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10.09.08

The Guy Who's Got $700 Billion of Your Money

Meet the 35-year-old who Paulson just tapped to manage the bailout

Paris Hilton is famous for making retailers swoon at the sight of her checkbook. But she's got nothing on Neel Kashkari, the 35-year-old treasury official who has just been handed $700 billion to spend on mortgage securities. And if you think that getting through such a high pile of money is hardly rocket science, the new guy is a rocket scientist to boot.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has tapped Kashkari, a fellow Goldman Sachs alumnus, to manage the bailout of America's financial system. That's a hefty responsibility for a man little more than six years out of business school who is virtually unknown outside a small group of investment bankers.

Colleagues describe Kashkari as sharp, meticulous, and something of a slave driver, despite having a lighthearted sense of humor. Over the past year, when working on the Treasury Department's response to the housing crisis, he developed a reputation for e-mailing requests to his staff past midnight.

"He used to work at NASA before he worked in finance, so he's literally a rocket scientist, which you need to be."

Some of his most important work involved forming Hope Now, a government-backed mortgage industry alliance aimed at minimizing foreclosures. "He's immersed himself in all of the housing issues while at Treasury, and he's quickly become very versatile," said Faith Schwartz, Hope Now’s executive director. "He was very good at convening different groups to get them marching in the same direction."

Home owners threatened with foreclosure have a rather different view. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a group of community-based organizations critical of the bailout package, has complained that Kashkari has not put enough pressure on lenders to prevent foreclosures. The coalition also described him as hard to read—a sentiment echoed, at least initially, by a financial world whose fate largely depends on a man that until a few days ago it didn't even know existed.

"He wasn't volunteering a lot of his thoughts," the coalition president John Taylor said, recalling a meeting in which he proposed an aggressive loan purchase program that Kashkari later rejected. "A lot of pain and a lot of loss on Wall Street has occurred since we had those conversations."

Kashkari grew up in a suburb of Stow, Ohio, the son of Chaman, an engineer—and a first generation immigrant from Kashmir, India—and Sheila, a pathologist. (Chaman grew up poor; his father worked as a clerk.) Kashkari is a Hindu name, although Kashmir is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Neel's prep school yearbook establishes him as fan of heavy metal bands like AC/DC. It seems that the conservative and apparently brain-cell-laden Mr. Kashkari has come a long way (we can only hope) from the headbanging days of the 80s.He won a masters in engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after studying there as an undergrad. Among his pastimes was designing a solar-power car, the Photon Torpedo.

After graduating, Kashkari took a job at the TRW aerospace company in Redondo Beach, California, developing technology for NASA science missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope. His "diverse background" in math and sciences is cited as a reason he is qualified to manage the complexities of the bailout, according to a Treasury spokesperson who said he has worked with him.

"Neel Kashkari is incredibly smart," she said. "He used to work at NASA before he worked in finance, so he's literally a rocket scientist, which you need to be."

After TRW, Kashkari changed careers and headed to Wharton business school at Penn University, then joined Goldman when he graduated, leading its IT Security Investment Banking practice, a unit dealing largely with mergers and acquisitions. At that time, Henry Paulson was serving as the company's CEO.

Kashkari moved to the Treasury in July 2006, having been, according to his father, impressed as a teenager with the "dazzle" of the White House. In 1990, the Kashkaris traveled to Washington, where Chaman accepted a presidential award from George H.W.Bush for supplying water to African villages.

At Treasury, Neel Kashkari served as a senior adviser to his former Goldman boss, Henry Paulson. Kashkari's appointment came on the same month that Paulson was sworn in. It made him the one of the highest ranking Indian Americans in the Bush administration.

Kashkari's duties involved developing Bush's energy security plan and enhancing economic relations with his father’s native India. A self-described free market Republican, Kashkari told the Senate Banking Committee his policy initiatives included "promoting Indian financial sector liberalization."

But it was when the mortgage meltdown erupted that Kashkari came into his own and impressed Paulson. Although technically only the Treasury's assistant secretary for International Economics and Development, he spent much of his time shepherding programs related to the housing crisis and serving on the hastily assembled team that negotiated the bailout package with Congress.

Now, as the department's Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability, he has been awarded the extraordinary task of deciding how exactly to spend $700 billion to buy up soured sub-prime mortgage assets from Wall Street firms. The goal is to relieve banks' balance sheets enough to unfreeze the credit market, while at the same time protecting the huge sum of taxpayers’ money at the Treasury's disposal.

Kashkari's rapid ascension, coupled with the departure of other officials, makes him the highest ranking Indian American currently serving in the federal government, according to Rajen Anand, chairman of the National Federation of Indian American Associations.

Kashkari may not remain in the position for long. If Obama wins in November, the Democrats are sure to demand someone of their own to manage such a huge sum. But in the meantime, associates say they expect him to continue working long hours, dragging his colleagues along with him. "He leads by example," Schwartz said. "He's a hard worker, so we're all working hard."