Pumping Money: Financial Market Liquidity Explained

This week's frantic news from Wall Street sent central banks around the world pumping money into the financial system, providing liquidity, or ready cash. Adam Davidson talks to Debbie Elliott about what exactly this means.

Let's say you own a big, beautiful $1-million house. The pizza delivery guy arrives with your dinner but you don't have any cash. He doesn't care how valuable your house is; he wants you to give him some money right now.

Banks basically work the same way. Every afternoon, they add up all the money they owe and all the money they have. The banks figure out whether they need money to meet their obligations. The banks that have extra money lend it to the banks that need money in the form of very short-term, overnight loans.

That constant process of lending extra cash provides the liquidity that funds the global economy.

This normally works very easily, but this past week there was a liquidity crisis. A few key banks around the world announced to everyone's surprise that they had a lot of sub-prime mortgages and that their assets were worth much less than anyone thought.

Banks began to worry: What if there are other banks that aren't disclosing how much their assets have shrunk. It caused a panic among banks, and they reduced lending to each other.

Suddenly, other banks that needed the money didn't have the ready cash to pay off the people who needed it.

The Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and other central banks around the world stepped in, pumping extra liquidity — billions of dollars — into the system. The central banks provide extra cash all the time, but this week the amounts were much larger than normal.

But there's a potential downside to the central banks' action. Eventually, the fear is that they would pump so much money into economy that it would cause inflation. So the Fed will be keeping its eye out against that possibility and is likely to stop long before inflation sets in.

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