From the Wall Street Journal.....

U.S. Mortgage Crisis Rivals S&L Meltdown

The home has long been the bedrock asset of most American families. Now, its value has become the biggest question mark hanging over the global economy and financial system.

Over the past decade, Wall Street built a market for more than $2 trillion in securities sold globally and backed by loans to U.S. homeowners on two long-accepted beliefs and one newer one. The prevailing logic: The value of the American home would never fall nationwide, and people would almost always make their mortgage payments. The more recent twist: Packaging mortgage loans and turning them into securities would make the global economy more resilient if anything went wrong.

In a matter of months, though, much of the promise of the new financial architecture -- together with its underlying assumptions -- has proven to be a mirage. As house prices fall and homeowners default on mortgages at troubling rates, the pain has spread far and wide. An examination of the resulting crisis shows that it is comparable to some of the biggest financial disasters of the past half-century.

So far, the potential losses look manageable compared with the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s and the tech-stock crash of 2000-02. But the housing debacle could yet take years to work out, thanks to the sheer complexity of it. Until the mess is cleaned up, investors will remain jittery and banks will likely hold back on all kinds of lending -- a credit crunch that is already damping global growth and could tip the U.S. economy into recession.

The new financial system -- shifting risk from banks to securities markets -- has worked "pretty well" up until now, says former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. "We're going to find out if it works well for a major-league crisis."

To ease the pain, the Federal Reserve has cut short-term interest rates twice and is expected to cut them further tomorrow. The Bush administration has also pressed for private-sector curative measures. First, it urged big banks to create a new entity to buy some mortgage-linked securities that don't have a ready market now. And a plan finalized last week calls for freezing interest payments on perhaps hundreds of thousands of qualifying homeowners whose mortgage notes are set to rise. (See a primer: Will the Rate Freeze Help You?) Both ideas are controversial. They are hailed by some as well-conceived financial first aid and criticized by others as inadequate -- or an impediment to crisis resolution.