You've probably heard by now: Stocks closed yesterday at their lowest level since 1997.

Anyone remember 1997? Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) wasn't even a company. General Motors (NYSE:GM) was one of the most profitable companies in the world. Bob Dole had just run for president. Stocks were still quoted in fractions rather than decimals. Hanson was crazy big.

More relevantly, 1997 was around the same time then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan gave his famous "irrational exuberance" speech, warning that "…we should not underestimate or become complacent about the complexity of the interactions of asset markets and the economy."

But he did. And we did. Almost everyone underestimated how complex the intertwining relationships between Wall Street and Main Street were, and more importantly, the relationships between the global economies. China needed demand from American consumers; American markets needed capital from Chinese savers; consumers relied on that capital to fund a free-for-all real estate market; banks rerouted the proceeds into a secondary credit market that couldn’t care less about loan quality. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and as soon as one end of the self-fulfilling cycle shut off, the entire house of cards came crumbling down in a historic way.

Just how historic? Using peak-to-trough declines, here's how our current situation looks against other market crashes:



S&P 500 decline


Great Depression



Oil embargo



Dot-com crash



Unrivaled financial insanity



Yep -- we're now officially in the biggest market crash since the Great Depression. In fact, we found out courtesy of the World Economic Forum that more than 40% of total global wealth has been destroyed since the crisis began. You have plenty of company, dear sufferers.

Who to blame?
The big driver of this crash right now is obviously banks. Confidence in them -- as well as in the government's ability to save them -- is shot to pieces. The recent rumor that Citigroup (NYSE:C) would be swapping government preferred shares for common stock, for example, is a step in the right direction, but woefully inadequate.

Citi has around $23 billion of tangible common equity, which equates to a 1.2% "TCE ratio." To get that ratio up to the historical norm of around 6%, it would need something along the lines of $100 billion of fresh capital -- and that's assuming asset writedowns are over (which they aren't). Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) would need in the neighborhood of $75 billion to reach the same capital levels. While a gazillion dollars has already been thrown at banks to stop their hemorrhaging, it's still not nearly enough, and that outlook is flushing the economy down the toilet and scaring the pants off the market.

Be that as it may, it's not hard to make an argument that markets are currently being controlled by witless hysteria, opening the doors to investment values we haven't seen this generation. As Oscar Wilde once said, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." I'm looking for silver linings here, people.

To illustrate what I mean, I ran a quick screen to find stocks trading at less than three times 2008 earnings. Dozens popped up, including these three:


Market Cap

2008 Net Income

ArcelorMittal (NYSE:MT)

$22.0 billion

$9.4 billion

United Rentals (NYSE:URI)

$262 million

$302 million*

United StatesSteel (NYSE:X)

$2.5 billion

$2.1 billion

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor’s. *Latest 12 months, through Sept. 30.

I'm not advocating that you buy any of these; all three are in industries that have blown up in the past few months. Nonetheless, the spectacular declines in businesses that will have demand and staying power after the economy recovers is truly amazing.

Markets always, without fail, overshoot on the way down when deflating from an asset bubble. In fact, the best three-year period ever to own stocks was from 1933-1936 -- right in the middle of the Great Depression. No one argues that the economy isn’t in horrendous shape right now, but arguing that stock valuations are equally as grim is another thing completely.  

When will it end?
No one knows. These are problems that took years to create, and hence won't be solved overnight. The only certainty is that we're 7,000 points closer to the bottom today than we were when stocks peaked in October 2007. For long-term investors with patience and a desire to tear apart the market in search of bargains, that's all that really matters.

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Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.