyone was talking about the Laffer curve. Same time as Rubik’s cube came out. That was another, another such fad. Laffer curve and Rubik’s cube were both around that time. They both faded somewhat. But they’re both still here. And Laffer is coming back. It has an internal dynamic like that of a disease. I’m not calling it a disease.

Silverstein: How much does narratives impact how the Fed communicates or how the president communicates? How much does that impact the economy?

Shiller: The people who take positions like Fed or Treasury Secretary become intuitive narrative economists even though they weren’t taught any of that in grad school, because it’s so obvious that the narrative matters.

northern rock

Customers queue to enter a branch of Northern Rock in Kingston, Surrey, southern England.


Reuters/Alessia Pierdomenico



So for example, when the Northern Rock bank failed in the UK in 2008, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the head of the Bank of England reacted immediately because they didn’t want, it looked like it was a story about a bank run. This bank was failing and depositors were worried that they wouldn’t get all of their money out. There was deposit insurance, but it was only up to a small amount. And people who had their life savings, planning for retirement, panicked, they thought, maybe I’ll lose all of it. And so they rushed to the bank, and of course it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The bank can’t pay out all this money at once.

They immediately rescued the Northern Rock bank and paid off all the depositors. So, the reason they did that is they didn’t want the narrative to get started. They knew that in the past it was rumor and stories that people went to many different banks and asked for their money right away.

Silverstein: And what about Trump? Is he good at this? Has he been able to —

Shiller: This is one place where I can be lavish in my praise of Donald Trump. He is very good at narratives. He’s very good at judging audiences. He experiments. This is a way, the way you launch narratives. You never know whether it will go well. He listens to the audience. He creates a whole story. The story of him at his rally, which is spread by word of mouth. It’s a visceral thing. Most of these people had never gone to a presidential speech before. And if they did it would’ve been boring. He’d be talking about statistics on the national deficit or something like that. Trump is not boring, really not boring. And it started a word of mouth thing that was huge.

Silverstein: And how much has this increase, or is it the same, with social media? Is the impact of narratives bigger or faster, or can we just see it more?

Shiller: Well, the impact of narratives is bigger with social media. But I have to say, I think the mistake people make is more often underestimating how important narratives were long ago. So we have the Latin word rumor, that has the same meaning as it does today. What is a rumor? It’s a contagious narrative, right? Which is not fact-checked by anyone, it’s just out there. So they knew about this thousands of years ago, and it was a factor thousands of years ago. But yes, it is bigger today. We’re living in a world with expanded information technology and ability to communicate. And to communicate with like-minded people. To find each other. Maybe they had computer dating and maybe that helped people find their spouse. But it’s much bigger now. They’re not just, it’s finding someone who has the same political views as you that you can talk with.

Silverstein: And you talk about how difficult it is to predict economic performance in the long term. Is that because of how much narratives play a part?

Shiller: It’s hard to predict whether a new movie which hasn’t been shown yet will be a success. Notoriously hard. The director might have had successful movies in the past, he has famous actors and actresses, but nothing seemed to click this time. It’s when you put the movie in front of the audience and you start to listen to the word of mouth.

Silverstein: And how does that relate to, like, GDP estimates two years out?

Shiller: So when you talk about, oh, yeah, they’re not very good at forecasting GDP two years out because the disturbances are, I think, narrative-based. And they don’t generally systematically study them. And unfortunately, it does require some human judgment at this time anyway, to understand the importance of narratives.

Silverstein: Is there one big narrative that is happening right now that you think we should be paying attention to or that’s dislocating something?

Shiller: Well, a narrative that comes to mind is the artificial intelligence revolution. And we have many stories of neat things. Like your smart speaker, I guess like Amazon Echo that you have. It’s kind of, it does seem like the the new world. Something really fundamental has changed. But I don’t think it has scared us yet profoundly because we don’t have high unemployment. So people think, well, but the economy is strong so, not worry about it now. But I think if we do have another recession, that narrative could come roaring back and become again an obstacle to recovery.

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From lower oil prices to a weaker loonie: How the new coronavirus could impact Canada’s economy – Global News

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The spread of a new strain of coronavirus from China to at least 16 countries has implications for the global economy, analysts warn. That includes Canada, where one confirmed case and one presumptive case of the new coronavirus have been detected so far.

If the current outbreak follows the course of past health scares, it will only be a temporary bump for the Canadian economy, according to an analysis by BMO economist Sal Guatieri. But that stumble would come as domestic growth has already entered a soft patch.

READ MORE: 2nd ‘presumptive’ coronavirus case reported in Ontario

Typically, global health-care worries send stock markets into sell-off mode, with prices of airlines, restaurants and hotels hit especially hard, Guatieri said in a note published on Friday. At the same time, investors pile into safer assets.






