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Inside the Meltdown

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Inside the Meltdown

On Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008, the astonished leadership of the U.S. Congress was told in a private session by the chairman of the Federal Reserve that the American economy was in grave danger of a complete meltdown within a matter of days. There was literally a pause in that room where the oxygen left, says Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.)

As the housing bubble burst and trillions of dollars' worth of toxic mortgages began to go bad in 2007, fear spread through the massive firms that form the heart of Wall Street. By the spring of 2008, burdened by billions of dollars of bad mortgages, the investment bank Bear Stearns was the subject of rumors that it would soon fail.

Rumors are such that they can just plain put you out of business, Bear Stearns' former CEO Alan Ace Greenberg tells FRONTLINE.

The company's stock had dropped from 1 to a share, and it was hours from declaring bankruptcy. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke acted. It was clear that this had to be contained. There was no doubt in his mind, says Bernanke's colleague, economist Mark Gertler.

Bernanke, a former economics professor from Princeton, specialized in studying the Great Depression. He more than anybody else appreciated what would happen if it got out of control, Gertler explains.

To stabilize the markets, Bernanke engineered a shotgun marriage between Bear Sterns and the commercial bank JPMorgan, with a promise that the federal government would use billion to cover Bear Stearns' questionable assets tied to toxic mortgages. It was an unprecedented effort to stop the contagion of fear that seemed to be threatening the rest of Wall Street.

While publicly supportive of the deal, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a former Wall Street executive with Goldman Sachs, was uncomfortable with government interference in the markets. That summer, he issued a warning to his former colleagues not to expect future government bailouts, saying he was concerned about a legal concept known as moral hazard.

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