Sure, It’s All About the Emotions

These days, business dispatches from Wall Street are awash in worries. Forget the invisible hand of the market. It's all about the invisible furrowed brow.

Sometimes the most perplexing questions about the American economy come from the least likely of sources. Several years ago, for instance, a theatrical comedian named Kristin Garrison posed a real stumper. “If our entire economy relies on consumer confidence,” asked Garrison, “why don’t we just get together and decide to be confident?”

Why not, indeed.

Alas, it seems that American investors and consumers are chronic handwringers. In the end, our ceaseless bouts of fretfulness might not be great for the overall economy. But apparently our collective worries do at least provide important sustenance for the passel of business reporters charged with the daily task of trying to explain the latest fluctuations in stock prices.

Why did the stock market turn in a mixed performance this past Tuesday? Because, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Wall Street worries that higher rates will hurt the economy and profit growth” (emphasis added).

Why did stocks drop on March 2? Because according to the Buffalo News: “Retail worries overshadowed another sign of strength in the labor market.”

Why did the Australian stock market close “sharply weaker” on March 1? Because, according to the New Zealand Herald, “signs of weakness in economic data revived worries about the outlook for corporate profits.”

These days, business dispatches from Wall Street are awash in worries. Worries about inflation. Worries about deflation. Supply worries. Demand worries. Worries that the economy is growing too slowly. Worries that the economy is growing too fast. Worries that explain why treasury notes are going up. Worries that explain why real-estate values are going down.

In other words, forget the invisible hand of the market. It’s all about the invisible furrowed brow.

Of course, figuring out why the stock market does anything on a short-term basis is an inexact science, at best. Which, in part, helps explain the popularity of the rhetorical device. Ascribing some blip in the market to a generalized worry rather than to a specific trend allows a reporter to speculate about the machinations of the market while, at the same time, keeping those speculations at arms length.

After all, it’s hard to fact-check worries. By definition, worries are both real and imagined—and thus endlessly suitable to explain whatever it is that needs explaining.

On Thursday morning, as the market enjoyed a slight increase, the Financial Times had this headline: “Wall St extends rally as rate worries ease.”

In the afternoon, the market dipped. Headline from the Financial Times: “Wall St. turns lower on fresh rate worries.”

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.