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Do Canadians need to worry about coronavirus?

On Monday, Canada’s benchmark S&P/TSX composite index was down about 0.6 per cent in midday trading, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 were down around one per cent, erasing a significant portion of their gains for January. Companies that rely on travel and tourism suffered steep losses. Meanwhile, the prices of safe-haven assets like gold and bonds rose.

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READ MORE: U.S. stocks tumble as coronavirus cases spike in China

The stock declines follow equity sell-offs in Europe earlier in the day. Most markets in Asia were closed for the Lunar New Year, with Chinese authorities extending the holiday to Feb. 2 in an effort to keep as many people as possible at home to contain the outbreak.






2:12
Lunar New Year celebrations continue under coronavirus scare


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As with previous outbreaks, the new, fast-spreading coronavirus is also rattling commodities markets. Crude oil prices dipped below US$60 (C$78) for the first time in nearly three months on Monday, as reports of more businesses being forced to shut down fuelled expectations of slowing oil demand.

The dip in commodity prices typically has knock-on effects for the currencies of countries with resource-based economies, like Canada’s, Guatieri wrote.

On Monday, the Canadian dollar was trading at 75.78 cents U.S., compared with an average of 76.10 cents U.S. on Friday, which was already a four-week low.

READ MORE: Oil prices, stock markets tumble as coronavirus cases spike in China

Comments from the Bank of Canada, which recently trimmed its 2020 economic forecast, have also been putting pressure on the loonie.

In general, global epidemics tend to slow down broader economic growth, Guatieri wrote.

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“People shop less, delay travel and stay home. Companies turn cautious and delay investments.”

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While government moves to contain the crisis and increased demand for health-care services offsets the adverse economic impacts somewhat, “the economy slows nonetheless,” Guatieri said.

In 2003, the spread of SARS shaved 0.66 percentage points off annualized economic growth between March and June that year, according to an estimate from the Bank of Canada. The outbreak caused nearly 800 deaths worldwide, 44 of which were in Canada.






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Is Canada doing enough to protect Canadians from the coronavirus outbreak?

But the economic impact of SARS and other recent epidemics has been short-lived, Guatieri said.

Stock markets were quick to bounce back once the outbreak appeared to be under control and the number of cases began to fall, with economic activity also recovering rapidly, the report said.

READ MORE: ‘We’re trying to have hope’ — Pregnant B.C. woman stuck in coronavirus epicentre

In Canada, the full-year impact of the SARS outbreak was a reduction of a mere 0.1 per cent of GDP, according to the Bank of Canada.

Guatieri also noted the Chinese government is taking decisive steps to control the outbreak and health care authorities have better technology and protocols in place since the SARS crisis.

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And while the new coronavirus outbreak strikes at a time when both the U.S. and Chinese economies are losing steam, economists have also been hoping for that growth slump to ease somewhat thanks to recent progress on trade negotiations with the approval of a “Phase 1” trade deal between Washington and Beijing.

The ratification of the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) is also expected to be a boost for Canada’s economy, ending the uncertainty that weighed on cross-border business as the three countries negotiated a trade agreement to replace NAFTA.

The bottom line is “it’s too soon to revise down our growth forecast” because of the latest health scare, Guatieri said.

— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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The health of the economy in nine charts – Fortune

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Coronavirus Hits Hong Kong as Economy Reels From Protests – The Wall Street Journal

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Residents in Hong Kong protest over plans for an empty housing estate to become a temporary quarantine camp for frontline medical staff and patients with coronavirus.


Photo:

philip fong/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Hong Kong banned visitors from the Chinese province at the center of a new virus epidemic as echoes of SARS send panic through the community, threatening more misery for an economy already in recession after months of protests battered tourism and retail sales.

Many people in the city donned masks as local authorities confirmed at least eight cases of infection by the deadly pathogen from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicenter. Disneyland shuttered, Lunar New Year festivities were scrapped and schools will remain closed until Feb. 17.

As fear of the coronavirus spreading rises, consumer spending is set to be a casualty as people stay away from restaurants, malls and crowded places. A similar strain known as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, engulfed Hong Kong from the mainland in 2003, killing nearly 300 people in the city and sending its economy into a three-month tailspin.

Hong Kong was among the worst hit by SARS, with sales in restaurants and retail outlets dropping by some 50% according to a University of Hong Kong report, before bouncing back quickly. As stock markets swooned and people pared travel plans recently, Hong Kong is bracing for a more severe replay of such economic turbulence.

This time, Hong Kong is already in recession. Seven months of street protests, slower Chinese economic growth—a key engine of Hong Kong’s economy—and U.S.-China trade tensions combined to shrink gross domestic product by 2.9% in the third quarter, the territory’s first year-over-year contraction since the global financial crisis in 2009.

