(UPDATE, November 29, 2009: Mark died a couple of days ago. It’s a huge loss and we’ll have more on him next week, but until then you can read some of what we’ve written about his exploits here. We wrote about when he and Bloomberg sued the Fed and when he won. Here’s Pittman with his friend and colleague Bob Ivry (who wrote Pittman’s excellent obituary), with a great profile of Elizabeth Warren last week. Here’s our look at how a Pittman story last September helped break the huge story of Goldman’s (and others’) backdoor bailout through AIG.
Here he is going after an incredibly complex story: How much are those toxic assets actually worth? And Pittman kept a close eye on the disastrously bad deals Uncle Sam cut for itself to benefit Wall Street. Watch him leverage the hot story, the AIG bonuses, to show how much bigger another story was, the bailouts of AIG’s counterparties.)
Mark Pittman has been all over this financial crisis.
He was part of a team at Bloomberg News that won the Loeb Award last year for a five-part series on the origins of the crisis called “Wall Street’s Faustian Bargain,” including Pittman’s lead story on how the Street goosed the subprime mortgage market late with financial engineering.
The new standardized contracts they created would allow firms to protect themselves from the risks of subprime mortgages, enable speculators to bet against the U.S. housing market, and help meet demand from institutional investors for the high yields of loans to homeowners with poor credit.
The tools also magnified losses so much that a small number of defaulting subprime borrowers could devastate securities held by banks and pension funds globally, freeze corporate lending, and bring the world’s credit markets to a standstill.
In addition to the Loeb-winning work, Pittman has broken major stories on Goldman Sachs’s interest in the AIG bailout, Hank Paulson’s role in creating the subprime mess, and the ratings agencies inexplicable delays in downgrading mortgage securities, and he’s delved into how Wall Street spread its detritus across the world.
Pittman is a native of Kansas City, graduated from the University of Kansas, and got his first job covering cops at the Coffeyville Journal in southern Kansas, where he was paid so little he had to get a part-time job as a ranch hand across the Oklahoma border in Lenapah. Proving yet again that it really is a small world and journalism is even smaller (and getting smaller every day, as Pittman points out) we discovered to our amazement that my late grandfather Arva Chittum was a good source of Pittman’s back in the early 1980’s in Coffeyville.
He spent twelve years at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York, before joining Bloomberg News in 1997.
We spoke recently about cops, CDO’s, and the crisis.
The Audit: How did you get started at Bloomberg News?
Mark Pittman: That was back when Bloomberg News only had like fifty people in New York. I covered oil in the beginning and then they moved me to covering securities firms. I was covering the Street in 1999 to 2000. There were only two of us covering the whole Street. We didn’t do a very good job as you can imagine. We could barely get the earnings out.
I went on to private equity and corporate finance. I got a wide education. I learned a lot about trading. If you cover the oil markets, those guys know how to trade. They know how to pull the trigger on stuff and back out. That gets in your bones. When you realize how you make money doing that kind of stuff, a lot of other things make sense. I’m not sure that a lot of business journalists get that kind of knowledge.
That’s stuff you just don’t get covering companies or doing profiles. You learn different stuff.
TA: How’d you get onto the crisis story?
MP: I had a conversation with a couple of people in late 2006/early 2007, and people were talking about what’s wrong with asset-backed securities and where all this is headed. I’d also covered derivatives contracts. When they first started doing credit-default swaps on companies, I covered that. That was like ‘99-2000. You could tell it was going to be a really hot thing.
When they started talking about doing derivatives on mortgage-backed securities [a bet against the housing market; this is explained a few lines below], I was like “oh, man, that means the banks are scared!” That was 2006, and we wrote a whole series about this.