Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In Fed We Trust by David Wessel

Good read. Blow by blow account of the Fed and the Treasury reacting too, and dealing with, the onset of Great Depression II last year. Describes how Bear Stearns, Lehman, Merrill Lynch, and AIG failed, and the decisions to bail them out (all except Lehman that is). The story is told largely from the Fed's point of view. Essentially the senior government money men, Hank Paulson at Treasury and Ben Bernanke at the Fed feared total system collapse and decided to pour in taxpayer money to keep the system afloat. Much as they would have enjoyed watching the stupids go broke, they didn't dare, for fear the country would be thrown into a bottomless economic disaster. At first Paulson and Bernanke used Fed money. By fall things were so bad that they went to Congress for the $750 billion TARP appropriation. As Wessel tells it, things were so bad that fall that Congress passed the TARP within days. The money guys walked into the room and said Great Depression II would start next week without TARP, and Congress believed them.
The writer is a Wall St Journal reporter, so he knows some of the stuff. The weakness of the book is the failure to describe why these enormous financial companies failed. What killed them? For instance Lehman folded up after rumors of insolvency ran around Wall St and nobody would loan them any more money. He doesn't tell us how the rumor got out, how it spread. What mistakes did Lehman make that turned them into a pariah? Was it mortgage backed securities? Credit default swaps? some big loan going sour? Bad karma? Wessel is silent in this most interesting aspect of the disaster.

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