February 21, 2008
|A bank run, April, 1933, during the last Great Depression.|
It doesn’t look like an old-fashioned bank run because it involves the biggest financial institutions trading paper assets so complicated that even top executives don’t fully understand the transactions. But that’s what it is — a spreading fear among financial institutions that their brethren can’t be trusted to honor their obligations.
Frightened financiers are pulling back from credit markets — going on strike, if you will — to escape the unraveling daisy chain of securitized assets and promissory notes that binds the global financial system. As each financier tries to protect against the next one’s mistakes, the whole system begins to sag. That’s what we’re seeing now, as credit market troubles spread from bundles of subprime residential mortgages to bundles of other kinds of debt — from student loans to retailers’ receivables to municipal bonds.
Investors are nervous because they aren’t sure how to value these bundles of securitized assets. So buyers stay away, prices fall further, and the damage spreads.