“We’re in Challenging times.” -President George W. Bush after hearing about Bear Stearns bail out.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008:

“The extraordinary unraveling of securities giant Bear Stearns Cos., one of the pillars of the Wall Street establishment, has taken the anxiety gripping the nation’s financial markets to a whole new level, threatening to deepen the agony of an economy that already is on its knees.

Over the past six months, a crisis that began when home loans to high-risk borrowers started to sour has cascaded into a near-panic in which the downfall of a big securities firm threatens the stability of the nation’s financial system.

“This is a once- or twice-in-a-century event, and no one knows the downside,” said Ian Morris, chief U.S. economist at the British bank HSBC.

If U.S. credit markets were to seize up, Main Street businesses and ordinary households would be all-but-unable to borrow, which would have a dire effect on spending, investment and jobs. That’s why the Fed is jumping in, economists stress.

“It’s not that the Fed cares about one particular firm. It’s more that the failure of one firm has an effect on the entire financial system,” Morris said. “Other players hoard cash out of a fear of lending to each other. The system freezes up and produces domino effects.”

Bear Stearns is the most prominent casualty to date of what was once called the subprime mortgage crisis but has long since transformed into an economy-wide credit chill.

The storied 85-year-old brokerage, known as one of the powerhouses of the bond market, came to the brink of failure after losses on mortgage-related holdings scared other investment firms away from dealing with it. Its failure might have touched off a panic in which banks and brokerages stopped lending each other money, bringing the financial system to a near meltdown with incalculable consequences for the broader economy, market watchers say.

The Federal Reserve, fearing the fallout from the collapse of one of the securities industry’s biggest players, took a series of unprecedented measures to shore up the financial system over the weekend. After arranging the forced marriage of Bear Stearns to rival JPMorgan Chase & Co., the nation’s central bank took steps Sunday to make itself both the ultimate guarantor of a wide range of debt and the lender ready to step in when other creditors are racing for the exits.

On Monday morning, President Bush huddled with his economic advisers and said afterward: “We’re in challenging times.””