Analyze this

Analysts say ...." It's a phrase that rings familiar to anyone who peruses a newspaper or tunes in to cable TV. It carries an irresistible, nearly Delphic credibility, to the point that whatever words follow invariably appear deserving of serious consideration.

"The sky is falling" might make one laugh, but "analysts caution the sky is falling" makes one look up.

Who are these fabled analysts? And why should we care what they say?

The rise of the stock market has been surpassed only by the ascension of financial media analysts. Louis Rukeyser's once solitary fortress has been stormed by dozens of talking heads on 24-hour cable financial shows, whose main source of credibility resides in the expert use of convoluted market jargon.

"Clearly Bob, the underlying yield curve suggests a fundamental correction of Mergercorp's earnings-per-share forecast for the first quarter ...." Dazzled, we listen, watch, take note. But if these analysts are indeed so market savvy, why are they wasting their talents in a TV studio when they could be on Wall Street managing funds, making a bundle, and retiring at 45? Those who can, do. Those who can't, analyze.

Originally fueled by the O.J. Simpson trial, from which even the court stenographer seems to have penned a best-seller, legal analysts have also emerged as a growth industry. Any high-profile case necessitates an army of TV lawyers offering their unique "takes," while all the former federal prosecutors on the planet had their names superimposed on our TV screens during last year's presidential scandal. A JD degree plus loose lips, and presto! - a legal analyst is born.

But even legal analysts command greater respect than their political counterparts. Any sort of experience in politics - no matter how tangential or antediluvian - qualifies one as a bona fide political analyst. President Nixon's most enduring legacy is not Watergate or China - it is his merry band of former aides and speechwriters who a quarter century later still clutter column space, airwaves, and on occasion, Republican primaries.

And in the most delicious of ironies, rejected politicians rapidly become hot media commodities, greedily fought over by political magazines or TV shows. Unable to retain the loyalty of their own constituents, they are still somehow qualified to offer penetrating insight on national politics.

But the lowest form of analyst-life is undoubtedly the generic, jack-of-all-trades pundit: the "news analyst." News analysts are experts in nothing and, therefore, in everything. They pontificate with equal ease on Kosovo, Social Security, and school violence, without even the grace to blush.

News analysts aren't on TV because they're experts; to the contrary, we consider them experts solely because they're on TV.

Why do we pay such rapt attention to analysts' diatribes? Perhaps our faith in analysts stems from the childlike hope that someone, somewhere, understands what is happening and can distill it all for us in a 30-second sound bite or in 600 words. Otherwise, the world would be too frightening. With their wit and boundless self-assurance, analysts relieve us of the responsibility to think for ourselves. Unfortunately, that doesn't make them right.

So the next time you hear "analysts say" or "analysts believe," it might be best to take the analysis that follows with a substantial dose of skepticism.

And that goes for this essay as well.

*Carlos Lozada is an economic analyst in Atlanta.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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