The losses from tourist spending, as virus-hit China locked down many cities ahead of the Lunar New Year, are just the top of a fresh set of economic worries for Hong Kong. Professional unions have threatened strikes to protest the government’s handling of the crisis, amid fear among the public of a looming crush of mainland visitors seeking medical resources.

Police on Sunday used tear gas to break up protesters who had blocked roads and built barricades outside a housing estate that the government wanted to turn into a quarantine camp for infected people. Officials later halted the plan.

Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, where attendance in recent months has already been battered by protests, said it would shut from Sunday until it could work out with health authorities when to reopen. The city’s official Lunar New Year celebrations have been scrapped.

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd.,

Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, has suspended flights to and from Wuhan through the end of February and offered refunds on all mainland China routes as virus cases crop up around the country. “We are monitoring the situation closely and will continue to coordinate with the health authorities,” it said in a statement.

Tour operators including industry major Hong Thai Travel Services Ltd. canceled all group tours to mainland China for at least the rest of January. Hong Kong’s Travel Industry Council said Friday that about 2,600 group tours to the mainland through mid-February had been canceled. Hong Kong’s high-speed rail operator has indefinitely suspended trains to and from Wuhan.

Compounding these pressures, a federation of medical staff unions along with other professional trade unions have threatened strikes if the government doesn’t escalate efforts to contain the disease, including turning back all visitors from mainland China. The government since Monday barred entry to visitors from Hubei, China’s most virus-affected province.

Neighboring Macau also began a similar ban Monday, posting its sixth confirmed infection as its casino-focused economy too faces pressure from a drought of mainland holidaymakers.

Also Monday, the dean of the University of Hong Kong’s medical school, Gabriel Leung, estimated some 44,000 people in Wuhan alone could be infected—far higher than the official mainland tally—and urged “draconian measures” to check the outbreak. He said cases, if unhindered, would likely double every six days. China health officials didn’t immediately respond.

The Hong Kong government has also expanded visitor health declaration requirements, and are looking for more remote sites for quarantine camps. Of nearly 400 suspected cases of infection in Hong Kong, nearly half have been hospitalized.

Chinese authorities are urging the public to remain calm as they try to contain a mysterious, fast-spreading coronavirus that has killed dozens of people and infected thousands. However, millions have already left Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak. Photo: Associated Press

Chinese health authorities have confirmed dozens of infections in Shenzhen, the megacity north of Hong Kong, and hundreds more suspected in nearby cities. The as-yet-unnamed coronavirus has killed at least 80 people on the mainland and infected almost 3,000 by official tallies. The outbreak has also reached the U.S. and Europe, and spread across Asia.

Hong Kong’s economy is heavily dependent on individual and household spending, and has become more so since the SARS era. Private consumption last year accounted for 65% of the territory’s economic output, up from 58% in 2002, official data show.

The high level of dependence on private consumption amplifies any hit to the tourism, hotel, and related industries. Tourism contributes about 5% of gross domestic product—mostly from inbound visitors—and employs more than 250,000 people. Officials deem the sector one of “four pillars” of Hong Kong’s economy, alongside financial services, logistics, and professional services.

SARS arrived in Hong Kong in early 2003 as the city grappled with a housing market slump and the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. The outbreak lasted some three months and Hong Kong rode a broad-based recovery in the second half of 2003, posting 3.1% growth that year.

The new coronavirus is flourishing amid grimmer economic conditions. Even before the outbreak, tourist arrivals in November had fallen 56% year-over-year, nearing the 60% declines in April and May 2003 during SARS. Arrivals last year fell 14% from 2018, driven by a decline that sharply accelerated after June, official data show.

Commuters wear face masks in Hong Kong’s subway Sunday.


Photo:

jerome favre/Shutterstock/european pressphoto agency

Private spending fell 4.8% in the third quarter, the latest available data—a sharp reversal from 3.3% growth in the April-to-June period, the government said.

Visitors from mainland China account for most of Hong Kong’s tourists, reaching 84% of total arrivals at its peak in February 2015. The measure fell to 72% in November, its lowest since March 2017.

Hotel occupancy rates in November were 66%, compared with 95% a year earlier, official data show. Restaurants are struggling to attract diners, with some putting staff on leave.

“As the SARS outbreak infected more than 8,000 people and killed over 700 people across Asia in 2002 and 2003, there is now greater awareness of how contagious diseases can have a crippling effect on businesses,” said

Patrick Zeng,

Hong Kong and Greater China chief executive for the global insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty.

Write to Chuin-Wei Yap at chuin-wei.yap@wsj.com and Joyu Wang at joyu.wang@wsj.com

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