(Vanity Fair ran a chapter of Andrew Ross Sorkin's Upcoming Book about the Financial Crisis)
This is an economic 9/11!” There was chilling silence in Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s office as he spoke. Nearly two dozen Treasury staffers had assembled there Wednesday morning, sitting on windowsills, on the arms of sofas, or on the edge of Paulson’s desk, scribbling on legal pads. Paulson was seated in a chair in the corner, slouching, nervously tapping his stomach. He had a pained look on his face as he explained to his inner circle at Treasury that in just the past four hours the crisis had reached a new height, one he could compare only to the World Trade Center attacks, seven years earlier, almost to the week. While this time no lives may have been at stake, companies with century-long histories and hundreds of thousands of jobs lay in the balance.
The entire economy, he said, was on the verge of collapsing. Paulson was no longer worried about just investment banks; he was worried about General Electric, the world’s largest company and an icon of American innovation. Jeffrey Immelt, G.E.’s C.E.O., had told him that the conglomerate’s commercial paper, used to fund its day-to-day operations, could stop rolling. Paulson had also heard murmurs that JPMorgan Chase had stopped lending to Citigroup; that Bank of America had stopped making loans to McDonald’s franchisees; that Treasury bills were trading for less than 1 percent interest, as if they were no better than cash, as if the full faith of the government had suddenly become meaningless.
Paulson knew this was his financial panic. The night before, chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke had agreed it was time for a systemic solution; deciding the fate of each financial firm one at a time wasn’t working. It had been six months between the implosions of Bear Stearns and Lehman, but if Morgan Stanley went down, probably no more than six hours would pass before Goldman did, too. The big banks would follow, and God only knew what might happen after that.
And so Paulson stood in front of his staff in search of a holistic solution, a solution that would require intervention. He still hated the idea of bailouts, but now he knew he needed to succumb to the reality of the moment. “The only way to stop this thing may be to come up with a fiscal response,” he said.