Panic was spreading on two of the scariest days ever in financial markets, and the biggest investors — not small investors — were panicking the most. Nobody was sure how much damage it would cause before it ended.
This is what a credit crisis looks like. It’s not like a stock market crisis, where the scary plunge of stocks is obvious to all. The credit crisis has played out in places most people can’t see. It’s banks refusing to lend to other banks — even though that is one of the most essential functions of the banking system. It’s a loss of confidence in seemingly healthy institutions like Morgan Stanley and Goldman — both of which reported profits even as the pressure was mounting. It is panicked hedge funds pulling out cash. It is frightened investors protecting themselves by buying credit-default swaps — a financial insurance policy against potential bankruptcy — at prices 30 times what they normally would pay.
It was this 36-hour period two weeks ago — from the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 17, to the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 18 — that spooked policy makers by opening fissures in the worldwide financial system.
In their rush to do something, and do it fast, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. concluded the time had come to use the “break the glass” rescue plan they had been developing. But in their urgency, they bypassed a crucial step in Washington and fashioned their $700 billion bailout without political spadework, which led to a resounding rejection this past Monday in the House of Representatives.
That Thursday evening, however, time was of the essence. In a hastily convened meeting in the conference room of the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the two men presented, in the starkest terms imaginable, the outline of the $700 billion plan to Congressional leaders. “If we don’t do this,” Mr. Bernanke said, according to several participants, “we may not have an economy on Monday.”