The Harder They Fall: The Last Days Of Bear Stearns
Journalist Kate Kelly attracted international attention for her three-part series on the collapse of investment bank Bear Stearns. The story ran on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal in May 2008; now she's written a book on the subject.
Other segments from the episode on May 12, 2009
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The Harder They Fall: The Last Days Of Bear Stearns
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
In March of last year, Bear Stearns was the countryâs fifth largest investment
bank, with $18 billion in assets. In a matter of days, the company suffered a
financial implosion that left it broke and scrambling to survive.
The collapse of Bear Stearns, the first bank to crash as the nationâs financial
system unraveled, is chronicled in a new book by my guest, Kate Kelly, a
reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
Her book describes frantic phone calls and intense meetings that took place
over three days at Bear Stearnsâ Madison Avenue headquarters as the company
faced oblivion. The crisis ended with the federal government negotiating the
sale of Bear Stearns to J.P. Morgan for the shockingly low price of $2 a share.
Three days before the shares had been trading at $57.
Kate Kelly has continued to cover the financial crisis, and last week she broke
a story that led to the resignation of the chairman of the New York Federal
Reserve Bank. Before joining the Wall Street Journal, she wrote for Time
magazine and the New York Observer. Her new book is called âStreet Fighters:
The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street.â
Well, Kate Kelly, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us first a little bit about Bear
Stearns. How is the culture of Bear Stearns different from other investment
Ms.Â KATE KELLY (Wall Street Journal): Bear Stearns was a very sort of rough-
and-tumble environment, and thatâs why I have chosen to call my book âStreet
Fighters,â which is a term we used to describe the culture of the place in one
of my stories at the Journal earlier on.
It was the smallest of the major investment banks, yet it was considered a
major investment bank, in the same category as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley
and other names that may be slightly more familiar household names. But they
had this culture of what was lovingly referred to as PSDs, people who were
poor, smart and had a deep desire to be rich, and these people did not have to
have a special pedigree. They did not to go to Ivy League schools. I think some
of them didnât go to school at all, but they had a hard work ethic and a desire
for success, and they were willing to come to this firm and do whatever it
I donât want to be mired in clichÃ©s, but another thing that was often said
about Bear Stearns was that they were an eat-what-you-kill culture. So for
example, if you were stock trader and you were able to nab a terrific client,
even by kind of stealing that client from one of your colleagues, if the client
wanted to go with you instead, God bless. You were on your road to a successful
career with that person.
So it was a place where traditional rules did not always apply, and there was
not an expectation of a certain cultural, social or educational background, and
in many ways, especially earlier on in its history, it was very much of a
DAVIES: Now, the book focuses a lot on a four-day scramble in which the firm
was struggling to survive. We meet a lot of interesting characters. One of them
was the chairman, former CEO Jimmy Cayne, quite a character.
Ms.Â KELLY: He was quite a character. This guy was at the firm for most of his
career. He was a very colorful person - swashbuckling, cigar-smoking, loved to
tell salty stories. He actually was a little bit less of a PSD than some of the
other senior people. He came from sort of middle-class origins outside of
Chicago and had had a number of different gigs and lives, was driving a cab at
one point in time, sold photocopiers at one point in time. I mean, he had a
variety of odd jobs.
The firm did very well under him for a number of years. Their stock price
exploded. Their return on equity, which is an important measure of Wall Street
success, did incredibly well.
He was good at picking people who were talented from sort of lower ranks and
building them up; however, in the end he became something of a liability.
In his last couple of years there, some of his habits, which involved leaving
the office quite a bit, leaving the office early on a Thursday to go play a
golf game and then being on the golf course for much of Friday during the
summer, was one habit that came back to haunt him.
He played bridge competitively. So several times a year he would be out of
pocket for a week to 10 days, playing on the bridge circuit, almost regardless
of what was going on at the company. In fact, he was in Nashville, Tennessee
playing in a tournament in July when they had their first major public setback,
which was the failure of some hedge funds. This was July of â07. So he was
The other thing was he had a proclivity, I am told by multiple sources, for
using marijuana, and this is something that remained somewhat under wraps until
I wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal in November of 2007, and while you
might argue that it wasnât something he was doing at the office and it was not
affecting sort of his decision-making from 9:00 to 5:00, it was something that
he was doing in quasi-public settings, like at bridge tournaments while other
people were present, in a menâs room or at events at his home that involved
some business people, some employees and things like that.
