Read On the Brink Online

Authors: Henry M. Paulson

Tags: #Global Financial Crisis, #Economics: Professional & General, #Financial crises & disasters, #Political, #General, #United States, #Biography & Autobiography, #Economic Conditions, #Political Science, #Economic Policy, #Public Policy, #2008-2009, #Business & Economics, #Economic History

On the Brink (4 page)

I would, in fact, get to know Obama better over the course of the fall, speaking to him frequently, sometimes several times a day, about the crisis. I was impressed with him. He was always well informed, well briefed, and self-confident. He could talk about the issues I was dealing with in an intelligent way.

That night he wanted to hear everything we’d done and how and why. I took the senator through our thinking and our tactics. He was quick to grasp why we thought the two agencies were so critical to stabilizing the markets and keeping low-cost mortgage financing available. He appreciated our desire to protect the taxpayers as well.

“Bailouts like this are very unpopular,” he pointed out.

I replied that it wasn’t a bailout in any real sense. Common and preferred shareholders alike were being wiped out, and we had replaced the CEOs.

“That sounds like strong medicine,” Obama said. He was glad we were replacing the CEOs and asked about whether there had been any golden parachutes.

I told him we would take care of that, and he shifted the conversation to discuss the broader issues for the capital markets and the economy. He wanted to hear my views on how we’d gotten to this point, and how serious the problems were.

“It’s serious,” I said, “and it’s going to get worse.”

In all, we were on the phone that night for perhaps 30 minutes. Arizona senator John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate had energized the Republican base, and McCain was surging in the polls, but at least overtly there didn’t seem to be “politics” or maneuvering in Obama’s approach to me. Throughout the crisis, he played it straight. He genuinely seemed to want to do the right thing. He wanted to avoid doing anything publicly—or privately—that would damage our efforts to stabilize the markets and the economy.

But of course, there’s always politics at play: the day after the election Obama abruptly stopped talking to me.

When I woke the next morning, word of our plan to take control of Fannie and Freddie was bannered in all the major newspapers. Then, when I got to the office, I told my staff about my conversation with Obama, and they got a bit panicky. Since some Republicans considered me to be a closet Democrat, my staff had misgivings about any action on my part that might be construed as favoring Obama. So we figured I had better put in a call to McCain to even things up.

I connected with the Republican candidate late in the morning. I had a cordial relationship with John, but we were not particularly close and had never discussed economic issues—our most in-depth conversations had concerned climate change. But that day McCain was ebullient and friendly. The Palin selection had clearly revitalized him, and he began by saying he wanted to introduce me to his running mate, whom he put on the phone with us.

McCain had little more to say as I described the actions we had taken and why, but Governor Palin immediately made her presence felt. Right away she started calling me Hank. Now, everyone calls me Hank. My assistant calls me Hank. Everyone on my staff, from top to bottom, calls me Hank. It’s what I like. But for some reason, the way she said it over the phone like that, even though we’d never met, rubbed me the wrong way.

I’m also not sure she grasped the full dimensions of the situation I had sketched out—or so some of her comments made me think. But she grasped the politics pretty quickly.

“Hank,” she asked, “did any of their executives get golden parachutes? Did you fire all the people you need to? Hank, can we claw back any of their compensation?”

From that call I went into a noon meeting that lasted perhaps an hour with the board of directors of Freddie Mac. In the afternoon, around 3:00 p.m., it was Fannie Mae’s turn. To avoid publicity, we switched from FHFA headquarters to a ground-floor conference room at the Federal Housing Finance Board offices, a few blocks from Lafayette Square.

Lockhart, Bernanke, and I followed the same script from the previous afternoon: Jim led off explaining that we had decided on conservatorship, citing capital inadequacy and his list of infractions. I laid out our terms, and Ben followed with his description of the catastrophe that would occur if we did not take these actions.

