Economic LIteracy: Do You Meet the Test?
As we all plan our investments for 2009, no factor is more important than the economy. It is a subject on which everyone has an opinion. That is the natural state in the American democracy, dating back to the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville. His famous work, Democracy in America, is still read by every student of political science.
While a complicated work should not be summarized in a sentence, the Wikipedia article includes a good warning:
The 21st Century
Democratic opinion has advanced into the 21st century. Modern scholars are impressed with how well de Tocqueville's work has held up, but there are some changes. With the help of the Internet, everyone is able to offer an opinion about anything and everything. Millions of readers are consumers of these opinions.
Readers motives vary. Many simply want to confirm existing beliefs. That is easy. Those seeking information and analysis face a challenge: How does one identify an expert?
In particular, how can an investor form intelligent opinions about the economy. At a minimum, one needs basic economic literacy.
A Few Elements of Economic Literacy
Bob McTeer's blog, once again, provides some valuable information for us all. In his article, Economic Literacy: A Few Basics, he cites ten principles that anyone should know before drawing conclusions. They are all great points, but let us pick a favorite, as follows:
Anyone who thinks an economic question is some black and white causal relationship does not understand this fundamental point. Pundits who do not understand marginal analysis say things like the following:
- There is no "pent-up" demand for housing. This is wrong because housing demand is a continuous function, more demanded at any lower price, more offered at a higher price. The question of whether demand (or supply) curves will shift is a microeconomic problem that might be affected by public policy decisions.
- Stimulus packages do not work. This is wrong because any stimulus creates new demand at the margin. Professionals can debate the magnitude, but the broad-brush, X or Y conclusions are inaccurate.
- Retail is dead. This is over-stated because the level of sales is a continuous function. Reductions are in percentages.
- And many more similar examples of business and consumer spending and employment, all continuous functions.
Here is another good principle from McTeer:
Many pundits focus on this count of jobs. In fact, jobs are created all of the time. Even in bad times the US economy creates over 2 million new jobs each month. In bad times of course, even more jobs are lost. It is not a question of whether jobs are created, but rather how many, and how quickly. The net job change is the result.
These are just examples. Readers can test themselves — and they should – by checking out the entire article.
There are two important conclusions for investors.
- It is important to realize what you know, and more important to realize what you do not know. Many investors are making decisions — right now– based upon their personal conclusions about the economy. They fail to realize that they are consumers of the economic conclusions of others. They are just reading the newspaper or a pundit.
- It is important to choose sources who understand these principles, not just "pop econ" journalists who throw around some economic terminology.
Many of the popular pundits and journalists would come to a standstill if asked to do the following practical open-end essay test:
The current Internet democracy, an echo of de Tocqueville, does not serve the investor. Pundits have media appearances that consist of barely-challenged sound bites. Journalists assume the role of the expert rather than that of wise communicator. Readers must figure it out for themselves. To do so, one must have economic literacy.
A wise investor knows his happy zone, a concept we borrowed from the Splendid Splinter. The investor must also know when a pundit is swinging at an outside pitch.