So it was something that sort of went to his image and peopleâs perception of
his quality of judgment. And when this came out, it was very troublesome
people. I think even at Bear Stearns, which was something of a relaxed culture,
they just thought, gee whiz, our company is on the ropes, and hereâs our CEO
smoking pot. This is not good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Right, right. Well, letâs talk a little bit about why Bear Stearns got
into such trouble. I mean, you know, looking back on it, all of these
investment banks got into terrible messes, as did most large financial
institutions. Why was Bear Stearns the first?
Ms.Â KELLY: I think Bear Stearns was the first because it was the smallest of a
pack of about a half-dozen major investment banks and the least diversified,
and what I mean by that is they did not have a mix of businesses such that they
could sustain a major hit in one business and then offset it with gains or at
least stability in other businesses.
They were overly dependent on bond trading, mortgages especially, and the way
their financial structure was set up made them very vulnerable. Essentially
they were very dependent on short-term financing, much of it renewed overnight,
So if from a Thursday to a Friday their lender said, you know what, we think
Bear Stearns is kind of weak, weâre not sure theyâre going to be able to pay us
back, we donât want to fund, that would pose a major problem for a Bear
The other thing that happened to them is that they were a victim, I think, to
somewhat hysterical reactions in the marketplace, and those reactions were
based, on one hand, on a valid assessment of their business weaknesses, which I
just mentioned, but on the other hand I think there was not a lot to the notion
that they only had three days to live or four days to live.
However, once rumors got out into the marketplace that they were bleeding cash
and that they might not be able to open their doors within a few days, it just
fed upon itself, and their clients began taking out billions of dollars,
literally. Their lenders got very gun shy and were also pulling back on
billions of dollars, so that Bear Stearns went, in the course of four days,
from having $18 billion on hand to less than three.
DAVIES: You know, I always find this so puzzling, that â and Iâve seen â weâve
read about this in other companies that have strong balance sheets that rely
upon overnight financing, I mean to keep their operations running, and Iâm
always â I donât understand why they donât have a billion or so in cash so that
theyâre not having to constantly renew these loans overnight.
Ms.Â KELLY: Sure. No, thatâs a very good point, and I do think that is starting
to change, but itâs a very slow process. For one thing, a billion dollars has a
surprisingly short half-life on Wall Street. I mean, that could be gone with
one worried client calling on the phone and demanding their money back.
Some firms have tried to set aside stockpiles of cash in order to combat this -
Morgan Stanley, for example, and Goldman Sachs. The levels vary, but they both
have $100 billion or more of cash, and things that are close enough to cash
that we call them cash too, that they could draw on if they got into a
situation like this.
So I think thatâs a more conservative approach that you do see at some places.
But yes, Wall Street is remarkably dependent on the vicissitudes of the market,
and you did have quite a widespread dependence on this overnight financing
during this bull market, when borrowing was cheap and the business was solid,
and there didnât seem any reason to mess with the system if it wasnât broken.
DAVIES: So Bear Stearns didnât have enough of a diversified business, but I
think kind of what most people think when they look back upon this period was
that the problem was everyoneâs reliance upon these mortgage-backed securities,
where, you know, mortgage companies had been giving subprime mortgage loans to
hundreds and hundreds of thousands of borrowers and that eventually the revenue
streams upon which those securities were based, those mortgages were based,
were going to collapse, because people would not be able to make the payments,
and then the securities which had been fashioned from those mortgage payments
would lose their value. Was that what happened to Bear Stearns? Were they too
deeply into this subprime mortgage market?
Ms.Â KELLY: I think thatâs a great question and a complicated answer is what I
have for you. I mean on the one hand, yes. I think optically speaking, Bear
Stearns was overexposed to mortgages. They had a large mortgage portfolio. When
J.P. Morgan and other suitors looked at them and thought about buying them as a
company, they thought, Yee-gads, look at this mortgage portfolio, weâre not
sure we want to be stuck with this one, especially given that whatever the
values are of things today, theyâre probably going to sink significantly in the
coming weeks and months.
So I think that looked bad, and I think, yes, they did have a large mortgage
business that was not going to be sustainable over the coming months and years.
That said, I do think Bear Stearns was a victim to a run on the bank, and I
think the mortgage business looked like a point of vulnerability, but in real
terms it was not sagging their business down at the time that Bear Stearns went
I think there was just a perception of weakness, a knowledge that they had the
least amount of cash on hand and might have been the most reliant on overnight
funding of all the major banks, and that therefore they were vulnerable and the
market couldnât afford to have a shaky player like that continuing to lend,
trade and do business with other, healthier firms. It was simply too risky.
DAVIES: You know, itâs interesting because after the implosion of the company,
the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Christopher Cox, said
it was due more to a lack of confidence than a lack of capital. And if thatâs
true, one would think that maybe an aggressive action by regulators to back up
the company with credit the way the FDIC insures, you know, deposits of
commercial banks to simply reassure traders and investors that they werenât
lose their shirts, would the company have survived and would the entire course
of this financial debacle have been different?
