The original plan actually called for humor. On Wednesday evening, actress Christy Carlson Romano was supposed to ring the closing bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to mark her debut in the Broadway musical "Avenue Q." She plays two roles on stage -- a romantic kindergarten assistant, and a slutty nightclub singer.
After that day on the floor, the stock traders could have used a bit of comic relief. But it was not to be. Instead of Christy Carlson Romano, a NYSE employee in a joyless gray suit stood on the balcony and silently pressed a button. The bell rang and he disappeared. No waving, no clapping, none of the usual jubilation.
By the end of Wednesday, no one here was in the mood for laughter. The bad news on Wall Street was coming thick and fast. All the US indexes were crashing again after Tuesday's brief and deceptive breather. In its wild, rollercoaster ride, the Dow Jones lost about 450 points, which was almost as much as it lost on Monday, the most catastrophic day on US markets since 2001.
Investors were turning their back to the market in droves and fleeing to safer pastures. The price of gold broke its record for the highest increase in a one-day period.
Panic Is the Word of the Hour
Traders abandoned the NYSE temple visually defeated and immune to the TV crews waiting. The disastrous closing prices were flickering on the ticker above the NYSE entrance: American Express -8.4 percent; Citigroup -10.9 percent; JPMorgan Chase -12.2 percent. American icons, abused like stray dogs. Even Apple took a hit.
"I don't know what else to say," stammered one broker, who was consoling himself with white wine and beer along with some colleagues at an outdoor bar called Beckett's. Ties and jackets were off, but despite the evening breeze, you could still make out the thin film of sweat on his forehead. His words captured the speechlessness of an industry.
Things got worse after the markets closed. Washington Mutual, America's fourth-largest bank, announced that it had started the process of putting itself up for sale. The Wall Street Journal reported that both Wells Fargo and the banking giant Citigroup were interested in taking over the battered American savings bank.
And then came the announcement that would dominate all of Thursday's market activities: Morgan Stanley -- the venerable Wall Street institution and one of the last two US investment banks left standing -- had lost massive amounts and was fighting for survival. Media reports were saying that it was even in talks about a possible bail-out or merger. Rumor had it that possible suitors might include Wachovia or China's Bank Citic.
"Folks," economist Larry Kudlow, a host on the business channel CNBC begged his viewers that evening, "don't give up on this great country!"
End of an Era
In fact, it really does look as if the foundations of US capitalism have shattered. Since 1864, American banking has been split into commercial banks and investment banks. But now that's changing. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch -- overnight, some of the biggest names on Wall Street have disappeared into thin air. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are the only giants left standing. Despite tolerable quarterly results, even they have been hurt by mysterious slumps in prices and -- at least in Morgan Stanley's case -- have prepared themselves for the end.
"Nothing will be like it was before," said James Allroy, a broker who was brooding over his chai latte at a Starbucks on Wall Street. "The world as we know it is going down."
Many are drawing comparisons with the Great Depression, the national trauma that has been the benchmark for everything since. "I think it has the chance to be the worst period of time since 1929," financing legend Donald Trump told CNN. And the Wall Street Journal seconds that opinion, giving one story the title: "Worst Crisis Since '30s, With No End Yet in Sight."
But what's really happening? Experts have so far been unable to agree on any conclusions. Is this the beginning of the end? Or is it just a painful, but normal cycle correcting the excesses of recent years? Does responsibility lie with the ratings agencies, which have been overvaluing financial institutions for a long time? Or did dubious short sellers manipulate stock prices -- after all, they were suspected of having caused the last stock market crisis in July.
The only thing that is certain is that the era of the unbridled free-market economy in the US has passed -- at least for now. The near nationalization of AIG, America's largest insurance company, with an $85 billion cash infusion -- a bill footed by taxpayers -- was a staggering move. The sum is three times as high as the guarantee provided by the Federal Reserve when Bear Stearns was sold to JPMorgan Chase in March.
The most breathtaking aspect about this week's crisis, though, is that the life raft -- which Washington had only previously used to bail out the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- is being handed out by a government whose party usually fights against any form of government intervention. The policy is anchored in its party platform.
"I fear the government has passed the point of no return," financial historian Ron Chernow told the New York Times. "We have the irony of a free-market administration doing things that the most liberal Democratic administration would never have been doing in its wildest dreams."
Bush Cancels Trip
The situation appears to be so serious that George W. Bush cancelled two domestic trips he had planned for Thursday on short notice. Instead, the president will remain in Washington to discuss the "serious challenges confronting US financial markets." He said the president remained focused on "taking action to stabilize and strengthen the markets." Bush had originally planned to travel to events in Florida and Alabama.
So far, the US presidential candidates have made few helpful remarks about the crisis other than the usual slogans. Both are vaguely calling for "regulation" and "reform" -- bland catchphrases almost universally welcomed with applause.
Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain had the most to say. On Monday, he said "the foundation of our economy" was "strong," adding that he opposed a government-led bailout of US insurer AIG. But now he's promising further government steps "to prevent the kind of wild speculation that can put our markets at risk." McCain's explanation for the current crisis: "unbridled corruption and greed."
But Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama didn't move past superficialities, either. "We're Americans. We've met tough challenges before and we can again."
What else are they supposed to say? After all, US presidents have very little influence on stockmarkets. And Wall Street is expecting the status quo for the next president. On Wednesday an almost palpable mix of tension and melancholy filled the air above New York's Financial District. The beloved trader bar Bull Run was half empty, and many tables were free at fine-dining establishments like Cipriani, Mangia and Bobby Van's, which are normally booked days in advance.
At the side entrance to Goldman Sachs on Pearl Street, limo chauffeurs sat waiting for their customers, still above in their office towers cowering over the accounts. "If they go under," said Rashid Amal, who works as a chauffeur for a firm called Excelsior, "then I will soon be out of a job, too."