Panic, by its nature, is an unreasonable fear that seizes one suddenly. But it comes after a series of shocks that drain confidence and stoke worries. Such was the Panic of '08: a torrent of news, bad turning to worse, which by its very ceaselessness made the hardiest souls cringe.
One can point fingers, document the bonus-driven greed of bankers, explain the overly complex financial vehicles which spun out of control. But trying to explain it all away misses the point — that sheer chaos overtook the world of money.
Bear Stearns reveals massive losses in two in-house hedge funds from securities linked to subprime mortgages. CNBC stock shouter Jim Cramer insists the company is fine. Six days later, JPMorgan Chase agrees to buy it for $2 a share, with the government guaranteeing $30 billion in losses.
Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, in an effort to bolster the stock price of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, gives their debt an explicit guarantee. His move backfired: Shareholders, seeing the prospect of a government takeover which would wipe them out, sell their shares.
Paulson announces that the government is taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Lehman Brothers, unable to find a merger partner or negotiate a government bailout, files for bankruptcy. As laid-off Lehman employees walk out of the office with their possessions boxed up, two men make out in front of a CNN reporter's live camera.
AIG, which had guaranteed billions of dollars in financial contracts linked to subprime mortgages, teeters on the verge of bankruptcy before getting an $85 billion infusion from the government.
Congress passes a $700 billion rescue plan. Stocks continue to drop as economic figures show the economy was faltering even before Wall Street's collapse. Ferrari-loving ex-Goldman Sachs banker Neel Kashkari is hired to oversee it. The former rocket scientist rapidly proves too geeky for the job. The Dow falls below 10,000, then 9,000. Citigroup tries to buy Wachovia and fails; Wells Fargo buys Wachovia instead.
Layoff fears hit Silicon Valley: Partners at Sequoia Capital, the venture-capital firm which backed Apple, Google, Cisco, and Yahoo, among others, urge their companies to cut costs quickly. Dozens follow suit in pink-slipping employees.
The contagion spreads to Detroit: U.S.-based automakers report dreadful third-quarter sales. The chiefs of GM, Ford, and Chrysler fly to Washington to ask for a bailout — in private jets.
Citigroup stock drops 60 percent in a week, prompting the government to invest $20 billion and guarantee a $306 billion portfolio of securities against losses.
On Black Friday, a group of shoppers break into a Wal-Mart before it opens and trample a worker. Holiday sales prove dismal.
Post-Thanksgiving layoffs sweep the New York media. Yahoo throws a series of holiday parties, and then lays off 1,500 employees. Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis suggests only idiots actually lend people money. Everyone resolves to pretty much give up until Barack Obama's inauguration.