Going into the weekend, there had been some trepidation among our team that the two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), especially Fannie, would resist. But after all my years as a Goldman Sachs banker I knew boards, and I felt sure that they would heed our call. They had fiduciary duties to their shareholders, so they would want us to make the strongest case we could. We emphasized that if the government didn’t put them into conservatorship, the companies would face insolvency and their shareholders would be worse off. I also knew that having these arguments made directly to them by their companies’ regulator, the secretary of the Treasury, and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board would carry immense weight.

Just like the initial meetings the day before, the session with the Freddie board went much easier than the one with its sister institution. Fannie’s directors, like its management, wanted to differentiate their company from Freddie, but we made clear we could do no such thing.

I made a round of phone calls Saturday and Sunday to congressional leaders, as well as to senior financial industry executives, outlining our actions and the importance of stabilizing Fannie and Freddie. Just about everyone was supportive, even congratulatory, although I do remember Chris Dodd being a little put out when I talked to him a second time, on Sunday.

“Whatever happened to your bazooka, Hank?” he asked.

I explained that I had never thought I’d have to use the emergency powers Congress had given me in July, but given the state of affairs at the GSEs, I’d had no choice. Still, I knew I would have to spend some time with Chris to make him feel more comfortable.

After the Fannie board meeting, I received a call I’d been expecting most of the day. Word had gotten out that I’d talked to Palin, so I’d been thinking,
Joe Biden’s bound to call, too.
And, sure enough, he did. The predictability of it gave me my one good laugh of the day, but the Democratic vice presidential candidate was on top of the issue; he understood the nature of the problem we faced and supported our strong actions.

Sunday morning at 11:00, Jim Lockhart and I officially unveiled the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rescue with a statement to the press. I described four key steps we were taking: FHFA would place the companies into conservatorship; the government would provide up to $100 billion to each company to backstop any capital shortfalls; Treasury would establish a new secured lending credit facility for Fannie and Freddie and would begin a temporary program to buy mortgage-backed securities they guaranteed, to boost the housing market.

I wanted to cut through all the complex finance and get to the heart of our actions and what they meant for Americans and their families. The GSEs were so big and so interwoven into the fabric of the financial system that a failure of either would mean grave distress throughout the world.

“This turmoil,” I said, “would directly and negatively impact household wealth: from family budgets, to home values, to savings for college and retirement. A failure would affect the ability of Americans to get home loans, auto loans, and other consumer credit and business finance. And a failure would be harmful to economic growth and job creation.”

It would also have major international financial ramifications. Among the many financial leaders I spoke to that day were my old friends Zhou Xiaochuan, the head of the central bank of China, and Wang Qishan, vice premier in charge of China’s financial and economic affairs. It was important to relay what was going on to the Chinese, who owned a vast quantity of U.S. securities, including hundreds of billions of dollars of GSE debt. They had trusted our assurances and held on to this paper at a crucial time in a shaky market. Fortunately, I knew both men well, and we had been able to speak frankly to one another throughout the crisis.

“I always said we’d live up to our obligations,” I reminded Wang. “We take them seriously.”

“You’re doing everything you know how to,” Wang said, adding that the Chinese would continue to hold their positions. He congratulated me on our moves but struck a cautious note: “I know you think this may end all of your problems, but it may not be over yet.”

Still, that Sunday afternoon in my office, placing calls all around the world, I couldn’t help but feel a bit relieved. We had just pulled off perhaps the biggest financial rescue in history. Fannie and Freddie had not been able to stop us, Congress was supportive, and the market looked sure to accept our moves.

I was alone, looking out the tall windows of my office, which faced south toward the National Mall. I was not naïve. I knew there were plenty of danger spots in the financial system and in the economy, but I felt a burden lift off of me as I looked out on the Washington Monument. I had come to Washington to make a difference, and we had, I thought, just saved the country—and the world—from financial catastrophe.

The next day, Lehman Brothers began to collapse.


Sunday, May 28, 2006

come from a line of strong women—smart, independent, plainspoken women. When my mother learned that President Bush was going to nominate me to be Treasury secretary and that I had agreed to take the job, she didn’t mince words.

“You started with Nixon and you’re going to end with Bush?” she moaned. “Why would you do such a thing?”

