We then asked the news outlets themselves to volunteer their best work during this period. Some institutions were more diligent than others, so, on that score, The New York Times might tend to be overrepresented, while The Washington Post, which declined to participate, might get shorted. Similarly, Bloomberg, the FT, and the Los Angeles Times posed technical challenges. But, while we won’t hesitate to differentiate between the relative performance of different outlets (and reporters, for that matter), the goal was to assess institutional performance, not who “won.” Nobody won.
The articles are in a spreadsheet, which can be found here. I was a staff writer at the Journal from 1996 through 2004, covering commercial real estate during the relevant period, and on contract at The Washington Post for 2005, covering white-collar crime; nothing of mine is on the list or deserves to be there. As of this writing the sheet contains 730 entries, but it remains open and we plan to add stories indefinitely as we come across them. Feel free to send your entry to firstname.lastname@example.org. The database is meant to be used as a companion to this story. I hope it will be a reference for further research and that readers will use it to argue for or against CJR’s conclusions.
The list, then, was designed to capture all significant warning stories, not just some of them. And while 730 may seem like a lot of relevant stories, keep in mind the Journal alone published 220,000 stories during this period, so in a sense these were corks bobbing on a news Niagara. The list also includes as guideposts bits of context that we felt would give readers some sense of what was happening on the finance beat at the time (e.g. “Fed Assesses Citigroup Unit $70 Million in Loan Abuse,” NYT, 5/28/04). Sprinkled throughout are some of those rah-rah stories (“Mortgage Slump? Bring It On; Countrywide plans to grab more of the market as the industry consolidates,” BW, 12/15/03), and a tiny fraction of the run-of-the-mill stories about important, and guilty, institutions that in retrospect were so far from the salient point that one wishes we could have the space and the reporters’ time back (“Power Banking: Morgan Stanley Trades Energy Old-Fashioned Way: In Barrels . . .” WSJ, 3/2/05).
Let’s get to it.
The most striking thing about the list for me is that the best work during the entire period—stories that hit hard at abusive practices and established the critical link between bucket shops and their Wall Street funders and bundlers—was done early, from 2000 to 2003. Business Week’s Dean Foust, et al, explored Wall Street’s foray into the hard-money lending business, including subprime mortgages and payday lending (“Easy Money: Subprime lenders make a killing catering to poorer Americans. Now Wall Street is getting in on the act,” 4/24/00). A handy chart at the bottom of the story ranks subprime securitization leaders: Lehman was number one. Citigroup’s 2000 acquisition of Associates First Capital, a notoriously corrupt outfit (it employed a “designated forger,” ABC’s Prime Time Live reported in 1997) spurred The New York Times to publish “Along With a Lender, Is Citigroup Buying Trouble?” in October of that year. This fine 3,258-word story documented Associates’ execrable practices fairly well (though it couldn’t beat the anecdote from a 4/23/97 Journal story that described how an illiterate quarry worker who owed $1,250 for—get this, meat—discovered that this loan had been sold to Associates, which convinced the quarry worker to refinance ten times in four years until he owed $45,000, more than half of it in fees, with payments that took more than 70 percent of his income. He had signed each note with an “X”). The Times duly noted Citi’s promise to clean up its new acquisition by, among other things, holding upfront fees to a mere nine (!) points.
Business journalism during this period comes close to reaching the holy grail—the critical Wall Street/subprime connection—when The New York Times’s Diana Henriques, in a joint project with Lowell Bergman and ABC News (including, though he doesn’t have a byline, the underappreciated Brian Ross), published “Mortgaged Lives: Profiting From Fine Print With Wall Street’s Help” (3/15/00), linking another now forgotten but once powerful and rapacious subprime lender, First Alliance Corp., with Lehman Brothers and other Wall Street firms engaging in precisely the kind of practices that brought down the financial system. The story captures the boiler-room culture that was then overrunning traditional mortgage underwriting, here with a quote from a twenty-seven-page sales manual:
“Establish a common bond,” the loan officers were taught. “Find this early in the conversation to make the customer lower his guard.” The script listed good bond-building topics (family, jobs, children, and pets) and emphasized, “It’s really important to get them laughing.”