I have gotten this question a lot. Here’s an answer, step by step:
- Nobody knows what will happen, including me. So be skeptical about anyone making predictions, including me.
- If there really is going to be a collapse of financial institutions in the absence of government intervention, then we will have a long period of economic distress. It would have all the usual hallmarks of tough economic times: stagnant income growth and high unemployment. People would not starve in the streets, however, and it would not be another Great Depression.
- But there’s reason for skepticism about collapse. One alleged example of collapse was that McDonald’s was having trouble getting working capital. That proved to be overblown, and beyond that: Do you really think that a business model as sound as McDonald’s couldn’t somehow get funded in its day-to-day operations, even with ready investors holding trillions of dollars of cash and looking for a return? My own opinion is that awkward makeshift institutions would begin to fill in the gaps and McDonald’s would find a way to run. It wouldn’t be as good as our current system but I think we would muddle through.
- Politically, both sides have been guilty of brinksmanship in the proposed bailout. The Democrats have been trying to get goodies for political allies in the bailout, while the House Republicans have been trying to put in some long-hoped-for tax changes. This is not the time for any of that.
- So, my favored solution: Do a clean, technical bailout that allows the government to buy up distressed mortgage-backed assets and establish an orderly market for their disposal. If there are eventually profits from this, apply them to reducing the national debt.
- And when all this is done, get the government out of the business of holding mortgage debt.
- And for the future, try to draw a sharp line between assets the government will guarantee (such as bank deposits) and those it won’t (such as hedge fund holdings). Then try to structure things so that anyone who places a bet on non-guaranteed assets is on their own. Too often we have allowed people to take giant risks, reap the giant returns, and then put the losses on the taxpayers if the gamble goes bad.