(this was published previously in the Macon Telegraph)

Being in the middle of a record economic crisis presents a rare learning opportunity.  Several books are worthwhile for those seeking to understand what just happened.

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin details the action of the Fed under Benanke and Treasury under Paulson during the crisis period between August and December.  While Geitner as head of the New York Fed was also featured the central player of this crisis was Hank Paulson.

Monumental decisions involving billions of dollars of assets were made in days, sometimes hours.  Both Paulson and Geitner had a sense that the market was due for a correction long before the crisis hit, but they probably did not see it coming as fast and as broad as it did. Bernanke noted that just as there are no atheists in foxholes there are no ideologues in economic crisis either. Neither Republicans or Democrats wanted to bail out Wall Street , but the crisis dictated actions that were against the grain of capitalists of both parties.

Paulson worked tirelessly to find appropriate merger partners for weak players like Merrill Lynch, Wachovia, and Lehman.  He almost had Barclays ready to buy Lehman when the British Financial Services Authority ( FSA) refused to approve the acquisition/merger because of the risk it brought to the British financial system.

Lehman was singular in the fact that it was not acquired or bailed out and thus had to go bankrupt.  Part of this was timing; Congress was just in no mood to bail out a Wall Street player.  Part of the reason was George Bush’s cousin who worked for Lehman and his brother Jeb’s association with the firm. Such close political relations probably worked against the interests of the firm.

In retrospect bailing our Lehman’s may have forestalled the panic that engulfed the rest of the system. With Bear Sterns gone and now Lehman’s gone, depositors wondered who was next and there began a run of the other banks like J.P Morgan and Morgan Stanley.

While Paulson’s association with Goldman was suspect the fact was he had to severe his tie and sell his stock ($485 million worth) in order to take his job at Treasury. Since his actions were so scrutinized he was careful to avoid even conversations that would indicate favoritism toward his old firm.

The most difficult decision was to bail out AIG whose credit default swaps acted as insurance against many of the cdo’s (collateralized debt obligations) that infected the financial markets. As the underlying assets plummeted in value AIG was downgraded and had to put up more capital that it could not provide.

Having to make such massive changes and decision in such short time meant that perfection was not obtainable. Barney Frank justifiably wanted some assurance that compensation to the executives would suffer from their misdeeds, but there simply was not enough time to rule of thousands of contracts during the time period that decisions had to be made.

Wall Street clearly engaged in risks it did not understand, but neither did the regulators such as Greenspan and his successor Bernanke. Complicated risk models gave the CEO’s delusional certainty, but eventually the party came crashing down for the same reason all bubbles burst;  lack of trust and confidence.

But Sorkin spends little space getting into the detail of the causes of the crash and suitably stays focused on the urgency and the actions required in response. 

For more information on the background that caused the crisis I recommend The Housing Boom and Bust by Thomas Sowell,  Financial Fiasco by Johan Norberg, most of all After the Fall: saving Capitalism from Wall Street – and Washington by Nicole Gelinas.

Sowell and Norberg focus more on the misguided Government fiscal and monetary policies that inflated the housing bubble, but Nicole Gelinas also analyzes which good regulations were unfortunately removed (and by who) and which bad ones were inappropriately applied.

A crisis of this nature required the perfect storm of many great errors to all focus their retribution at the same time. Unfortunately the media large engages in partisanship and demonization and few people will take the time to understand what happened and why.  It is complicated but engaging the problem reveals basic principles of sound policy that were violated as they were in previous bubbles.

History repeats itself but never the same way.