The First Crisis of the Twenty-first Century
ON THE EVENING OF January 10, 1995, I stood on the Great Seal woven into the carpet of the Oval Office and swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States as Secretary of the Treasury. Confirmed earlier that day, I had been waiting all afternoon for the official document that would allow me to take the oath of office. Once the papers arrived from Capitol Hill, a small group of family, friends, and colleagues assembled at the White House for a hasty ceremony.
As soon as the formalities were over, I said good-bye to my wife, Judy, and our other guests and remained behind with President Bill Clinton, Treasury’s top international official, Larry Summers, and a few of Clinton’s senior advisers, for an emergency meeting about the financial crisis in Mexico.
I told the President that the Mexican government faced an imminent threat of default and that, in the hope of preventing it, we were recommending that he support a massive, potentially unpopular, and risky intervention: providing billions of dollars to the Mexican government to avoid a collapse in its currency and economy. Then I asked Larry to explain the situation in more detail. It took him ten minutes to spell out our essential analysis and recommendation, which we’d finished formulating in a meeting with Fed chairman Alan Greenspan hours earlier. If our government didn’t step in to help, and help quickly, the immediate and long-term consequences for Mexico could be severe. But the real reason for acting was that critical American interests were at stake.
The alternatives to the massive intervention we were recommending were not promising. If Mexico defaulted on its foreign obligations, Larry and I went on to explain, the flow of capital out of Mexico would probably accelerate and the peso would collapse, likely triggering severe inflation, a deep and prolonged recession, and massive unemployment. And that would surely have a substantial impact on the United States. Mexico was our third-largest trading partner, which meant that many American companies and workers would be hurt. We presented estimates that a Mexican default could increase illegal immigration by 30 percent, a half-million additional refugees a year. The flow of illegal drugs could intensify as well.
A crisis in Mexico might also hurt us indirectly, by affecting other countries. Fears of a Mexican default were already producing wobbles in developing markets throughout the hemisphere, a phenomenon that came to be known as the "Tequila Effect." Such a chain reaction could lead investors to pull back from emerging markets around the world indiscriminately. That, in turn, could affect economic conditions in the United States–since roughly 40 percent of our exports went to developing countries. According to an estimate made by the Federal Reserve Board, a Mexican default and the consequent "contagion" that was possible could, in a worst-case scenario, reduce growth in the United States by 1/2 to 1 percent a year. We weren’t proposing intervention for the sake of Mexico, despite our special relationship, but to protect ourselves. That was our case for asking Congress to provide billions of dollars in loan guarantees, as part of a package to be coordinated with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
As Treasury Secretary, I avoided using words such as "panic" and "meltdown," preferring less vivid terms such as "contagion" and "loss of confidence." I’d learned while working in the White House as director of the National Economic Council (NEC) that the words public officials use can make an enormous difference, and that was even truer at the Treasury. I had to describe what was happening in Mexico accurately without being inflammatory. A meltdown, though, is precisely what we were worried about–and not only because of its effect on current economic conditions. With the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico was hailed as a role model for developing countries pursuing economic reform. The public failure of that model could deal an enormous setback to the spread of market-based economic reforms and globalization.
But there were arguments against intervention as well, which we also laid out for the President. I emphasized that, for a variety of reasons, our rescue package simply might not work. What’s more, intervention would almost surely be criticized as "bailing out" wealthy American and European investors who had speculated on developing markets. Putting public funds on the line was likely to be massively unpopular and politically risky. Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff, was even more blunt in warning Clinton about the downside risk. Leon favored intervention, but he told Clinton that a failed rescue effort could cost him the election in 1996.
When we finished our presentation, the room was heavy with a collective sense of how big a problem this had rapidly become. Larry had tossed out a figure of $25 billion as the amount of U.S. assistance that might be necessary. George Stephanopoulos, a senior adviser to the President, said that surely we meant $25 million. No, Larry said, we meant "billion with a B." That was more than the annual budget of the Department of Justice, enough to buy a fleet of B-2 "Stealth" bombers.
Sitting on a sofa in the Oval Office during my first hour on the job, I was answering questions from the President that I had been asking others only a couple of weeks before. Larry had phoned me in December, while I was on vacation in the Virgin Islands, to bring me up to speed on the unfolding Mexican situation. I didn’t know much about Mexico’s economic problems, and I didn’t understand why a peso devaluation was urgent enough to interfere with fishing. I assumed that Mexico was one of a large number of countries with similar problems and that Larry, a consummate professional in the field of international economics, would take care of whatever needed to be done. But I intended to be a hands-on Secretary, and I liked that Larry was including me, even though I was still in the netherworld of being designated but not yet confirmed as Treasury Secretary.
It didn’t occur to me that day that Mexico’s problems would shortly blossom into a full-blown economic crisis that embodied the heightened risks of a more global economy. In retrospect, the Mexican episode also offers much insight into the Clinton presidency. The Bill Clinton I watched come to the aid of Mexico was one the public too seldom saw. His seriousness of purpose, his depth of substantive understanding, and his keen intellectual quest for the right decision on Mexico are a continuing reminder to me of the way in which he remains, in important respects, a misunderstood figure. At a broader level, the dilemma Clinton faced with Mexico suggests to me that our politics may not be well suited to coping with the new risks of the global economy.
