It’s All Because of the “Animal Spirits”

Tuesday, January 27, 2009
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Another staggering Robert Shiller piece in the WSJ:

But lost in the economics textbooks, and all but lost in the thousands of pages of the technical economics literature, is this other message of Keynes regarding why the economy fluctuates as much as it does. Animal spirits offer an explanation for why we get into recessions in the first place — for why the economy fluctuates as it does. It also gives some hints regarding what we need to do now to get out of the current crisis.

A critical aspect of animal spirits is trust, an emotional state that dismisses doubts about others. In talking about animal spirits, Keynes sought to convey the message that swings in confidence are not always logical. The business cycle is in good part driven by animal spirits. There are good times when people have substantial trust and associated feelings that contribute to an environment of confidence. They make decisions spontaneously. They believe instinctively that they will be successful, and they suspend their suspicions. As long as large groups of people remain trusting, people’s somewhat rash, impulsive decision-making is not discovered.

Shiller thinks Obama’s stimulus package is much too small, and he also has a plan for telling credit markets “how to behave.”

We must be certain that programs to solve the current financial and economic crisis are large enough, and targeted broadly enough, to impact public confidence. Not only do we need a fiscal stimulus significantly greater than the proposal that is currently on the table, government action is also needed to take the place of the credit markets that seemingly worked so well when animal spirits were high. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve not only need a fiscal target, they also need a credit target. This should not be a dollar number, but rather a target for how the credit markets should behave. The goal should be that those who would normally receive credit in times of full employment can once again find it easy to do so, at rates with realistic risk premiums.

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