Fear and panic have taken over the stock market, the banking system and the economy. It is one of those moments in history when people feel helpless, frustrated and bewildered about what's going on and why it's happening.
Stocks are being pummeled in ways we haven't seen in nearly a century, both here and overseas. The Dow Jones is down nearly 20 percent this week, its second worst week since December 1914. The S&P 500 dropped over 20 percent in what looks to be the worst week in the history of that index (going back to 1928).
Behind all this, the credit system is completely frozen. Banks are now loathe to lend even to each other in the overnight markets that are so vital to the daily financing of American business. And the profits outlook is deteriorating badly, sparking fears that we may have a deep and prolonged recession.
And yet, much good may ultimately come of this terrifying correction.
I commend everyone to read the Wall Street Journal op-ed of Friday written by John Steele Gordon, an eminent financial historian. Gordon writes that there have been financial panics roughly every 20 years throughout American history. He goes all the way back to Alexander Hamilton, who orchestrated the first banking bailout in 1792. From this came a regular money-supply system, a credible U.S. government debt system and something of a disciplined banking system.
Gordon hopes that out of the current crisis we get a better system of well-capitalized banks regulated by a more unified government supervisory apparatus. My view is that the panic will pass and long-run American prosperity will continue. This may seem Pollyannaish right now, but I have great confidence that our free-market economy will come out better, with a strong financial underpinning, when the storm finally ends.
Paradoxical as it may be, strong government actions to stabilize banking are necessary to preserve the free-market-economy system. No free-market economy can survive without stable banking and credit. Without readily available credit, entrepreneurs can't put their new ideas into commercial practice. And without that vital innovation, economic growth suffers.
The trick now is to use government levers in smart and efficient ways. Banks need to be recapitalized without punishing current and future shareholders. Henry Paulson is working on this. More than likely, the Treasury man and the G-7 finance ministers are figuring out a plan that will temporarily guarantee all short-term interbank lending in the New York and London money markets.