William Cline and Joseph Gagnon: Lehman Died, Bagehot Lives:
Five years after the Federal Reserve and the Treasury allowed the investment bank Lehman Brothers to fail, their actions (or inaction) remain a focus of debate. Some argue that it was an inconsistent policy to have let Lehman fail while making emergency loans to save other large financial institutions in the same time frame. In this Policy Brief we present evidence that the Fed and Treasury had a sound reason to have bailed out other institutions while letting Lehman fail. Simply put, Lehman was insolvent—probably deeply so—whereas the other institutions arguably were solvent. In addition, the other institutions had abundant collateral to pledge, whereas what little collateral Lehman had to pledge was of questionable quality and scattered across many affiliated entities.
I am not interested in whether policy was inconsistent--because Lehman was different from others, treating it differently is not necessarily inconsistent. I am interested in whether policy was wise.
The answer is: "No."
The uncontrolled bankruptcy of Lehman was a disaster.
Lehman was a systemically-important financial institution, and it was foreseeable that an uncontrolled bankruptcy would be a disaster--the only surprise was that it turned out to be a much bigger disaster than Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner were expecting at the time.
There as a date--April 15, 2008, say--at which Lehman Brothers was "solvent" in the sense that the Bush Treasury and the Bernanke-Geithner Fed would have been willing to lend to it massively as they near-extinguished the claims of its equity holders, closed down the institution, and distributed some of its risk to the Federal Reserve and some of its risk to other financial institutions.
There was a date--September 15, 2008--at which the Bush Treasury and the Bernanke-Geithner Fed were unwilling to do that, and let Lehman go.
By continuity, in between there is a last date at which Lehman can still be resolved in an orderly fashion--a date on which their special assistants walk into Paulson's, Bernanke's, and Geithner's offices, and say: "Today may be our last chance to close down Lehman in an orderly fashion. If things go badly for Lehman on the markets today, by tomorrow it will be so clearly insolvent that we will not be able to lend to it to grease its shutdown."
When Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner heard that, they should immediately have huddled, and then called Lehman and said: "You need to do a deal today, because tonight we are going to announce that our judgment is that you are on the edge of insolvency."