Too Big to Fail is Still with Us
Henry Kaufman, my former boss at Salomon Brothers, has written an easy to read and an important book about our nation’s financial structure. Simply put, Dodd-Frank did not solve the “too big to fail problem” and in fact made it worse by ratifying the undo concentration of the giant “financial conglomerates” that rule finance today. He further argues that this financial concentration impedes Federal Reserve policy. In a crisis that might be true, but it is not clear whether that is true in more normal times. After all Canada has run monetary policy for decades with a highly concentrated financial system with few issues than what occurred in the United States.
His book is part autobiographical as well in that he discusses his years at Salomon Brothers where in the late 1970s and early 1980s the financial world waited with baited breath for his comments. He notes his great friendship with Paul Volcker where he is very kind; he is not so kind to Alan Greenspan where the he believes the Fed became more political. This is not to say it wasn’t political in earlier times.
He makes an acute observation about Margaret Thatcher who impressed him with her sophisticated knowledge of macroeconomics.
What troubled me about his book is his discussion of Lehman Brothers where he was a board member before and at the time of its high profile bankruptcy. He argues that the Fed had more options than letting the firm go bankrupt and suggested that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was driving the bus, not the Fed. That could very well be true, but I wish he discussed what happened in the Lehman boardroom when the firm ran up its debt/equity ratio to 33-1 and loaded up their books with highly illiquid real estate, including the giant Archstone transaction. Further in late 2007 Lehman had a chance to walk from that transaction, but didn’t. Were it not for their real estate heavy transactions in both physical real estate and what was to become highly illiquid positions in commercial mortgage backed securities, the firm could very well have survived. In the interests of full disclosure I left Lehman in 2005.
Thus having opened the discussion about Lehman, I wish he would have given us more details. Otherwise this is a fine book for those interested in how our financial system evolved over the past 60 years.
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