Friday, October 10, 2008

Put On a Happy Face

That gloomy mask of tragedy isn't the Kotlikoff/Mehrling style:
As Americans have freaked out, Uncle Sam has stepped up. He'll continue doing so until we realize the sky is not falling. The $700 billion rescue authorizes the federal government to keep doing what it has been doing for the past year to the tune of $400 billion -- buying distressed assets at bargain-basement prices and selling insurance at high premiums. If all works out, Uncle Sam will make a killing. ....This financial chaos has ruined our sleep but left our physical and human capital unscathed. We have the same productive capacity today we had a year ago. And if our capital hasn't changed, we've suffered no overall capital loss.

This means that our accounting, which has focused on financial losses, is missing lots of offsetting financial gains. The offsetting gains are accruing to current or prospective purchasers of the assets whose market values have dropped. Asset buyers, whether they are young people buying their first homes, middle-aged workers contributing to their 401(k)s or billionaires such as Warren Buffett buying financial firms, can now acquire homes and stocks (claims to the same capital inside the companies) at a roughly one-third discount from a year ago. That's great for them, and lousy for the rest of us, but not a net economic tragedy.

The economic tragedy comes if we get hypnotized by the bad news, ignore the good news, fight about things we're already doing (e.g., having Uncle Sam buy and insure troubled assets) and pull our economic heads inside our shells. We Americans have lots of moxie. What we need is a strong pep talk and absolute assurance that credit will continue to flow, that insurance policies will continue to be honored, and that Uncle Sam is willing and able to invest directly in the private economy on our behalf.

So after scaring us half to death, this would be a good time for our other uncles -- Hank and Ben -- to make clear that we're heading for a safe landing and that there is no way in hell they will let this economy go down the tubes.

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