Audit Notes: Bloomberg Blues, Fool’s Gold, TBTF Primer

I think this Bloomberg story is important. But I’m not exactly sure, because it’s almost unreadable.

Here’s one reason it seems important:

“The industry was self-financing, using loopholes in rules,” said Joseph Mason, a professor of finance at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “Regulators weren’t keeping track of ownership of the capital, which became more difficult to do with the use of CDOs. The losses fed on each other.”

Maybe it’s the Oklahoma heat, but I’m having trouble making it through a paragraph like this:

TruPS are securities issued after a bank-holding company sells debt to an off-balance-sheet trust, which then sells the notes. They’re considered a type of capital for regulatory purposes because they rank between common stock and senior debt in a bankruptcy. The notes allow a bank to defer making interest payments for up to five consecutive years. Unlike other types of preferred stock, they have fixed maturities, and missed dividends must be paid later. For tax purposes, they count as debt, and the interest paid out can be deducted like other interest expenses.

It’s a tough story to do about an arcane part of the securitization market. It’s necessarily going to be a dry read. But I suspect it doesn’t have to be this dry. That’s an editing thing.

— The Journal will have you know that gold settled at a “record” today. But it’s a record in name only, so don’t believe it:

Gold’s surge to a record sparked speculation that central banks may be stepping up purchases of the precious metal.

Tuesday, gold contracts for June delivery rose $4.70, or 0.4%, to $1,244 a troy ounce, a record settlement price on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange. Gold also hit an intraday record, surging to $1,252.10.

Again, the real, inflation-adjusted record gold price was hit three decades ago, at $2309 an ounce.

I criticized the press a few weeks ago for hyping this story. The Journal at that time at least mentioned that the “record” was only nominal. It doesn’t do that here.

It’s misleading.

— Simon Johnson annotates a speech by Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher ripping into (by implication) the Obama administration and Congress for failing to do anything in financial reform about the too-big-to-fail problem.

Fisher says that small banks are not the problem, something we’ve noted at The Audit:

… going by what we see today, there is considerable diversity in strategy and performance among banks that are not TBTF. Looking at commercial banks with assets under $10 billion, over 200 failed in the past few years, and as we have seen, failures in the hundreds make the news. Less appreciated, though, is the fact that while 200 banks failed, some 7,000 community banks did not. Banks that are not TBTF appear to have succumbed less to the herd-like mentality that brought their larger peers to their knees.”

And Fisher on the primary importance of TBTF as a reform issue:

…sufficient or not, ending the existence of TBTF institutions is certainly a necessary part of any regulatory reform effort that could succeed in creating a stable financial system. It is the most sound response of all. The dangers posed by institutions deemed TBTF far exceed any purported benefits. Their existence creates incentives that will eventually undermine financial stability. If we are to neutralize the problem, we must force these institutions to reduce their size.”

Read the whole thing. It’s a good little primer on why TBTF is so critical.

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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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.