We admit it. Like many of his peers and colleagues, we feel a small amount of professional jealousy toward Times wunderkind Andrew Ross Sorkin, especially after reading this week’s profile of him in New York, which reveals that the preternaturally ambitious, 32-year-old DealBook editor has an insane work ethic in addition to a powerful, high-profile job and a bestselling book. Ever since we read it we’ve been thinking to ourselves: How can we be more Sorkin-like? Or at least, how can we write a book that will become a bestseller like his? No, that will sell better than his? Something Sorkin-y in scope but that retains Daily Intel’s particular joie de vivre. And then it came to us: Too Big to Fail and Zombies! We haven’t sold it yet, but we’re sure it’s a winner. Here’s an excerpt from our soon-to-be-bestselling work of finance fiction.
This scene takes place in early September. Then-Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson and then–New York Federal Reserve President Tim Geithner have called the CEOs of the top Wall Street firms to a meeting at 33 Liberty Street, the New York Federal Reserve Building, to discuss the plague that has infected Lehman Brothers and its CEO, Richard “Dick” Fuld.
If there had been any question about the subject of the gathering, it was readily apparent before Paulson ever said a word. Conspicuous by his absence was the longest member of their tribe, Dick Fuld.
“Dick is in no condition to make any decisions,” Paulson announced, with a tinge of derision, explaining why Fuld wasn’t present. “He is in denial,” Paulson continued, before calling him “distant” and “dysfunctional.” The bankers knew what those euphemisms meant: Fuld had succumbed to the plague. His gorging on mortgage-backed securities had turned him into an empty shell, and if the people in this room couldn’t find a way to save him, Fuld would no longer be a master of the universe. He wouldn’t even be human. Just an undead sack of blood and guts, staggering around, like the rest of the hordes that had lately crowded the streets, wailing and hungry.
It was Geithner’s turn to speak. He looked hard at the group. “If you don’t find a solution, it’s only going to make the situation worse for everybody here.” The problem was evident: Lehman had barely any cash. If there was no solution by Monday, the risk was that investors would demand what little money was left and drive the firm out of business by the opening bell. That, in turn, would put the financial system as a whole at risk.
The plague would spread.
Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon countered that they believed the risk inherent in a Lehman bankruptcy was being overstated, at least from their respective firms’ points of view.
Geithner took their opinions in without responding, and instructed the bankers to break up into two working groups. The first group would assess how to carve up Lehman’s barely sentient corpse, so that other banks could save themselves by feasting on the remains. The second would determine whether there was any way Lehman could be saved by some kind of bank-to-bank transfusion.
In case there was any confusion, Geithner reiterated Paulson’s decree: “There is no political will for a federal bailout.” As he spoke those words, a subway train passed underneath the room, rumbling ominously as if to underscore his point.
SEC chairman Christopher Cox, as impeccably dressed and coiffed as ever, made a brief statement, telling everyone in the room they were “great Americans” and impressing upon them “the patriotic duty they were undertaking.”
Most of the bankers rolled their eyes at the sentiment; they regarded Cox as a lightweight and would later describe him as “cryogenically frozen.”
In fact, he was.
Then, Vikram Pandit of Citigroup spoke.
“I assume we are going to talk about AIG?” he asked. The room grew quiet.
Geithner shot him a harsh look. “Let’s focus on Lehman,” he said firmly.
“You can’t deal with Lehman in isolation,” Pandit persisted. “We can’t find ourselves back here next weekend.”
Dimon jumped in. “We’re there at AIG. Our team is there,” he said, explaining that JPMorgan was advising the insurer, and that they were working to find a solution.
“You know, Jamie,” Pandit replied brusquely, “we’ve got a team there, and I don’t think it’s as under control as you think.” He recounted the horrors employees had told him of. The desiccated bodies piled in the lobby. The screams rattling the windows. The dark liquids gushing under the doors and the wails that could be heard coming from the building late at night.
Geithner insisted that the Fed had AIG under control and again attempted to move the conversation along. But Pandit pressed on.
“What about Merrill?” he asked.
