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Monday, February 01, 2010

"The British screwed us", says Paulson

More from Hank Paulson's memoir ON the Brink, on the two days that led to Lehman's bankruptcy:

I had gone to bed modestly optimistic about our chances of saving Lehman. The Barclays bid was proceeding, and Diamond had a board meeting scheduled for early that morning in London.

Tim spoke with Diamond after the Barclays board meeting, at 7:15 a.m. New York time, and Bob warned him that Barclays was having problems with its regulators. Forty-five minutes later, I joined Tim in his office to talk with Diamond and Varley, who told us that the FSA (Financial Services Authority of the U.K.) had declined to approve the deal. I could hear frustration, bordering on anger, in Diamond's voice.

We were beside ourselves. This was the first time we were hearing that the FSA might not support the deal. Barclays had assured us that they were keeping the regulators posted on the transaction. Now they were saying that they didn't understand the FSA's stance. At 10 a.m., we met with the bank chiefs again, and I told them we had run into some regulatory issues with Barclays but were committed to working through them. The CEOs presented us with a term sheet for the deal. They had agreed to put up more than $30 billion to save their rival. If Barclays had committed to the deal, we would have had industry financing in place.

At 11 a.m., I went back upstairs, and soon got on the phone with (British Finance Minister) Alistair Darling, who wanted a report on Lehman. I told him we were stunned to learn that the FSA was refusing to approve the Barclays' transaction.

He made it clear, without a hint of apology in his voice, that there was no way Barclays would buy Lehman. He offered no specifics, other than to say that we were asking the British government to take on too big a risk, and he was not willing to have us unload our problems on the British taxpayer.

It was shortly before 1 p.m. when Tim, (Security and Exchange Commission Chairman) Chris (Cox) and I addressed the CEOs again. I was completely candid. Barclays had dropped out, and we had no buyer for Lehman.

"The British screwed us," I blurted out, more in frustration than anger. I'm sure the FSA had very good reasons for their stance, and it would have been more proper and responsible for me to have said we had been surprised and disappointed to learn of the UK regulator's decision, but I was caught up in the emotion of the moment.

Back in my temporary office on the 13th floor, a jolt of fear suddenly overcame me as I thought of what lay ahead of us. Lehman was as good as dead, and AIG's problems were spiraling out of control. With the U.S. sinking deeper into recession, the failure of a large financial institution would reverberate throughout the country—and far beyond our shores. It would take years for us to dig ourselves out from under such a disaster.

All weekend I'd been wearing my crisis armor, but now I felt my guard slipping. I knew I had to call my wife, but I didn't want to do it from the landline in my office because other people were there. So I walked around the corner to a spot near some windows. Wendy had just returned from church. I told her about Lehman's unavoidable bankruptcy and the looming problems with AIG.

"What if the system collapses?" I asked her. "Everybody is looking to me, and I don't have the answer. I am really scared."

I asked her to pray for me, and for the country, and to help me cope with this sudden onslaught of fear. She immediately quoted from the Second Book of Timothy, verse 1:7—"For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."

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