How Paulson gave Goldman the Lehman heads-up

By Felix Salmon
October 21, 2009
secret Paulson-Goldman meeting wasn't the only time that Hank Paulson treated his buddies at Goldman Sachs especially well while at Treasury. In fact, it wasn't the only time he did so before he got the now-famous waiver.

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The secret Paulson-Goldman meeting wasn’t the only time that Hank Paulson treated his buddies at Goldman Sachs especially well while at Treasury. In fact, it wasn’t the only time he did so before he got the now-famous waiver.

A bit further on in the Sorkin book, while Paulson is trying to work out what should be done with an imploding Lehman Brothers, we find this:

If all that weren’t enough to deal with, [Lehman president Bart] McDade had just had a baffling conversation with [CEO Dick] Fuld, who informed him that Paulson had called him directly to suggest that the firm open up its books to Goldman Sachs. The way Fuld described it, Goldman was effectively advising Treasury. Paulson was also demanding a thorough review of Lehman’s confidential numbers, courtesy of Goldman Sachs.

McDade, though never much of a Goldman conspiracy theorist, found Fuld’s report discomfiting, but moments later was on the phone with Harvey Schwartz, Goldman’s head of capital markets. “I’m following up at Hank’s request,” he began.

After another perplexing conversation, McDade walked down the hall and told Alex Kirk to immediately call Schwartz at Goldman, instructing him to set up a meeting and getting them to sign a confidentiality agreement.

“This is coming directly from Paulson,” he explained.

In many ways, this is worse than Paulson’s meeting with Goldman’s board: in this case, Paulson is forcing Lehman to open its books fully to a direct competitor, for no obvious reason. And in this case it’s not at all obvious that Paulson got a sign off from Treasury’s general counsel before doing so.

I suspect this is what happens when you do all your business by phone rather than by email: you’re so comfortable with the fact that you’re not leaving any kind of paper trail, it becomes much easier to cross the line and abuse your position as the most powerful Treasury secretary in living memory to the benefit of your former firm. If the Moscow meeting wasn’t enough to precipitate some kind of Congressional investigation of Paulson, this should be.

Update: There’s more, a few pages later:

As they were making yet another pass through the earnings call script, Kirk’s cell phone rang. It was Harvey Schwartz from Goldman Sachs, phoning about the confidentiality agreement that Kirk was preparing. Before Schwartz began to discuss that matter, however, he said that he had something important to tell Kirk: “For the avoidance of doubt, Goldman Sachs does not have a client. We are doing this as principal.”

For a moment Kirk paused, gradually processing what Schwartz had just said.

“Really?” he asked, trying to keep the shock out of his voice. Goldman is the buyer?

“Okay. I have to call you back,” Kirk said, nervously ending the conversation, and then almost shouted to Fuld and McDade, “Guys, they don’t have a client!”…

McDade, reasonably, was concerned about sharing information with a direct competitor: How mcuh did they really want to divulge? At the same time, he felt they couldn’t take a stand against a plan that he believed had originated with Paulson…

McDade, turning back to his preparations for the fast-approaching call, made his position clear: “We were told by Hank Paulson to let them in the door. We’re going to let them in the door.”

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