Saturday, February 9, 2019

Inside the 2008 Financial Crisis & The Lessons Learned - Mike Silva (former NY Fed)

This may well be one  of the most important articles we have run on this blog in some time. In this article we feature an article written by Mike Silva. Mr. Silva served as the Chief of Staff for Tim Geitner at the NY Fed and stayed on at the NY Fed under new President Bill Dudley when Tim Geithner moved on to become Secretary of the Treasury.

In this position, Mr. Silva had a front row seat during the most recent financial crisis in 2008-2009. Most of us suspected the entire financial system was closer to implosion that we realized at that time and Mr. Silva confirms that to be true in this article. He goes on to explain how and why certain actions were taken to prevent total systemic collapse. In the conclusion to his article he states very clearly that he believes we will have another major financial crisis "sooner rather than later".  Given his insider position, this is clearly an article we all need to read and understand. Below are a few excerpts and then a few added comments.


"During the financial crisis, I served as Tim Geithner’s chief of staff at the New York Fed and, then when Tim became Secretary of the Treasury, I served as chief of staff for the next president, Bill Dudley. My role allowed me to directly observe an impossibly small number of Americans at the New York Fed, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department fight desperately to save the financial future of all Americans. Thank you for this opportunity to tell their story."

"On the night of Thursday, 13 March 2008, I was one of a small group of NY Fed officials huddled in Tim Geithner’s office, listening as several senior SEC officials reported that the investment bank Bear Stearns would not be able to open in the morning."

. . .

"As an investment bank, Bear was part of the ‘shadow banking system’ that was completely outside of the Fed’s jurisdiction and not subject to any kind of ‘prudential supervision’ (i.e. supervision to ensure that it was being run in a safe and sound manner). We had no direct insight into Bear. In fact, some of us did not even know where it was located."

. . . .

"At this point, Tim and Chairman Bernanke started discussing the possibility of invoking the Fed’s emergency lending authority under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act to lend to a non-bank. Under Section 13(3), the Fed could lend to a non-bank if it determined that “unusual and exigent circumstances” existed and it was “secured to its satisfaction”.

Fortunately, our examiners determined that Bear had sufficient collateral for us to be “secured to our satisfaction”. Now, the question became whether “unusual and exigent circumstances” existed. Tim felt that they did. Bear was not a particularly large institution, but it was a highly interconnected one. Its failure could easily result in enough cover selling and collateral calls to trigger a negative asset spiral."

Editors note: The article goes on to explain how Lehman Brothers would later fail and why the Fed could not bail out that firm legally. Then things got worse as the crisis spread as described below in the article.

. . . "Consequently, on the morning of Monday, 15 September, Lehman declared bankruptcy."

"The markets that Monday were ugly. At one point, the NYSE was down 1,000 points, which was a lot back then. However, stocks rebounded and ultimately closed down 500 points. That was bad, but not a meltdown. Importantly, much of the decline was attributable to rumors that AIG was also in trouble. But we already knew about AIG and it was a much easier case for two reasons."

. . . .

"On Tuesday, 16 September, word came that a $65 billion money market fund called the Primary Reserve Fund had bought $785 million of Lehman commercial paper, betting that the Fed would bail out Lehman. It bet wrong and that paper became worthless. As a result, the fund was not able to repay $1 for every $1 invested and it “broke the buck”. Investors in the fund did not react well to that. Within 24 hours, they had withdrawn almost two-thirds of their money.

Much worse, investors not only began withdrawing funds from money market funds with exposure to the financial system, they began withdrawing money from ALL money market funds.

Money market funds are among the largest purchasers of commercial paper (CP) and CP is how corporate America funds itself. CP is how Boeing, Caterpillar, Microsoft and General Electric meet payroll and pay suppliers. Suddenly, a crisis that had been limited to the financial system had jumped the tracks into the real economy. Over the next 10 days, lending of all types ground to a halt. Complete panic had set in.

