It was a message he never expected to deliver. Henry Paulson—free-market thinker, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and Treasury secretary to a conservative Republican president—was unveiling to the world a massive taxpayer bailout of the American financial system. Afterward, as he headed into yet another weekend of nonstop work with his team, carrying the weight of the troubled markets on his shoulders, the former college-football star was clearly conflicted about what he’d just proposed. “It’s very unpleasant for me, but it’s a lot more attractive than the alternative,” Paulson told NEWSWEEK. “We can spend a lot of time talking about how it happened and how we got here. But we have to get through the night first.”
Let us hope the old saw, about the night being darkest before the dawn, is true. Recent weeks certainly have been the darkest Wall Street has seen since October 1929. Investment banks that had survived the Great Depression, the crash of 1987 and the trauma of 9/11—venerable names like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch—fell by the wayside. They were just the latest victims in the subprime-mortgage and credit debacle that has taken down banks and lenders across the country, and yanked the dream of homeownership away from millions of Americans. For the past several months, the government’s solution to the problem has been to make a series of Solomonic decrees about who would live and who would die. Investment bank Bear Stearns? “Too big to fail,” the government decreed, arranging a sale of the firm to JPMorgan Chase. Lehman Brothers? It must be sacrificed and file for bankruptcy. Overextended homeowners? Try renting. The nation’s largest mortgage companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Bail them out and let taxpayers foot the bill. AIG, the world’s largest insurer? Uncle Sam owns it now.
Wielding much of this power over financial life and death is this tall, calm man. Paulson came to Washington from Wall Street in 2006 expecting to deal with issues like Social Security reform and trade agreements. But the economy had other ideas. At a time when President Bush seems to have largely checked out, the teetotaling 62-year-old has emerged as the nation’s most powerful leader—the investment banker in chief. As he did on the Street, Paulson continues to advise CEOs on the best course of action, to arrange financing and to get the best terms possible for his clients. Only now his clients are American taxpayers, the president and the global financial system.
With the help of his counterparts at the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ben Bernanke and Christopher Cox, Paulson has succeeded in fundamentally altering the relationship between Wall Street and Washington—almost to the point where D.C. is now the world’s financial capital. “There’s no doubt that he’s in charge,” says Roy Smith, a former partner with Paulson at Goldman and a professor at New York University. An indifferent orator—Paulson hunches his 6-foot-2 frame over lecterns and has a halting speaking style—the Eagle Scout has emerged as the pre-eminent market whisperer and cajoler of the American financial system. And yet Paulson has rankled some in Washington by conducting business like a Wall Street Master of the Universe: the marathon late nights and weekend meetings with a small group of people, followed by an unveiling of the result as a fait accompli.
“For Bear Stearns and AIG, members of Congress were simply informed that these were decisions made by the Bush administration, specifically Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke,” says Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. “I can’t tell you what they were thinking.” Paulson and Bernanke make an unlikely duo—the relentlessly forward-looking Christian Scientist investment banker from the suburbs of Chicago and the more placid history-minded Jewish economist from South Carolina. New York Federal Reserve president Tim Geithner has also been a key player.
The prospect of unelected officials putting massive amounts of taxpayer resources to work without transparency or approval from Congress, and without a clear process at work, is indeed troubling. In addition, the constant improvisation by Washington financial officials may be sending mixed messages. “There hasn’t been a consistent pattern,” New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine tells NEWSWEEK. “We save Bear Stearns but not Lehman. The market is going to have a hard time sorting through what the underlying principle is.” (Corzine served with, and clashed with, Paulson when they were senior executives at Goldman in the 1990s.)
The Democratic strategist James Carville once said that he wanted to come back to life as the bond market, because it exerted such power over Washington policy. And for the past many years, Wall Street has been the tail that wagged the Washington policy dog—deregulation, tax cuts on capital gains and dividends. No longer. Now Washington is dictating terms to Wall Street. And Americans will be dealing with the consequences of that for years to come.
How did we get here? And who is this guy who has become, almost by default, the face of American capitalism?
