The weekend of September 12 through September 14 – before the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Monday, September 15, 2009 and the near collapse of the world financial system that followed – was a frenzied one in the financial world. By this point, everyone knew huge events would occur: perhaps massive government bailouts, or perhaps multiple mergers of titans of finance, or if all else failed, a cascading series of major business failures. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, New York Federal Reserve Chairman Tim Geithner, and Securities and Exchange Commissioner Chris Cox thus convened a meeting of the “heads of the families” – the CEOs and top management of the big Wall Street firms – at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Liberty Street in downtown Manhattan to try to, through collective action, stave off disaster.
Paulson and Geithner seemed to be trying to recreate the “Drama at the Library” that averted the Panic of 1907, in which J. P. Morgan almost single-handedly averted a financial catastrophe by himself, as he used his own fortune and cajoled other major bankers to inject liquidity into the stock markets and bond markets to keep them active. The high point occurred when Morgan locked the bankers and the trust company officials in his library to force them to reach a consensus on how to save the insolvent trust companies. A few years later, the Federal Reserve was created in a large part to mimic what J. P. Morgan had done in managing that financial crisis.
As options for Lehman began to dwindle on this September weekend, and its moment of insolvency came closer, Paulson and Geithner summoned the heads of the current elite of Wall Street to a room and told them to come up with a plan – if necessary using their own money to aid another company in the purchase of Lehman. These were the men (and some women) who were paid the big bucks to make the big decisions – all put in the same room with the goal to avert the disaster that they could all see would rock their industry. Yet despite all the power and the extraordinary circumstances, these top bankers were reluctant to help a competitor unless they could see their own upside, and were convinced that Washington would step in. As Andrew Ross Sorkin, reporter for the New York Times and author of Too Big to Fail, reported, conversations took place in which these top bankers made it clear that even as they felt a responsibility to the world at large, their first responsibility was to their shareholders. Systematic risk was the responsibility of the federal government, they felt.
Even with all these decision-makers gathered in a room, Sorkin explained that the “CEOs and their underlings” felt that “Despite the grave assignment they’d been given, there was little they could actually accomplish on the spot.” The top executives knew that the people with “real expertise” to figure out what could be done were doing their work elsewhere – the numbers people working for them who could understand high finance and Lehman Brothers’ balance sheet – and would let their bosses know their conclusions.
So, the executives, twiddling their thumbs, did what they could to pass the time. They did “vicious imitations of Paulson, Geithner, and Cox:
“Ahhhh, ummmm, ahhhh, ummmm,” one banker muttered, adopting Paulson’s stammer. “Work harder, get smarter!” another shouted, mocking Geither’s Boy Scoutish exhortations. A third did his best Christopher Cox, whom they all were convinced had little understanding of high finance: “Two plus two? Um – could I have a calculator?”
And of course:
Colm Kelleher, Morgan’s CFO, had begun playing BrickBreaker on his BlackBerry, and soon an unofficial tournament was under way, with everyone competitively comparing scores.
No word yet on what top score won the tournament.
As well all know, several days after the BrickBreaker tournament, Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, and the Congress gave in and bailed out the executives in the room as they realized though these executives controlled vast amounts of capital, they were not willing or able to save their competitors and preserve the financial system in order to save themselves.
[Image by Cyndie@smilebig! licensed under Creative Commons.]