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.
You always want to be around the hot story. If you’re not around the hot story, you’re screwed.
TA: So did you go into that pretty much full-time? How’d you convince your editors to let you do that?
MP: You know it really wasn’t hard. They’ve really let me take a lot of chances here, and they’re extremely generous with my time. They recognize it as an important part of the reporting process. They give me a lot of rope. They let me figure stuff out. That’s something that’s in real short supply with a lot of news organizations now. You’ve got to let reporters run and figure out what’s going on.
TA: Not many others have the resources to do much of that nowadays.
MP: Instead of doing the sixth sidebar on a bailout program that probably won’t work anyway, let the person figure out what’s actually happening. And you’ve got to let your people do that.
We did a five-part series [the one that won the Loeb] on the whole idea of why the subprime crisis occurred, and it starts with this story about how a bunch of traders at Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan got together and said “We need a standard contract to be able to short the mortgage market.” As soon as I realized they were going to try and short the mortgage market I said, “Ohhh. That means they think the market is going down.”
TA: And these are the guys who’ve come out pretty okay in this.
MP: You’ll notice UBS and Merrill aren’t in the group. The thing about this entire series of events is this is so complicated and so intertwined that we don’t have —journalists are not qualified to cover the story. We don’t have the background. These guys are doing stuff that you had no idea was happening. The off-balance-sheet accounting stuff is crazy.
TA: Well, if the ex-chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan, formerly regarded as a near god, didn’t understand what this stuff was, who did? He had access to all the people and all the information he could want.
MP: He had no idea what was going on. How is it possible for them to sell themselves, to an off-balance-sheet entity, risk that is now exploding all over everybody? Why would that be allowed and why would you be able to book a profit on this? Who was in charge of this?
We haven’t got to the bottom of this whole thing yet. Somebody’s going to do this big forensic—and it might be me!—somebody’s going to do the deep dive into how everything happened and they’re going to find out that this system was just on autopilot and was spinning money out to a whole bunch of people. And it included you and me.
TA: In the form of cheap credit?
MP: Yes. The spreads should never have gotten to that level.
This goes back to why AIG is all screwed up. The banks sold AIG all their risk in 2007, when it was really blowing up. AIG had sworn that they weren’t going to do any more of this and then (the banks) restuffed the CDO’s with new stuff. So (AIG) had newer collateral that they weren’t really aware of.
TA: So the banks were stuffing the CDO’s with new stuff but AIG didn’t know they were replacing the stuff?