As we approach this anniversary, though, I’ve begun to question that conventional wisdom. Yes, the fall of Lehman Brothers set off a contagion of panic. And I’m still convinced that Mr. Paulson and Mr. Bernanke could have found a way to save Lehman had they been so inclined (more on that in a moment). But I’ve become convinced that, if Lehman had been saved, the collapse would have occurred anyway.
John H. Makin, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote recently, “If the Lehman Brothers’ failure had not triggered the panic phase of the cycle, some other institutional failure would have done so.” I’ll go a step further: it is quite likely that the financial crisis would have been even worse had Lehman been rescued. Although nobody realized it at the time, Lehman Brothers had to die for the rest of Wall Street to live.
A week ago, a Reuters reporter traveled to Richard Fuld’svacation home in Ketchum, Idaho, to see if the former Lehman chief executive would say anything about the anniversary. (When Mr. Fuld walked outside to meet her, he said, “You don’t have a gun; that’s good,” according to the reporter.)
Standing in his driveway, leading, as ever, with his chin, Mr. Fuld talked about the “pummeling” he had taken for presiding over the bankruptcy. “They’re looking for someone to dump on right now and that’s me,” he said. “The facts are out there. Nobody wants to hear it, especially not from me,” he added.
Mr. Fuld’s bitter remarks reflect the way many former Lehman executives feel, even now, about the fact that their firm was the only one to go under during the crisis. After all, they say, Lehman’s mistakes — too much leverage, an overreliance on shaky real estate assets, playing down the risks on its balance sheet — were the same mistakes just about every firm made.
Bear Stearns made those mistakes — and was rescued. Citigroup made those mistakes — and was rescued.
What’s more, they say, in the months and weeks leading up to the September crisis, the firm, realizing that it might need a Plan B, proposed that it be allowed to become a bank holding company. It also asked for access to the Fed’s discount window, which is reserved for troubled banks. (What Lehman didn’t do, however, despite the repeated urging of Mr. Paulson, was find a partner with deep pockets or raise additional capital.) These are the “facts” Mr. Fuld was referring to when he spoke the Reuters reporter.
But Timothy Geithner, then New York Fed president, now Treasury secretary, didn’t like the idea of letting an investment bank become a bank holding company — so he said no. Immediately after the Lehman default, however, that is exactly what he allowed Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to do, which helped stabilize both firms.