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Ex-Rocket Scientist To Oversee Financial Bailout

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Ex-Rocket Scientist To Oversee Financial Bailout

Economy

Ex-Rocket Scientist To Oversee Financial Bailout

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News, I'm Ari Shapiro.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. $700 billion in your money will soon be in the hands of a guy who is six years out of business school. Neel Kashkari is 35 years old. This week Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson tapped him to oversee the government's massive bailout plan. Now all Kashkari has to do is solve the worst financial crisis in generations. NPR's Yuki Naguchi has this profile of the man who will distribute the money.

YUKI NAGUCHI: Neel Kashkari has been rather busy. The day his boss Henry Paulson unveiled the massive financial rescue plan, Kashkari addressed the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. NEEL KASHKARI (Assistant Treasury Secretary): Sorry, when I don't get much sleep, my - it's so hard to speak in the morning.

NAGUCHI: It's a wonder if 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. And for the last two years, he's been Secretary 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 works like a slave, often even on projects he wasn't directly overseeing.

Mr. TOM DAUTEL (team member of Kashkari): He meant business, if he wanted to get the job done, he was very focused, and it didn't surprise me that he ended up where he is.

Ms. POORNI BID (Classmate of Kashkari): He stood out in just his focus and I think his intensity, you'd - well, you'll think anyone in MBA program would be like that, but there was a different quality about him.

NAGUCHI: Poorni Bid says that quality made Kashkari the man she and other classmates called 'Rocket Scientist' seem wise and competent beyond this years. 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.

Mr. DAVID MCCORMICK (Undersecretary of international affairs at the Treasury Department): He's a very quick study, very bright, very organized, very analytic. All prerequisites of doing the kind of triage and making the kind of choices he's going to have to make.

NAGUCHI: 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 Secretary Paulson did not. Paulson had to scramble to win support from Congress for his bailout plan. But treasury's McCormick says Kashkari was instrumental in paving over those bumps.

Mr. MCCORMICK: 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.

NAGUCHI: Kashkari's work doesn't get high marks from everyone. One of his most significant projects at Treasury has been the Hope Now Alliance. Hope Now is a group of government and lending interests trying to rework consumer's mortgages so they aren't foreclosed. 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.

Mr. JOHN TAYLOR ( President and Chief Executive, National Community Reinvestment Coalition ): I think where Neel is coming from Now Alliances, it's asking for a more voluntary system.

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

Mr. TAYLOR: He keeps his cards close to the vest and you know it's hard to tell what exactly what he's thinking, so you have to summize base on what they propose is what his philosophy which is free market, free market and hopefully that free market will voluntarily comply and try to resolve things.

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

Mr. KASHKARI: There is no silver bullet in the housing market. There's no one tool that's going to solve all of our problems. We need to turn over every stone and find every incremental tool that's going to help on the margin.

NAGUCHI: So now it falls to 35-year-old Neel Kashkari to devise a solution to a problem that seems to grow bigger by the day. Yuki Naguchi NPR News Washington.

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