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on October 31, 2012
"Between March and September 2008, eight major U.S. financial institutions failed - Bear Stearns, IndyMac, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Washington Mutual, and Wachovia --- six of them in September alone.....This, the most wrenching financial crisis since the Great Depression, caused a terrible recession in the U.S. and severe harm around the world. Yet it could have been so much worse."

Thus Hank Paulson summarizes, in the Afterword, the major challenges he faced as Secretary of the Treasury, a post he assumed on July 10, 2006 and left on January 16, 2009. And this does not mention other institutions that would have failed had they not been propped up (GE Capital, Chrysler, GM, and the entire money market industry after the Reserve Primary Fund broke the buck).

In the recently released "Bailout: an inside account of how Washington abandoned Main Street while rescuing Wall Street", Neil Barofsky, the former Special Inspector General in Charge of Oversight of TARP, details his efforts to constrain the Geithner Treasury from unconditional dispersal of hundreds of billions of TARP funds to the largest banks with no oversight. Former FDIC Chief Sheila Bair recently said of Geithner, "Tim seemed to view his job as protecting Citigroup from me, when he should have been worried about protecting the taxpayers from Citi." While Geithner did much to accelerate what the New York Times called a "no-strings windfall to bankers", the first $350 billion was dispersed under Paulson. Was he a hero who kept the world from falling over the "brink", or was he just rescuing his inept investment banker buddies and sending the tab to the taxpayer as some would contend? What evidence does On the Brink offer?

One indeed can make the case that Paulson was the right man at the right time since only a former CEO of Goldman Sachs had the necessary knowledge of financial markets and the professional gravitas to demand attention from the likes of Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan, John Mack from Morgan Stanley, Lloyd Blankfein from Goldman Sachs, Vikram Pandit from Citigroup, John Thain from (then) Merrill Lynch, Brady Dougan from Credit Suisse, and Robert Kelly from Bank of New York Mellon.

But, one can also argue that, having drunk the Goldman Sachs kool-aid, Paulson saw only one response to the crisis - save the big banks, everything is secondary. As the crisis unfolds, it seems that Paulson and his team move heaven and earth to accommodate financial institutions but underwater homeowners are given short shrift and then only to get more money for the banks: "...devising one [a mortage mitigation plan] would be critical to getting congressional approval to release the final tranche of TARP."

Paulson summarizes, "As first responders to an unprecedented crisis that threatened the destruction of the modern financial system, we had little choice [but to take the actions they did]." He repeatedly invokes images of "market panic", "grave distress throughout the world", "financial catastrophe", "serious risk", "the world falling apart", "all hell [breaking] loose", "[threats to] the entire financial system", etc, etc as justification for his actions.

But, throughout this crisis, many members of Congress asked Paulson to delineate the consequences of NOT bailing out the big banks, and, for the most part, he seems to duck the issue then and now. In one instance, he explains, "[Florida representative Adam Putnam] suggested that I needed to tell people more explicitly how bad it would be if the financial system collapsed....but scaring the public to win support would only make things worse economically." And, "...this dilemma haunted me throughout the crisis - how to make the public understand the grave situation we faced without inflaming the markets even further."

But what about now, in this Copyright 2010 book? Wasn't this the great opportunity to explain the Sum of All Fears and spell out how the dominoes could have fallen? The only clue we get here is that hundreds of billions were dispersed so that credit would continue to flow ("..if credit stopped flowing, businesses would shut down across America and many, many jobs would be lost."). But, you can't help but hear Eartha Kitt singing "Santa Baby" as you read about the fortune lavished on the big banks who promptly sat on the funds and provided no sugar for Daddy.

Whether you agree with his actions or not, ultimately the nation owes a debt of gratitude to Paulson for stabilizing a chaotic situation and you have to admire his fortitude in dealing with wave after wave of staggering problems. However, given the strong residue of resentment that still exists over how TARP (and related programs) were handled, On the Brink represents a missed opportunity to dispel some of that resentment.

