Captains of the Economy: The 10 Who Shaped the U.S. Economy the Most Since 2000

The 10 who were key to a decade's worth of economic trials and tribulations.

ByABC News
November 24, 2009, 6:41 PM

Nov. 30, 2009 — -- What does it take to shape and change the U.S. economy? Try lots of power, lots of money or, of course, both.

The nine men and one woman on the list fit into at least one of those categories. Some came to prominence during the financial crisis, while others had already been influential figures in their own right before the economy's latest wild ride.

Have suggestions for additions to this list? Please feel free to add them in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

In September 2008, as the country stood on the brink of what might have been economic collapse, Henry Paulson was arguably the most powerful man in America. Together with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, he convinced U.S. lawmakers to approve a sweeping $700 billion bailout of the country's banks -- the Troubled Asset Relief Plan, designed to save the U.S. banking system from ruin and stop the economy from grinding to a halt.

Appointed by a Republican president, Paulson's push to use taxpayer money for such dramatic government intervention into the private sector shocked and angered many Republicans in Congress. Other critics, meanwhile, looked suspiciously at Paulson's own ties to the banking industry: Before being appointed Treasury Secretary in June 2006, Paulson had been the CEO of investment banking giant Goldman Sachs.

The bank bailout came after months of other private sector rescue efforts under Paulson's watch, including the government-financed sale of crumbling investment bank Bear Stearns to JPMorgan Chase, the governmement takeover of mortgage titans Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the $180 billion lifeline to the crippled insurance company AIG.

One firm that notably did not get bailed out under Paulson's tenure? Investment bank Lehman Brothers, whose collapse sent shock waves throughout the world's financial markets. Paulson was widely criticized for failing to save Lehman; the bank bailout was passed days after the firm's collapse.

Today, while many argue that the bailout achieved its goal -- keeping the U.S. financial system afloat -- others complain that Paulson and the Treasury Department's actions that September bolstered rich bankers without offering relief to average Americans. Paulson, meanwhile, is now largely out of the public eye, serving as a distinguished visiting scholar at John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

A long-time academic who once chaired the economics department at Princeton University, Ben S. Bernanke took over a seemingly sparkling U.S. economy from then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in 2006.

The new Federal Reserve chairman quickly gained a reputation as a transparent technocrat with an expertise in the Great Depression, a subject he wrote about extensively as a scholar. Though Bernanke was slow to recognize the risks of the housing crisis to the wider economy -- as late as the spring of 2008, he brushed off the significance of real estate declines -- Bernanke was quick to react once markets began to unravel that summer.

He cut interest rates, lent billions of dollars to faltering banks and even took bad mortgages on the Fed's books. He joined then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in pushing for the controversial $700 billion bank bailout, warning of dire economic consequences should the plan not be adopted.

Along with now-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Bernanke made sure that healthy banks absorbed failed ones such as Bear Stearns and Wachovia, although he, like Paulson, was criticized for failing to predict the disastrous ramifications of letting Lehman Brothers collapse. He has also been faulted for leaving the housing bubble unchecked and for bailing out Wall Street with taxpayer money, but the soft-spoken saxophone aficionado has generally earned widespread respect.

Timothy Geithner was central to the government's efforts to save the country's financial system months before he was sworn in as U.S. Treaury Secretary in January. The president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York since 2003, Geithner was a key architect of the $30 billion government-financed deal to sell foundering Bear Stearns -- the first major investment bank to fall victim to the financial crisis -- to JPMorgan Chase in March 2008. The following fall, Geithner negotiated the infusion of tens of billions of government dollars into faltering insurance giant AIG.

Geithner has experience with financial crises: As Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs from 1999 to 2001, he helped then-Treasury Secretaries Larry Summers and Robert Rubin tackle the financial meltdowns in Asia.

