If you want to know what a modern bank run looks like, consider the case of the giant commodity trading firm Refco. It went public in mid-August, but in the course of the past week it has gone from $4 billion stock-market darling to carcass.

The proximate cause of the meltdown was the surprise disclosure on Monday, Oct. 10, that an entity controlled by CEO Phillip Bennett had owed $430 million to the company. A week later, trading of the stock has been halted and vultures are picking over Refco the way hyenas gnaw on the remains of wildebeest.



Refco was no boiler-room operation. It’s been around and successful for a long time. (Scandal connoisseurs will recall that Refco was Hillary Clinton’s commodities broker.) And it had been getting more and more respectable. First, Thomas H. Lee, the highly respected private equity investor, agreed to take a big stake in Refco in the summer of 2004. Then gold-plated underwriters Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse First Boston brought it public two months ago.



Refco was a model 21st-century business—a highly digitized, high-tech services company that traded complicated financial instruments on behalf of customers all over the globe. But its meltdown shows that its real assets were not its New Economy algorithms and brainpower. Rather, this extremely modern company depended ultimately on the kind of assets that built American capitalism in the 19th century: trust, integrity, and the personal reputation of executives.



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