There was a famous cartoon in the early days of the satirical magazine, Private Eye. Successive drawings show a man walking past daily placards of his local news vendor. He smiles as they show news proclaiming one horrific atrocity after another.
Then they start showing good news and his smile fades. The penultimate drawing depicts him with a machine gun. The final drawing shows him beaming effusively as he walks past a poster that says: ‘Maniac Killer Slays 20’.
It is the traditional dilemma of the news. Dreadful news sells papers. A headline stating that the figures for world poverty are plummeting does not. And so it has been during the Covid pandemic.
Doom and gloom
This poses a dilemma for business and management. The economy may be able to make tentative steps back towards normality. But the public, customers and suppliers are stuck in the narrative of the horror of the unseen virus, and the trail of deaths and crippling incapacity that have followed in its wake.
A quite extraordinary example of this occurred on 12 August this year. In a speech made by Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, at the end of September, he used a graph showing an extraordinary spike on that day.
The graph was of the topic searches on Google for the terms ‘recession’ versus ‘economic recovery’ in Google Trends. The ratio produced is, as Haldane points out, effectively an economic pessimism ratio. The spike was on the day that the Office for National Statistics published the second quarter GDP figures for the UK. The overall figures showed the largest quarterly fall on record by far.
Missing the point
The resulting headlines, as Haldane showed, were along the lines of ‘deepest ever recession’ and ‘worst slump in Europe’. But as so often when it comes to the news reporting of economic or financial news, that was not the story that the new figures had actually told. Optimism had been trumped by pessimism.
The public, customers and suppliers are stuck in the narrative of the horror of the unseen virus
As Haldane made clear, the irony is that there was only one bit of ‘new’ news in the ONS release. And that was the figures for June, the last month of the quarter. And as Haldane points out: ‘This saw an almost 9% rise in activity, by far the largest rise in any month ever and above market expectations.’
Yet negative media headlines outnumbered positives by many multiples. Positive economic news was media-filtered into an ‘extremely negative event’. It is all about the difference between what is actually happening and what people imagine and expect to be happening.
‘This filtering of good news, and accentuation of the bad, is a familiar pattern of human behaviour at times of stress and uncertainty,’ explained Haldane. ‘Psychologists call it “catastrophising” – discounting the best and fixating on the worst, whatever the balance of risks.
‘It is a well-known problem among people suffering anxiety or depression,’ he said. ‘Economy-wide, the result has been collective dread risk, fanned by contagious pessimism.’
It is small wonder that our minds are elsewhere. It is terribly easy in these days of presidential elections and infections, of chaos and over-promising by politicians (who one observer described as ‘the oxymorons’), and the bureaucratic labyrinth that the Brexit conclusion will bring us, for us to fail to understand what is actually happening.
Everyone in business needs to recognise that they are being blindsided by a torrent of underlying dread and uncertainty. They need to peer through the mist and base decisions rigorously on what they know. Optimism over pessimism, as the graph should have told us.