In many ways, Paulson was the ideal person to deal with this mess. A 32-year veteran of Goldman, he helped take the venerable (and venerated) company public and served as CEO from 1998 to 2006, an era in which the firm prospered. Goldman enjoys legendary status in New York, the elite among the elite. In the new book “The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs,” Charles Ellis describes Goldman as a company with “such strengths that it operates with almost no external constraints in virtually any financial market it chooses.” Paulson, who excelled in the classroom (Phi Beta Kappa) and on the gridiron at Dartmouth (All-Ivy offensive lineman), worked in the Nixon White House as liaison to Treasury and Commerce before pursuing an M.B.A. at Harvard and joining the Chicago office of Goldman in 1974.
He became a partner in 1982 and helped build the firm’s Asian investment-banking business, making more than 75 trips to China. “Paulson was seldom thought of as a pal, a charmer, or particularly charismatic,” Ellis writes. But he was noted for self-discipline, focus on controlling risk and mastery of detail. He rose to Goldman’s leadership ranks in 1994 when the firm was in the midst of a major crisis, says Lisa Endlich, a former employee of the bank and author of “Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success.” Nearly one third of the partners were leaving after the company had suffered significant trading losses. As senior executives made the case as to why partners should stay, Paulson focused on the nuts and bolts. “He described the minutiae of how they were going to cut costs and make money the next year,” says Endlich. In 1999, Paulson and a few other partners pushed out Corzine.
Paulson adheres tightly to the Goldman ethos: Make enormous amounts of money but don’t act like it (though Paulson’s stake in the firm was worth about $500 million when he cashed out in 2006, he wears a digital training watch, not a Rolex). Get involved in civic causes (he served for two years as chairman of the Nature Conservancy, and his cavernous corner office on the third floor of the Treasury Building is filled with photos of birds taken by his wife of 39 years, Wendy). And embrace the role of corporate statesman (in 2002, in the wake of corporate scandals, he gave a speech at the National Press Club calling for an improvement in corporate ethics).
Paulson had always been a Republican—but more a Rockefeller Republican than a DeLay one. Goldman Sachs was no place for ideologues or hyperpartisans—its ranks have been filled over the years with both Democrats (Corzine and former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin) and Republicans (White House chief of staff Josh Bolten) who went on to become public servants. It was Bolten who recruited Paulson to succeed John Snow as Treasury secretary in the spring of 2006. At first Paulson demurred. The ultimate realist, he doubted whether anything significant could be accomplished in the last two years of the Bush presidency. But Bolten made the case that there were other ways to contribute beyond the legislative agenda. And after Paulson and Bush met in the president’s study and talked for more than an hour, he agreed. With their children grown—their son, Merritt, owns minor-league sports teams in Portland, Ore., and their daughter, Amanda, is a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor—Henry and Wendy Paulson settled into a house in Washington.
Paulson instantly became the leader of Bush’s economic team. He had a very distinct idea of what the job would be—”the top policymaker in the administration, the chief economic adviser to the president and the top economic communicator,” says Tony Fratto, the White House deputy press secretary who worked at Treasury during the early portion of Paulson’s tenure. But the possibility that Paulson would make his mark seemed to evaporate when the Democrats assumed control of Congress a few months after his arrival. The new Treasury secretary had greater concerns than regime change on Capitol Hill, though. In his first official meeting with Bush at Camp David in July 2006, Paulson told the president it would be surprising if the United States made it through January 2009 without some disturbances. “We have these periods every 6, 8, 10 years, and there are plenty of excesses,” Paulson recalls telling Bush. He just didn’t know what those disturbances would be.
