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The Paulson Crisis

One issue that I don’t think has been adequately explored yet is the extent to which our current predicament is attributable to Hank Paulson’s mismanagement of the situation ten days ago. After underreacting to problems at Lehman Brothers and bringing us close to brink, Paulson abruptly reversed months of (false) reassurance that everything was fine and decided that dramatic action was needed. The smart thing to do would have been to privately alert key congressional leaders that he thought the ad hoc approach wasn’t sustainable and they and their staffs should expect to spend the weekend in sequestered talks with him and Ben Bernanke to work something out. They could have announced to the public that bipartisan discussions were underway to think out a comprehensive approach to problems in the financial system. I bet something could have been worked out.

Instead, Paulson unilaterally unveiled a plan that, in its initial form, was completely unacceptable to legislative leaders in either party. And then, in a misguided effort to ramrod a bad bill through congress, he did the equivalent of strapping a bomb to the entire US economy by dramatically announcing that the entire banking system was on the verge of imminent failure.

Naturally, this had the effect of taking whatever real problems were growing and making them much more severe by creating a sense of panic. It did not, however, have the effect of transforming an unacceptable plan into an acceptable one. So congressional leaders wound up needing to meet privately and negotiate with Paulson anyway. Which is what he should have done in the first place. But in the interim, justified criticism of Paulson’s initial plan helped poison opinion against the (better) bill that eventually emerged. Had Paulson proceeded in a more reasonable manner from the get-go, I think it’s very possible that we wouldn’t be in this situation.

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