Surviving Black Monday

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As the discussion ended, it was clear that the next day would be full of major decisions. Gerry Corrigan made a point of telling me solemnly, “Alan, you’re it. The whole thing is on your shoulders.” Gerry is a tough character and I couldn’t tell whether he meant this as encouragement or as a challenge for the new chairman. I merely said, “Thank you, Dr. Corrigan.”

I was not inclined to panic, because I understood the nature of the problems we would face. Still, when I hung up the phone around midnight, I wondered if I’d be able to sleep. That would be the real test. “Now we’re going to see what you’re made of” I told myself. I went to bed, and, I’m proud to say, I slept for a good five hours.

Early the next morning, as we were honing the language of the Fed’s public statement, the hotel operator interrupted with a call from the White House. It was Howard Baker, President Reagan’s chief of staff. Having known Howard a long time, I acted as though nothing unusual were going on. “Good morning, Senator,” I said. “What can I do for you?” “Help!” he said in mock plaintiveness. “Where are you?”  

“In Dallas,” I said. “Is something bothering you?” Handling the administration’s response to a Wall Street crisis is normally the job of the treasury secretary. But Jim Baker was in Europe trying to make his way back, and Howard didn’t want to deal with this one on his own. I agreed to cancel my speech and return to Washington—I’d been inclined to do so anyway, because in light of the 508-point market drop, going back seemed the best way to assure the bankers that the Fed was taking matters seriously. Baker sent a military executive jet to pick me up.

The markets that morning gyrated wildly—Manley Johnson sat in our makeshift operations center giving me the play-by-play while I was airborne. After I got in a car at Andrews Air Force Base, he told me the New York Stock Exchange had called to notify us it was planning to shut down in one hour—trading on key stocks had stalled for lack of buyers. “That’ll blow it for everybody,” I said. “If they close, we’ve got a real catastrophe on our hands.” Shutting down a market during a crash only compounds investors’ pain. As scary as their losses on paper may seem, as long as the market stays open investors always know that they can get out. But take away the exit and you exacerbate the fear. To restore trading afterward is extraordinarily hard—because no one knows what prices should be, no one wants to be the first to bid. The resuscitation process can take many days, and the risk is that in the meantime the entire financial system will stall, and the economy will suffer a crippling shock. There wouldn’t have been much we could do to stop the executives at the exchange, but the marketplace saved us by itself. Within those sixty minutes enough buyers materialized that the NYSE decided to shelve its plan.

The next thirty-six hours were intense. I joked that I felt like a seven-armed paperhanger, going from one phone to another, talking to the stock exchange, the Chicago futures exchanges, and the various Federal Reserve presidents. My most harrowing conversations were with financiers and bankers I’d known for years, major players from very large companies around the country, whose voices were tightened by fear. These were men who had built up wealth and social status over long careers and now found themselves looking into the abyss. Your judgment is less than perfect when you’re scared. “Calm down,” I kept telling them, “it’s containable.” And I would remind them to look beyond the emergency to where their long-term business interest might lie. The Fed attacked the crisis on two fronts. Our first challenge was Wall Street: we had to persuade giant trading firms and investment banks, many of which were reeling from losses, not to pull back from doing business. Our public statement early that morning had been painstakingly worded to hint that the Fed would provide a safety net for banks, in the expectation that they, in turn, would help support other financial companies. It was as short and concise as the Gettysburg Address, I thought, although possibly not as stirring: “The Federal Reserve, consistent with its responsibilities as the nation’s central bank, affirmed today its readiness to serve as a source of liquidity to support the economic and financial system.” But as long as the markets continued to function, we had no wish to prop up companies with cash.

Gerry Corrigan was the hero in this effort. It was his job as head of the New York Fed to convince the players on Wall Street to keep lending and trading—to stay in the game. A Jesuit-educated protégé of Volcker’s, he’d been a central banker for his entire career; there was no one more streetwise or better suited to be the Fed’s chief enforcer. Gerry had the dominant personality necessary to jawbone financiers, yet he understood that even in a crisis, the Fed must exercise restraint. Simply ordering a bank to make a loan, say, would be an abuse of government power and would damage the functioning of the market. Instead, the gist of Gerry’s message to the banker had to be: “We’re not telling you to lend; all we ask is that you consider the overall interests of your business. Just remember that people have long memories, and if you shut off credit to a customer just because you’re a little nervous about him, but with no concrete reason, he’s going to remember that.” That week Corrigan had dozens of conversations along these lines, and though I never knew the details, some of those phone calls must have been very tough. I’m sure he bit off a few earlobes.