Analysis: The fabric of economic trust

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent

SKOPJE, Macedonia, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- If people do not trust each other, or the economic "envelope" within which they interact, economic activity gradually grinds to a halt. There is a strong correlation between the general level of trust and the extent and intensity of economic activity.

Economics acquired its dismal reputation by pretending to be an exact science rather than a branch of mass psychology. In truth it is a narrative struggling to describe the aggregate behavior of humans. It seeks to cloak its uncertainties and shifting fashions with mathematical formulae and elaborate econometric computerized models.


So much is certain, though -- that people operate within markets, free or regulated, patchy or organized. They attach numerical (and emotional) values to their inputs (work, capital) and to their possessions (assets, natural endowments). They communicate these values to each other by sending out signals known as prices. Yet, this entire edifice -- the market and its price mechanism -- critically depends on trust.


Trust is not a monolithic quantity. There are a few categories of economic trust. Some forms of trust are akin to a public good and are closely related to governmental action or inaction, the reputation of the state and its institutions, and its pronounced agenda. Other types of trust are the outcomes of kinship, ethnic origin, personal standing and goodwill, corporate brands and other data generated by individuals, households, and firms.

I. Trust in the playing field

To transact, people have to maintain faith in a relevant economic horizon and in the immutability of the economic playing field or "envelope". Put less obscurely, a few hidden assumptions underlie the continued economic activity of market players.

They assume, for instance, that the market will continue to exist for the foreseeable future in its current form. That it will remain inert -- unhindered by externalities like government intervention, geopolitical upheavals, crises, abrupt changes in accounting policies and tax laws, hyperinflation, institutional and structural reform and other market-deflecting events and processes.

They further assume that their price signals will not be distorted or thwarted on a consistent basis thus skewing the efficient and rational allocation of risks and rewards. Insider trading, stock manipulation, monopolies, hoarding -- all tend consistently but unpredictably to distort price signals and, thus, deter market participation.


Market players take for granted the existence and continuous operation of institutions -- financial intermediaries, law enforcement agencies, courts. It is important to note that market players prefer continuity and certainty to evolution, however gradual and ultimately beneficial. A venal bureaucrat is a known quantity and can be tackled effectively. A period of transition to good and equitable governance can be more stifling than any level of corruption and malfeasance. This is why economic activity drops sharply whenever institutions are reformed.

II. Trust in other players

Market players assume that other players are (generally) rational, that they have intentions, that they intend to maximize their benefits and that they are likely to act on their intentions in a legal (or rule-based), rational manner.

III. Trust in market liquidity

Market players assume that other players possess or have access to the liquid means they need in order to act on their intentions and obligations. They know, from personal experience, that idle capital tends to dwindle and that the only way to, perhaps, maintain or increase it is to transact with others, directly or through intermediaries, such as banks.

IV. Trust in others' knowledge and ability

Market players assume that other players possess or have access to the intellectual property, technology, and knowledge they need in order to realize their intentions and obligations. This implicitly presupposes that all other market players are physically, mentally, legally and financially able and willing to act their parts as stipulated, for instance, in contracts they sign.


The emotional dimensions of contracting are often neglected in economics. Players assume that their counterparts maintain a realistic and stable sense of self-worth based on intimate knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses. Market participants are presumed to harbor realistic expectations, commensurate with their skills and accomplishments. Allowance is made for exaggeration, disinformation, even outright deception -- but these are supposed to be marginal phenomena.

When trust breaks down -- often the result of an external or internal systemic shock -- people react as would be expected. The number of voluntary interactions and transactions decreases sharply. With a collapsed investment horizon, individuals and firms become corrupt in an effort to shortcut their way into economic benefits, not knowing how long will the system survive. Criminal activity increases.

People compensate with fantasies and grandiose delusions for their growing sense of uncertainty, helplessness, and fears. This is a self-reinforcing mechanism, a vicious cycle which results in under-confidence and a fluctuating self esteem. They develop psychological defense mechanisms.

Cognitive dissonance ("I really choose to be poor rather than heartless"), pathological envy (seeking to deprive others and thus gain emotional reward), rigidity ("I am like that, my family or ethnic group has been like that for generations, there is nothing I can do"), passive-aggressive behavior (obstructing the work flow, absenteeism, stealing from the employer, adhering strictly to obstructive regulations) -- are all reactions to a breakdown in one or more of the four aforementioned types of trust. Furthermore, people in a trust crisis are unable to postpone gratification. They often become frustrated, aggressive, and deceitful if denied. They resort to reckless behavior and stopgap economic activities.


In economic environments with compromised and impaired trust, loyalty decreases and mobility increases. People switch jobs, renege on obligations, fail to repay debts, relocate often. Concepts like exclusivity, the sanctity of contracts, workplace loyalty, or a career path -- all get eroded. As a result, little is invested in the future, in the acquisition of skills, in long term savings. Short-termism and bottom line mentality rule.

The outcomes of a crisis of trust are, usually, catastrophic: Economic activity is much reduced, human capital is corroded and wasted, brain drain increases, illegal and extra-legal activities rise, society is polarized between haves and haves-not, interethnic and inter-racial tensions increase. To rebuild trust in such circumstances is a daunting task. The loss of trust is contagious and, finally, it infects every institution and profession in the land. It is the stuff revolutions are made of.

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