Ms.Â KELLY: I think the company would not have survived for any material length
of time. There were a couple things that the government could have done. Youâre
talking about, I think, FDIC-backed debt-raising exercises, for example, which
companies are doing now, and I do think thatâs a helpful tool for companies.
But for Bear Stearns to have raised two billion bucks or five billion bucks
couldâve actually been petered away just as fast as their 18 billion was in
that terrible week.
The other thought at the time was to open up the Fedâs borrowing window, known
as the discount window, to investment banks like Bear Stearns.
DAVIES: Thatâs the Federal Reserve Bank, which has this discount rate borrowing
to its member banks, right?
Ms. KELLY: Thatâs right.
DAVIES: And they extended it to this investment bank, which was the first time
that had ever happened, right?
Ms.Â KELLY: Well, it was unfortunate timing for Bear Stearns because at the time
Bear Stearns went down, that borrowing tool from the Federal Reserve Board was
not available to investment banks, only to commercial banks. On the eve of
Bearâs sale to J.P. Morgan, the Fed decided they would, in fact, open the
discount window to investment banks, but it was too late for Bear.
Having said all that, I donât think either FDIC-guaranteed fundraising
opportunities or the opening of the discount window to investment banks would
have bought Bear Stearns very much time. There were so many disasters last year
on Wall Street â the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the scary period in
September in which Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley saw their stock prices
sinking, and Morgan Stanley saw clients pulling money out in droves, much as
Bear Stearns had seen â that even, as you can see, some of the healthier banks
who did have access to the discount window at that point in time were barely
able to weather the storm.
So I still think at the end of the day, Bear Stearns was too small and sort of
too flawed in its financing, its business model, to probably have lived much
DAVIES: Weâre speaking with Kate Kelly. Her new book is âStreet Fighters.â
Weâll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, our guest is Kate Kelly. She is a reporter
for the Wall Street Journal. Sheâs written a new book about the collapse of
Bear Stearns called âStreet Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the
Toughest Firm on Wall Street.â
You know, your book paints this very vivid picture of the last four days of the
firm - I guess a Thursday through the Sunday in which, you know, investors and
lenders were pulling out in a hurry. The companyâs stock was collapsing and
they knew they needed to either get a government bailout or find a private
company to buy it or declare bankruptcy.
So just give us a little bit of a sense of what that four days was like in
their offices, which were actually up on Madison Avenue, right, not on Wall
Ms.Â KELLY: Thatâs right, 383 Madison Avenue, which is right near Grand Central
Station. I think it was absolutely hair-raising inside of Bear Stearns during
that 72-hour period. You had people working pretty much around the clock,
having no idea what the future of their company or their own career would hold,
wondering whether they would get bought by J.P. Morgan or some other suitor.
They had other people who were interested who were in and out of the building.
They were also hearing from senior government officials, from the Federal
Reserve Board, from the U.S. Treasury, from the Securities and Exchange
Commission. Their funding situation, literally how much cash they had on hand,
how much borrowing they could count on the next business day, was so much in
flux that their treasurer spent days with staff members trying to put together
like an Excel spreadsheet that would show them what their position was, and
even then it was a guesstimate at best. So I think it was absolutely nail-
DAVIES: So you had pizza boxes and cold coffee and empty wine bottles and
regulators and potential buyers all sprawled through offices, trying to figure
out a way out of this, and in the middle you had these government officials,
whose names we know - I mean, Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, and
Timothy Geithner, who was then, I guess, the president of the New York Federal
Reserve Bank, and they had to confront the dilemma of what does the government
do if the fifth-largest investment bank is about to go under.
Now, they could have done like a massive â the massive kind of assistance we
saw later. Why didnât they? Talk about the dilemmas they confronted.
Ms.Â KELLY: Well, I think they actually did quite a lot at the time. The
assistance that they offered was really very much unprecedented. They had a
tough situation. They had both, I think, seen the schism happening between Bear
Stearns and good health and had been concerned throughout the week, if not
longer, about the firmâs viability. And what happened initially on Thursday
night was that Bear Stearns realized they were essentially out of cash.
I mean, they did not have enough money to open for business on Friday. So they
made SOS calls to the government, to J.P. Morgan and others, and the Federal
Reserve Board got together at 4:45 in the morning on a Friday and decided that
they would essentially lend government money to Bear Stearns through J.P.
Morgan, because remember at that time a company like Bear Stearns couldnât
borrow directly from the government.
