This article introduces and develops the concept of trade narrative to understand how business sectors defend against public disapproval and the threat of increased regulation or removed subsidy. Trade narrative works by accumulating lists of benefits and occluding costs, and is created by consultants for economic interests organised via trade associations. This represents an under-analysed ‘policy-based evidence machine’, the aim of which is to format the discourses of the media and political classes about the contribution of the sector in ways that frame political choice about what is thinkable and doable. In doing so it supports elite power by providing a relay for intra-elite communication. Using illustrations from privatized railways, banking and pharmaceuticals in the UK and US, the argument explores how the causal arrow runs in the opposite direction from that supposed in most discussion of discourse-economy relations in the field of cultural economy.