Sun, Jul 21, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Bubbles reappear forever

People are wary of bubbles in finance and industry that see money and jobs lost, but perhaps the word bubble does not accurately describe the situations it is applied to

By Robert Shiller

Because bubbles are essentially social-psychological phenomena, they are, by their very nature, difficult to control. Regulatory action since the financial crisis might diminish bubbles in the future. However, public fear of bubbles may also enhance psychological contagion, fueling even more self-fulfilling prophecies.

One problem with the word bubble is that it creates a mental picture of an expanding soap bubble, which is destined to pop suddenly and irrevocably. However, speculative bubbles are not so easily ended; indeed, they may deflate somewhat, as the story changes, and then reflate.

It would seem more accurate to refer to these episodes as speculative epidemics. We know from influenza that a new epidemic can suddenly appear just as an older one is fading, if a new form of the virus appears, or if some environmental factor increases the contagion rate.

Similarly, a new speculative bubble can appear anywhere if a new story about the economy appears, and if it has enough narrative strength to spark a new contagion of investor thinking.

This is what happened in the bull market of the 1920s in the US, with the peak in 1929. We have distorted that history by thinking of bubbles as a period of dramatic price growth, followed by a sudden turning point and a major and definitive crash.

In fact, a major boom in real stock prices in the US after “Black Tuesday” brought them halfway back to 1929 levels by 1930. This was followed by a second crash, another boom from 1932 to 1937 and a third crash.

Speculative bubbles do not end like a short story, novel or play. There is no final denouement that brings all the strands of a narrative into an impressive final conclusion. In the real world, we never know when the story is over.

Robert Shiller is a professor of economics at Yale University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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