That in itself was unprecedented. They were dusting off bits of the Federal
Reserve Act that had not been used since the 1930s, and here was Ben Bernanke,
the new Fed chairman, who was faced with the biggest debacle since the
Depression. He may not have realized it at the time, although the historic
comparison that he was making in his head was to something from the Depression
era in Europe.
So that in itself was a path-breaking move. Then through Friday they saw that
the situation was deteriorating. The stock was essentially cut in half. The
pull-out of cash on the part of clients and lenders continued apace. Investors
were very worried, and it was clear that Bear Stearns would not last probably
So Friday night, Tim Geithner, whoâs the head of the New York Fed bank, as you
said, and Hank Paulson, the head of the Treasury, an experienced Wall Street
person, got on the phone to the CEO of Bear Stearns and said, you know what,
you have to sell the company by the end of this weekend.
Now, for him, Alan Schwarz, the CEO of Bear Stearns, this was kind of stunning.
He was an investment banker who was experienced in deals, but a 48-hour period
to sell oneâs own company under extreme duress was a pretty big challenge.
So what happened through the course of that weekend is the government monitored
the situation. They saw how bad it looked, and on Sunday morning, when J.P.
Morgan, who was prime to buy Bear Stearns and seemed like probably the best
option to the government, anyway, for a variety of reasons - they were a bigger
bank, stronger, they knew Bear Stearns very well because the two companies had
had a longstanding relationship - J.P. Morgan said, look, weâre uncomfortable
with Bear Stearns, we havenât had enough time to do the proper research into
their books, we donât know enough about their mortgage portfolio, weâre just
not sure we can take the risk of buying this company.
So once again the Fed had to step in, and in this case they offered to
essentially agree to shoulder some of the down-side risk, if that mortgage
portfolio were to sink in value. So they said to J.P. Morgan, hey, if youâre
willing to buy this company with about a $30 billion mortgage portfolio, we
will assume the losses after the first billion dollars. Weâll do that to help
make this deal happen.
And again, I think it was a shocking moment for guys like Bernanke and
Geithner. They had never seen anything like this. But they had a sense of what
a calamity might be on their hands if they didnât step in.
DAVIES: Iâm wondering what â you know, as you covered this, I mean, you spent a
lot of time writing about financial stuff, and youâre often writing for a
readership of investors and economists and people who closely follow the
business news â as this unfolded, did you have a sense that this could be a
story that went way, way beyond people who normally follow business news, that
this could, you know, could lead to the unraveling of the financial sector and
with devastating impacts on the economy? Did you sense that happening asâ¦
Ms.Â KELLY: I didnât know that Bear Stearns in itself would have that effect,
but I did think that it might be the first domino to fall, and part of the
reason I thought that is because the Fed seemed to think that.
They were very, very concerned when they met and decided on that initial Friday
loan, and certainly when they agreed to guarantee the losses on the Sunday as
part of the J.P. Morgan deal, about a small corner of the market called the
Tri-Party Lending Market. And I wonât get into too much detail about what that
is except that itâs a system in which banks and other financial institutions
lend money to each other through the course of each business day, and it is
trillions of dollars large, and because of the weakness of Bear Stearns and the
concerns about the impact on Bearâs lenders if they were to go bankrupt, it
looked as though that entire mechanism was at risk. And if that mechanism were
to fail, business could essentially grind to a halt in the financial markets,
and thatâs what they were concerned about chiefly.
I know that Hank Paulson was thinking the Dow Jones Industrial Average might
fall 1,000 to 2,000 points. I know that he and others were thinking if Bear
Stearns goes bankrupt, Lehman Brothers is vulnerable, Merrill Lynch is
vulnerable, Morgan Stanley is vulnerable, and of course as we saw he was
absolutely right. But the events that showed those other firmsâ vulnerability
unfolded over the course of six months rather than six days.
DAVIES: Kate Kellyâs new book is called âStreet Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of
Bear Stearns, The Toughest Firm on Wall Street.â Sheâll be back in the second
half of the show. Iâm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We're back with Wall Street Journal reporter Kate Kelly, who chronicled the
collapse last year of the investment bank Bear Stearns. It was the first of the
banks to crash in the unraveling of the financial system. And Kelly's new book
focuses on the company's frantic efforts in its final days to survive or find a
buyer. Her book is called âStreet Fighters.â
So, Bear Stearns didn't go bankrupt. It was bought by this other investment
bank J.P. Morgan for a very, very low price but with a fair amount of backing
from the Fed on its mortgage-backed securities. And after the Fed had taken
this extraordinary step of giving its access to lending. And you wrote a piece
a year later, in March of this year, and you posed this question, was the
decision to keep Bear Stearns from plunging into bankruptcy the right call or
was it the original sin, youâre referring to regulators, creating an
expectation of U.S. government help that encouraged even more risk taking and
delayed an inevitable reckoning and made the financial system even sicker?
