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FINANCIAL SYSTEM IN CRISIS

Three make decisions for millions

Government response to the economic crisis has been guided by a disparate but close-knit trio of senior officials.

September 20, 2008|David Cho and Neil Irwin | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The response to the gravest financial crisis in generations has been engineered to a remarkable degree by a committee of three.

From the rescue of Bear Stearns Cos. to the takeovers of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and American International Group Inc., all the key decisions have been made by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Timothy F. Geithner, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

It is this unusual collaboration among a consummate deal maker, a professor and a seasoned public servant that could determine how the nation weathers the economic storm. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the three men have formed a close, informal partnership built on rapid-fire phone calls and open debate that breaks the mold of Washington policymaking.

As they chart a government response to the crisis, the stakes could hardly be higher. If they succeed, they could tame the economic downturn and orchestrate a restructuring of Wall Street with minimal collateral damage. If they fail, the toll could be millions of jobs, trillions of dollars in lost wealth and a crisis of confidence in global capitalism.

Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner have spent most of their careers in different worlds. They barely knew one another before beginning their current jobs and still rarely socialize -- though they have spent more time working together in recent months than with their wives.

Paulson, 62, is an investment banker who rose through the ranks of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to lead the firm. A lanky former Dartmouth College offensive tackle and an intense workaholic, he said he agreed in 2006 to become the Bush administration's third Treasury secretary to prepare the government for a possible market crisis.

Bernanke, 54 and calm of demeanor, is one of the foremost scholars of financial crises, especially the Great Depression. Before being named Fed chairman in 2006, the largest organization he had run was Princeton University's economics department.

Geithner, 47, was a career staff member at the Treasury Department when Lawrence Summers, then a Treasury undersecretary, plucked him from obscurity in the early 1990s. He became a key member of the group that guided the Clinton administration's response to the international financial crises in the 1990s and has been honing his knowledge of Wall Street since taking over the New York Fed in 2003.

"The biggest thing is we are not competing with each other, we are working together," Paulson said in an interview. "I would say they have done so much to help me, and I would do anything to help them."

Their teamwork, which began when Paulson came to Washington, has had a far-reaching and controversial effect on the financial world. Critics say they have been inconsistent in their reactions to market events -- they allowed Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc. to collapse over the weekend but bailed out AIG on Tuesday -- leaving the markets uncertain about what the government will do for other firms on the brink. Those who praise the men say the rescues go only to firms whose demise would cause broad distress, not any firm that comes begging.

The men's close partnership has also drawn the normally independent Fed into collaboration with political authorities while exposing tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to risk, critics say. And some lawmakers say the concentration of power into the hands of these men is too great.

Yet by virtue of the division of labor among them, they are able to cobble together government responses that might otherwise be elusive.

The men's influence and their different roles were on full display last Saturday night in an episode that remade modern Wall Street.

Storied investment house Lehman was on the brink of insolvency.

Paulson, trusted in the tight network of Wall Street executives and long experienced in reading between the lines of their comments, emerged from a private meeting with Merrill Lynch & Co. Chief Executive John A. Thain and concluded that a proposed emergency sale of Lehman to Bank of America would not take place. Lehman's collapse, he realized, was all but certain.

He broke the news to the other two men and their senior staff members in a large conference room down the hall from Geithner's office on the 13th floor of the New York Fed. Plates of lasagna and papers littered the table.

It was gut-check time: Were they willing to let the firm fail even if it caused unpredictable ripples across the financial system?

On the speaker phone from Washington, Bernanke drew on his deep knowledge of past financial crises to be sure the group had considered every other option, and he shared the views he had gathered that afternoon of fellow central bankers in Europe and beyond.

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