I recall the story about the blind-folded man who had never seen an elephant was asked to guess and describe an elephant by touching only one small part of it. One can only imagine which part of the elephant the blind-folded man touched as he tried to decide what an elephant looks like. If 1000 blind-folded people touched different parts of the elephant one can begin to see the chaos and humor in this project – and the various guesses made as to the shape, texture, and size of this elephant.
This is the way I think about the national economy. This is why one of my favorite “spouts” relates to the ways journalists, economists, politicians, and others react each day to the news that peppers them with information. Let’s call the direction of the economy the “elephant”. The direction of any nation’s economy has so many pieces to it that no one person can digest it all. Thus, we all sample or taste little pieces of the economic growth day to day as a way to form an opinion about its direction. Once we sample enough and feel confident, then we can make decisions that are based on our view of the elephant. If the pieces of the puzzle are diverse, lack tangency or are otherwise unconnected, then we might go for some time without any strong feeling for the direction of the economy. Our decisions would reflect this indecision about the elephant.
This indecision reflects a very conservative reaction to information gathering. This conservative approach envisions a person as being reluctant to make decisions until he or she feels that she has a dominant view of the economy. But that’s not the way all people behave. Less conservative behaviors magnify the importance of the latest piece of information. I just ate a huge piece of chocolate cake (with chocolate icing). From that I might deduce that I am on my way to being the new fat man at the circus. Tomorrow I have a bowl of kimchi jjigae laden with tofu. That would make me feel slim and healthy and I might enroll in the next Iron Man event. It sounds ridiculous that on two adjacent days I might want to check myself into the fat-reduction clinic and enroll in an Iron Man contest. But it seems to me that this is exactly the way people behave and think when it comes to the national economy.
Headlines this week and last week reflected what happened to US employment, business profits, and what will happen to inflation, retails sales and other economic barometers in the US and abroad. Each announcement brought a barrage of new conclusions about the progress of the economy. This barrage came despite the fact that one month’s worth of information is about as reliable as a fly perched on the end of the elephant’s nose. Does an elephant look like a fly? I don’t think so. I thought the top was going to fly off the US economy last week when the employment number came in under expectations. Republicans peed in their pants as they faulted Obama’s policies and leadership. Republican point – this data point proves the economy is losing steam. Democrats pointed out how despite the slowdown in March, they have rescued the economy from the evil policies of George Bush and Dr. No. This one data point to Democrats reflected a general trend of rising strength in the economy. This one data point relating to US employment in March 2012 became the focus of millions of words, electronic or otherwise. It’s like the blindfolded guy who happened to touch the weiner of the elephant explaining to us all what an elephant looks like.
The Financial Times wrote a very nice piece (Monday, April 9 “US job figures become a fickle political football) in which they pointed out many reasons why one’s month worth of employment figures tell us absolutely nothing about the health of the economy or the direction of employment. Yup I am not exaggerating. Nothing. Zip. Yet our experts spent days using that data point as if it meant everything. Why? Because some people think that if they react to every piece of news they can beat the rest of us to the jewels and gold. These folks are the pouncers. Data comes out. Pouncers draw quick conclusions and pounce. Tomorrow new data comes out and then they pounce again.
I am not trying to say that the pouncers are any better or worse than the non-pouncers. I am just saying they exist and they or their actions or their spokespeople make us non-pouncers sometimes think we are missing the boat – or the elephant. I am in Asia today and I am writing on a Monday morning August 9. I am wondering how the stock market will perform in the US when it opens in about 6 hours. The pouncers have declared the US a bad place to invest this week. The negative interpretations of the pouncers to the employment disaster and to the expected declines in business profits makes me worried that my precious retirement account will be worth less in a couple of hours. So the pouncers are making me wonder if I should be buying or selling today. If they are right that these bits of news are part of a more long-term US decline, I might want to sell today. But if they are wrong and these news bits mean nothing – then maybe I should use the expected stock market decline as a buying opportunity. Since I am not a pouncer I will probably ignore the whole thing and ponder my next bottle of Soju.
One more example has to do with the profits or earning announcements of this week. The reports are saying that profits are falling and I can see why someone might be concerned about falling business profits. It does not bode well for employment or the economy in general. But if you read a little closer you find that the profits are regressing back to their means. That is, this means that profits are expected to fall to something normal and sustainable. To me the words normal and sustainable suggest a good outcome. Yet the fact that profits are falling seems to be dominating the idea that they are converging on sustainable and normal. Once again, the jack rabbits (I got tired of pouncers) are ready to hop at every piece of news. The word “decline” can be understood by anyone. The phrase “regressing to the mean” is somehow less easy to comprehend and less definitive. Thus even though the profit news is not necessarily bad, the rabbits are ready to sell and possibly in numbers. Perhaps they are wrong and this is another buy opportunity for the rest of us. After all, the rabbits have to have someone to sell to.
Okay so the elephant is hard to discern with the bits and pieces of information. But that does not mean that one cannot come to more realistic conclusions about the general direction of the national economy. For one thing, one can pounce or hop (or do a jig) after pulling together enough information over enough time. It is possible to ignore all the individual daily announcements and pull together what you learned over the span of a quarter or over six months. The last bit of information you received on April 17 might sway you more than the one you got on January 17, but surely you will get a better feel for the general momentum in the economy using three-six months of data than from one day’s. Second, it really helps to have a little understanding about cause and effect and global macroeconomics. The US profits figure for one month surely pales in importance to an understanding of the effects of shocks and policies that have impacts that last for months or years. What are the experts saying about the impacts of oil prices? What do they say about China’s economic growth? Is the EU making any progress with sovereign default? Will the US election cycle and the lack of any serious attention to deficit and debt cause economic problems?
It seems to me that we do not have to be pouncers or jack rabbits. Maybe some people prefer that approach. But it is possible to use more information in an intelligent way to make our important decisions. This approach might not sell daily newspapers but hopefully if followed it will create a larger perspective about the chaos that follows news announcements.