I wonder how you address that question after this stretch of time. Did the
government do the right thing?
Ms. KATE KELLY (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): I think in the end they did. I
think in the end they did because the system was so interdependent and so
vulnerable back in March of 2008. I think there was very little cognizance of
what a rub we were in, of the interdependence of the lending mechanism in the
financial markets which, of course, is the hub of investing for regular
Americans and trading for many, many people around the globe. I think to let a
company fail without setting up some sort of way to sort of blunt the impact
and protect other firms at least temporarily, I think would've been very
DAVIES: You know, itâs interesting, when I look at your job and when I look at
what's happened in the financial industry over the last two years I sort of
think of, this may be a reach, but Woodward and Bernstein, who were like
essentially people covering police stuff, cops, reporters covering police stuff
in Washington when these defendants come in having broken into the Watergate
Hotel and suddenly discover they've got the story of the century because it
involves, you know, a political crime which brought down the White House.
And you know you spend years covering all this financial stuff for a, you know,
for a community of investors and business people and economists, and now itâs
like the story of the century. I mean, it's the unraveling of the financial
sector and its effects on the economy at-large. And I'm wondering, as you and
your editors and fellow reporters saw this unfold, did it change your sense of
what you were doing, the mission, the audience that you wrote for?
Ms. KELLY: Absolutely. And one interesting anecdote I can tell you about that
is that the week that Bear Stearns was struggling, it was mid-March of 2008,
and we had been hearing rumors Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday about the troubles
they were having, the notion that they were running low on cash. The company
had made a couple of public announcements to try to counter those impressions,
but nonetheless, the rumors persisted. And some of the gages that showed the
market confidence or lack thereof in Bear Stearns, like a stock price or like
an instrument that you can buy if you think a company's going to default on its
debts, were indicating that there was quite a bit of fear there and it might
turn into a real issue.
And I think it was Monday that I had prepared a story to run Monday night in
Tuesday's paper about this and we decided to hold it. And our editors and I
talked quite a bit about what to do. And I remember one of my bosses saying,
look, we donât want to cry fire in a crowded theater. We donât want to become
part of the problem. On the other hand, our job here is to cover the news and
we can't irresponsibly make a problem worse. At the same time, we can't miss
out on the biggest story arguably of the year.
So by the time the rumors persisted on Wednesday and it seemed unarguable that
Bear Stearns was facing a problem, we ended up running a story, I think it was
a "Heard on The Street" column that ran on Thursday, talking about Bearâs
issues with trading counterpart (bleep) and lenders and the sort of concerns
that they were facing. But that was a perfect example of how you want to do
your job and you want the public to know what's going on. On the other hand,
you want to be responsible and not make something worse.
DAVIES: You don't want to generate a run on the bank in affect, right?
Ms. KELLY: Of course.
Ms. KELLY: Not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Well, there's the other question I guess, of to what extent the
financial press did the job it needed to do of sort of pointing out the
underlying stresses and contradictions in the financial and regulatory
structure. Do you have an opinion on that?
Ms. KELLY: I think itâs a mixed bag. I think that in general the media could've
been more prescient about what was about to happen. On the other hand, I do
think there were articles talking about issues like leverage. And leverage, of
course, is how much you borrow against the cash that you have on hand. And
being over their heads in borrowing was something that really hurt a lot of the
Wall Street firms. So I think, of course, we could've gotten ahead of this a
little bit better. In the Journal's regard, I think that once this started to
catch fire we were very aggressive about it and did not try to understate or
overstate what was happening.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KELLY: But, you know, realize that Bear Stearns, for example, may have been
the first domino to fall. And, in fact, going back the prior summer, Bear
Stearns fell in March of â08, they had these two internal hedge funds that
essentially blew up in 2007. And we broke that story and were chasing it the
entire summer. And even though the hedge funds only had a combined 1.5 billion
in management, which is not large in Wall Street terms, the way they fell apart
due to leverage and due to the fact that they were exposed to risky mortgages
seemed to us like a harbinger of things to come. And that was why we devoted so
many column inches to it. And it was that situation that sort of primed my own
interest in Jimmy Kane(ph) and led to my reporting in that fall about his sort
of absentee leadership.