The problem became clearer as the housing bubble burst in mid-2006; borrowers started defaulting on mortgages and lenders began going belly up. The mortgages had been packaged into exotic securities, sliced and diced and sold as bonds and purchased by investment banks and hedge funds. Because lenders, executives and traders had convinced themselves that home prices would never fall, anything went. The result was debt layered on debt, piled on top of debt, supported by small amounts of cash. And so as Americans in increasing numbers defaulted on their mortgages in 2007 and 2008, it kicked off a domino effect. The value of the mortgage-backed bonds fell, as did that of the financial instruments based on those bonds. Banks were forced to write down the value of their holdings and raise new cash from foreign sovereign-wealth funds—only to report fresh losses as the housing market weakened. This past spring, the chain connecting underwater subprime borrowers to New York investment banks and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—the Washington-based quasi-governmental firms that together guarantee or insure $5.4 trillion in mortgages—grew increasingly taut.
The government response to the housing mess took two main forms. The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates repeatedly, hoping to make life easier for borrowers and lenders. And under Paulson’s direction, the Treasury Department put together the Hope Now coalition, an industry-led group that would modify mortgages before foreclosure. But by the time such efforts got started, too many dominoes had fallen.
In March, when Bear Stearns, the perennially troubled teen of Wall Street, got in too deep, Paulson hammered out a deal for JPMorgan Chase to access credit from the Federal Reserve to buy the investment bank at a bargain-basement price of $2 per share (later revised upward to $10 a share), because he didn’t want to make it seem as if public shareholders were being bailed out. Paulson knew the plan flew in the face of the free-market philosophy to which he, and all his colleagues on Wall Street, clung so fiercely. But this was a special case. When commercial banks failed, a tried-and-tested procedure kicked in: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took charge and made insured depositors whole. But there was no existing protocol or regulatory framework to deal with the failure of an investment bank. And because of its massive levels of debt and significance in the markets for credit-default swaps—a sort of insurance policy against investment losses—Bear Stearns had the capacity to harm hundreds of financial institutions. “The Federal Reserve believed—and I supported them—that it was the right thing to come in and intervene,” Paulson tells NEWSWEEK.
The downfall of Bear Stearns sent Paulson and his colleagues into crisis mode—a mode they have yet to exit. For Paulson and his team at the Treasury Department, the summer was a string of ruined weekends. In July, Congress gave him authority to come to the aid of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. “If you’ve got a bazooka, and people know you’ve got it, you may not have to take it out,” Paulson said. (Translation: if the market knew the companies had a federal backstop, investors would be more likely to give them more time to work out their troubles.) Paulson was forced to use the bazooka sooner rather than later. By the end of August, the weakened financial state of the two giants was threatening both domestic mortgage markets and the value of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of bonds they had issued that were owned by central banks around thethe morning of Sunday, Sept. 7, the government essentially nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, agreeing to backstop their debt and provide new capital.
Given the unique nature of this financial crisis, Paulson—who spent his entire private-sector career at Goldman—has been a better fit for this job than his predecessors in the Bush administration. Snow ran a railroad company, and Paul O’Neill headed the aluminum producer Alcoa. Paulson, as Bolten notes, has the credibility and the respect of the markets, as well as power and authority. As a result, he has operated with considerable autonomy. “President Bush has delegated a great deal to me, and it’s an awesome responsibility,” Paulson says. “He’s very supportive.” The two Harvard M.B.A.s have spoken at least once daily for the past several weeks, in addition to having regular meetings. One reason Treasury has emerged as the leader in this crisis, more than the Federal Reserve, is that the problems in the main aren’t in the banks that are part of the Federal Reserve system. They are in the unregulated Wall Street investment banks, which are Paulson’s turf.
The key skill of an investment banker is understanding the thinking, motivations and fears of the person on the other side of the table. And Paulson has had to put all his skills to the test. Over the second weekend in September, when Lehman Brothers came seeking the kind of help that the government had given Bear Stearns, Paulson was conflicted about what to do. He was reluctant to set a new precedent and encourage what’s referred to in the world of economics as “moral hazard”—the notion that the existence of a backstop would encourage further reckless behavior. Paulson essentially told Lehman CEO Richard Fuld, whom he knew from his days on Wall Street, that the bank needed to find a buyer in the wake of new losses. But Fuld dithered. And although Lehman was in bad shape, unlike Bear Stearns it didn’t threaten to bring down the whole system. “I never once considered that it was appropriate to put taxpayer money on the line in resolving Lehman Brothers,” Paulson said at a press conference in Washington. His refusal essentially forced Lehman into a bankruptcy filing and spurred Merrill Lynch to seek a deal with Bank of America. At Lehman, workers set up photos of Fuld and Paulson and stuck pins through their eyes.
