Ex-Rocket Scientist To Oversee Financial Bailout

Neel Kashkari has been rather busy.

Only 35 years old, Kashkari has already been a rocket scientist and a vice president at Goldman Sachs. Now, just six years out of business school, he is taking on his biggest career move: This week, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson tapped him to head the government's $700 billion bailout program.

Kashkari's job is to design and implement a massive program to rid the financial system of bad home loans — and get money flowing so that banks can start lending again.

The day Paulson unveiled his financial rescue plan, Kashkari addressed the American Enterprise Institute.

"Sorry, when I don't get much sleep, it's hard to speak in the morning," he said, coughing.

It's a wonder Kashkari ever sleeps. His career has bounced around, but he always seems to land in prestigious jobs. The native Ohioan worked as an aerospace engineer on NASA space missions. After business school, he became a vice president for Goldman Sachs. For the last two years, he has been Paulson's right-hand man, providing analysis on a mortgage crisis that has consumed the world's economies.

Now, he'll have four short months remaining in this administration to design a system to clean up much of the mess.

Back in the 1990s, Tom Dautel worked on a team led by Kashkari to design a solar car called the Photon Torpedo at the University of Illinois. He says Kashkari worked like a slave, often even on projects he wasn't directly overseeing.

"He meant business. He wanted to get the job done. He was very focused, and it doesn't surprise me he ended up where he is," Dautel says.

Poorni Bid says Kashkari's intensity made the man she and other classmates called Rocket Scientist seem wise and competent beyond his years.

"He stood out in just his focus and just his intensity," she says. "And you'd think everyone in MBA school would be like that, but there was a different quality about him."

David McCormick is undersecretary of international affairs at the Treasury Department and Kashkari's most recent boss. He says Kashkari's scientific discipline, in a way, trumps his youth.

"He's a very quick study, as I said: very bright, very organized and very analytic," he says. "All prerequisites to doing the kind of triage and making the kind of choices he's going to have to make."

In his new job, Kashkari will be doing financial engineering. If successful, he'll design an auction system so the government can buy some very complex assets at the right price — high enough to infuse money back into banks, but not so high that it bilks taxpayers.

But his job will also be a political challenge. He'll have to navigate Washington in a way that critics say Paulson did not. Paulson had to scramble to win support from Congress for his bailout plan. McCormick says, however, that Kashkari was instrumental in paving over those bumps.

"Ultimately, I think he was a critical part of the success that Congress and the administration had together in terms of promoting very solid legislation," he says.

Kashkari's work doesn't get high marks from everyone.

One of his most significant projects at Treasury has been the Hope Now Alliance, a group of government and lending interests trying to rework consumers' mortgages to prevent foreclosures.

John Taylor is president and chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. He says the program has only helped a small percentage of homeowners, because it doesn't require industry participation.

"I think where Neel is coming from, he's asking for a more voluntary system," he says.

Even when it was clear foreclosures were rising, Taylor says, Kashkari didn't change his approach and was difficult to read.

"He keeps his cards close to the vest, so it's hard to tell what he's thinking," he says.

In his speech three weeks ago after that sleepless night, Kashkari said the U.S. financial system's problems will require many answers.

"There is no silver bullet in the housing market," he said at the time. "There's no one tool that's going to solve all of our problems. We're going to need to turn over every stone and use every incremental tool that's going to help on the margin."

So now it falls to Kashkari to devise a solution to a problem that seems to grow bigger by the day.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.