It made for an awkward moment, as Merrill CEO John Thain was only seats away. He was likely the next to get the plague, the executives well knew, as his firm was full of the deathless monsters. He had remained notably silent during the exchanges.
“You guys get this done for me, and I’ll make sure I can take care of AIG and Merrill,” Paulson replied. “I’m a little uncomfortable talking about Merrill with John right in the room.” He glanced uneasily at Thain, whose face, everyone suddenly became aware, had taken on a deathly pallor. “John,” said Paulson hesitantly. “Have you been bitten?”
It was then that Thain let out a gutteral animal howl. Half-rising from his chair, he lunged toward Pandit. “BRAINS!” he moaned.
“Holy shit!” exclaimed Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, who was sitting in between the men. He rolled his chair out of the way.
Geithner ran out of the room, screaming like a little girl.
Pandit was struggling, his arms over his head. “No, no!” he shrieked. The group watched, dumbstruck, as Thain sank his large, square jaw over Pandit’s head and then pulled back, his mouth full of gore. Blood spattered onto the wall of the conference room of the building Margaret Law, a critic for Architecture magazine, had once described as “epic.” Pandit jumped up, holding the side of his head, and ran to cower in a corner, his shrill screams echoing through the limestone corridors.
“Is that his brain? Is that his fucking brain?” Mack said. His normally melodious, Southern-tinged voice seemed higher by several octaves.
“I think it’s just his ear,” Paulson said. The Treasury Secretary was trying to keep his cool, and was rummaging through the silverware drawer in the newly renovated room’s china cabinet. “The sharpest thing in here is a butter knife,” he muttered. Holding it high, he advanced toward Thain, who was still focused hungrily on Pandit. As Thain lunged in for another attack on Pandit, Paulson brought the butter knife down into his eye and ground it in sharply.
Thain issued a terrible roar, and then, to everyone’s surprise, grabbed Paulson’s arm and twisted him to the floor, pulling Paulson’s arm straight out of its socket in the process. Paulson lay on the floor, howling in pain. Thain looked down at him, the gore from his demolished eye socket dripping onto Paulson’s glasses, and took a step forward.
“God save us,” Paulson said. Behind him, Lloyd Blankfein responded to his call. Jumping up onto the table, he harnessed all the power in his tiny body to hurl himself onto Thain’s back, gripping him around the waist with both legs and fastening his arms around his neck. Lying on the floor, Paulson blinked through the blood on his glasses and registered that the Goldman CEO, despite being a nattier dresser than he had been in his early years, still wore tube socks. Above him, the zombified Merrill Lynch CEO yowled in displeasure as he batted at the Goldman honcho, who tried to keep his hold by gripping Thain’s lush head of hair. This, alas, was a terrible misjudgment: Thain wore a wig, a fact Blankfein might have known had he not been an upstanding individual who scrupulously avoided rumormongering and all types of gossip. Losing his grip, Blankfein was thrown to the floor into the pool of blackish purple plasma that was rapidly gathering near Paulson’s severed arm. Thain, now hairless and more frightening than ever, leaned over the both of them, licking his lips. His eyes were empty, they noticed. Emptier even than usual. (After all, this was the man known on the Street as “I-Robot.”)
Sensing the end was near, Blankfein attempted one last quip: “Think you’ve got to get a waiver to be this close to me?” he said to Paulson. The Treasury Secretary smiled wanly.
Then, suddenly, Thain’s head above them was gone, replaced by the grinning, golden face of Jamie Dimon. In his hand was a massive gold bar. Blankfein looked to the right, where Thain’s body lay beside him, his head was crushed like a grape and dripping with brain matter. Blankfein watched as he exhaled one last time, then fell silent.
The JPMorgan CEO extended a hand each to Blankfein and Paulson. “Can you call a doctor for Hank?” he asked John Mack, who was still sitting in his chair, stunned.
“No, I don’t need one,” said Paulson. “I’m a Christian Scientist.”
“You can call one for ME,” Vikram Pandit bleated from the corner, where he had been holding his ear and whimpering.
“Where did you get that gold bar?” Blankfein managed to ask Dimon.
“I’ve been taking one everywhere lately,” Dimon answered seriously. “In this economy, you can’t be too careful.”