LB: [While] we would not really do Countrywide, what we should have done, we should have followed through on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The level of leverage, and Greenspan had said it on the record, in terms of their statuses as GSEs, half-private, half-public, de facto government guarantee, the remuneration, the links with Congress. Steve Shurr, he was constantly going on about Fannie Mae, [as well as] John Dizard, he’s a columnist, and he was right. The great message I think for us to learn, and as an editor you should learn, is people have short memories. You may have to say things more than once. That may not mean you have to do three, 5,000-word stories; it means you have to stay with the story and not move on with the caravan.
TA: Reading backwards over what the press said before the crisis, the FT stood out for its coverage the mortgage aftermarket. The Tett stuff was a revelation because, just covering a beat, she was saying “CDOs are through the roof right now; boy, there’s lots of them.” But we noticed there were very few mentions of the word “subprime.” One major gripe about the business press is a lack of connection to the “real world.” If people knew what a subprime borrower was, and how strapped they actually were, all of this derivative stuff would have become a lot more interesting.
LB: I think that’s an entirely legitimate criticism of the press. There are two faults here, one of which I alluded to in the Yale speech. We got a piece of this, a piece of the puzzle, just as the economists did. Some of them talked about global imbalances, but they didn’t talk enough about leverages. Some of them talked about leverages, but didn’t pay enough attention to global imbalances. Some talked about failures in regulation, but then they didn’t think about the other bits.
Reporters, you have somebody talking about CDOs, but then they’re working in their channel. And that’s again when great editors…say, “If this is working there, trace it back.” The other point is, for us, here in America, we are concentrated. We cover the machinery of government in Washington, and we cover the big banks. We don’t tend to go grassroots up. That’s a lesson for us. That’s an important lesson for all of us. I don’t think there was a malicious dereliction of duty. It’s just that we tend to work with the institutions covering what the manager is doing, strategy. [Now] we have, actually, particularly during this recession, a reporter assigned to covering what is happening at the bottom end, unemployment.
TA: Looking forward, how are you going to cover this brave new world of finance?
LB: We are going to have a series which is going to be online and in print looking at how the world of investing has changed because of the crisis. We’re deliberately trying to look forward. I think it’s very important especially these days as traditional media is very challenged, you’ve got to deliver more than analyzing the news, reporting the news. Obviously we’re going to be covering the regulatory battle from Washington. But we’re going to be looking very clearly at who are the winners and losers on Wall Street. And there’s still a huge job to explain. Everybody was saying the traditional investment-banking model was dead, that was just conventional wisdom a year ago. Well maybe not —who says so? If you look at what’s happening now. But then there’s a big job to explain why is it that Goldman for example is going to have record profits and revenues this year. Just explain it. Don’t go along with just easy, “they’ve got a great culture,” then they’ve got these wild allegations of having people in all the high places so the system is tilted toward them. Look, there’s less competition than there was. Actually with all these extraordinary fiscal and monetary measures that have been taken this year, with less competition, those that survived, they were going to do well. There’s still a big question about how solvent the banking system is. We’re going to look at all that.
And also, critically, which is harder for American news organizations to do. For us, we can say, maybe the world is changing a bit. Look at the new balances of power. China is not going to replace America as the locomotive of growth. But China is increasingly informed as a financial, economic and political player. Look at the Gulf. The Gulf bailed out the Western banking system, or lots of banks, with private capital. That’s again a new, we’ve got to write about this as well.