Are we headed for 'Meltdown: The Sequel?'
It depends on who you talk to on the Street, but there are enough similarities to worry people whose job it is to foresee the kind of meltdown that panicked the markets back in 2008, to cause a debate between Cassandras and Pollyannas over the near term future of the financial industry.
The key, once again, is debt. But instead of mortgage securities that lost huge amounts of value overnight, it is Euro-debt that appears to be causing concerns.
Experts add it is important not to confuse a stock market rout with an all-out panic.
"I think it's quite different than 2008," said John Richards, head of strategy at RBS in Stamford, Conn. "This is a stock market correction based on slower growth and the increased probability of a recession. In 2008 we had a genuine funding crisis, where banks were reluctant to lend to one another."
Others on Wall Street maintain that the turmoil is playing out in similar fashion. Traders compare the threat from Greece that prompted the sovereign debt crisis a year ago to Bear Stearns, whose fall in March 2008 was a dress rehearsal for the broader crisis that followed six months later. For these would-be Cassandras, the huge debt loads of Italy and Spain are now equivalent to Lehman and A.I.G., institutions whose downfalls threatened the stability of the entire system.
In an ominous echo of 2008, European bank stocks on Wednesday fell 10 percent or more - and banks in Europe are beginning to hoard cash, crimping the interbank loans that keep the global financial system operating smoothly. While borrowing costs for banks in the United States and Britain have crept up only slightly recently, borrowing costs for Continental banks that lend to one another have doubled since the end of July.
More optimistic market watchers point out that these rates are still well below those at the height of the financial crisis. But they nonetheless are the highest since the spring of 2009.
Euro banks are heavy into sovereign debt - not just Greece, Portugal, and Ireland each of whom may yet experience some kind of default, but also Italy and Spain. Covering for those two giant economies would expose the banks to catastrophe if either one defaulted on their debt.
And since the Euro banks lend billions every day to their American counterparts, the chances of a crisis spreading across the Atlantic are high.
But so far, the European Central Bank appears to be tackling the problem of debt aggressively and their actions have quieted the markets somewhat. We'll have to see if that can last, or whether more panic ensues that would cause a ripple effect that might endanger big banks here and cause a similar meltdown that we experienced in 2008.