I mentioned two days ago my wish that the press and politicians would pay less attention to daily gyrations in stock market prices and use that time, space, and effort to concentrate on other economic indicators and issues. Yes, even though this would require radical shifts in the way CNBC and other news organizations do their work.
The folly of focusing on stock prices is true enough in normal times, because the daily close on Wall Street has much less to do with the real economy than the obsessive level of coverage would suggest. It's all the more true during real economic crises, like the current one, because it intensifies fear while diverting attention from the truly most threatening problems. At the moment, the situation with the greatest potential to destroy companies, jobs, and lives is not the loss of paper value on the stock exchanges, gigantic as that has been, but the run-on-the-bank style credit freeze that is forcing good companies out of business.
To refine the previous point, it's not that no measures of credit tightness exist. Originally I mentioned LIBOR, essentially a measure of banks' confidence in other banks' ability to repay loans. Many people have written in to suggest that the better measure is the unappealingly named "TED Spread," which is essentially a measure of how risky commercial loans as a whole seem, compared with parking the money in no-risk US Treasury securities. (Explanation here; also see special features from Slate's Big Money and NPR's Planet Money, which appeared just before my item.)
Yes, TED is a help. But it has limits of its own -- it's one generalized measure of sentiment in one big financial center. I still feel the lack of a measure as compelling, as interesting, as able to direct attention, emotion, and action as the ups and downs of the Dow.
My dream would be something equivalent to on-line real-time traffic congestion maps, which show you, in red, the areas that are jammed and, in green, those that are flowing OK. (This one shows the conditions a little while ago in my former home of Kuala Lumpur. These features are not just for Americans any more.)
I'd love to see some comparable dynamic, real-time, real-company credit congestion map. In green, lines of credit that are open and are letting firms employ workers and sell goods. (Ideally, the lines would run from the location of the bank offering the line of credit to the company's HQ or main factory.) In orange, lines that are being withdrawn. In red, companies that being forced to close operations or lay off workers simply because they can't get working capital. It's not going to happen anytime soon, but we'd be better off if it did.
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