Three Men And a Bailout
The largest government bailout in U.S. history was born before dawn on Sept. 17, when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke woke up at 6 a.m., checked his BlackBerry and saw the very thing he had dreaded: the futures market in free fall. Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and New York Fed president Timothy Geithner had spent the past year staving off one disaster after another, for the most part working behind the scenes. Earlier in the month, they had let investment bank Lehman Brothers slide into oblivion and then ushered another, Merrill Lynch, into the arms of Bank of America. Just the night before, the trio had wrapped up a deal to rescue insurance giant American International Group and gone to bed praying it would halt the panic and worrying it wouldn’t.
It didn’t. On Sept. 17, the Dow plunged more than 400 points, and all three were picking up signs of an even bigger nightmare, one that most Americans were yet unaware of: the whole financial system was seizing up, from formerly rock-solid banks and money-market funds to the esoteric but vital market for foreign-exchange swaps. Credit–the access to cash that keeps the U.S. and other economies oiled–was simply drying up. Banks stopped lending to other banks, out of fear they would not get the money back. Big companies were having trouble raising cash on the overnight commercial-paper markets. If left unchecked, it would be only a matter of days, maybe less, before businesses would be unable to get the cash they needed to make purchases and meet payrolls.
And after that? Think the unthinkable. On Sept. 18, Paulson and Bernanke laid out the dark scenario for stunned-silent congressional leaders: a stock-market crash, businesses going under, unemployment soaring, consumers unable to get so much as a car loan, banks failing so fast that they would quickly drain the federal deposit insurance fund–and with it, countless people’s life savings. And unlike the chain reaction that came over the course of weeks and months in 1929, this one would happen in a matter of days, if not faster. "The chain reaction," said Paulson, "is quicker than in the past."
And so Paulson and Bernanke asked for the world–and warned lawmakers they had only a few days to deliver it. Treasury needed $700 billion to buy up Wall Street’s toxic mortgage-backed assets, which the government would eventually repackage and sell when the real estate market recovers, and a crisis might be averted. The proposal was simple, only three pages long. "Ben, Tim and I had talked for months about how there might be a need to do something like this, discussed the various plans," Paulson told TIME on Sept. 24. "The one thing we knew was that we couldn’t or shouldn’t go to Congress until we absolutely needed to, because the worst thing would be to go to Congress, ask for it and not get it."
The notion that a massive, unprecedented intervention in the financial markets should be the final economic act of a Republican President was made all the more stunning by the sight of no less a free-marketeer than Vice President Dick Cheney being dispatched to the Hill to sell it to furious Republicans. But Congress is coming late to this crisis. Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner–whose conference calls can number more than half a dozen a day–have been quietly trying to keep the ship in the channel for months. Treasury Secretary Paulson, 62, was one of Wall Street’s toughest dealmakers as CEO of Goldman Sachs. Fed chief Bernanke, 54, is a quiet academic who was the chairman of Princeton’s economics department and is one of the foremost scholars of the Great Depression and other economic catastrophes. Least known of the three is Geithner, 47, whose years at Treasury in the 1990s and position at the Fed’s pivotal New York City office make him the trio’s eyes and ears on Wall Street. There is some speculation that Geithner himself might be Treasury Secretary someday in a Democratic Administration. "A very unusually talented young man," said Paulson. "He understands government and understands markets."
The three didn’t know one another well when the dawning foreclosure crisis threw them together in August 2007. They bring contrasting–and sometimes contentious–styles to their countless strategy sessions, all-nighters and weekends spent away from their families. Paulson is profane and direct and talks in anecdotes. He is also the bearer of bad news, having been the one to let Lehman Brothers’ chiefs know they were going down without a helping hand. Checking in from his tomblike suite of offices at the Federal Reserve on Constitution Avenue, where he monitors two computers and a TV while chewing on Necco Wafers, Bernanke is calmer, quieter and prone to offering up a fourth option when three are on the table. Paulson called him "pragmatic, intellectually curious–a courageous guy." Geithner, working from the New York Fed’s imposing Manhattan headquarters on Liberty Street, often serves as the bridge between the other two back in Washington. "There isn’t anything spoken in anger, but certainly these are men with ideas and can be forceful in how they express them," says one person familiar with their calls. "If there’s a sense that someone was miffed or something, then there’s a private call right afterward, and then the next call is fine."
Who does what depends on which agency has the most authority for the task at hand. Paulson was the primary mover last fall in getting banks and mortgage companies to ease up on homeowners who faced foreclosure, while Bernanke dropped billions into jittery credit markets with a surprise rate cut. Geithner engineered the rescue in March of the investment bank Bear Stearns. In the summer, Paulson horsed Congress into giving him broad authority to seize troubled lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac–which he ended up having to use two months later. And when the three have run into interference from conservatives in the White House who didn’t much care for their intervention in free markets–including, at times, aides in the Vice President’s office–President Bush has told them, To hell with the flak–just get it done.