A final note: the Afterword makes for interesting reading as Paulson lists his recommended actions for preventing another similar crisis. Guess how many of his recommendations have been implemented?
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on January 24, 2011
Like so many "over the shoulder" assessments of major historical events, Mr. Paulson's account is very self-serving.
He doesn't bother to address why - when the government had tremendous leverage in working out the bailout of AIG - it did next to nothing in holding banks like Goldman Sachs accountable for their poor decision-making. So AIG, propped up by American taxpayers, paid 100 cents on the dollar for the credit default swaps purchased by Goldman Sachs. These swaps in themselves were a suspect approach to managing risk. Moreover, the government never required the investment firms - whose senior management made atrocious gambles - to replace these inept executives (such as GS's Lloyd "We're doing God's work" Blankfein) although they didn't hesitate to take out the head of GM (Rick Wagoner)when we bailed out the auto industry.
So how to explain Mr. Paulson's role in all this and his self-justifying apologies for greed? Well here's an astonishing coincidence: he's the former CEO of Goldman Sachs. Surprise, surprise! And another tidbit about where Mr. Paulson acquired his ethical compass: he was a special assistant to John Ehrlichman in the Nixon White House.
I invite people to read this book, but I would advise against attaching any credibility to Mr. Paulson's view of the near collapse of our financial system.
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on February 1, 2010
A book like this should be read only along with books like The Failure of Risk Management: Why It's Broken and How to Fix It or The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. These books are about the much broader topics of risk management and risk in finance, respectively, but they do put On the Brink in context.

Paulson has written a detailed, blow by blow, narrative account of several specific meetings leading up to and during the financial crisis. Less of the book deals with stepping outside of these meetings to analyze other specific causes, but there is some of that. The reader has to be careful of an attempt by Paulson to recast his own role in a more favorable light, but I haven't seen anything detailed enough to specifically contradict him, yet.

Paulson does mention an interesting and almost complete list of players in this crisis - Freddie, Fannie, Bernanke, Bush, etc. But he is almost silent on some of the more subtle players like the mathematical models that underestimated these risks (Taleb and Hubbard do and excellent job of this). He reiterates throughout the book that the events seemed "impossible" and yet they are events that seem to happen once or twice a century (Especially considering some of the relaxed regulation and oversight that preceeeded it).

He does mention the role of Credit Default Swaps in the crisis but not, say, the Gaussian Copula, Options, or Value at Risk. The use of such methods are at least partly to blame.

The reader has to assume Paulson's agenda of getting history to come out the way that casts him the way he would like to see it. But it is still an excellent account. We should like to see the accounts of Bernanke and Geithner someday and compare them side-by-side.
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on May 16, 2011
I just finished reading all the reviews for Paulson's book and feel I must live in a parallel universe. Isn't having Hank Paulson a) become Secretary of the Treasury in charge of taxpayers' money, and b) become a reviewer of the crisis he helped create be like having the fox write all about the hens? What the heck is going on here? Need I remind everyone that he was the multi, multi- million dollar head of Goldman, one of the primary arch villains of the collapse, DURING the crisis and he cashed in on all his mistakes after the crisis. The salient questions here are: 1) Why didn't he do something in 2005, 2006, 2007 before the crash? Where was he then??? 2) Why were none of the major culprits - BOA, CitiBank, Merrill, and especially, AIG - not severely punished? 3) Why did it have to take up to 14 Trillion of taxpayer money...and still counting? 4) Why has there been no criminal charges levied and no one charged with a major crime? Unbelievable. What am I missing here? This guy is anything but a 'savior' or 'hero'
as some of you have suggested. He may be a good writer and he may provide some interesting insider accounts, I suppose. But, do not forget he has blood - financial blood - all over his hands.
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on February 22, 2014
I am impressed with Paulson's efforts at saving the economy even though his old firm, Goldman Sachs, helped to fuel the problem. Paulson's side of the story is interesting. I can't imagine trying to solve all the sudden crises that he and others did, but we owe him. I rated the book a 3 because it seemed dry. It probably wanted to be accurate and cover the situation factually. He accomplished it but I was so turned off with the greed on Wall Street, it probably affected my outlook. I appreciated his side. Great effort on his part.
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on January 18, 2012
"Hank" Paulson's record of the economic meltdown of 2008 is a good primer on the events from an insider's perspective. It's fast paced and well written. It brought back many memories and emotions from those uncertain days. The books value is in the record of the event that took place and the reactions of key insiders, Bernanke, Geithner, Pelosi, Reid, Boehner, Frank, Dodd and others. Clearly, Paulson was respected by both political parties and that helped him work through the fast breaking events of the collapse.

