Bank of New York: Where History Intersects With the Bailout

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The Bank of New York — America’s first financial firm — was founded in a rich man’s house on Pearl Street in 1784. While it is no surprise that the august institution has a long history of business in the country, it is less well known that it has also made a business of the country’s history — writing, for example, the first loan to the federal government (for $20,000) that helped retire debts from the Revolutionary War.

The original copy of that note hangs today in a small alcove just outside the office of Robert P. Kelly, the chairman and chief executive of the bank, who, much like those before him, is elaborately entangled in the nation’s financial fate. Just six weeks ago, in fact, the Treasury Department named his bank — now called the Bank of New York Mellon — the master custodian of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (known in the vernacular as the Massive Wall Street Bailout). Given Mr. Kelly’s centrality to the economy, one wonders what is — literally — on his desk.

Beyond a clock, a cloisonné pen jar and a surprisingly empty outbox, there are hastily scribbled notes on a monogrammed pad from a meeting with a certain “Tim G.” (Timothy F. Geithner, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Barack Obama’s pick to run the Treasury?). The notes make reference to “ad com updates” and “FVA’s,” and contain the jotted notion that the current situation may not be a “pushback issue” after all.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come to me recently and said, ‘I hope you’re keeping notes,’ ” Mr. Kelly, a self-described history buff, confessed. “But it’s not like this is stuff that you forget. I always have a sense of gravitas and of history in the making.”

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