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Imagining Recession

The world’s housing, oil, and stock markets have been plunged into turmoil in recent months. Yet consumer confidence, capital expenditure, and hiring have yet to take a sharp hit. Why?

Ultimately, consumer and business confidence are mostly irrational. The psychology of the markets is dominated by the public images that we have in mind from day to day, and that form the basis of our imaginations and of the stories we tell each other.

Popular images of past disasters are part of our folklore, often buried in the dim reaches of our memory, but re-emerging to trouble us from time to time. Like traditional myths, such graphic, shared images embody fears that are deeply entrenched in our psyche. The images that have accompanied past episodes of market turmoil are largely absent today.

Consider the oil crisis that began in November 1973, resulting in a world stock market crash and a sharp world recession. Vivid images have stuck in people’s minds from that episode: long lines of cars at gas stations, people riding bicycles to work, gasless Sundays and other rationing schemes.