Jim Lambright on the Job

According to Larry Summers, the White House's top economic adviser, $50 trillion in global wealth has vanished in the last year and a half because of the global financial crisis. Some are even saying that 2009's going to be a year of negative growth — that’s how bad things have gotten.

In light of such sobering numbers, it's no wonder that Jim Lambright is a busy man these days (he likes to joke that the financial crisis accounts for his lack of hair). He wears two hats, serving as chief investment officer of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and as president of the Export-Import Bank.

Jim was gracious enough to join us for an informal, off-the-record IFE/INFO breakfast forum last week. With a bachelor's from Stanford and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, he's an ambitious leader — his ambition, thankfully, involves problem-solving in our nation's capital, not taking in a $25 million bonus check from whatever bank is still standing.

He spoke about the challenges of rescuing large investment and insurance companies (like AIG) that contribute so much to the U.S. economy. "Relief and recovery" for Main Street is intertwined with stabilizing these huge companies in Detroit and Wall Street. The web of interconnectedness throughout financial markets and the broader economy is incredible, and the government is working hard to prevent the disorderly collapse of these systemically important companies.

When asked what is being done for start-up firms, Jim said that TARP is helping them by keeping credit markets from drying up, stock markets from collapsing and people from leaving their homes and jobs. He made an interesting observation when he noted that TARP is, in effect, a start-up company. True, it happens to be a "start-up" within the U.S. government. Even so, Jim said that it faces all the organizational challenges that normal start-ups do — moreover, he said that early on there were more auditors in the building assessing its actions than he had on his staff. Given the huge responsibilities of the program, great care is being given to protecting the interests of taxpayers.

Chris Caine, IBM's vice president for governmental programs, asked him how information that flows in and out of TARP is managed. Jim replied that TARP is focusing on enhancing its asset management capabilities to facilitate easier reporting of financial information, but noted that to date the team has met every reporting obligation.

TARP has been successful — but managing politics, policy and markets all at once can be a challenge. You can usually get two out of the three, but it's almost impossible to get all three. He frequently referred to the "political calendar" as opposed to the real calendar, and emphasized the constraints that the first imposes on policy.

2009 is going to be tough, and even the next couple of years beyond that may not be the best. Please be patient, though, and know that in Jim, you have the best and brightest on the case.


Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.