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.
TA: Bloomberg’s got a ton of people on bonds, but I’ve said before that a part of why the business press failed here was that it has so many times more people covering equities than debt. And debt markets are many, many times the size of the equity markets. That’s kind of a major problem right there, right?
MP: It is huge. Most reporters, it’s shocking how few of them actually understand the difference between price and yield. Hardly any business journalist actually covers the financing. If you cover a company and all of a sudden their borrowing costs go from 100 (basis points) over to 250 or 300 over [meaning investors believe the risk has increased substantially], and no one asks a question. There’s a problem there when that happens and nobody asks a question. I think we have training issues in a huge way in our profession. We brought a knife to a gunfight.
TA: Does there need to be regulation just to simplify things to where it makes sense to more people?
MP: If it was all transparent the complexity wouldn’t matter. If the CDO market had had publicly available prospectuses with the contents of the CDO disclosed, we wouldn’t have this issue, because Bloomberg probably would have made fun of anybody who bought anything like this. But there was this enormous shadow banking system going on. We did a series about that, too. A lot of times people don’t see what we do.
TA: That’s one of the problems I’ve noticed. We’ve consciously tried at The Audit to make sure people are reading your stuff. I don’t think it’s become a habit for a lot of people even in the biz to go over to Bloomberg.