DAVIES: And I'm glad you mentioned the collapse of these two hedge funds that
were owned by Bear Stearns. The Columbia Journalism Review is doing a piece for
its upcoming issue about how well the financial press reported on the problems
of the financial system before its collapse. And they have long list, I don't
know if you've seen this, but a long list of stories that they think were of
interest as the crisis unfolded. And one of those that they cited as an
outstanding piece of investigative journalism was one that you wrote in June of
2007, which was about the collapse of these two hedge funds, these big, these
investment funds that Bear Stearns had created. It was described by the
Columbia Journalism Review as the official unveiling of the mortgage crisis, a
huge, huge scoop. You want to talk a little bit about that story and its
significance as you saw it?
Ms. KELLY: Sure. Absolutely. Essentially Bear Stearns had this asset management
unit and they had hired, among other people, some former traders and salesmen
from their bond department to start funds. And one of them had opened up a pair
of hedge funds. One of them was a little less risky and the other a little more
risky from the standpoint of the fact that it borrowed lots of money against
its cash. So Bear Stearns had a manager who had started these two hedge funds
and this guy had a very good record for a couple of years with solid returns,
never had a loss. And suddenly, in the spring of 2007 things started turning
around for him.
The performance of what was in his investment portfolio started to decline
precipitously by double digit percentage points. And what happened as a result
of that were two things. The folks who had given him money to invest, his
clients, started asking for their money back. And the lenders who had given him
funds to invest with that were borrowed started saying, we want some of our
money back, or at least we want more cash down in exchange for what weâre
So that started to happen and it became a real whirlwind. Over the course of a
couple of months he went from being in great shape to being in miserable shape
and not having enough cash on hand to meet either need. So Bear Stearns had to
step in. And in the first week of June, my colleague, Serena Ng(ph) and I got
wind of this and decided to keep an eye on it because it might be a good story.
And at the time we were very focused on subprime mortgages. We saw that these
two hedge funds were struggling and that they had a subprime connection.
And as soon as we heard that Bear Stearns senior leadership was thinking of
bailing out these funds or had it on their radar screen, we thought that
there's something going on here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KELLY: So we jumped right into it and the whole thing unfolded very very
quickly. I mean from early June, when we first heard about it, to July 31st,
when the two funds filed for bankruptcy. It was under two months.
DAVIES: Weâre speaking with Kate Kelly. She's a reporter for the Wall Street
Journal. She's written a new book about the collapse of Bear Stearns called
"Street Fighters." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Kate Kelly. She's a
reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She's written a new book called "Street
Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street."
You recently broke a major story about the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank
of New York, Stephen Friedman. What did you discover about his status?
Ms. KELLY: Stephen Friedman is a director of a large bank called Goldman Sachs
Company. And he also owns stock in Goldman Sachs. The Fed has a code of rules
governing folks like Friedman that say that you can't be a director, a senior
jobholder, or a shareholder of a bank holding company, which is Goldman's
technical classification. So when Goldman became a bank holding company, which
happened sort of unexpectedly last September, he went from being perfectly in
accordance with the rules to inadvertently being against the rules.
And the Fed, in order to keep him in his position at a time of turbulence,
sought a waiver on those rules so that he could stay onboard. But it took
several months for the waiver to be agreed upon. And during that period of time
Friedman went out and bought additional Goldman shares. Now in fairness to
Friedman, buying those shares didn't really affect the situation one way
another. I mean essentially you're not allowed to have one or a hundred. So
whether it was one or a hundred didnât really matter.
But I think itâs a case of optics and the public being very uncomfortable with
even the appearance of a conflict of interest. So here you had a guy who
perhaps through no fault of his own was in violation of Fed rules and the Fed
was working to rectify the situation and get him the waiver, but it hadn't come
through yet. He then goes out and buys additional shares and I think it was
just one of those things that kind of looked bad. And the reason that it may
have looked bad is that the Fed now regulates Goldman. And, of course, Friedman
is the Chairman of the Board of the regulator of Goldman. And even though he's
not involved in day-to-day policy decisions, it just makes people uncomfortable
thinking that there may be some coziness there between a guy whoâs got a vested
interest in a company and the regulator that keeps an eye on that company.
DAVIES: Now is there any evidence that he used his authority in the Fed to help
Goldman, his company?
Ms. KELLY: To be fair, there is not. And the Fed would argue that boards like
the one Stephen Friedman chairs are not involved in policy decisions. They do
not get pulled in on the eve of a Bear Stearns bailout and asked their opinion.
They might be posted on the situation. Right after the fact they might take a
look at how the Fed staff handled the situation after the fact. But they are
not crisis managers and theyâre not in the loop on a hour-to-hour basis.
What they do do is select the head of the regional bank, which used to be Tim
Geitner, and then, of course, Tim Geitner went to Washington to become the
Treasury Secretary. So when that vacancy was opened Stephen Friedman was
leading the search for a replacement. And the person that he came up with was
William Dudley, an economist who had once worked at Goldman Sachs. So again, I
think it's an optical issue.
