I've noted before how important the notion of confidence is in a heavily-leveraged society such as ours. At its root, credit is an expression of faith. A lender hands over money today in the expectation - hope? - that the sum will eventually be repaid, along with something extra to make it worthwhile.
However, if enough people start worrying about whether their confidence has been misplaced, it can spawn a self-feeding contagion of worry and doubt that undermines the entire system. History suggests that once the tide shifts, the downward spiral is increasingly difficult to turn around.
Worse still, what might seem like a viable solution can fan the flames of disaster. Recent central bank efforts designed to funnel extra liquidity to lenders, for example, could have unintended consequences. Confidence could be further damaged because people believe things are worse than they thought. Banks might refuse needed aid to avoid being labeled as desperate.
In a Washington Post Op-Ed, "What Bankers Fear," David Ignatius gives us his thoughts on what is likely keeping more than a few people up at night.
When airport rescue crews are worried that a damaged plane may have a crash landing, they sometimes spread the runway with foam to reduce the probability of fire on impact. That's what the Federal Reserve and other central banks are doing in pumping liquidity into severely damaged financial markets.
Make no mistake: The central bankers' announcement Wednesday of a new coordinated effort to pump cash into the global financial system is a sign of their nervousness. The global credit squeeze that began last summer still hasn't run its course, and the central bankers fear that the stressed financial system could pull the world economy into a deep recession.
Thus the bankers' decision to shower the system with money, through a new system of auctions that will allow banks to borrow more cheaply than they can through the commercial interbank market. What's unusual is that five leading central banks agreed to act as a joint rescue committee.
The aim isn't so much to prevent a downturn -- the bankers aren't sure that's possible, or even desirable -- as to mitigate its effects. Fed officials have decided that they need to let the adjustment happen in financial markets, with prices of mortgage-backed securities and other assets falling to levels that will allow the markets to clear.
"Helicopters start dropping bundles of cash," read the headline on a column by Martin Wolf in Thursday's Financial Times. This image of free money recalls the facetious prescription of John Maynard Keynes that to get money in circulation again during the Great Depression, the government could simply bury it underground and encourage unemployed workers to dig it up. This time the bankers won't even have to dig.
Fed officials want to avoid two mistakes made in past financial crises. They don't want to be overly harsh, as banking authorities were after the real estate collapse that hit New England in the early 1990s. Back then, regulators forced banks to clean up their balance sheets by selling off assets in a falling market, which made the downward cycle even worse.
The Fed also wants to avoid being overly tolerant, as Japanese authorities were during that country's long-running financial crisis. The Japanese banks were allowed to keep bad loans on their books, in the hope that they could gradually grow their way out of the crisis. Instead, this lenient policy simply delayed the day of reckoning.
What scares the central bankers now is the evaporation of trust from the system. Banks don't believe each other's numbers; since nobody knows the real value of some of the mortgage-backed securities everyone is holding, they assume the worst. They start hoarding cash as a buffer against their own losses and because they're nervous about lending to anyone else.
That's what bankers mean when they talk about lack of liquidity. It isn't so much a shortage of cash as an unwillingness to make it available to others. It was Keynes, again, who coined the term "liquidity preference" to describe a situation in which even high rates of return couldn't persuade frightened investors to commit their cash.
"The basic problem is that banks don't trust each other. They can't get financing, so they don't lend, and this can cause spillover into the larger economy," explains Ted Truman, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute in Washington and the Fed's former top international economist.
A fresh portrait of this stressed system appeared last week in the latest quarterly report by the Bank of International Settlements. The report noted that net issuance of certain mortgage-backed securities fell to $3 billion in September, compared with $30 billion or more a month in 2005 and 2006. Borrowing in general declined sharply, with the net issuance of bonds and notes in the third quarter less than half that of the previous quarter.
What does this market feel like for players at ground zero? I asked the head of one of the leading hedge funds how he had traded his portfolio Wednesday, the day the joint rescue package was announced. He answered that he had stayed out of the market because he wasn't sure what to do. Trades that looked sensible at 10 a.m. would have turned out to be mistakes by noon.
"If someone would take me out of all my positions, long and short, I'd do it," he said. This is the financial market equivalent of saying you want to start over. Six months into the credit crunch, that's the way many exhausted players are feeling. The markets will have to sink a good deal more, alas, before the vultures arrive to carry off the debris and the process of rebuilding can start.