If you're having a little trouble coping with what seems to be the complete unraveling of the world's financial system, you needn't feel bad about yourself. It's horribly confusing, not to say terrifying; even people like us, with a combined 65 years of writing about business, have never seen anything like what's going on. Some of the smartest, savviest people we know like the folks running the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board find themselves reacting to problems rather than getting ahead of them. It's terra incognita, a place no one expected to visit.
Every day brings another financial horror show, as if Stephen King were channeling Alan Greenspan to produce scary stories full of negative numbers. One weekend, the Federal Government swallows two gigantic mortgage companies and dumps more than $5 trillion yes, with a t of the firms' debt onto taxpayers, nearly doubling the amount Uncle Sam owes to his lenders. While we're trying to get our heads around what amounts to the biggest debt transfer since money was created, Lehman Brothers goes broke, and Merrill Lynch feels compelled to shack up with Bank of America to avoid a similar fate. Then, having sworn off bailouts by letting Lehman fail and wiping out its shareholders, the Treasury and the Fed reverse course for an $85 billion rescue of creditors and policyholders of American International Group (AIG), a $1 trillion insurance company. Other once impregnable institutions may disappear or be gobbled up.
The scariest thing to average folk: one of the nation's biggest money-market mutual funds, the Reserve Primary, announced that it's going to give investors less than 100 cent on each dollar invested because it got stuck with Lehman securities it now considers worthless. If you can't trust your money fund, what can you trust? To use a technical term to describe this turmoil: yechhh!
There are two ways to look at this. There's Wall Street's way, which features theories and numbers and equations and gobbledygook and, ultimately, rationalization (as in, "How were we supposed to know that people who lied about their income and assets would walk away from mortgages on houses in which they had no equity? That wasn't in our computer model. It's not our fault"). Then there's the right way, which involves asking the questions that really matter: How did we get here? How do we get out of it? And what does all this mean for the average joe? So take a deep breath and bear with us as we try to explain how financial madness overtook not only Wall Street but also Main Street. And why, in the end, almost all of us, collectively, are going to pay for the consequences.