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April 11, 2011

ideology affecting market behavior

You might think that ideology affects what you say, but not where you put your dollars. Nothing like an investment decision to clear the head and focus your mind on empirical data. But just before the federal shutdown was averted last Friday, CNN reported that investors weren't concerned. "The shutdown talk is noise," said Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist for Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It really won't have a major effect on the economy. The government is unproductive. Everybody already knows that."

I thought that story was good news at the time. I expected a shutdown and was glad to read that markets wouldn't fall. But Mr. Saut's literal claims are very debatable. First, even if the government were totally unproductive, it is a massive consumer and employer. If it fails to pay any bills, that will have a deleterious impact on the parts of the economy that Mr. Saut thinks are productive (including his own financial services sector). Second, government can be productive. It funded the invention of computers, founded the Internet, and built the interstate highway system. Even some routine services have impressive payoffs. A random-controlled study of an educational program called Quantum Opportunities found that its net benefits were $28,427 per student, a pretty good return. I have no stake in claiming that the government is more productive than other economic sectors, such as banking. But it seems purely ideological to dismiss its positive impact impact on the economy as zero on the basis that "everyone knows" it isn't productive.

I wrote a post in fall 2010 about how investment advisers were bullish, claiming that divided government would bring "stability." That claim seemed un-empirical to me. Various forms of turmoil and unpredictability were likely to follow from Republican control of the House, not the "stability" that investment banks wrote about in their prospectuses.

So I return to two rival hypotheses:

1. These people really believe what they literally say, and it affects their behavior. They think that a market shutdown won't affect markets because the government is unproductive, and therefore it won't affect markets.

2. These people find palatable ways to convey what they actually think--not that Republican control will bring stability or that a shutdown will have zero impact on markets, but rather that Republican control means lower taxes for them, and a shutdown could strengthen Republicans' hands in negotiating fiscal policy.

April 11, 2011 11:31 AM | category: none



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