Are shares, futures and derivatives a laughing matter?
- 15 May 2014
- From the section Business
For those who work in the City of London, Wall Street or Frankfurt the markets are no laughing matter. But in putting together four comic lectures on the market in gold, land, oil and grain I learned a lot about what makes the world go round.
The British are a notoriously reserved people and one thing we particularly hate talking about is our money. No doubt this reflects well on us in certain respects but it can lead to a kind of wilful naivete.
For instance, it says a lot about our attitude to economic literacy that Adrian Chiles began his career as a serious financial broadcaster and was felt to be so promising that he was then promoted to covering the football.
Of course this makes sense on one level - after all, Premier League football itself is largely an offshoot of the world's more powerful business interests.
An encounter between say, Chelsea and Manchester City, is now less to do with their rather quaint, nostalgic geographical denominations and is in fact better understood as a face-off between gas and oil.
Money may be vulgar but it is the means by which powerful people express their true reading of a situation in a way that they very rarely do using their words.
It's extraordinary how many of us will listen to politicians verbally elaborate on their plans to do this or their hopes to see that, and then switch off when the discussion turns to the markets.
To continue the footballing analogy, it's like watching the head coach's pre-game press conference and then not watching the game itself.
I mean, that's what I do, but then I don't like football. I only watch the press conference because I find it inherently funny to see grown men wearing tracksuits indoors.
The point is, if you want to know whether they're likely to build an airport in the Thames Estuary, you could listen to Boris Johnson, at least if you've got the Latin, but you'll learn a lot more from taking a quick look at what is happening to shares in BAA, Essex land prices and futures in massive Toblerone bars.
And all this is besides the general distaste the British seem to have for the idea that one might oneself try to make some money out of the prevailing trends, rather than simply be buffeted by them like a kite stuck in a tree.
I remember appearing some years ago on a certain well-known topical quiz on BBC Radio 4.
The panel featured the usual broad range of political sympathies heard on Radio Four's comedy slot, from disgruntled socialist polytechnic lecturer to fully-fledged Marxist.
The subject was petrol prices, which had been rising fast enough to justify plenty of newsprint.
There was a general sense that the City fat cats were to blame and there was moaning about ministerial limousines and hypocritical mayors on bicycles.
Hesitatingly, not sure that I was among friends, I chipped in something to the effect that if you really felt the price rises were due to corporate profiteering, then the sensible thing was to buy shares in BP.
Stop being a whining consumer, take advantage of the situation.
OK, I may have used a few unnecessarily technical terms, such as "exposure" and "oil", but that was only for comic effect, like when Alexei Sayle quoted verbatim from the Communist Manifesto or Del Boy referred to his Fred Perry instead of his shirt.
Specifics are funny. Eleventh rule of comedy. 11(b) in fact.
Well, it didn't work. The comment did not merely fail to get a laugh.
It sucked the air out of the room with an efficiency that would send Chelsea's share price soaring if it could be adapted to extracting natural gas.
The audience stared back at me from their horrified cardigans much the same way they would have done if I had unzipped my skin, unfolded a large pair of leather wings and started flapping around in the radio theatre, swooping down to pluck up their young.
It was as if it were unacceptable to interact with the world's most indispensable commodity on any other level than moaning about it.
Now you could argue that taking the single least successful joke I've ever attempted to crack on radio and evolving it into an entire four-part comedy series smacks more of revenge fantasy than sensible programming.
But I thought it would be worthwhile exploring whether economics could indeed be funny, as well as crucial to our understanding of how the world works.
And such a quest comes, I'd argue, at an interesting juncture for economics itself.
On the one hand, economic method and analysis has never been more popular.
Books like Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist have become a publishing phenomenon.
They take the economist's approach to all manner of unexpected problems and prove very entertaining in doing so.
But traditional economics - studying how markets work, how fortunes are made and so on - has never been more mistrusted.
The credit crunch and subsequent recession have left everyone very wary of big business, banking and so on.
So this feels like a good time to see whether the traditional subject matter of economics can yield comedy nuggets as shiny as its methods.
I discovered an awful lot about who really owns Britain, what Americans are now basically made of, what some people say really prompted the US invasion of Iraq (not oil, no. Not exactly...), and why adherence to the gold standard could have drastically limited the duration and devastation of World War One.
And why, across all these sectors, active speculation and engagement purely for profit is no bad thing for society - as long as it's done well.
In doing so we also test the most improbable of hypotheses - that money can be funny.
Listen to Simon Evans Goes to Market on Radio 4 on Thursday 15 May at 18:30 BST or catch it later on the BBC iPlayer.