Asked at that press conference if the public should interpret the refusal to help Lehman as an end to assistance for the financial sector, Paulson was cagey. He said he had to worry first and foremost about the “stability and orderliness of our financial system.” He went on to prove his flexibility less than 24 hours later, with AIG. The gigantic insurer, which is a component of the Dow Jones industrial average, had several healthy units in its core business. But its AIG Financial Products unit, which had sold large volumes of credit-default swaps on subprime mortgages, was deep underwater. Were it to fail, AIG would pose the same systemic risk to the financial system that Bear Stearns had. Paulson informed congressional leaders that the government was coming to AIG’s rescue. Using the Fannie/Freddie rescue as a template, he hammered out an aggressive deal. He installed a new CEO and extended $85 billion in credit—at a high interest rate—in exchange for an 80 percent stake in the company.
But given the uncertainty about who might fail next, the markets continued to panic. Investors turned against the only healthy players left on Wall Street, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, pummeling their stocks and threatening to force them into mergers with other firms. Banks began to lose confidence in one another, cutting off the flow of capital. Concerns arose even about money-market accounts, long considered among the safest of investments. Paulson again took out the bazooka: he and Bernanke crafted their plan to create a taxpayer-backed entity that would acquire mortgage-backed bonds from banks, and requested $700 billion from Congress to do so. Treasury also temporarily extended insurance to money-market funds. By the end of last week the stock markets were soaring.
While bailouts are regrettable and expensive, Paulson argues that one is needed to restore confidence in the system. “We’re going to have housing issues and mortgage issues for years,” he tells NEWSWEEK. “The key is to get stability.” But unlike other recent actions, this one will require greater cooperation from Congress. And there Paulson is likely to run into some roadblocks.
Paulson works at a pace to which Washington isn’t quite accustomed. All month the staff dining room at Treasury has remained open on weekends, with a buffet of tuna-fish and peanut-butter sandwiches. Paulson doesn’t use e-mail and prefers to get information by phone. Staffers refer to him as a “serial dialer.” But he doesn’t spend a lot of time making small talk. “He’s a no-bulls––t kind of guy,” says Barney Frank. “He gets down to business and gets things done.”
This brusqueness, and the desire to move on to the next problem, doesn’t always go over well on Capitol Hill. The criticism of Paulson has come mostly from conservative Republicans in the House who are incensed over the bailouts. “I think for all intents and purposes, Congress has been left out of the loop and treated after the fact,” says Rep. Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican. Having already acquiesced to the creation of hundreds of billions of dollars in potential taxpayer obligations, Congress isn’t likely to just hand over hundreds of billions more without demanding some concessions like assistance for strapped homeowners.
The decisions made on the fly these past several months will have impacts that last deep into the next administration, long after the end of Paulson’s tenure—perhaps one of the most eventful of any Treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton. To add to his burden, Paulson has been tasked with briefing Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama on the situation. Late last Thursday evening, as Obama was about to fly from New Mexico to Florida, he held his plane on the tarmac for 10 minutes to hear the latest from Paulson, just one of many recent conversations. McCain and Paulson have also spoken on several occasions.
The Treasury secretary, who repeatedly describes the bailouts as “unpleasant” but necessary, knows that the United States will now be the international butt of jokes for nationalizing huge chunks of its once vaunted financial system. But as the Wall Street saying goes, it is what it is. At the end of the Street’s craziest week in recent memory, Paulson was still working the phones and facing another ruined weekend, in which he and congressional leaders would iron out the details of the bailout plan. “Like every other weekend, we’ll just be working hard doing what we need to do,” Paulson said. For all our sakes, let’s hope there won’t be many more marathon weekends in the months ahead.
