Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why We'll Always Have More Money Than Sense

by Robert Shiller in Newsweek

When it comes to market bubbles and how they are created, very little, if anything, has changed. This is because human psychology has not changed. Massive bubbles are created when large numbers of people buy into "new era" stories that exaggerate how much the world has improved. For example, in the past few years the global equities and housing bubbles were driven by a giddy faith that world markets were on a tear and prices would go up indefinitely. Our animal spirits are sparked by these tales; we find them irresistible. And since as animals we're also given to a herd mentality, in a bubble we tend to invest too much in the most popular stories—and continue to do so even after the bubble bursts.

As I wrote in my book irrational exuberance in 2000, one of the key stories of our time is the triumph of capitalism. This theme was underscored by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and China's shift to a market economy. But many true believers got the details wrong—and became convinced, for example, that capitalism means market prices will always go up.

In the several decades since the worldwide rise of market economies, our perceptions of ourselves have changed greatly—while young people back then might have become hippies, deeply skeptical of business, today's young people are very concerned with making money. They might have temporarily questioned the idea of capitalism after the financial crisis, but quickly shrugged off their qualms. People still largely believe in the ownership society and in markets. They believe in the importance of doing business, and they generally believe that we all have a responsibility to take care of ourselves. So much for the idea that we're all socialists now; while many countries do take care of society's losers to a significant extent, we don't idealize doing so, as we once did. And this unadulterated belief in capitalism helped to fuel the bubbles that led to the crash.

Read the full commentary

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Economic View: A Way to Share in a Nation’s Growth

By ROBERT J. SHILLER in the NY Times:

CORPORATIONS raise money by issuing both debt and equity, the latter giving investors an implicit share in future profits. Governments should do something like this, too, and not just rely on debt.

Borrowing a concept from corporate finance, governments could sell a new type of security that commits them to paying shares in national “profit,” as measured by gross domestic product.

Historically, one impediment to such a move was the difficulty in accounting on a national scale: governments didn’t even try to measure G.D.P. until well into the 20th century.

Although G.D.P. numbers still aren’t perfect — they are subject to periodic revisions, for example — the basic problem has been largely solved. So why not issue shares in G.D.P. now?

Such securities might help assuage doubts that governments can sustain the deficit spending required to keep sagging economies stimulated and protected from the threat of a truly serious recession. In a recent pair of papers, my Canadian colleague Mark Kamstra at York University and I have proposed a solution. We’d like our countries to issue securities that we call “trills,” short for trillionths.