Paulson vs Fuld, cont.

By Felix Salmon
August 31, 2009
Todd Purdum's 8,000-word article on what Hank Paulson was thinking over the course of the financial crisis, as revealed in a series of embargoed interviews he gave at the time -- VF has, improbably, become the home of the best financial journalism in the world of magazines.

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Vanity Fair scores another bullseye this month with Todd Purdum’s 8,000-word article on what Hank Paulson was thinking over the course of the financial crisis, as revealed in a series of embargoed interviews he gave at the time — VF has, improbably, become the home of the best financial journalism in the world of magazines.

There’s more good stuff in this article than can easily be excerpted — go read the whole thing, which kicks off with Paulson throwing up in his private bathroom and just gets better from there. Barney Frank comes out very well indeed — better than Paulson, actually — while Barack Obama’s choice of Tim Geithner as Treasury secretary looks more than it did already like a vote for the continuation of the Bush administration’s status quo.

This article is interesting in that it does somewhat back up the official side of the story as regards Treasury’s (in)ability to bail out Lehman Brothers:

The meltdown at Lehman was catastrophic enough, and Paulson took enormous heat for its failure. Barclays, the British bank, had hoped to buy it, but British regulators blocked the deal, and Paulson saw no alternative. “Lehman Brothers was something that we had been focused on and worked on and worried about for a year. And we knew, and Dick Fuld [the Lehman C.E.O.] knew, and we kept telling him every way we knew how that if he announced earnings like he thought he was going to announce—right after he announced the second-quarter earnings—the company would fail. And when you’ve got an investment bank, no one had any powers to deal with that. I certainly didn’t have any powers to deal with that.”

It’s not clear when exactly Paulson said this, which is important: the decision not to bail out Lehman went quite quickly from being seen as bold and decisive to being seen as utterly catastrophic, and the story about Treasury’s hands being tied only really started to emerge after the latter view became conventional wisdom. But there’s no doubt that Paulson is throwing Fuld under the train here. Which is the kind of thing which Henry Paulson, former CEO of Goldman Sachs, probably wasn’t too upset about doing. Could Henry Paulson, Treasury secretary, really silence such internal thoughts? I doubt it, somehow.

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