Did “animal spirits” mess up the economy?

Could “animal spirits” explain the unpredictability of economies and the emergence of economic bubbles? Economists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller believe so, as they explain in their recent book Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism.

Their use of the term “animal spirits” does not derive from animism or from its cousin sociobiology, but from a statement by John Maynard Keynes in his 1973 book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (pp. 161-2, boldface mine):

Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits — a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.

In an excerpt from their Animal Spirits book in The McKinsey Quarterly, Akerlof and Shiller describe these animal spirits as irrational forces that can cause volatile market fluctuations, often contrary to the rationality that should guide markets under classical economic thinking.

While acknowledging that markets are indeed influenced by people’s rational self-interested behavior, Akerlof and Shiller maintain that

they are also guided by noneconomic motives—“animal spirits”—which Adam Smith and his followers largely ignore. Sometimes people are irrational, wrong, shortsighted, or evil; sometimes they act for action’s sake; and sometimes they uphold noneconomic values like fairness, honor, or righteousness.

In the excerpt, they lay out five aspects of animal spirits that affect the economy:

  1. confidence and the feedback mechanisms that amplify disturbances
  2. the setting of wages and prices, which depend largely on attitudes about fairness
  3. the temptation toward corrupt and antisocial behavior
  4. the “money illusion,” or confusion between the nominal and real level of prices (so that people, for example, often miss the fact that conservative investments may be risky in times of inflation)
  5. the story of each person’s life and the lives of others—stories that in the aggregate, as a national or international story, play an important economic role

The authors believe a new regulatory regime is needed that takes into account the animal spirits that drive markets. New regulations could help prevent volatility and collapse of markets, as well as the need for crippling public bailouts.

But interestingly, they also highlight the need for a new “story” about the economy:

For decades, the dominant story about the economy maintained that all the fluctuations described previously had a rational basis. During the bubble years, the story also held that any risk arising from assets such as houses and subprime mortgages could be managed through complex financial devices like securitization and derivatives, which were largely unregulated.

Then the story changed. The new one suggested that all this complexity was just a novel way of selling snake oil. As the new story about Wall Street and its products took hold, the life drained out of financial markets. Housing prices sank, the demand for exotic products collapsed, and the credit crunch began.

Now, they stress, “there must be a new story about markets — a story that doesn’t always predict sunshine.” This story acknowledges “that animal spirits play a significant and largely destabilizing role.”

Although regulation takes place at the level of government, stories or narratives play out in the public forum and in the media — as well as in people’s own minds and their interactions with others. The need for a new story has implications about how people set personal goals and what they strive for in life.

AB — 20 April 2009

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