Sunday, March 22, 2009

Selling Fear: How to Frighten Americans and Make Money

I'm feeling good.

At the Tattered Cover Bookstore the other day, a certain book title grabbed my attention: The Great Depression Ahead: How to Prosper in the Crash Following the Greatest Boom in History by Harry Dent. Searching for similarly inspiring titles later on, I found these lovely little nuggets: Game Over: How You Can Prosper in a Shattered Economy by Stephen Leeb and The Wall Street Journal Guide to the End of Wall Street as We Know It: What You Need to Know about the Greatest Financial Crisis of our Time--and How to Survive It by Dave Kansas.

Reading the book jacket of The Great Depression Ahead, Mr. Dent predicts apocalypse (well, maybe I'm being slightly hyperbolic). However, IF you buy his book, he says, he will provide helpful advice for how you and your family can thrive in the midst of troubled times. And then yesterday, after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner put forth a plan to purchase toxic assets from banks that set the markets soaring, this is what Mr. Leeb, above-mentioned author and President at Leeb Capital Management, had to say on "The plan is a rehash of what we've seen before and it still doesn't resolve the issue of how to value the bad assets."

He does have have a point about valuing assets; it still is one of the unresolved challenges facing a government that wants to flush out the banks, recapitalize them and restore faith in the markets. I wonder, though, whether Mr. Leeb might also be concerned that if Americans start showing such optimism and confidence as they did yesterday, his book sales may go the way of the Dow Jones last October. Was yesterday an opportunity for him to renew the call for fear and uncertainty?

Fear is a ball bouncing around the wreckage that is our economy today and it took Larry Summers on March 13 to say enough is enough. "It is this transition from an excess of greed to an excess of fear that President Roosevelt had in mind when he famously observed that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself," he was quoted as saying.

Americans have always looked for an easy way to earn easy money or assets: first, the VC crowd was sure it was doing right when it overcapitalized the dot-coms a decade ago. Whoops. Next came the subprime gurus who offered to give...I mean sell you a house without your actually having to pay for it. What we're seeing now is the emergence of fearmongers to tap into people's emotions and there is no emotion like fear to drive people to action.

Insightful salesmen recognize that...and they will take advantage of it. Don't let the books scare you; let's face it, if Warren Buffet can't get through these tough times without taking a hit then neither will you or I, no matter what anyone tells you. And great salesmen can, as the saying goes, sell dirt to a farmer, so it's worth being careful when people get up on their boxes and start telling us the end is nigh. But I actually think, in one way, that this phenomenon of promoting fear for profit is a good sign: it shows that, however much we as American are changing as a result of this crisis, in some ways we are still the same.

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