A crisis grows into its prime

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Nothing frightens a man like bad news about his money. The war in Iraq, health care costs, gay marriage, abortion and tooth decay are all bad, but not as bad as a faltering economy, stupid.

Everybody’s watching to see whether the greedy men at Bear Stearns and others like them will pull down the rest of Wall Street and eventually the shops on Main Street and finally the houses on Coffee Pot Lane. Empty assurances from the wonderful folks who brought this misery to our doorsteps are not very reassuring. The chief executive of Bear Stearns was reassuring everybody that his company was in fine shape only two days before rival JP Morgan bought him out for only $236 million, which is mere parking-meter change on Wall Street.

“Our liquidity position in the last 24 hours has significantly deteriorated,” he explained yesterday. Translation for Bear Stearns stockholders: “We’ve blown a lot of your money and had a lot of fun doing it, and yesterday the vultures came down to feast.” The buyout of Bear Stearns over the weekend didn’t reassure anyone: Markets were down yesterday all over the world.

Native wit and sense are always more reliable than the expensive advice of consultants, analysts and other soothsayers of the voodoo persuasion, but wit is inevitably drowned by the noise of the voodoo priests. “Last week [President] Bush dared to wander from the [soothsayer] script,” the Wall Street Journal observes, citing his remark “that a strong dollar ‘helps with inflation’ and rued its weakness against the euro. He was quickly reeled in by his advisers, and in his Friday speech to the New York Economic Club, Mr. Bush reverted to the boilerplate language that investors now interpret as favoring a weak currency.”

The current terror is traceable to the “subprime crisis” of last summer, when the investment bankers — Bear Stearns first among them — paid the price for greed and incompetence in the form of granting thousands of loans to unqualified buyers of houses, many of them decrepit properties. Such loans turned out to be worthless paper.

Two English entertainers, John Bird and John Fortune, capture the absurdity in a routine for London television. (A YouTube video capture of it buzzes even now about the Internet.) Proving again that satire works best when it cuts closest to reality, Messrs Bird and Fortune, in the persons of an investment banker and his interviewer, explain what happened in the subprime crisis with a devastating mixture of fact and fancy.

What happened, says the faux investment banker, is that a mortgage salesman typically encounters a layabout sitting in his undershirt on the porch of a crumbling house “somewhere in Alabama” and offers to lend him the money to buy the house before it falls down. The resulting worthless mortgage is packaged with a hundred other identical dodgy mortgages into something called “a structured investment vehicle.”

“I ring up someone in Tokyo,” explains the investment banker, “and say I’ve got this package of mortgages and do you want to buy it? They ask what’s in it, and I say I haven’t got the faintest idea, and they say ‘what do you want for it?’ I say a hundred million dollars. They say ‘fine,’ and that’s it. That’s how the market works.”

An exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much. The public understands instinctively that a Ponzi scheme like this has been going on, and thus the president’s reassurance now is not very reassuring. “One thing is for certain, we’re in challenging times,” the president told reporters yesterday after huddling with Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary. “But another thing is for certain: we’ve taken strong decisive action. We’ve shown the country and the world that we’re on top of the situation.”

Maybe. We must all trust, and hope, for the sake of the president and everybody else, that events will verify.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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