Into the Land of the Unknown

Global market turmoil continues after the rejection of the mortgage-rescue plan in America.

HOW many votes in Congress will the latest financial upheaval change? That is the calculus underway in Washington, D.C., after the House of Representatives defeated the proposed $700 billion mortgage-rescue plan by 228 to 205 on Monday September 29th. Democrats backed it by 140 votes to 95, while Republicans opposed it by 133 to 65.

Bankers had been under no illusions that the tweaked Paulson plan would cure all the financial system’s ills. But most had seen it as a step in the right direction, and had expected it to pass. Its rejection sent stockmarkets into freefall. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished down by 7%, and suffered its biggest-ever points loss. Perhaps fittingly in an economy that is in danger of sliding into depression, the only stock among the 500 in the S&P index that finished higher was Campbell’s Soup. The S&P closed 29% below its peak. Reflecting fears that consumer demand will wilt, shares of Apple Computer, creator of the iPhone, fell by 18%. The rout continued in Asia, but shares rebounded in Europe on Tuesday morning on hopes that the bill would eventually pass.

But credit markets, already dysfunctional, were even closer to breaking point. Banks grew even less willing to lend to each other on Monday and Tuesday, and money-market funds fled anything with a whiff of risk. Some corporations are struggling to roll-over commercial paper, short-term debt issued to finance working capital, payroll payments and the like. In an effort to keep money markets from drying up, the Federal Reserve has doubled the size of a vital lending facility for banks, to $300 billion, and expanded agreements with other central banks that funnel dollars to lenders abroad.

These unprecedented injections are aimed at easing concerns that weak participants in the interbank market will fail to honour their debts. But many banks are now assumed to be not only illiquid but insolvent. Last week Washington Mutual, a thrift saddled with rotten mortgages, became the largest-ever American lender to fail. And on Monday Citigroup agreed to buy most of the assets of Wachovia, an even bigger American bank, in a deal brokered by regulators. The pain has suddenly grown much more intense in Europe, too.

The no vote was a big blow to George Bush, Hank Paulson, the treasury secretary, and Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman. They gave dire warnings of the consequences of an unchecked crisis, in hopes of persuading Congress to approve an unusually aggressive and early fiscal intervention. (It took many more years for a systemic response to widespread failures of American savings and loan banks in the 1980s). But because the intervention is relatively early, voters have yet to see much impact from the crisis on their lives. “On Monday morning ÂÂ…. the sun came up and a lot of people went to work, and [they] couldn’t understand what this panic was in Washington,” Paul Kanjorski, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, told Mr Paulson last week. It was far easier for voters to relate to $700 billion of their taxes being spent on a mess in Wall Street.

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