TA: An MBS, you can’t move things in or out, but a CDO you can. Are the banks liable for this? AIG got blown up, but these guys knew what they were doing.

MP: You know what, the lawsuits will have to sort that out. And it’s going to be going on for years. It’s going to be just a debacle. Congress is going to have go through and force people to say “Okay, so what did you do with this, and where did it go from here?” They need to have very talented investigators go in and find out what the deal is.

TA: Tell me how your cops background plays into what you’re doing now.

MP: You end up with a big BS detector as a cops reporter because the cops lie to you, the victims lie to you, the people helping the victims lie to you. And you’ve got to sort through and there will be a story that seems a certain way and it just won’t be—and you know it. That’s what this is about.

The reporters who didn’t question the tight, tight spreads [the narrow difference in interest rates offered by Treasury bills and other, less secure instruments] that were going on in corporate [bonds], it was wrong. Where is this demand coming from? How can you guys sell this issue in thirty minutes? Who the hell’s buying this stuff like that? We’re going to come to the answer that it was going off balance sheet, at least temporarily, and then it might be sold to other customers.

TA: So they were buying it themselves and…

MP: They were buying it themselves. Yeah. And not every deal. But you know what—it happened enough. We don’t have enough journalists in America who understand what a spread does, which is the essence of banking. I just finished Dean’s piece in Mother Jones recently. We’ve got 9,000 business journalists and maybe twenty of them know what a spread is. This is not business journalism’s finest hour. But it is our biggest opportunity ever.

TA: How does the Bloomberg terminal inform your reporting or help you find leads?

MP: Well, I’ll give you an example. The first best story that I did about this—I’m gonna brag about this—was in June of ‘07. It said that subprime bonds are failing and they’re failing at an alarming rate, and they’re going up a lot, and they all need to be downgraded. The ratings companies aren’t following their own criteria for what makes a bond a certain rating. I did that through data that’s available on the Bloomberg. We’ve got a function called DQRP, which gives you delinquency reports on every RMBS, dividing it up by category. So you can pick the worst bonds with the worst stuff and you can divide it up by rating—all kinds of sorting. Nobody has that but us.

TA: I didn’t even know that capability was out there.

MP: Hell yes, man. And it works. Then you can pull up each individual bond and you’ve got a complete description of its geographic reach—how much is in California, all kinds of great stuff. What a weapon! And if you know how to use it, it works pretty well.

TA: So what’s your prescription for business journalists? What do they need to know and do? Not everybody’s going to have a $20,000 a year Bloomberg terminal to play with.

MP: Hardly anyone has a Bloomberg machine and the ones that do don’t know how to use it.

But you know what? The government needs to make this kind of data much more publicly available than it is now. We purchase a lot of this. But, for instance, a lot of the bond deals were (not subject to disclosure). And all the CDO’s were private placements. We know why—because they placed them with themselves. The number of secret deals going bad is astounding, it’s probably 90 percent of them were secret deals.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.