A big chunk of Stress Test, former Treasury secretary Tim Geithner's new memoir, is devoted to stories about the nation's response to the financial panic of 2008. And a big chunk of that is filled with the kind of profane, high-stakes negotiations that also characterized books like Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail and Hank Paulson's On the Brink. (A search for fuck inside Stress Test yields 19 results; you have to wonder how many were in the first draft.) Although well-written and informative, Stress Test may expose the sensitive reader to the same kinds of financial PTSD as other accounts of the 2008 collapse.
There are, to be fair, a handful of pages in Stress Test that won't inflate your blood pressure, cause your temples to ache, or make you want to go on a three-day yoga retreat to decompress. Ten, to be exact. And in the interest of your mental health, we've pulled them out and excerpted them below:
1. A young Geithner met Henry Kissinger, and failed to make an impression.
After graduating from Dartmouth, Geithner went to work for Kissinger's consulting firm. After he left for a post at the Treasury department three years later, Geithner writes, "Kissinger called me, one of the few times he ever did that. He was working on a book and had asked me to write two long essays on Chinese and Japanese foreign policy. He complimented my work, probably the first time he ever did that, and told me he needed additional research on Japan. When I explained that I worked for the government now, and couldn’t continue to work for him on the side, he didn’t sound happy and didn’t prolong our conversation." They didn't speak for another fifteen or so years.
2. A less-young Geithner impressed his bosses with "fluent profanity."
While traveling in Tokyo as the assistant U.S. financial attaché to Japan, Geithner was with a group of senior officials when their motorcade was interrupted by police officers yelling in Japanese. "I didn’t know the direct translation," Geithner recalls, "but I replied: 'They’re saying: ‘Get the fuck out of the way!'" The incident made an impression on then-Treasury secretary Nicholas Brady: "I don’t know if it was my limited Japanese or my fluent profanity that impressed him," Geithner writes, "but [Brady] told that story around the department to mark me as a young man to watch."
3. Geithner once got negged by Larry Summers.
Geithner and economist Larry Summers have a complicated relationship — more mentor/protegé than frenemy, but with hints of animosity. Witness this near-perfect neg, lobbed at Geithner by Summers early in his career: "Larry once said he could envision me as the managing partner of a law firm, or running some big institution, if only my credentials weren’t so thin. 'I just don’t know how you’d get hired in the first place,' he said."
4. Geithner's view of Wall Street was shaped by smart people.
Critics of Geithner have accused him of fealty to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street — alleging, essentially, that he did too much to help the banks while letting homeowners suffer. This passage from Stress Test will not dampen that line of criticism, since Geithner tacitly admits that his view of Wall Street was shaped by his contact with a handful of finance-industry executives:
I did not view Wall Street as a cabal of idiots or crooks. My jobs mostly exposed me to talented senior bankers, and selection bias probably gave me an impression that the U.S. financial sector was more capable and ethical than it really was. I spent more time with smart executives such as Deryck Maughan, a Salomon Brothers banker I knew in Japan who later became CEO, and smart investors such as Stan Druckenmiller, a hedge fund billionaire I sometimes consulted about markets, than I spent with the sordid elements of the financial industry.
Working for former Treasury secretary (and ex–Goldman Sachs head) Bob Rubin also affected Geithner's view of Wall Street's competence, he writes, "because he was as competent as anyone I knew."
5. Populist backlash arrived at Geithner's office in the form of poison ivy.
During the summer of 2008, Geithner had more to worry about than the failure of Bear Stearns and the collapse of the housing market: "I got a nasty case of poison ivy," he reports, "so I worked for weeks with my legs slathered in Calamine lotion and wrapped in gauze. I once walked from my office to a conference room with a long train of Calamine-covered gauze trailing from my pant leg."
6. Geithner advisors Meg McConnell and Gene Sperling once beefed over a Pop-Tart.
During one late-night Treasury huddle, Meg McConnell "noticed that a strawberry Pop-Tart she had bought from one of Treasury’s vending machines had vanished. She looked over at Gene, who shrugged and admitted he had eaten it. He said he would buy Meg another in a tone suggesting he comprehended neither the enormity of his crime nor the inadvisability of messing with Meg when she was tired and hungry. 'When, Gene?' she demanded. 'When are you going to get me another?'”
7. People inside the West Wing really care what Ray Dalio thinks.
We've long known that Ray Dalio's Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world, is also one of the most respected by those in the upper echelons of the U.S. government. Geithner recounts how, after the results of Treasury's first-ever "stress test" on big banks were released,
"I walked into the Oval Office for the President’s daily economics briefing with a report from Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund firm. Many experts, including Larry, regarded Bridgewater’s Daily Observations as among the smartest and most credible sources of private-sector economic analysis— and among the darkest about the banks. In front of the economic team and the President’s political advisers, I handed that day’s Observations to the President. The headline was 'We Agree!'"
8. Geithner's daughter accidentally threw shade at the president.
Once, while Geithner was getting a kidney stone removed, "my ever-protective daughter, Elise, visiting me in the hospital from Stanford, tried to fend off my constant work-related interruptions so I could get some rest. At one point, my lead Secret Service agent poked his head through the door to inform me that POTUS was on the line. 'Who the fuck is POTUS?' Elise asked with exasperation. She agreed to let me take the call after we explained the acronym of the President of the United States."
9. During dark times, Geithner took solace in the Honey Badger.
"That weekend, my communications director, Jenni LeCompte, told me someone had tweeted that I was the 'Honey Badger of the Obama administration.' I had no idea what that meant, so she sent me a viral YouTube video of 'the Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger' devouring snakes and diving into beehives, as a narrator explained that the honey badger doesn’t give a shit what other animals think. A Treasury secretary is supposed to exist above the political fray; I took my honey-badger moment as another indication that I had stayed in Washington too long."
10. President Obama gave him a memorable parting gift.
When Geithner stepped down from Treasury, he reports, "the President gave me a pretty remarkable parting gift: engraving plates for the ten dollar bill, featuring Alexander Hamilton on the front and the Treasury building on the back. His inscription was gracious: 'Thanks for navigating us through a terrible storm; Hamilton would be proud!'"
Brad DeLong, Neil Barofsky, and others have done (and will do) a more substantive and critical reading of Stress Test. But make no mistake: Concentrating on just the passages above will make for a much healthier, less maddening experience. Your cardiologist will thank you.