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Don't Panic About Stocks. It's Not 2008 All Over Again, Economist Says

Traders signal offers Monday in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Major market indexes tumbled around the world amid worries about China's slowing economy.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Traders signal offers Monday in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index options pit at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. Major market indexes tumbled around the world amid worries about China's slowing economy.

The big price drops on Wall Street in recent days have had many people worried. We asked people on social media to send us some questions about the stock market volatility and we turned to economist Austan Goolsbee for answers.

NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke with Goolsbee, who was chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers earlier in the Obama administration and is now an economics professor at the University of Chicago.

Michelle Tevelow Grybowski asked: "Should I panic?"

"Michelle, when's the right time to panic? Never! You will regret the decisions you made in the panic when you come back and say, 'Oh man, I wish I hadn't sold when everything was at the bottom or even worse.' So if it were up to me I would tell you do not under any circumstance go try to cash out your retirement account at a penalty because you're afraid the stock market's going to go down. That's the kind of panic-induced thinking that you will very likely regret."

Ann Feigl Johnston wondered: "What should we be buying?"

"You gotta like that there's people like Ann out in the world. That's what stabilizes the world and we think over the longer term can get it closer to fundamentals. ... if stuff goes down a lot there are a bunch of people who are like, 'Wait a minute, if things are down it's probably cheap. I'm going to go in there and start buying.' And that can break the back of a panic.

"You know, economists tend to not be stock pickers. ... Buy the market, try to diversify as much as you can. I would be careful for Ann jumping too quickly back into buying up emerging market stocks or any of the stuff that's really getting hit the hardest. In China, many people thought they were in a bubble. The prices start going down quite significantly. The government just starts intervening and buying up stocks and telling people, 'Nothing to look at here. We're not slowing down faster than we said before. Just pay no attention to what's happening.' And as the government buys up the stocks, you just can't tell. The market's trying to tell them they don't think this stuff is worth what it was three months ago. But they don't want to take that price signal. So until you know ... what is the real situation and let's get some information content back in these prices.

"And the other thing to think about is, in some of these situations the [Chinese] government has in the past said they wouldn't have a problem, there wouldn't be a bubble and now a lot of their credibility is kind of in jeopardy."

Helen Bentz Ferguson had this question: "Why should the average person even care about the stock market. I have no extra money to put in stocks; neither do most of the people I know. We're just trying to pay our bills."

"Well, you know maybe Helen shouldn't care and even maybe people who are in the stock market should care less than they probably care as they look at the TV and that line is just going down and down and they're like, 'Oh my goodness, this is 2008 all over again!'

"I think not getting too worked up about gyrations in the stock market; not only is it not a bad idea, it's probably a good idea not to get worked up about that. And if you have less ownership of the stock market like it sounds like Helen has, that's even more reason not to really get worked up."

Can you assure people that it's not 2008 all over again?

"OK, I'm not in the assurance business. Economists can't even agree on predictions of things that already happened. So never make predictions of the future. But there are several things that at least make me feel better now than I felt in the fall of 2008.

"The first is the root of this crisis is not events happening in the United States. No. 2, there's in the U.S. way less borrowing involved in this. It's just [an] equity bubble. It's just things moving around with stock prices. And we have seen really over and over throughout the world, if it's just an equity bubble popping it's bad for the people who own those shares that are going down, but the destroying of banks leading to credit crunch and what the economists call systemic events largely don't happen just from equity bubbles. You've gotta have a lot of borrowing for that to happen.

"Then, I'd say the other thing is that the economy has been going modestly well for a long, steady period of time. We haven't been in an environment of a whole lot of volatility on the real side, so hopefully that's a little better than it was in 2008."

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