The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story today that has implications for us all. "U.S. retail sales took a surprising turn upward during March, a promising sign for the economy given the punishment consumers have absorbed," says the daily chronicle of the American dream, going on to add that "... Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires estimated a 0.1% decrease in overall March retail sales. The actual, 0.2% increase could be seen as bright news, considering many analysts argue the U.S. has gone into recession..."
What's interesting to me is not so much that retail sales are better. That may be a passing episode of economic flatus. What's truly essential to note, I think, is the word surprising.
Consider how many prodigious things the punditry industry and its counterparts in the real world have recently found surprising.
To Alan Schwartz, the head of Bear Stearns (BSC), the sudden collapse of his city-state was surprising. I know some guys who were with him just a couple of days before his house of straw came tumbling down in the idiot wind of the whispering campaign mounted against it. He was upbeat. There's no reason to believe he was doing anything more or less than any leader under stress: he was defending what he thought was a great company in duress, one that would make it through. Boy, was he surprised.
To all the experts who lathered over Google (GOOG), for good reason, in days just past, it's stock swoon is pretty surprising. Wow! If we had only known when its upward hockey stick would bend in a different direction. I sure wish I had. I bought that puppy at $700.
And weren't we all surprised by GE (GE), just the other day? Of course we were. Just as we'll be equally surprised when sometime soon it turns around does a whole lot better.
Closer to home, wasn't my adviser at my bank surprised when the Huge Growth Fund he got me into lost me 20% of my money in about six weeks!
Come to think of it, wasn't everybody pretty surprised by this stagflationary recesso-depression? The banks! The lenders! The real estate brokers! Everybody, I guess, but the financial media that's paid to scare people, the way weather guys on TV are compensated for turning every rain shower into a tsunami to pump up ratings.
We're surprised when things are so so bad. We're equally surprised when out of the blue something slightly good pops up. We're really good at sacking the quarterback after he's already on the ground.
I have an idea, then, given this general tendency to be standing around with our thumbs up our noses when it comes to actually prognosticating the future of just about anything.
Let's not be surprised one way or another. Let's just presume to know a little bit less. And be a little more hopeful at the same time. That way when good things start happening we'll a whole lot less surprised and just a little bit more prepared to make the most of an improving situation.