It was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in 2006. My mother and I were in the kitchen of my boyhood home in Barrington, Illinois. My wife, Wendy, and I owned a home just down a shared driveway and we had flown in for the weekend to think things through—and to tell my mother.

The president was set to announce his intent to nominate me on Tuesday. I was scheduled to return to New York later that day to talk to the Goldman Sachs board and to meet with Lloyd Blankfein, my successor as CEO, on Memorial Day. That morning I had made the mistake of telling a good friend in church my news, but I forgot to tell her that I hadn’t yet told my mother. By the time I walked up to Mom’s house, she was in tears.

“You’re going to do what you’re going to do,” she said. “But I hope you don’t get confirmed.”

It was just after noon, and Mom was sitting in a wooden chair at the table in the breakfast room, staring through the window at a beautiful white oak in her sunlit yard. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen her cry. Her harsh criticism was also a first—usually she was a loyal, adoring mother who supported my decisions unstintingly.

My mother’s feelings marked a dramatic shift from my youth. Staunch Republicans, she and my father had been delighted when, in my first job after business school, I went to work at the Pentagon and later in Richard Nixon’s White House. But after Watergate, and as she got older—and especially after my dad passed away in 1995—my mother had become a lot more liberal, particularly in her views about women’s and environmental issues. Republicans irritated her on the subject of abortion. She began to support various Democratic candidates, hated the war in Iraq, and was very anti–George W. Bush.

She wasn’t alone in my family. Wendy, a college classmate and supporter of Hillary Clinton’s, vehemently opposed my taking the job, as did our son, Merritt. Only our daughter, Amanda, the most liberal member of the family, understood and supported my decision.

“Mom, I’ve been asked to serve my country,” I said, doing my best to calm her down. “And that’s what I am going to do.”

“Well,” she replied, unconsoled, “you’ll be jumping onto a sinking ship.”

I returned to New York on an afternoon flight. Wendy stayed behind to comfort my mom, then flew back a couple of days later. She remembers standing in front of a television monitor in O’Hare airport and watching in anguish as the president announced my appointment in the Rose Garden, with me by his side.

My mother did not take calls for 24 hours. Then, on Wednesday, when the press was filled with largely favorable coverage, Mom finally started answering the phone. It helped that the callers weren’t saying, “How could your idiot son do this?” They were calling to congratulate her.

My mother inherited her grit and determination from her own mother, Kathryn Schmidt, who graduated from Wellesley College in 1914 and supported her family through the Depression with a catering business. She died when I was just six months old.

My mom, Marianna Gallauer, followed her to Wellesley, graduating in 1944. An athletic woman, she has remained active throughout her life—in community matters and in sports. She continued to downhill-ski at age 86 and, during baseball season, she drives herself into Chicago to watch the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.

She and my father, Henry Merritt Paulson, were married in 1944. I am the oldest of three children, followed by my brother and best friend, Dick, who is two years younger and worked as a bond salesman at Lehman Brothers before moving to Barclays. My sister, Kay, who is five years younger, is a residential real estate broker in Colorado.

My father also came from the Midwest. His mother, Rosina Merritt, grew up on a Wisconsin farm, a descendant of Wesley Merritt, the Civil War general and onetime superintendent of West Point. After receiving a master’s degree in psychology from New York’s Columbia University, she returned to Wisconsin to teach. My grandfather Henry Paulson attended school only through the eighth grade, but this son of a Norwegian immigrant farmer was a driven, self-taught man. He founded and ran Henry Paulson & Company, a successful wholesale watch supply and repair business in Chicago that, at its height, supported a prosperous lifestyle: my grandparents lived in Evanston, outside of Chicago, and had a modest winter home in Palm Beach, Florida.

My dad wanted to be a farmer. He loved the outdoors, the land, and the wildlife, birds in particular. I inherited from him my interest in birds of prey. After graduating from Principia College in southern Illinois, Dad persuaded my grandfather to buy land in Stuart, Florida, and started a ranch with Brahma bulls down there just after World War II. My mom hated it. I was born in 1946 in Palm Beach while my parents were living on that ranch.

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