Reviving the Animal Spirits

NEW HAVEN – The world’s fundamental economic problem today is a staggering loss of business confidence. Commercial banks, investment banks, and hedge funds all owe their ongoing trouble to its decline, which in turn is jeopardizing the plans of companies and entrepreneurs to launch enterprises and make investments, and of households to consume.

Our “animal spirits,” to borrow a phrase made famous by John Maynard Keynes, are weakening. George Akerlof and I have just written a book by the same name, but by the time Animal Spirits appears later this winter, the world economy may be even worse than it is now.

Nations everywhere are starting to implement aggressive stimulus and bailout packages. Yet the economic outlook still looks grim. The International Monetary Fund’s latest forecast predicts that the world’s advanced economies will contract 0.3% in 2009 – the first such shrinkage since the end of World War II.

Part of the difficulty of contending with a crisis of confidence is that it is hard to quantify confidence in the first place. The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index in the United States, begun in 1967, fell in October to its lowest value ever. The latest Nielsen Global Consumer Confidence Index, which covers 52 countries, fell to 84, from 137 when it was launched in 2005.