This, CJR reader, was the real thing, a 3,220-word investigation that kicks in the door. It uses court documents and interviews with ex-employees and customers, nothing fancy, to expose Ameriquest, which at the time was one of the nation’s leading lenders, “Proud Sponsor of the American Dream” and the 2005 Super Bowl halftime show, and owned by the politically well-connected Roland Arnall, soon to be named U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands:
Slugging down Red Bull caffeine drinks, sales agents would work the phones hour after hour, he said, trying to turn cold calls into lucrative “sub-prime” mortgages—high-cost loans made to people with spotty credit. The demands were relentless: One manager prowled the aisles between desks like “a little Hitler,” Bomchill said, hounding agents to make more calls and push more loans, bragging that he hired and fired people so fast that one worker would be cleaning out his desk as his replacement came through the door.
The Los Angeles Times, it’s worth pointing out, also probed Ameriquest’s attempts to co-opt critics (“Ameriquest’s Ties to Watchdog Group Are Tested,” 5/22/05), chronicled possible forgery at the lender (“Doubt is Cast on Loan Papers,” 3/28/05), and, crucially, explained how at least 20 percent of all subprime loans were going to prime borrowers, what I call the boiler-room effect (“More Homeowners With Good Credit Getting Stuck With Higher-Rate Loans,” 10/24/05). It turns out that the number actually reached more than 50 percent, The Wall Street Journal found in December 2007. These all ran at over two thousand words on A1 and helped catalyze a multistate investigation that forced Ameriquest into an embarrassing $325 million settlement the next year.
Clearly, then, such reporting was gettable.
Two years later, the Journal published an Ameriquest story (“Lender Lobbying Blitz Abetted Mortgage Mess,” 12/31/07), but by then, the lender was closed.
So let’s be clear: stories like the Los Angeles Times’s Ameriquest probes are the exceptions that prove the rule. And while handwringing about the bubble and pointing out defective mortgage products is hard, muckraking about specific, powerful institutions is harder, more useful, and more fun to read:
Lisa Taylor, a former loan agent at Ameriquest’s customer-retention office in Sacramento, said she witnessed documents being altered when she walked in on co-workers using a brightly lighted Coke machine as a tracing board, copying borrowers’ signatures on an unsigned piece of paper.
Great, right? If the muckraking story—a straight investigation aimed at the heart of the business model of an industry leader—was scarce in mortgage lending, it was rarer still on Wall Street’s end of the mortgage machine. As far as I can tell it was the unicorn of business coverage.
One looks in vain for stories about Wall Street’s ties to the subprime industry, even though the Lehman-First Alliance case had outlined it in detail and nearly all the major investment banks would, by the middle of the decade, go on actually to buy their own retail subprime operations (who remembers Bear Stearns Residential?). What was happening was a vast change, a paradigm shift. Citizens did not see it coming. Now we know why.
And a word about head-on investigations of powerful institutions: they’re not optional. There is no substitute. The public needed warnings that the Wall Street-backed lending industry was running amok. It didn’t get them. Remember Lippmann: no facts, no democracy.
It is disingenuous, I believe, to suggest, as many financial journalists do, that they are unfairly expected to have been soothsayers in the economic crisis (e.g. “Financial Journalism and Its Critics,” Robert Teitelman, TheDeal.com, 3/6/09: “Why, among all other journalists, are financial reporters expected to accurately predict the future?”). Rather, the expectation is merely that financial outlets do their best to report on what is happening now, including, one would hope, confronting powerful institutions directly about basic business practices. This is not complicated.
Of course, anyone would applaud the astute and highly skilled journalists who looked at brewing systemic problems, as did Bloomberg’s David Evans (“Credit Swaps, Some ‘Toxic,’ May Soar to $4.8 Trillion,” 6/26/03); Business Week’s Der Hovanesian (“Taking Risk To Extremes; Will derivatives cause a major blowup in the world’s credit markets?” 5/23/05); the Journal’s Mark Whitehouse (“Slices of Risk: How a Formula Ignited Market That Burned Some Big Investors,” 9/12/05; “Risk Management: As Home Owners Face Strains, Market Bets on Loan Defaults,” 10/31/06), and Gillian Tett, John Plender, and others at the Financial Times (numerous stories). But even these virtuoso efforts are still not the same as confronting a Wall Street firm head-on for its role in underwriting mortgage boiler rooms across the country.