Many in the press believe they did a great job covering predatory mortgage lenders and their Wall Street partners in the run-up to the current credit calamity.
Us, we’re not so sure.
One person who tends to agree with our view is John Ryan, executive vice president at the Conference of State Bank Supervisors. During the bad old days of the mortgage mania, Ryan spent hours on the phone with reporters trying to sell them on the story of how lenders, Wall Street and captive federal regulators steamrollered state attempts to slow down the lending train before it wrecked.
The Audit talked to him recently about his experiences with the press and his impressions of the coverage. It was instructive, to say the least. Ryan applauded a Wall Street Journal story by Jess Bravin and Paul Beckett in January 2002 called “Friendly Watchdog: Federal Regulator Often Helps Banks Fighting Consumers”, but said the press mostly expressed no interest in what state regulators were trying to say.
The Audit: Tell me about some of the frustrations in trying to get your story out.
John Ryan: The frustration was not just getting the story told, but how it was told and what was being told. And by the “story” I mean that of evolving lending abuses, the states responses, and efforts to thwart that response. It was clear that a powerful industry was doing its best to eliminate all obstacles to a very profitable model of lending to vulnerable homeowners.
Perhaps the greatest frustration is that some federal regulators were working side by side with the industry to push aside state laws or enforcement efforts to address the sorts of abusive or unsustainable lending we were experiencing at the local level. It seemed outrageous to us that a regulatory agency could preempt these laws without any clear authority. I spent a lot of time talking with the press—first trade press and then national media—about this assault on consumer protection and federalism. But the federal regulators would tell them that nothing new was happening here, and the press wouldn’t challenge them on that. At best, it was treated as a “he said, she said” situation.
The one exception to that would be the front cover Wall Street Journal piece that described the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency as doing the industry’s bidding in overturning state consumer protection laws that the big banks didn’t want to comply with… But once that story was done, well it’s done. But that’s not the end of the story.
I’ve dealt with some really good journalists, but there was an even bigger story here about how money and influence shape policy and how actively they shape policy and are able to write the rules at the federal level to maximize their profit at the expense of consumer protections or even recognition of the democratic process. What concerned me was that this was not viewed as a news story. There was a cynicism I experienced with some in the press who expressed the view that this was just business as usual and how Washington worked. With others, they would be interested but said they couldn’t sell the story to their editors because there was no news peg. But the consequences were so serious.
I had a hard time understanding why the media didn’t easily see that a handful of financial institutions pulling the strings in Washington wasn’t in the public interest. In this case, that these institutions, working closely with their regulator through very creative lawyering and interpretations of law were able to overturn acts of elected officials in 50 states.
TA: Why do you think the press missed it or covered it intermittently?
JR: It’s complex. In litigation we often find that we need a really bad fact pattern — clear examples of consumer abuse — to succeed. I think the same was true of the press.
If we couldn’t give a list of aggrieved borrowers and clearly connect the dots that the story was a hard sell… So, for instance, when there was a borrower in New York who had been significantly overcharged on his loan went to Spitzer (and Spitzer sued it and confronted the federal government)… that, people could get and understand and that made a clever, tight story, whereas the sort of day in day out of how a very sophisticated industry with a lot of influence in a lot of corners basically got to write law and regulation the way they wanted was a less intriguing story. And in an environment of skyrocketing housing values many sins were masked.
TA: Was it possible to glean or forecast that some of these things could happen?