This was a terrifying moment. Central banks know how to support individual institutions, but no central bank had ever tried to support entire markets. And that was what we had to find a way to do."
Editors note: The article next explains all the massive intervention undertaken by the Fed to stave off the crisis from spiraling into a complete depression. It's clear that we were much closer to this situation than most people understand as the crisis was unfolding at that time. In the conclusion, Mr. Silva lists some lessons learned and then makes a prediction for the future. Below is one "lesson learned" that caught my attention and then his prediction. I added the underliines for additional emphasis.


"A lot of economic, market and bank supervisory theory is based on the premise that financial actors are largely rational. The crisis convinced me that they are not. It was not rational for very experienced financial leaders to make their companies hostage to short-term financing that was, in the final analysis, secured by the irrational assumption that house prices will always go up. It was not rational for Dick Fuld to reject offers because their terms offended his pride. It was not rational for money market fund investors to flee all money market funds just because one fund made a bad bet. It was not rational for some lenders, at the height of the crisis, to stop accepting even Treasuries as collateral. The crisis convinced me that greed, ego, fear, short-sightedness, group-think and other human foibles have at least as much, if not more, to do with financial behaviour as rational thinking does.

This presents a tremendous challenge that policy makers, economists and bank supervisors are going to have to come to grips with."

. . . . .


"Absolutely. As long as we have a financial system, we will have financial crises. The only question is how often and how severe.

Personally, I think a crisis is likely to happen sooner rather than later because . . ."

My added comments: I encourage everyone to read this full article because it comes directly from someone inside the 2008-2009 crisis so it is a first hand eye witness account. 

This article confirms what we have been writing about here now for years. At any given time there is risk that exists to the entire financial and monetary system that we presently have. It is possible for those risks to put the viability of the entire system in question. The article mentions a variety of these risks which we have documented over time on this page of the blog. Because we were able to stave off a collapse from the 2008-2009 crisis and now another decade has passed, it is tempting to assume that the risks have gone away. Mr. Silva makes it clear in this article that is a bad assumption and lists a number of ongoing possible triggers for another major crisis. Interestingly, he states that the Dodd Frank legislation passed after that 2008-2009 crisis will make it much harder for the Fed to handle the next crisis when it does arrive

All this agrees with what we have reported here and also with what Jim Rickards has talked about now for many years. He says that there will be another major crisis and that the US Fed will not be able to handle it. He goes on to predict that a new global monetary conference will be called to deal with the crisis and believes that the most likely proposed solution will be to use the SDR at the IMF as the global reserve currency replacing the US dollar in that role. Mr. Silva's article is important inside information that confirms that something like this is indeed possible in the future.

On the other hand, we have also reported here that until and unless we do get this kind of new major crisis. we are more likely to see gradual and incremental change to our current monetary system over a long period of time. I believe this article also confirms that as a valid observation. It is clear from this article that the financial authorities did not act until the crisis was fully underway and that they were focused on simply doing what they could to preserve the current system using massive intervention from the Fed as lender of last resort. If they were anxious to completely reform or replace the current system, they had the perfect opportunity to do that during the crisis and they did not go that direction.

This indicates to me that central bankers are very risk and change averse and prefer the status quo with only minor incremental tweaks to the system now and then. Even in major crisis conditions, their first instinct is to jump in to try and preserve the present system. Input I get from experts along with my own research also convinces me this is the case.

Meanwhile there is another issue not mentioned in this article that is very real, but perhaps not really very well understood by financial authorities. That issue is the public trust in themselves. The general public does not really spend a lot of time delving into all these issues like we discuss on this blog. They expect that the people running the system are going to make sure it functions and that they can rely on it to conduct daily business activities. If and when the day comes that a crisis arises those authorities cannot "fix", it is very possible that the general public will lose trust in the people running the present system and will reject their "solutions to the crisis" and look for alternatives. I don't believe that anyone can really forecast what people are going to do when panic sets in (see the comments by Mr. Silva above on Lesson Learned #2). If we live in a complex system as Jim Rickards says, no one can predict for certain what will emerge from a crisis on the level he talks about and Mr. Silva clearly states is possible.

