Nervous traders on the trading floor in the midst of one of Wall Street’s most historic weeks
Things are looking grim down on Wall Street. Rather than trying to explain the chaos myself, I’ve chosen two articles that will do it better than I can. Suffice it to say that what is easily noticed is that the credo in American capitalism seems to be “privatize the profits, socialize the losses” as several companies have been rescued by the United States government and more rescues are bound to come.
Things got worse after the markets closed. Washington Mutual, America’s fourth-largest bank, announced that it had started the process of putting itself up for sale. The Wall Street Journal reported that both Wells Fargo and the banking giant Citigroup were interested in taking over the battered American savings bank.
And then came the announcement that would dominate all of Thursday’s market activities: Morgan Stanley — the venerable Wall Street institution and one of the last two US investment banks left standing — had lost massive amounts and was fighting for survival. Media reports were saying that it was even in talks about a possible bail-out or merger. Rumor had it that possible suitors might include Wachovia or China’s Bank Citic.
“Folks,” economist Larry Kudlow, a host on the business channel CNBC begged his viewers that evening, “let’s not let this magnificent country go down!”
In fact, it really does look as if the foundations of US capitalism have shattered. Since 1864, American banking has been split into commercial banks and investment banks. But now that’s changing. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch — overnight, some of the biggest names on Wall Street have disappeared into thin air. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are the only giants left standing. Despite tolerable quarterly results, even they have been hurt by mysterious slumps in prices and — at least in Morgan Stanley’s case — have prepared themselves for the end.
“Nothing will ever be like it was before,” said James Allroy, a broker who was brooding over his chai latte at a Starbucks on Wall Street. “The world as we know it is going under.”
“This has been the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. There is no question about it,” said Mark Gertler, a New York University economist who worked with fellow academic Ben Bernanke, now the Federal Reserve chairman, to explain how financial turmoil can infect the overall economy. “But at the same time we have the policy mechanisms in place fighting it, which is something we didn’t have during the Great Depression.”
Fed and Treasury officials have identified the disease. It’s called deleveraging, or the unwinding of debt. During the credit boom, financial institutions and American households took on too much debt. Between 2002 and 2006, household borrowing grew at an average annual rate of 11%, far outpacing overall economic growth. Borrowing by financial institutions grew by a 10% annualized rate. Now many of those borrowers can’t pay back the loans, a problem that is exacerbated by the collapse in housing prices. They need to reduce their dependence on borrowed money, a painful and drawn-out process that can choke off credit and economic growth.