Three of the most important functions of free markets are: price discovery, the provision of liquidity, and capital allocation. Honest and transparent dealings between willing buyers and sellers are thought to result in liquid and efficient marketplaces. Prices are determined, second by second, in a process of public negotiation, taking old and emergent information about risks and returns into account. Capital is allocated to the highest bidder, who, presumably, can make the most profit on it. And every seller finds a buyer and vice versa.
The current global crisis is not only about the failure of a few investment banks (in the USA) and retail banks (in Europe). The very concept of free markets seems to have gone bankrupt. This was implicitly acknowledged by governments as they rushed to nationalize banks and entire financial systems.
In the last 14 months (August 2007 to October 2008), markets repeatedly failed to price assets correctly. From commodities to stocks, from derivatives to houses, and from currencies to art prices gyrate erratically and irrationally all over the charts. The markets are helpless and profoundly dysfunctional: no one seems to know what is the "correct" price for oil, shares, housing, gold, or anything else for that matter. Disagreements between buyers and sellers regarding the "right" prices are so unbridgeable and so frequent that price volatility (as measured, for instance, by the VIX index) has increased to an all time high. Speculators have benefited from unprecedented opportunities for arbitrage. Mathematical-economic models of risk, diversification, portfolio management and insurance have proven to be useless.
Inevitably, liquidity has dried up. Entire markets vanished literally overnight: collateralized debt obligations and swaps (CDOs and CDSs), munis (municipal bonds), commercial paper, mortgage derivatives, interbank lending. Attempts by central banks to inject liquidity into a moribund system have largely floundered and proved futile.
Finally, markets have consistently failed to allocate capital efficiently and to put it to the most-profitable use. In the last decade or so, business firms (mainly in the USA) have destroyed more economic value than they have created. This net destruction of assets, both tangible and intangible, retarded wealth formation. In some respects, the West - and especially the United States - are poorer now than they were in 1988. This monumental waste of capital was a result of the policies of free and easy money adopted by the world's central banks since 2001. Easy come, easy go, I guess.