Thursday, October 09, 2008

Causes of financial meltdown: Greenspan to credit swaps

Some of the best reporting on the financial crisis has been on the radio, surprisingly, with “This American Life´s” report called “The Giant Pool of Money”. I've also seen some insightful reporting in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
The Giant Pool of Money, which you can listen to online, reflected the kind of relentless curiosity that reporters need to have. They need to keep asking why and they need to keep saying, I´m sorry, I didn´t understand that. Could you explain it again?

When we reporters start taking ourselves seriously and start writing for an audience of insiders, we often miss the opportunity to explain a big story because we don't ask the basic kinds of questions that these reporters did.

Plenty of warning
There was actually plenty of warning from many influential and credible sources, including George Soros and Warren Buffett, about the possibility of a collapse in the financial market because of rampant speculation in exotic debt derivatives. But no one is ready to listen until they can´t get a loan for a car or can´t buy a house or can´t pay the mortgage or can´t find a job. And it is also a difficult concept to explain.

Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson sounded the alarm way back in February, and specifically identified what was coming.

The New York Times has had a series of stories tracking the roots of this crisis, and today´s piece putting the blame squarely on Alan Greenspan had great documentation of Greenspan's role as an advocate of a hands-off policy on credit-default swaps.

Risky derivatves
At the heart of the financial crisis are derivatives known as credit-default swaps, which function a bit like commodities do on the Chicago exchanges except that they´re not regulated and there is not necessarily a bushel of corn at the end of the paper trail.

As the articles above explain so well, the buyers of these derivatives were often completely in the dark about the underlying assets and really didn't care. They traded the paper and made money betting on trends in the debt market.

Can't beat people to the truth

Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist of a century ago, used to say that you can beat people to the news, but you can't beat them to the truth. Put another way, people want newspeople to tell them what happened and they're not ready to listen to news media telling them they're too debt-ridden or they're burning too much fuel or their planet is melting until they can't fill their gas tank or the water from the ice cap starts lapping at their door.

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