David Wessel seems to be doing the impossible: his book, In Fed We Trust, is getting mentions from all over the Internet, even before its publication, despite competition from what seem like dozens of other crisis books. That’s what a good PR campaign (and a good review from Michiko Kakutani) will do for you.
I obviously haven’t read the book yet, but I was interested in this description in Bloomberg:
None of the senior government policy makers anticipated the credit-market collapse that followed Lehman’s bankruptcy filing in the early hours of Sept. 15, according to Wessel’s book. . . .
On a conference call the previous week, Paulson, Bernanke, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, and senior staff members from those agencies had agreed that companies and investors who did business with Lehman had learned from Bear Stearns and would have acted to protect themselves from a Lehman failure, Wessel wrote.
What were they supposed to learn from Bear Stearns? That they should be very, very afraid of a major bank failure and take steps to protect themselves? Or that the government would step in, so that even if shareholders were largely wiped out, counterparties would be protected? It seems like more of them drew the latter conclusion, even though Paulson, Bernanke, et al. wanted them to draw the former conclusion.
This seems to me an illustration of the fact that you can never be sure what message you are sending. Perversely, even letting Lehman fail ultimately convinced market participants that the government would step in the next time – because the damage done by Lehman’s collapse was so great. One-off intervention are a crude and risky way of communicating policy and creating incentives.
By James Kwak