by Dr. Boyce Watkins
If you listen carefully to the words of Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson and Ben “Big Ben” Bernanke (chairman of the Federal Reserve) you might notice a trend in their language. The word “confidence” is used a lot when they speak. Many of their monetary proposals are not necessarily valuable for their financial power, but also for their psychological power.
Some of you may wonder what confidence has to do with anything. After all, if you’re broke, confidence doesn’t exactly put money in your pocket. If you’re 100 pounds overweight, confidence won’t help you win the Olympic 100 meter dash. When you are flying on a crashing plane, confidence doesn’t keep the plane from slamming into the ground. But confidence is important to an economy, and one of the most significant drivers of economic growth. In fact, over confidence has driven US economic growth for the past 10 years. Here are some reasons that confidence matters in the minds of Hank and Big Ben:
1) Confident consumers spend money
If you think you might lose your job next year, are you going to max out your credit cards? I certainly hope not. If you are worried about being able to make ends meet, are you going to buy that big screen TV? Not unless you want your wife to leave you. So, even if it doesn’t hold any truth, the mere forecast of a weak economy is enough to make many Americans hold off on consumer spending, one of the great driving forces of the American financial system.
2) Confident companies invest money and hire workers
Investments involve risk. Your hunch may work out, and it may not. If you don’t believe the economy is getting better, you are not going to consider taking that risk. No one plans to go to the beach if the weather man says that it’s going to rain. When economic rain is in the forecast, companies pull out their umbrellas and hold off on new projects. This reduces the number of jobs in the economy, because nearly every job created in America is the result of someone making an investment.
3) Confident Americans do not take their money out of banks
In case you didn’t know, your bank does not have your money. Your money is part of a large base of financial capital that is loaned out to individuals and consumers seeking to get a good return on their investment. So, without investing, your bank would have no interest in paying you any interest at all. So if, say, 30% of all customers of the same bank decide to get their money out at the same time, the bank would have serious financial problems. It is a lack of confidence that could cause customers to “run” on their bank and take out their money.
4) Confident investors keep their money in the stock market
The stock market is a place where fortunes are made and lost. Some part of that fortune is psychological, given that no asset can have a value which exceeds that which someone is willing to pay for it. When investors lose confidence, they take their money out of the stock market, and reductions in demand for stocks lead to massive paper losses in the market. Additionally, most Americans are “momentum traders”, meaning that when the market goes up, they tend to buy more, and when it goes down, they tend to sell. History shows that it is actually the opposite approach that tends to work best.
5) Confident banks make loans
Banks have to keep a certain portion of their funds on hand at all times to meet federal requirements. If they are fearful that their customers might come and demand their cash, they hold onto their capital to ensure that it is available. If they are afraid that their borrowing customers will not be able to repay loans due to a weak economy, they also hold back on issuing new loans. The truth is that when economic forecasts are grim, conservative bankers become even more fearful than the rest of us.
The bottom line of this article is that confidence matters. So, the next time you hear Ben Bernanke give a speech, you can be confident that he is going to use language that makes you feel more secure. Whether you choose to believe those words is up to you.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “Financial Lovemaking 101: Merging Assets with Your Partner in Ways that Feel Good”. For more information, please visit http://boycewatikns.com/