Steve Kroft talks to the bank examiner whose investigation reveals the how and why of the spectacular financial collapse of Lehman Brothers, the bankruptcy that triggered the world financial crisis.
When two of Europe’s corporate titans sat down to negotiate a merger this year, they called American banks.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc. as its lead adviser. France’s Renault SA hired a boutique bank stacked with Goldman alumni. In a deal that would reshape Europe’s auto industry, the continental banks that had sustained Fiat and Renault for more than a century were muscled aside by a pair of Wall Street deal makers.
A decade after fueling a crisis that nearly brought down the global financial system, America’s banks are ruling it. They earned 62% of global investment-banking fees last year, up from 53% in 2011, according to Coalition, an industry data provider. Last year, U.S. banks took home $7 of every $10 in merger fees, $6 of every $10 in stock commissions, and $6 of every $10 paid to hold and move corporate cash.
urope’s banks are smaller, less profitable and beating a hasty retreat from Wall Street.
- Germany’s Deutsche Bank AG is firing thousands of investment bankers.
- Switzerland’s UBS Group AG abandoned its huge trading floor in Stamford, Conn., to refocus on its roots as a private bank.
- Barclays is the lone holdout with an ambition to be a universal global bank. Under Chief Executive Jes Staley, an American who rose to prominence at JPMorgan Chase & Co., the bank has resisted shareholder calls to go back to its roots serving British consumers and companies.
From their central perch in London and with close ties to developing countries, Europe’s banks were primed to benefit as financial services went global. They charged onto Wall Street in the 1990s and pressed their advantage as U.S. banks limped out of the 2008 crisis.
Then, “they handed the whole system on a platter to the Americans,” said Colm Kelleher, the Irish-born former Morgan Stanley executive.
Coming out of the crisis, U.S. banks quickly raised capital and shed risk, unpleasant tasks that Europeans put off. American businesses recovered quickly, and its consumers are eager to borrow and spend. A tax cut in 2018 boosted profits. Interest rates have risen.
Meanwhile in Europe, regional economies are sputtering and borrowing has slowed.
Central bankers have cut interest rates below zero, which leaves banks struggling to eke out a profit on loans. Banking policy in Europe remains fractured, with national and continental regulators pursuing often conflicting agendas.
“It is not our remit to promote national, or even European, champions,” said Andrea Enria, the European Central Bank’s top banking regulator.
Twenty-five years ago, European banks charged into the U.S. They bought storied firms like Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette and Wasserstein Perella and dangled big paydays for rainmakers. When Deutsche Bank announced a $10 billion takeover of Bankers Trust in 1998, it promised at least $400 million in bonuses to retain top bankers.
The challenges of merging a conservative European commercial lender and a U.S. derivatives shop gave competitors pause. Goldman’s CEO, Hank Paulson, shared his doubts with a hotel ballroom of his bankers: Deutsche Bank “just signed up for 10 years of pain,” attendees remember him saying.
But in an era of cheap debt and light regulation, the land grab seemed to pay off. Deutsche Bank had a $3 trillion balance sheet in 2007 and that year earned twice as much as Bank of America Corp. in securities-trading. Royal Bank of Scotland was briefly the largest bank in the world, wielding a balance sheet bigger than Britain’s entire economy.
Even the financial crisis looked at first like an opportunity. When Barclays PLC bought Lehman Brothers in a fire sale, it got 10,000 of the firm’s U.S. bankers and few of its bad debts. On Lehman’s Times Square trading floor, the loudspeakers played “God Save The Queen.” Deutsche Bank pounced on Wall Street’s clients.
The high-water mark was in 2011, when global investment-banking fees were roughly split between European and U.S. firms.The good times didn’t last. A 2012 sovereign-debt crisis across the continent put new pressure on the region’s biggest banks. Economic growth slowed across the continent. Central bankers turned interest rates negative in 2014. German media calls them “Strafzinsen,” translating roughly to “penalty rates.”
