The WSJ fronts a story saying more Americans are delaying retirement because of the bum housing market and overall economic uncertainty.

Millions of retirement-age Americans, stung by the recent economic pall, suddenly are having to reassess their plans—with many forced to quickly change course. In February, the proportion of people ages 55 to 64 in the work force rose to 64.8%, up 1.5 percentage points from last April. That translates to more than an additional million people in the job pool, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The ranks of those 65 and over in the work force rose to 16.2% from 16% in the same time span—meaning 212,000 more hands on deck. So far, the numbers for March continue to show a “sharp” increase, says Steve Hipple, a department economist…

The double dip, affecting asset owners of every age bracket, is unprecedented in recent decades. In 1987, property and market values dropped in tandem—but nowhere near the extent to what’s happening now. To document similar conditions, “you’d have to go back to the era of the [Great] Depression,” says financial historian Richard Sylla of New York University’s Stern School of Business.

Dull but deadly

The Journal’s C1 Ahead of the Tape column is particularly good today, focusing on a topic that makes most of us glaze over—credit-default swaps. But hang with them, this is a huge, huge area of concern, and the paper notes that the Bush regulatory plan says little or nothing about it.

These financial instruments, which don’t trade on exchanges, are like disaster insurance on debt defaults. Investors who buy these swaps get a big payment if a bond or loan defaults. In return for the protection, the investor has to make regular payments to the seller of the swap.

To spice it up a bit, recall that these are the things Warren Buffett has called “weapons of mass destruction,” said he doesn’t understand them, and lost hundreds of millions of dollars through his insurance companies to unwind credit-default contracts they had acquired. The Journal brings up Bear Stearns and says its fall could have led to a domino effect on Wall Street because of CDS.

Credit-default swaps were a factor in the recent troubles of Bear Stearns. Hedge funds and other firms that were on the other side of credit-default swap trades with Bear tried to exit from their positions or pass them on to other brokers. That set off a broader panic about Bear’s health as a counterparty, which pushed the firm to the brink.

Swaps also played a deciding factor in the Federal Reserve’s dramatic intervention. If Bear went down, others could have been dragged down through their exposure to the firm through swaps.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.