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addabook - On the Brink
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On the Brink
Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System
Henry M. Paulson
read on June 1, 2010

It really goes without saying that I had to read this book. Paulson, perhaps more than anyone else on the planet, knows what went down in Sept 2008. (It's probably one huge, hazy blur to him- but still). Too Big To Fail, the Sorkin book, bothered me in that it took a lot of liberties with disclosing what really happened vs what the author thought would sound good in a book. Sorkin wrote specific dialog that took place in ultra high level meetings- meetings where the people their don't talk- so I imagine a lot of it was made up. Paulson's word first hand.

 I started reading this in February, and didn't finish until June. That's how boring the first half of the book is. It took me five months to get through the first 100 pages. They're not about anything. Part autobiography, and part preemptive defense. It was garbage.

About when the timeline hits late summer 2008 things start kicking into gear. It was interesting to read Paulson's opinion of the events, though honestly, there wasn't anything in there that truly benefitted from his first hand perspective. It seemed sort of evident to me that he was constructing the book based on loose memories and looking through the meetings he had scheduled in his calendar. Still, he does offer more color on TARPs creation and passage than any other book I've read, and I thought the inside-baseball on the bill was probably the highlight of the book.

As expected, Paulson spends quite a bit of time defending his actions. He also adds a bunch of unnecessary bits here and there about how George Bush handled the whole thing brilliantly as well. Not brilliantly I guess, but he praises W. left and right for never letting politics get in the way of his decisions, etc etc. Not relevant material.

Paulson wraps things up with suggestions for how to change the system for the better, so that this never happens again. Most of his tips are remarkably un-republican. He advocates strong regulation going forward, and says incentives need to change on Wall Street. Eh. Given that he had a couple years as Secretary before everything blew up, not to mention his career as Goldman CEO, I feel like if he truly thought the system needed changing he would have acted on it before the crisis. Overall, this was not the best book I've read on 2008, but not a waste of time either. I'd call it a push.

Update: Seven years on (now Spring 2017) there are passages from this book that stick with me. I hint at it above, but I remember Paulson describing the incredible stress he and his department were under, and how he wouldn't sleep for days and would be puking into trash cans in between meetings with the President and House Speaker, trying to convince both that if they don't bail out the banks (political suicide) that they would likely blow up the world economy. Almost a decade later this remains a touchstone for me whenever I get stressed dealing with my own problems at work.

Author Bio:

Henry Merritt "Hank" Paulson, Jr. (born March 28, 1946) is an American banker who subsequently served as the 74th Secretary of the Treasury. Prior to his role in the Department of the Treasury, Paulson was the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Goldman Sachs. He is now a fellow at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and the chairman of the Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago, which he founded in 2011 to promote sustainable economic growth and a cleaner environment around the world, with an initial focus on the United States and China.