The first shock that hits you in the book is not financial but political and personal. The book's Foreward was written by Congressman Barney Frank. Frank's lead-in is an indicator of the respect he had for Paulson. As you read through the book you can clearly see the respect Paulson had for Frank. He knew where the political power was and how to use it. What did surprise me was Paulson's power in the halls of Congress especially given he was part of a lame duck administration. He presents himself more as a knowledgeable but charming diplomat, than a hard nosed Cabinet-level politician. This may be part of Paulson's bias in writing. Other than the battle over TARP, leaders in both parties seem to capitulate to him and Bernanke.

As some of the other reviewers noted, this is not an objective book. Paulson was a major Wall Street insider and clearly a huge supporter of President Bush. However, his relationships with key Congressional Leaders showed that the substance of what Paulson proposed was not partisan. Greed and power is bi-partisan. When it comes to money, all politicians love it. The partisanship was in the implementation. This was most clearly seen in the battle on how to use the TARP money.

My favorite quote from the book is when Paulson and Bernanke were addressing Congressional leaders on the need for a $85 billion bridge loan for AIG. In that meeting Paulson wrote Barney Frank asserted himself and said "Where did you find $85 billion?". Bernanke responded back "We have $800 billion." The way I read it , was as if Barney Frank was envious of Paulson's find and Ben Bernanke silenced him by making him the financial midget in the room.

While I was reading I went to Youtube and watched some of his "Sunday show" interviews. You could see he was tired and spent. However, one in particular with George Stephanopoulos when asked if other institutions are in the same shape as Bear Stearns, at that moment he looked and acted visibly scared of his potential answer. These interviews helped put a face to what he was describing in his book regarding his physical and mental state along with knowing the market's would dissect and parse his statements.

Ultimately, what emerged from the narrative was a clear picture of a financial system completely out of control and driven by short-term greed and manipulation. I'm not sure that will ever change. However, I can't see anyone who reads this book objectively, not coming away with the opinion we need to regulate the financial industry in new and better ways.

I recommend it.
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on March 10, 2016
Hank Paulson's book is the best one I've found yet for explaining the things that led to the financial crisis of 2007-08. He was right in the center of the storm, and had a lot to do with how each choice was made. There are many who still don't understand just how frighteningly close to the brink we got, or how critical the decisions were. In some cases we got very lucky threading the needle.
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on August 23, 2015
a good book by a guy who writes a lot better than he speaks so this forms the only real record of what Hank Paulson did and said and thought in 2006 as the American economy disintegrated. I found the book by Tim Geithner to be five star , better written and able to see more sides to the crisis which really came apart in September 2008.
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on July 19, 2011
Read this book and Too Big To Fail after seeing the HBO movie. Paulson intrigued me partially because he's from a couple towns down the road from me. This book is very approachable and kept me wanting to turn the page on my Nook. Sometimes the cast of characters and government agencies and programs get a bit confusing, but it didn't take away from this remarkable story. Paulson presents himself as a practical man grounded in his Midwest roots devoted to his family and religion. One irony is when he remarks that he often chastised is fellow bankers for living in lavish mansions, meanwhile he goes off and buys an island. He states throughout the book that he admires how President Bush handled the crisis and that he got skeptical family members to feel the same. However, except for getting accounts of the President saying do whatever is needed, we aren't given any insight into the Presidents handling of the crisis.

Since Mr. Paulson was the CEO at Goldman Sachs while this crisis was brewing, I would love to read his take on what was happening out on the street that brought this crisis to bear. Maybe a prequel?

Brian McAndrews
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on December 26, 2015
My Take: Sadly this book is a self-serving defense of one of the most colossal crimes in history. Henry Paulson, Wall Street investment bankers, and a cooperative Congress colluded to steal more than a trillion dollars from the American taxpayer to cover losses incurred by ruthless financial market con artists. Now Paulson seeks to morph himself, his Wall Street cronies, and Congress from corrupt cheats into saviors of the world financial system. You should read this book if for no other reason to see evidence that market based capitalism is dead and that crony corporate socialism has replaced it.
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