UBS slashed 10,000 jobs and cut big parts of its trading operation. Royal Bank of Scotland fired thousands of investment bankers and sold its U.S. retail arm to focus on the U.K. Three-quarters of the Lehman bankers Barclays picked up in 2008 were gone within five years, according to Financial Industry Regulatory Authority records.
Meanwhile, U.S. banks were quietly encroaching on European rivals’ territory. In 2009, JPMorgan completed an acquisition of Cazenove, the U.K. investment bank. Every year since 2014, JPMorgan has generated more investment-banking revenue across Europe than anyone else, according to Dealogic. (The London-listed owner of Peppa Pig, a British cartoon character, hired JPMorgan Cazenove to advise on its sale in August to U.S. toy giant Hasbro Inc. )
As U.S. banks got stronger and their European rivals weakened, client loyalties began to change.Today’s companies are increasingly global. They make more of their money in the U.S. and have swapped a shareholder register stacked with old-line European families and trusts for the likes of BlackRock Inc. and other U.S. investment giants, where Wall Street banks are better connected. The percentage of U.K. companies’ stock owned by foreigners rose from 16% in 1994 to 53% in 2016, according to government statistics.
Fiat, the Italian car maker that pursued a tie-up with France’s Renault this year, makes two-thirds of its money in the U.S., where it owns Chrysler. Its shots are called by John Elkann, the New York-born scion of the family that founded Fiat in 1899.
One of Mr. Elkann’s closest advisers is a Goldman Sachs banker who for the past 15 years has organized a yearly gathering of European billionaire business owners, according to people who have attended. They swap stories, share advice and, more often than not, hire Goldman for deals.
Globalization has cost the Europeans not just on headline-grabbing mergers, but in the everyday business of managing money for clients. Deliveroo, a food-delivery startup based in the U.K., sought to ramp up in Europe and the Middle East. Instead of hiring local banks in each market, it consolidated its money flows with Citigroup , which has local licenses in 98 countries and a global digital platform.
JPMorgan has made a big push to expand transaction banking for European clients. In 2010 it established a new unit of global bankers to pitch day-to-day transaction services to big companies, and later took over dozens of European transaction relationships from RBS.
Most recently JPMorgan said it is extending its commercial banking business globally, targeting hundreds of midsize businesses across Europe. It has sought to take on a more local flavoring, doing things like sponsoring math-and-science programs for students in France, Germany and Italy.
Last year, Citigroup and JPMorgan were two of the three biggest providers of day-to-day transaction banking globally, along with Britain’s HSBC Holdings PLC, according to Coalition. U.S. banks accounted for 57% of the global transaction-banking revenue pool among the biggest banks in that business, versus 22% for Europeans, Coalition said.
Many mistaken assumptions about the 2008 financial crisis remain in circulation. As long as policymakers believe the crisis was rooted in the housing bubble rather than human psychology, another crisis will be inevitable... Recall that by mid-2008, home prices had returned to, or even fallen below, levels supported by their underlying fundamentals, and employment and production in the residential construction industry had declined to levels far below trend. The work of rebalancing asset valuations and reallocating economic resources across sectors had already been accomplished... To be sure, there still would have been around $750 billion worth of financial-asset losses in the form of defaults on subprime mortgages and home-equity loans. But that is only one-quarter of what global equity markets lost in seven hours on October 19, 1987. In other words, it would not have been enough to sink the global financial system... Ben Bernanke, then Chair of the US Federal Reserve, seemed confident in the summer of 2008 that the correction in housing prices had not triggered any unmanageable financial crisis. At the time, he was mainly focused on the dangers of rising inflation... And then the bottom fell out. The reason, Gennaioli and Shleifer show, is that beliefs changed.
- Investors came to believe that financial markets were saddled with highly elevated risk, owing to a number of factors.
