The new paper by Johns Hopkins University economist Laurence Ball, “The Fed and Lehman Brothers” (pdf), is creating quite a stir. And for good reason.
Fed officials have not been transparent about the Lehman crisis. Their explanations for their actions rest on flawed economic and legal reasoning and dubious factual claims.
Ball, on the basis of exhaustive research, calls out the officials in charge—Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (played by William Hurt in the clip from Too Big to Fail at the top of the post), Fed chair Ben Bernanke, and New York Fed President Timothy Geithner—for not bailing out Lehman Brothers in September 2008. His argument is that the Federal Reserve did have the authority to rescue Lehman but chose not to—and they chose not to because they acceded authority to Paulson, who “feared the political firestorm that would have followed a rescue.”
Of course the decision not to rescue Lehman Brothers was political. And, if they’d taken the decision to bailout the failed global financial services firm, that would have been political, too.
The fact is, Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner (as well as mainstream economists and other economic policymakers) were caught in their own logic of deregulating financial institutions and letting “the market” work according to its own rules (because, as Paulson admits, “they were making too much money”). That meant the emergence of a giant financial bubble—based on a toxic mix of subprime mortgages, mortgage-backed securities, and credit-default swaps—that would eventually burst. To save Lehman would have meant questioning those same private, market-based rules—with the hope that letting Lehman go under would restore order and not bring the rest of the financial system to its knees.
But, just so we understand, if they had chosen to rescue Lehman, that also would have been a political decision—to save the bankers that had made enormous profits from fees and bets on both simple and complex financial deals while, from 2007 on, everyone else was suffering from mounting foreclosures, homelessness, and unemployment.
As we know, they took the political decision not to bailout Lehman and then they covered it up, behind a series of stories—they had carefully examined the adequacy of Lehman’s collateral and they lacked the legal authority to intervene—that are convincingly disputed by Ball. Documenting the lack of transparency on the part of U.S. financial authorities about the decisions that were and were not taken in 2008 (from Bear Sterns through Lehman Brothers to AIG) is the real significance of Ball’s investigation.
But it’s not the real political issue. Whether or not to rescue Lehman pales into insignificance when compared to two other events: the decision to let the financial system spiral out of control, and the decision not to nationalize the major financial institutions. The fact is, profits in the financial sector were enormous, reaching 40 percent of total domestic profits by the mid-2000s. It was a political decision to allow those profits to grow, even as the financial mechanisms that generated those profits were creating the financial fragility that led to the crash of 2007-08.
And then, after the crash, when the U.S. government owned an increasingly large share of the financial sector (from AIG to Ally Bank, the former GM financing arm), it was a political decision not to nationalize—or, better, not to effectively utilize the de facto nationalization of—the financial institutions it had rescued. The Obama administration and the Fed could have taken over decisionmaking in the banks, insurance companies, and government-sponsored enterprises it then owned (in exchange for the direct bailouts and other financial commitments) but they chose not to, preferring instead to negotiate payback plans and return them as quickly as possible to private ownership. That, too, was a political decision.
Ball admits “We will never know what Lehman Brothers’ long-term fate would have been if the Fed rescued it from its liquidity crisis.” True.
But we do know what the fate of the U.S. economy has been as the result of two, much more important political decisions—to deregulate financial markets beginning in the 1990s and to not nationalize the major financial institutions after they were rescued with trillions of dollars of public financing and commitments. The first decision led directly to the crash of 2007-08, the second to the Second Great Depression and further concentration of Too Big to Fail financial institutions.
And, in the United States and around the world, we’re still living through the disastrous consequences of both of those essentially political decisions.