Steve Rattner has three gifts -- and the blind spots to prove it.
First, he writes well and, it would appear, quickly. This book was an extended summer project -- it cannot have been much more. His account is detailed, with names, dates, participants, settings, conversations all reconstructed with a journalist's ear for conversation and detail. It helps that before going to Wall St., Rattner was a reporter for the New York Times. The journalistic blind spot is that the book reads like a long newspaper article. Rattner does not reflect on the moral hazard of his enterprise, on what states or other governments should learn, or on what governments should do to stay out of the business of restructuring failing companies.
Second, Rattner is a solid financier. He knows his way around a balance sheet and understands the enormous complexity of a bankruptcy conducted under tough conditions. He has good reason to be proud of his work: the huge, desperate, hail-Mary pass that was the federal government decision to intervene and restructure the US Auto industry looks like it will actually work. As of the publication of this book, it appears that Chrysler will pay back its loans and that GM will go public and repay the public most or even all of its investment. If the Obama administration succeeds in saving two million+ jobs and getting the taxpayer's money back, that is a hell of an accomplishment. The banking blind spot is that Rattner carved an incredible hole in the US securities landscape. If holders of preferred debt can be forced to give up their claims on assets and accept a junior position to unsecured creditors (as they were in this, the largest of all bankruptcies), why will they lend money again? Loans are secured by a well-tested set of rights and claims that the auto task force trampled. As a banker, Rattner ought to have more to say about this and ought to wrestle more honestly with the implications of his decisions (which, for the record, I think were unpleasant but ultimately justified).
Rattner's third gift is one he could live without. Like many at the top of Wall St. or Washington, he has an instinctive ability to ingratiate himself with the powerful and to promote himself effectively. In a writer, it makes the book into a brochure on the remarkable abilities of Steve Rattner. It reads like the work of a guy who is determined to quickly write the first draft of history with himself at the center. Rattner mentions repeatedly that he dipped into his Wall St. fortune to buy lunches for people meeting with him at Treasury, that getting confirmed cost him $400 grand, that he worked 18 hour days, and that but for his deft brilliance, the entire "auto caper" would have come a cropper. He repeats his love for his boss Larry Summers ad nauseum, describes Obama in quasi-mystical terms, shares the minimum plausible credit with his obviously talented and committed team (especially Ron Bloom, his talented deputy who played a critical role in structuring deals that all parties could either live with or be forced to live with). Rattner glosses over his "pay to play" ethical improprieties that ultimately forced his resignation and led his partners at Quadrangle to denounce his behavior and pay a $7 million fine. In many ways, this is vintage Washington kiss and tell: Rahm swears, Larry is smart, the President is awesome. It's a great story told well by an author with an unnatural fondness for the first person voice. Rattner was there -- and he never for a moment lets you forget it.
Egos aside however, the American people owe Rattner, Bloom, and the entire task force an enormous debt of gratitude. Working inside the US government (not at all easy), facing an unprecedented economic crisis, and under extraordinary time, financial, and political pressure, a small team pulled off the largest restructuring in the history of capitalism. They forced GM and Chrysler to take medicine that they should have taken years ago. It appears to have worked against all odds and Rattner tells the story well -- even if he never lets the action stray far from his self-absorbed gaze.