I think that Friedman clearly has close ties to Goldman Sachs. Dudley is a
Goldman Sachs guy. He's now running the Fed. The Fed has had a role in shaping
regulatory policy during this crisis, and one could probably make a convincing
argument that regulatory policy has benefited Goldman Sachs. Was Friedman in a
room telling people you need to bailout Goldman Sachs? I donât think so. But
this is a time of great sensitivity of public appearances.
DAVIES: Right. And we should note that Friedman has since resigned from the
position really as the result of the controversy in your story.
Ms. KELLY: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: But you know part of my reaction when I read this was that it seems to
me that the world of Wall Street and government regulators are so accustomed to
revolving doors, one moving into another, that this relationship didn't strike
me as so odd. I mean, bankers themselves - they actually appoint the members of
the Federal Reserve banks, including the three who are supposed to represent
the public. Is this really so unusual? I mean aren't these kind of conflicts
almost endemic to the system?
Ms. KELLY: They are endemic to the system and I think the Federal Reserve
System was set up very intentionally as an organism that would be composed of
members of the banking community, that would be owned by the banking community,
and would also regulate the banking community. So that was very much by design
and I think they tried to set up some ways in which conflicts of interest could
be mitigated, such as having boards that advised, but not on a sort of crisis-
to-crisis basis, more on a sort of blue sky, philosophical basis.
The question now is does this still work? Does the Fed need more public
scrutiny, should the banking community be as embedded as they are in these
essentially regulatory structures? And I think thatâs what members of Congress
and even former Fed officials are now taking issue with. I donât think the
Freedman story would have been very much of a story five years ago. Of course
it would have been moved because you wouldnât have seen Goldman Sachs became a
bank holding company. But, you know, what Iâm saying. I donât think the public
outrage would have been there.
DAVIES: Do you think that this is one of those cases where people are so
accustomed to a certain way of doing things. Like people who are used to
getting big bonuses that they donât even think about, you know, a 15 or 20
million dollars bonus. That people who have spent their lives in investment
banking in the Fed system would think nothing of holding these two positions
which would seem to pose a conflict.
Ms. KELLY: I think it may be a case like that, yes. And in fact, the Wall
Street Journal editorial page wrote about this and I think they make a fair
point, which is: this is a wealthy man, I donât think he was necessarily doing
this because he was greedy. I think he saw a good investing opportunity by his
own admission. He said the stock seemed cheap at the time and it absolutely
was. He bought it at about $65 and then again at about $80. The stock is now
well north of a $100. So he was right on the merits of it. And I think â I
think youâre correct to say when you spend many years in a system and this
gentleman is 71 and he is very experienced, you just may not necessarily
realize that the times are changing and things that may have been acceptable
five years ago or even three years ago are now not passing the smell test. I
think that can happen to people.
DAVIES: Weâre just about out of time but, Kate Kelly, I wonder, you know, if
you could just give us your perspective on how worried we should be. I mean,
you know, the government just completed the stress test of the large banks and
seemed to be saying theyâre okay as long as they raise some more capital.
Whatâs your sense of the fragility of the financial system these days?
Ms. KELLY: You know, I think we should be concerned. If you look at some of the
recent economic data, last Friday unemployment numbers were announced and
unemployment is now at 8.9 percent. And the feeling is that the pace of
joblessness is slowing but even the Obama administration predicts that we could
see unemployment of close to 10 percent and no recovery until the end of next
year. As I mentioned credit card debt is an increasing issue and the average
American household has almost $10,000 of credit card debt, and in many cases
not much sense of how theyâre going to pay that back.
The stress tests, I have to say, were the subject - they were the butt of the
joke in the opening sketch of Saturday Night Live on Saturday night.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KELLY: And to me that was a real cultural barometer. They essentially had a
guy playing Tim Geithner talking about what a joke the stress tests were. Now
this may be unfair. The government has said that a number of institutions need
to raise quite a bit of capital, and thatâs a clear signal to everybody that
they are not in perfect health. But itâs hard to say that there wonât be
another leg down, and itâs hard to say that the banks are on unsafe territory.
I think a number of the banks would like to repay the governmentâs investment
in them, under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which dispersed money last
fall to the major banks, nine of them. And yet the government hasnât agreed to
anybody to do that yet, because I think the Fed and others are concerned that
they may not have seen the worst of it yet. So itâs a difficult time â itâs a
difficult time. And I think unemployment scares a lot of people and rightly so
because if you donât have a job to try to pay the bills how are you going to
get out of this mess. How are you going to pay off your debts or deal with
education and healthcare costs? Let alone housing costs, which were part and
parcel of this crisis.
