The market

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I heard one of the senior correspondents on the BBC (Hugh Pimm?) saying “the market thinks…”, “the market believes”. Hardly a day passes at present on the Today programme in which someone does not use formulations that depend on “the market” being a conscious entity in its own right. “The market” is simply a collective term for an untidy bundle of individuals and organisations that arises from an investment system in which money is made from any movement in shares, whether up or down. It is not some kind of super-brain that has an omniscient overview of the economic system in its wholes and parts. Even as an aggregation of largely irresponsible self-interests it results in hugely irrational behaviour. Why the stock market should be worth billions of dollars less or more during the span of a few hours has little to do with rational assessment and almost everything to do with superficially smart “blokes” who are operating the system for their short-term benefit. When that benefit becomes threatened, the herd instinct kicks in and they all run towards the edge of a cliff.

Linguistically speaking, it is not so much that we should abandon such collective nouns but that we should not endow a convenience term with a level of existence it does not have. “Imagination” for example, probably does not have a compact neurological existence, yet is is a valuable way of grouping features of the brain that collectively result in a certain kind of apparent process.

This moan is not just a question of a grumpy academic complaining about new turns in language – which is a continually fluid and manipulable thing – but of using types of words to do the wrong kind of job. It reflects sloppy, lazy and conventional thinking that prevents the real issues from being seen.

I should also say that “the market” does not operate to keep prices down through competition. It provides a mechanism whereby organisations individually and collectively try to charge the maximum they can get away with. This is the driving force. It is subject to a variety of opposing motions, but the basic mechanism is not a collective forcing down of prices. That is a secondary tactic.