A decade ago, when there were big problems in the financial markets a very small group of people came in for the fix. E. Gerald Corrigan, a man of massive girth and intellect, ran the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Sandy Weill was at the newly formed Citigroup (C), Hank Greenberg ran the world’s most successful insurance company, AIG (AIG). And, at The New York Stock Exchange sat Dick Grasso, who had worked there for almost three decades. Grasso was so powerful that he could shut down trading with just a few phone calls. He had been through 1987 and 2001.
Grasso, Greenberg, and Weill all claim that, like Hamlet’s father, someone poured poison into their ears while they slept. The evidence of that is either lost or hidden.
In the current crisis, many of he usual suspects have no power to sit at the table when the trouble rains down. Thain, head of Merrill Lynch (MER) and former CEO of NYSE, probably wishes he had never left as co-president of Goldman Sachs (GS). Merrill has been emasculated by losses. John Mack, who has run every large investment bank in the world, now keeps bodyguards so the Morgan Stanley shareholders will not not tar and feather him. The house of Morgan has lost its teeth. At Citi, Weill’s creation, the talk of survival mixes with discussions of breaking the firm into pieces. Just yesterday, John Reed, who helped create Citi a decade ago, said the whole thing was a bad idea.
The government, now run, at least on the financial side by new men, Bernanke and Paulson, has turned to what is left of the better banks and investment houses. Paulson looks to his old home, Goldman Sachs, for aid. James Dimon at the head of JP Morgan was begot by Weill and then sacrificed when Citi was created. He as a healthy balance sheet and a score to settle.
The Buddha-like figure at the center of much of the rescue of Wall St. is Lloyd Blankfein. He has only been CEO of Goldman for a short time. During that period his traders bet that mortgage-back securities would fall apart and made billions of dollars on that bet. This happened at about the same time his sales force was marketing the ill-fated subprime derivatives to customers. Goldman also helped sink Bear Stearns by indicating that it was not confident in doing business with the troubled brokerage. Blankfein is rarely visible and may only come out at night.
For better or worse all of the most troubling aspects of the financial markets will have to be run by Bernanke, Paulson, Dimon, and Blankfein. The first two have the power of the purse-strings. The other two have the only big financial company balance sheets that the Fed and Treasury trust.
In a storm, that is not many people to row the boat.
Douglas A. McIntyre