This is why on this blog we have worked hard to understand these issues, document the potential systemic risks, and also document a variety of potential proposals to reform or even remake the current monetary system if the need ever does arise for that. We have covered a broad range of ideas and proposals for monetary system change and continue to watch for new ideas that emerge like the Kinesis project launching in 2019 which is proposing an entirely alternative global monetary system using a combination of old world (anchored by gold and silver) and new world (blockchain technology) concepts. What we want to watch for is how much public acceptance these ideas achieve so we can see if they can become viable alternatives for people to choose during a crisis to the present system. 

We can continue to report that unless we do get the kind of new crisis that people like Jim Rickards predict (and Mr. Silva confirms is possible), we expect any change to the present system to be slow and incremental. But this article by Mr. Silva does remind us that those at the very pinnacle of the present system agree that we cannot assume it will never fail. It almost did in 2008-2009 and Mr. Silva states that next time the Fed may be unable to fix it (see note below *)

* in one of the "lessons learned, Mr. Silva makes these comments (see page 15):

"Once a financial mob panics, the only thing that will end that panic is for a central bank with a large billy club to show up and announce: "Break it up everyone. Go home. This crisis is over." Unfortunately, the Dodd Frank Act (DFA) has crippled the Fed's ability to play this role. I guarantee that curbing the Fed's emergency authority will come back to haunt us."

Added note 2-16-19: The followup to this article may be found here.

Part III of this series of articles may be found here.


  1. Please remember that very key players always seem to just happen to be in the right place at the right time when a "crisis" commences:

    Rahm Emanuel gave us a clue: "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."

    Bitcoin was “beta” introduced at the end of the last "crisis" to run on the blockchain until that blockchain was perfected and now they are quietly destroying bitcoin while simultaneously blowing the next bubble that will destroy all fiat. This is paving the way for “governed” electronic currency(s) to ride the blockchain utilized by “smart” phones:

    The next "crisis" will usher in the tribulation:

  2. Thank you for your comments. I will try to continue to monitor events to see what does happen over time.

  3. "Blockchain" is a risible 21st Century incarnation of "The Emperor's New Clothes" and this "article" by Mr. Silva is so obviously fabricated for consumption by the Tin Foil Hat crowd as to be used for nothing more important the bottom of some lucky bird cage.

  4. Thank you for your comment.

    Not sure why you feel it is fabricated. It seems like a pretty direct eye witness account. It is obviously written from a point of view that feels they saved the world from disaster and that point is still up for debate. Some feel they only postponed a day of reckoning and created new asset bubbles, some feel they bailed out banks and did nothing for the general public, etc. Those discussions and debates continue.

    But the actual facts about what happened stated in the article seem very credible to me.

  5. Just a couple of added notes. This article quickly became the most viewed article ever on this blog with thousands of page views from around the world. I'll do a followup on this article in a week or so for that reason. The most important point for me from his article is the information about the potential restrictions on the Fed for using their emergency authority in the next crisis. I don't think most people are aware of that whether they agree or disagree with Fed policy or whether the Fed should even have that kind of power.

  6. I agree with those who say that the Fed should be eliminated, or at least "neutered", so that we may return to a Constitution-based monetary system. Any "new" system must be anchored in gold or silver to prevent the government from re-instituting yet another fiat system of currency.

  7. Thank you for your comment. I think it is important for people to express their views on these issues.

  8. Debt can't be the driver of future economic growth.

    Returns on capital have been mostly higher than economic growth. Wealthy people tend to reinvest capital income, so a growing portion of national income went to investors instead of labourers.

    This resulted in lagging demand because who is going to buy the stuff corporations produce to make capital profitable? For a while it was possible allow labourers to borrow, but at some point they can't borrow more.

    The solution is negative interest rates.

    Why interest rates may go negative and may remain negative:

    Interest is also a reward for risk. Systemic risk enters the system because it appears profitable to lend money to poor quality borrowers because there is a reward for risk.

    The solution is banning interest altogether when interest rates are negative. There are several benefits to that.

    How that might be done and what the benefits and drawbacks are:

    There is one important condition, which is sound finances. If you can't borrow at an interest rate of zero, because lenders don't trust you, you can't borrow at all. This should also apply to governments.