DAVIES: Kate Kelly thanks so much for speaking with us.
Ms. KELLY: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
DAVIES: Kate Kelly is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Her new book
about the collapse of the investment bank Bears Stearns is called âStreet
Coming up, Ken Tucker on the debut album by Tinted Windows. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Power-Pop Through Tinted Windows
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Tinted Windows is a power-pop supergroup that consists of one member each from
the bands Fountains of Wayne, Smashing Pumpkins, Cheap Trick and Hanson. If
that mixture of musicians sounds intriguing, rock critic Ken Tucker says the
bandâs debut album, also called âTinted Windowsâ pays off on its pop-rock
(Soundbite of song, âKind of a Girlâ)
Mr. TAYLOR HANSON (Singer): (Singing) Woah-woah, Woah-Woah, Woah-Woah, Woah-
Woah, sheâs the kind of a girl you canât get enough of, Woah-woah, sheâs the
kind of a girl you need to feel the touch of, Woah-woah, sheâs the kind of a
girl that can really shake up your whole world, The kind of a girl you kinda
never want to let go, Uh oh uh oh uh oh woah woahâ¦
KEN TUCKER: Tinted Windows are lead singer Taylor Hanson, yes, from the
brother-group Hanson, authors of âMmm Bopâ; James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins
plays lead guitar. The rhythm section consists of Fountains of Wayneâs Adam
Schlesinger on base and Cheap Trickâs Bun E. Carlos on drums. Together, they
are at once playful and dead serious.
(Soundbite of song, âDead Seriousâ)
Mr. HANSON: (Singing) Darling when I say I would never leave you, Seems like
you always say I donât believe you, I know itâs hard to take it to heart, After
all this time but itâs time to start cause, I know you think I take it all for
granted, Thatâs how it looks but not how I planned it, I canât make up for
words unsaid, But thatâs not whatâs been going on in my head, Iâm seriousâ¦
TUCKER: If that sounds to you as it goes to me like a lost classic, well,
history is on our side. The kind of music made by Tinted Windows reaches back
decades to both cult and mainstream acts such as Big Star, the Knack, Dwight
Twilley and Walter Egan, who are either one-or-two hit wonders or undeserving
obscurity. But the Tinted Windows style is also a perfectly contemporary sound,
as hits made by Miley Cyrus, Ashley Tisdale and Aly & AJ when they were true
Itâs just that teen pop made by non-teenagers always carries with it the whiff
of irrelevance. This is a serious commercial obstacle to overcome. Hannah
Montana tweens will not, I suspect, be packing Tinted Windows concerts.
(Soundbite of song, âCha Chaâ)
Mr. HANSON: (Singing) Rolling down the road, Rolling like a stone, Feel your
engine roar, Feel your body purr, My cha cha, Youâre my cha cha, Putting down
the smack, Stepping on the gas, Riding kinda low, Everybody knows My cha cha,
Youâre my cha cha, I just want you to feel me, I just want you to hear me, I
just want you to heal me, Youâre my cha cha, Youâre my cha chaâ¦
TUCKER: The idea for this band was apparently Adam Schlesingerâs, which kind of
figures, Fountains of Wayne being the most self-conscious act in this genre.
And Iâm using the phrase self-conscious in a complimentary way. Schlesinger and
Hanson composed the first Tinted Windows tune, âTake Me Back.â Taylor Hansonâs
voice is at once distinctive and anonymous. He could just as usually be the guy
who sang The Archiesâ âSugar Sugarâ in 1969.
(Soundbite of song, âTake Me Backâ)
Mr. HANSON: (Singing) I just want it like it was before, but nothing seems to
work anymore, I'm open to suggestions, gimme some direction, tell me what
you're looking for. You know I, been working overtime, so I can change your
mind, could you put me through. It's not enough, enough. To love someone, when
the one you love, wants to cut and run. Tell me what I've got to do for you.
Take me back, take me back, take me back.
TUCKER: This is the kind of music that trades in enduring clichÃ©s that speak
truth to heartache. Again and again, over chiming guitars and slamming drums,
Tinted Windows sing about having their minds messed with by girls/women, about
finding romance difficult to fathom let alone sustain. And insisting to the
love-object resisting these melodies that to quote a typical line, "we got
something." What Tinted Windows has is a collection of songs that would sound
great blasting out of a tinny car radio anytime in the past 40 years.
Whether the year 2009 is interested in such timelessness at a time when
timeliness is all, well that's a whole other question.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. You can
download Podcasts of our show at our Web site freshair.npr.org.
For Terry Gross, Iâm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.