- The interbank market had seized up,
- homeowners were defaulting on their mortgages,
- Bear Stearns had collapsed,
- the US Treasury had intervened to rein in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and, above all,
- Lehman Brothers had declared bankruptcy... All of this led to the sudden run on both the shadow and non-shadow banking systems, as investors scrambled to dump assets. The increased risk that they had imputed to the system became a reality... And yet nothing about the fallout from the crisis was inevitable. Had the Fed been in possession of contingency plans for putting too-big-to-fail institutions into receivership and becoming the risk-bearer of last resort, we would probably be living in a very different world today... Gennaioli and Shleifer’s second important contribution is to show that “crises of beliefs” like the one that precipitated the disaster of 2008-2009 are deeply rooted in human psychology, so much so that we will never be free of them... Crises of belief are manifestations of a chronic condition that must be managed... When fundamental beliefs have shifted permanently, one should not expect the same policy mix that supported full employment, low inflation, and balanced growth before the crisis to do so afterwards... For a decade now, people have been looking for a silver lining to the disasters of 2008-2018, hoping that this period will bring about a more productive integration of finance, behavioral economics, and macroeconomic orthodoxy. So far, they have been searching in vain. But with the publication of A Crisis of Beliefs, there is hope yet.
A big financial-firm collapse in near future is exceedingly unlikely, but another crisis isn’t
.. Bear and Lehman were the manifestation of deeper economic forces that since the 1970s have produced crises roughly every decade. They are still at work today: ample flows of capital across borders, mounting debts owed by governments, corporations and households, and ultralow interest rates that nurture risk-taking in hidden corners of the economy.
By the early 1980s, though, deregulation had allowed capital to flow freely within and across borders and crises became a regular occurrence: the Latin American debt crisis that began in 1982,
- the U.S. commercial real estate and savings and loan crisis of the 1980s,
- the Asian and Russian financial crisis of 1997-98,
- the dot-com bubble of 1998-2000,
- the U.S. mortgage crisis of 2007-2009 and
- the European sovereign debt crisis of 2009-2013
.. Bear was both facilitator and victim of a housing bubble inflated by low interest rates and huge inflows of foreign capital—a “global saving glut” as then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke put it.
.. It arranged mortgages that financed the housing bubble while borrowing heavily with short-term IOUs.
.. When those mortgages went bad, Bear’s creditors yanked their funds—a de facto run on the bank.
Most of the regulatory effort since has been to ensure the largest financial institutions such asJPMorgan Chase & Co., which bought Bear Stearns in a fire sale brokered by the Fed, don’t succumb to anything similar:
- thicker buffers of capital to absorb losses,
- more reserves of cash and liquid assets to pay off skittish creditors,
- restrictions on trading and compensation that incentivize risk-taking, and
- new procedures for winding down failing institutions without taxpayer bailout or a chaotic bankruptcy.
Hyun Song Shin, research chief at the Bank for International Settlements, warned in a 2014 speech against the tendency to “focus on known past weaknesses rather than asking where the new dangers are.”
.. bond markets are growing at the expense of banks in supplying credit, enabling business and government debt loads in many countries to surpass their precrisis peaks.
.. Emerging markets have borrowed heavily in dollars, which leaves them vulnerable should the dollar’s value rise sharply
.. Total U.S. debt, at around 250% of GDP, still stands at crisis-era peaks while debt levels in China have caught up and passed the U.S.
.. Crises surprise because they usually start with an assumption so sensible that everyone acts on it, planting the seeds of its own undoing:
- in 1982 that countries like Mexico don’t default;
- in 1997 that Asia’s fixed exchange rates wouldn’t break;
- in 2007 that housing prices never declined nationwide; and
- in 2011 that euro members wouldn’t default.
.. the equivalent today might be, “We will never see higher inflation or higher growth.” If either in fact occurs, the low interest rates that have raised household stock and property wealth to an all-time high relative to disposable income won’t be sustainable.
.. A 1.5 to 2 percentage point increase in real interest rates, which he isn’t forecasting, would be small by historical standards but could potentially make the debts of Italy or Portugal unsustainable.
.. Central banks know this, of course, which is one reason they are wary of raising interest rates too quickly—while nervous that if they raise them too slowly, the problem will get worse.