GETTING MY ARMS AROUND a problem like the Mexican crisis meant thinking about it as systematically and dispassionately as possible. The situation, as I rapidly came to understand following my preconfirmation conversation with Larry, was this: After the outgoing Salinas government had spent over $15 billion in a futile attempt to prop up the peso at the fixed rate of around 3 pesos per U.S. dollar, the newly installed government of Ernesto Zedillo had, in late December 1994, surrendered to overwhelming pressure in foreign exchange markets and allowed the Mexican currency to float freely. With only around $6 billion of its foreign exchange reserves left and far more than that in short-term debts coming due, Mexico had little choice. But with the government no longer providing support, the peso fell rapidly to around 5 pesos to the dollar. As the Mexican currency continued to slide, doubts grew about whether the government would be able to repay its debt, much of it very short term and linked to the dollar. Fearing a possible government default, investors were selling Mexican bonds, as well as the peso. In sum, Mexican authorities had lost control of their country’s finances.
All of us working on the problem agreed that Mexico, now essentially cut off from private lenders, almost surely could not solve the crisis through its own policies alone. The Mexican government’s bond auctions were attracting few bidders, even at dollar interest rates approaching 20 percent. In the short term, the private sector was very unlikely to produce loans on the scale needed to prevent default.
Nor, with requirements this large, could the international financial institutions–the IMF and World Bank–arrange a rescue on their own, as they had in many other cases. Michel Camdessus, the French managing director of the IMF, was unknown to most Americans despite his tremendous influence. Skillful and audacious, Camdessus was prepared to weather the anger of his organization’s European shareholders to make a stabilization loan to Mexico of unprecedented size. But the sums needed exceeded the IMF’s available capability. The only realistic chance of avoiding disaster was help from the United States. The questions for me then became the possible consequences of financial chaos and default in Mexico, the danger of the program failing, and the possible costs of that failure.
What has guided my career in both business and government is my fundamental view that nothing is provably certain. One corollary of this view is probabilistic decision making. Probabilistic thinking isn’t just an intellectual construct for me, but a habit and a discipline deeply rooted in my psyche. I first developed this intellectual construct in the skeptical environment of Harvard College in the late 1950s, in part because of a yearlong course that almost led me to major in philosophy. I started to employ probabilistic decision making in practice at Goldman Sachs, where I spent my career before entering government. As an arbitrage trader, I’d learned that as good as an investment prospect might look, nothing was ever a sure thing. Success came by evaluating all the information available to try to judge the odds of various outcomes and the possible gains or losses associated with each. My life on Wall Street was based on probabilistic decisions I made on a daily basis.
This was the background I brought to the question of whether we should intervene in Mexico. With an enormous number of competing considerations, the key to reaching the best possible decision was identifying all of them and deciding what odds and import to attach to each–probabilistic decision making at work. Doing that also meant recognizing that our knowledge would never be as complete or perfect as I–or the rest of the team at Treasury–would like. Moreover, even with the most systematic and thorough work, a decision, though informed by the facts and analysis, would never emerge automatically from the yellow pad on which I scribbled notes. The final component of decision making was the intangible of judgment. The process of decision making that we evolved in the Mexican crisis–and that I would use over and over again in my time at Treasury–was familiar to me from my life in the private sector. But the range of considerations was much broader. For example, we had to think about the damage that a failed intervention could do to America’s credibility. If we attempted to help Mexico and did not succeed, our backing would be a less useful tool in some future crisis.
Success had dangers as well. Even if our efforts helped stabilize Mexico, we might create a problem of what is known as "moral hazard." Investors, after being insulated from the consequences of risk in Mexico, might pay insufficient attention to similar risks the next time, or operate on the expectation of official intervention. In Mexico, investors had
become complacent, following a herd mentality in buying short-term dollar-linked bonds throughout 1994 without paying sufficient attention to the danger that the central bank’s currency reserves might not be sufficient to maintain their promised convertibility into dollars. We worried that our program to prevent Mexico’s failure might encourage investors to make similar mistakes again in the future.
It was my good fortune to be able to think through these issues with Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers. In our backgrounds, our professional training, and our temperaments, the three of us were alike and very different. Alan is a conservative free-marketeer and an economist grounded in both macro policy and an acute empirical understanding of the American economy. Before entering government, he had his own private-sector consulting firm and traded actively for his own account. He is a precise man with an exceedingly good and understated wit. Larry, whose parents are both Ph.D. economists and who has two uncles who won Nobel Prizes in economics, was one of the youngest professors ever to receive tenure at Harvard. He is a forceful, self-assured theoretical economist with a good feel for the practical, both in politics and in markets. I had a pretty good conceptual understanding of economics, had spent a career in trading operations and management on Wall Street, and had been involved in Democratic politics. People who know me are familiar with my distrust of definitive answers and my habit of asking questions. While our personalities differed, they meshed–perhaps because our analytical approaches to a problem like Mexico proved highly compatible. Equally important was the spirit in which we worked. Though none of us is without ego, there was a remarkable lack of it in our meetings. Each of us tried to work with the others to find the best answer, not to show off his intellect or defend preconceived notions. Another crucial component of our relationship was the mutual trust we developed. For four and a half years, Alan, Larry, and I had breakfast or lunch at least once a week, along with many other meetings and discussions. After I resigned in 1999, Larry and Alan continued the tradition. To the best of my knowledge, nothing any of us said in any of those private meetings ever leaked out. (For this book, they gave me permission to refer to these conversations.)
Copyright © 2003 by Robert E. Rubin and Jacob Weisberg. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.