Friday, July 22, 2016

LEHMAN | Did It Have to Fail?

Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner.
James B. Stewart in The NY Times today reports on a new study of the dark days of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

Could Lehman have been saved from bankruptcy? Should it have been? Would the world thereby have been saved from the Great Recession and its globally destabilizing consequences?

The study's author is Laurence M. Ball, Chairman of the Economics Department at Johns Hopkins University. He presented his 214-page paper, "The Fed and Lehman Brothers", which took him four years to write, to a conference of economists in Cambridge, Mass.

The study makes, as I read the story, two main points. Despite what Treasury and Fed officials (i.e., Henry M. "Hank" Paulson Jr., Treasury Secretary; Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke; and NY Fed President Timothy F. Geithner) have said,
  • Lehman Brothers could have been saved. Bernanke told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in 2010 that Lehman's collateral was weak and saving it would have required breaking the law. Ball argues that is not true, and that Lehman's financial condition was never properly analyzed. The whole point of the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 was to "lean against the wind" and when panic hits, its job is to save the system. The officials of the time underestimated the consequences of not saving the system and we live with these consequences today. 
  • Paulson called the shots. Bernanke at the Fed followed the lead of Treasury Secretary Paulson, who took charge of the situation and was the prime mover in promoting the decision to let Lehman fail, because he didn't want to be known as "Mr. Bailout". Paulson says that the decision was that of the Fed to make.
Ball's paper was supported in its general conclusions by Prof. David Romer at Berkeley and another professor at M.I.T. Other academics interviewed by The NY Times withheld their judgment.