Crisis Management

Posted: Jan 18, 2009 12:01 AM
Crisis Management

Two events this past week provide a strong comparison of how to handle a crisis: the heroic landing of the U.S. Airways jet on the Hudson River, and the release of  more money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).  The first is the story of how a crisis is defused  by levelheaded action. The second story demonstrates just the opposite.

First the Hudson River heroics, the pilot,  “Sully” Sullenberger, safely crash-landed the plane into the river, after geese apparently were sucked into the engines.  The 155 passengers and crew were safely evacuated from the plane.

According to a story, “An official who heard tape recordings of the radio traffic from Flight 1549 reported the pilot was extraordinarily calm during the event.

“There was no panic, no hysterics,” the official said. “It was professional, it was calm, it was methodical. It was everything you hoped it could be.”

Prior to ditching the jet, the pilot discussed with the air-traffic controller several options, then decided to land in the Hudson River.  After splashing down and evacuating the plane, Captain Sully WALKED the cabin twice to ensure no one remained aboard. Only then did he make his own way to safety.

This crisis was marked by calm deliberation; options weighed, decisions made, and calm, deliberate follow-up by the captain to ensure that everyone was safe and sound.

Contrast that to the release on the same day of $350 billion, representing the second tranche of the bank bailout money by the U.S. Senate.  A Gallup poll conducted January 13 noted, “A majority of Americans (62%) say Congress should block President-elect Obama's request to release the remaining $350 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds until more details are provided about how the funds will be spent.”

Lawrence Summers, the director-designate of the National Economic Council, sent a three-page letter to the House and Senate leadership regarding the use of the second $350 billion tranche.  The letter was long on weighty words but short on metrics.  For anyone who has filled out the dozens of pages needed to qualify for a conventional 30-year mortgage, the idea that a few pages of concept could adequately describe how $350 billion is to be spent defies logic.

According to Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal, the track record for reporting and transparency about TARP is dismal.  Just last week, the Treasury Department agreed to provide $20 billion to Bank of America, and pledged as much as another $10 billion to limit the bank’s future losses.  This combined $30 billion was funded as part of the first $350 billion installment of TARP.  Except that the first $350 billion had already been committed, but just not used.  Many of us might view this as double counting.  Luckily for the Treasury before the funds were required where they were originally committed, the second tranche was approved.  So the Treasury had already promised $30 billion of the second $350 billion before Congress gave its approval. 

Hilsenrath noted, “The bottom line is that the Treasury is running,” as in sprinting.  Not a good thing to do in a crisis.

To make things more confusing, a portion of President-elect Obama’s $825 billion economic stimulus plan targeting families earning less than $200,000, does not make sense.  According to a New York Times article, “…individuals would receive up to $500 and families up to $1,000. The money would be delivered through paychecks as a reduction in Social Security withholdings, and is intended to bolster consumer spending by giving a small lift to household pocketbooks.”

Wow, stimulate the economy by reducing payments to an underfunded “trust fund!”  That doesn’t seem to pass the rationality test.

For change that we can live with, rather than “believe in,” we need to know how we got here, and where we want to end up, before we can outline the steps to get there.  If our long-term goal is to prop up institutions while helping people stay in houses they can’t afford, and ensuring that the Social Security trust fund goes broke quicker than now projected, then we’re already well on our way.

How did we get here?  By ignoring reality, letting altruism drive financial markets (no credit check, no down payment, no interest for three years), receiving returns that defined logic (and really were not logical but fraudulent), and by believing in complex financial investments and tools that we couldn’t even understand.  Often if it looks to good to be true – it really is.

A better goal might be to create economic opportunity for all who work hard and apply themselves.  The American Dream is the opportunity to pursue happiness.  This requires faith that hard work today creates value over time – just not always today.  This means creating the right environment --through less regulation, less taxation, less litigation and more incentives for working hard and creating real value, as well as promoting a culture of hard work and long-term returns.

If what our government is doing today does not reflect this long-term view, then we need to slow down and reevaluate. 

Right now, our government is running, not walking, through the financial crisis – there is no telling how many citizens will be left behind.

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