Downgrade: Is it '08 all over again?

A trader reacts to the down market on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Kai Ryssdal: Raise your hand if the first thing you thought of last week when the Dow dropped 512 points was 2008. September, to be exact. Yeah, same here.

So in our search for reassurance that what's past is not necessarily prologue, we dialed up our New York bureau chief Heidi Moore. Hey Heidi.

Heidi Moore: Hey Kai.

Ryssdal: So I'm hoping you have the answer to this one. I need to know how this is different from 2008 because frankly that's what a lot of people are thinking.

Moore: Right. Well I think probably public officials are taking less medication. But the actual answer is that we've been through 2008. You're a Navy man, right? So you know how it is when you're training, you get stronger. So we've been through 2008 and we know what that looks like. I'm not saying that we're Navy Seals, but we're certainly in a better position in terms of the banking system. You can look at the banks: They are better capitalized, they are watched like hawks right now -- not just by the government but also by the public. And also, the crisis that we're facing now is not a financial crisis within the banking system, it is an economic malaise.

Ryssdal: Well that gets me to my next question, which is I'm really, really happy that the banks are doing well, but talk to me about those of us who are not in the banking sector. What about the rest of the real economy?

Moore: Yeah, we have a divided economy and even the experts don't know how to explain this. We have companies with huge corporate profits, the banks have been largely profitable -- although it's been a rough year for them -- and yet the rest of the economy is not doing well. Food stamps are on the rise, people are living off of credit cards and, of course, that thorny unemployment problem, which is the core of all of our problems. If we get unemployment going in some way, then we will have a better economy and everyone will benefit. But until then, we're fairly secure.

I talked to Michael Holland, he's a fund manager, about whether the banks could be engulfed by this just general bad sense in the air that we've had lately. Here's what he said...

Michael Holland: Fear and panic are self-perpetuating, so anything is possible. I think that bank crises are certainly within the purview of people right now.

And the problem with that is unlike in 2008, now banks and the government are married -- which means that the whole society is married to both banks and the government.

Ryssdal: Interesting you use that word society because here comes the last question about banks and their impact on us. The French bank Societe Generale today, right, all kinds of rumors that it was in serious trouble. They turned out not to be worth anything, but shares of that bank lost 15 percent. The entire financial sector in the United States was dragged down in the markets today. You're still going to tell me that the banks are doing fine and they're not going to lead us back into the morass?

Moore: Well it's not the bank's fault that there is a rumor. What we saw in '08 was the same kinds of rumors and they're the ones that took down Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. The truth is you can never be strong enough as a bank or a government to avoid the effect of fear and panic, and that's what Michael Holland was saying. All you really need to destroy even the strongest bank is a rumor. And so if somebody wants to do that, it really can create an enormous problem for the rest of us.

Ryssdal: So let's cut to the chase then, we're not in 2008, I get that -- could we be?

Moore: We could be if the world economy is as bad as it's been and people get primed for panics and rumors. And that's what could take us down. But we've been working on the fundamentals on the economy and we'll be doing that for 15 more years at least.

Ryssdal: Heidi Moore in our New York City bureau. Heidi, thanks a lot.

Moore: Thank you.

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