In the ongoing collapse at the stock market, big names get the most ink. Weighed down by excessive debt and bad bets in its finance division, industrial giant General Electric has shed more than 80 percent of its value over the last year. Not long ago, it counted as the most valuable corporation in the world. Now, smart people are openly wondering whether it will be the next too-big-to-fail recipient of a government bailout.

AIG, once the globe’s premier insurance company, now exists solely by the charity of the U.S. Treasury. It has already consumed $180 billion in taxpayer cash; observers expect it to gobble at least another $70 billion, bringing its total price tag to a staggering quarter trillion dollars. 

Citigroup, Bank of America … the list goes on: once-mighty corporations that now must beggar the taxpayer in order to live, and whose stock trades at pennies to the dollar of recent valuations.

Here’s a name that deserves a bit more attention in this financial meltdown: General Growth Properties, which owns, manages, or has interests in more than 200 shopping malls in 45 states. Staggering under a massive debt load and battered by the bad economy, General Growth looks headed for bankruptcy or a fire sale. As recently as last June, its shares fetched $40. Today, you can snap one up for less than 40 cents.

Does General Growth’s plight augur the un-malling of America? Maybe. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that:

Last year, [mall-based] retail sales on a per-square-foot basis in the top 54 U.S. markets declined by their greatest extent since the 1990-91 recession…. Vacancy rates at U.S. malls climbed to 7.1% in the fourth quarter, the highest rate since real estate research firm Reis Inc. started tracking the figure in 2000. And average rents have started to decline.

The mall industry, like so many industries in the modern global economy, thrives on rapid growth fueled by easy credit. Now credit has dried up, debt needs to be repaid, and sales growth has gone into reverse.

Time to start thinking about other economic models?