Today at the Treasury Department, Geithner is the face of everything from the government's $787 stimulus package to foreclosure rescue efforts to proposals for reforms of the banking industry. But keeping busy hasn't kept Geithner safe from skewerings at the hands of critics, including three lawmakers who have called for his resignation. They argue that an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent and mishandling of the stimulus package prove that the Obama administration's economic policies aren't working. Geithner's retort? That critics shouldn't forget what happened before Obama took office.

"You gave this president an economy falling off the cliff," Geithner told Congress.

Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve Chairman from 1987 to 2006, was once considered a financial oracle who miraculously tamed the economy and gave Americans some of their most prosperous decades. Famous for coining the term "irrational exuberance" as a warning about the 1990s Internet bubble, he was known for cryptic pronouncements that Wall Street struggled to parse. These days, he is more likely to be viewed as the overconfident theorist who missed a massive housing bubble and led trusting Americans into the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression.

He was tapped to lead the Fed in August 1987 -- just before stock market crash known as Black Friday. But in the years that followed, Greenspan presided over unprecedented gains in economic growth, sharp stock market gains and soaring home ownership. A jazz enthusiast and close friend of libertarian Ayn Rand, he slashed interest rates and gave banks wide berth, convinced that markets could regulate themselves.

But the vision he chased turned out to be a mirage. Within two years of his departure, the housing market collapsed, which exposed the flaws of his era's easy credit and lax oversight.

In October 2008, Greenspan took some blame for the financial crisis during questioning by lawmakers at a Congressional hearing. He "made a mistake," he said, in presuming that banks were best capable of protecting themselves and their shareholders.

Maurice "Hank" Greenberg had a decade to forget. In 2005, amid an accounting scandal and a high-profile battle with then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Greenberg was ousted as CEO of AIG, the insurance behemoth he built up and led for nearly four decades. Then Greenberg lost several billion dollars in personal net worth when shares of the deeply troubled company plummeted amid the financial chaos of 2008.

Greenberg (not to be confused with Ace Greenberg, the longtime former CEO of Bear Stearns) has worked hard to restore his name, speaking out against the excessive compensation and risk-taking practices that helped put AIG on the road to near ruin while fending off allegations surrounding his role in the historic financial industry fiasco.

"We had a culture of being innovative but prudent," the 84-year-old Greenberg told earlier this year. "You rewarded creativity, not stupidity."

This past summer, Greenberg made headlines for more than just his AIG critiques when he admitted in a Manhattan court that employees of his private company, Starr International, had AIG stock certificates once worth $4.3 billion flown to Bermuda by plane. Greenberg said he authorized the transfer to avoid improper attempts by AIG to seize the stock. A federal judge and jury sided with Greenberg and Starr International. Greenberg and AIG have since resolved all differences, with AIG required to pay up to $150 million of Greenberg's legal fees.

Sheila Bair tells is like it is. As chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, where she acts as one of the country's top bank regulators, Bair has earned a reputation as an outspoken policy wonk who is not afraid to criticize lawmakers, bankers and White House policies. The FDIC oversees the 8,070 banks in the U.S. that hold FDIC-insured deposits, and its mission is to instill public confidence in the U.S. financial system. Maybe that's why Bair, who has also written two children's books, keeps Main Street Americans' interests close to heart.

Her most recent zinger? Telling PBS that Treasury's decision to pump money into banks considered "too big to fail" was a bad idea because it has outraged Americans. Said Bair of the Wall Street bailout: "It's had a terrible, terrible impact on public attitudes toward the financial system."

While Bair generally receives positive press, she is not above reproach. Critics point to the mixed success of the massive loan modification program she helped push through Congress and for her knee-jerk reactions against large institutions. Looking ahead, she has a lot of work to do: 124 banks have already failed this year, more than 500 are still on the FDIC's "problem list" and the FDIC fund that guarantees bank deposits is desperately short of cash.

Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of China, is driving a roaring engine. The world's most populous country is quickly rising to the top of the global economic heap, with a growth rate that has barely been touched by recession. In fact, China recently overtook Germany to become the world's third-largest economy and its biggest exporter of goods.

The government has pumped $585 billion in stimulus funds into the economy, pushing the Shanghai Composite Index up 83 percent this year. President Obama's recent visit underscored China's growing power on the global economic stage, as he delicately balanced America's political and economic agenda. "The United States does not seek to contain China," he said in a speech. "On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations."

Behind the scenes, however, the Obama administration is also not too happy that China has intentionally been keeping the yuan weak in order to boost its exports, because it jeopardizes American manufacturing jobs and further bloats the already massive trade gap. In some ways, the Asian powerhouse already holds the upper hand as America's biggest foreign creditor, with $797 billion of Treasury bonds. But there's no telling how long the prosperity will last. Critics worry that China might be building an asset bubble that could ravage its banking system and have disastrous consequences for the global economy if the bubble pops.

Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, is the rare Wall Street banker to have emerged from the financial crisis of 2008 with his reputation enhanced instead of in tatters.

Famous early in his financial career for being the protege of Travelers titan Sandy Weill -- and then for getting fired by Weill in 1998 just weeks after Travelers' historic acquisition of Citigroup -- Dimon had his revenge. He became the CEO of Bank One in 2000. Four years later, Dimon continued his return to prominence, becoming president and chief operating officer of JPMorgan Chase after it acquired Bank One. Eventually, he was named JP Morgan's CEO.

But it was last year that the 53-year-old Dimon took center stage. First, with government help, he orchestrated the emergency acquisition of Bear Stearns for what eventually turned out to be $10 a share when it appeared Bear was going under. ("There is a difference between buying a house and buying a house on fire," Dimon famously quipped to television interviewer Charlie Rose after a question on why JP Morgan paid so little.) Later, Dimon emerged again to rescue Washington Mutual, snapping up the ailing commercial bank for $1.9 billion.

Dimon's performance during the crisis even caught the attention of President Obama, who praised him for "doing a pretty good job." Obama was so impressed, apparently, that rumors have now surfaced pointing to Dimon as a possible successor to Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary.

Ken Lewis sits at the helm of Bank of America, one of the largest banks in the country that owes much of its growth to Lewis himself. But in September, Lewis announced that he would retire as CEO at the end of the year.

Bank of America's CEO since 2001, Lewis joined the bank in 1969 and rose through the ranks, orchestrating a number of acquisitions along the way.

But Lewis' last big purchases cast a shadow over his successful tenure: Last year, Bank of America acquired mortgage lender Countrywide, one of the most visible culprits of the housing bubble, and the faltering investment bank Merrill Lynch, which awarded multimillion-dollar bonuses to its executives at it was merging with BofA. In April, shareholders angry with Lewis' decisions, voted to strip him of his chairmanship. Both he and Bank of America, which has received $45 billion in federal bailouts, are now under investigation by federal and state officials over the Merrill merger.

Still, published reports say that the challenges Bank of America has faced in finding a new chief executive may lead Lewis to postpone his departure date.

When Warren Buffett talks, the business world listens. Known as the "Oracle of Omaha" for his long history of prescient stock picks, Buffett is one of the world's richest men, with a net worth of $37 billion, according to Forbes. He regularly makes headlines both for his comments on the economy -- which have been largely optimistic and bullish -- and his surprising investments.

At the height of the financial crisis last September, Buffett announced that his Berkshire Hathaway company would invest $5 billion in Goldman Sachs. At the time, it was a surprising vote of confidence in a major investment bank, given that three other titans had either been taken over (Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch) or gone bankrupt (Lehman Brothers) that year. As Goldman shares have rebounded, Buffet has seen his bet pay off in billions.

More recently, Berkshire Hathaway purchased the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Buffett called the investment an "all-in wager on the economic future of the United States" because "America must grow and prosper for railroads to do well."

Buffett may be as good at giving away money as he is at making it. In 2006, he announced he would gradually donate 85 percent of his Berkshire Hathaway stocks to charity.

Rich Blake contributed to this report.