Audit Notes: Mortgage Bonds, Junkets, Digital Hype

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism flags what she calls a “bombshell” analyst report on the mortgage-backed securities market. The report says $175 billion of mortgage losses haven’t been passed through to the bonds they comprise (and another $300 billion are “imminent”) and that’s inflating the market value of the bonds.

The theory is that banks are delaying writing down these losses so they can continue collecting tens of millions of dollars in servicing fees a month. Smith quotes from the R&R Consulting report:

On the securities performing at December 2011, a universe of approximately $1.42 trillion, R&R estimate the amount of additional losses likely to materialize is $300 billion, with one-third concentrated in ten arranger names, including Countrywide, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan. About 17,000 tranches, or 34% of the universe analyzed by R&R, may lose up to 83% of their remaining principal.

All right, Bloomberg. Get on it.

— Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan got invited on a junket by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, so he went and turned out this good read on how selling out is hard work and how the influence game works:

Halfway through the game, full of food and drinks and worn down by so much fucking luxuriating, lethargy had set in among us. We were sluggish and easily manipulated. It is hard to overstate how much one’s mind gets worn down over the course of a junket. Sleep deprivation, constant intake of alcohol, overfeeding, the fundamental adaptation of the body to new conditions until the extraordinary become ordinary… all of it conspires to make one pliable, until we were little more than a bunch of toddlers being led from mealtime to naptime to TV time, docile as can be. Coming up with a few questions to toss at the sports book director of the moment came to seem like a Herculean feat of journalism in itself. What more could our readers ask of us? This was work. We were working, research or whatever. Get off our backs…

The beauty of a junket is that it requires no spin. There is no trickery and few outright sales pitches. The journalist sells it to himself. In order to avoid being consumed by shame—to avoid the humiliation of knowing that we have acquiesced to be used—we convince ourselves, with all of our advanced argumentative powers, that this is a legitimate activity. We buy in, by choice, and thereafter we are fully committed to this partnership between ourselves and Las Vegas, in which Vegas bestows its bounty upon us like a wealthy old friend. The least we can do is to talk up our hosts, throw out a little good press here and there. There is a very strong feeling, bred deep into us as social beings, that it would be rude to take without giving. The PR firm and the LVCVA do absolutely nothing wrong in this equation. They simply extend their hand to us. They take care of everything. They are the consummate hosts. We, the reporters who come on the trips, the editors who send us, and the publications we work for, are the ones who make this whole thing possible, by buying in and agreeing that this is an institution which can legitimately exist in the respectable precincts of the national media.

Vegas flew them there, by the way, to see a panel on head injuries in sports. No kidding.

— Ed Booty, writing at BBH Labs, makes a case that the digital revolution has been way overhyped, in no small part because it most impacts those with influence, like the media:

Despite having it at their fingertips, people are just not making use of the richness of the technology that is available to them. They aren’t living the digital lives they should be. What’s going on? Surely they should be as excited as we are? Are they just laggards who will eventually embrace the glistening and inevitable digital future? Or, perhaps it’s us who’ve missed the point?

We have bought our own hype. So desirable is the digital dream that we have mistaken its potential for reality. This delusion has been driven by an unprecedented bubble of hype, driven by the media, digital advocates and technology brands. They have created, believe and propagate the myth that life has changed irrevocably.

Journalists, whose own industry has been heavily affected by digital media, give it disproportionate coverage and importance; seamlessly suggesting causal relationships between the advent of technologies and real life events. Twitter caused the Arab spring. Blackberrys were the London rioter’s secret weapon. Elections are now won and lost on Facebook. No story is complete without an unquantified reference to the impact of digital media.

Booty’s overstates the case here quite a bit, I think, but it’s worth thinking about how our experience in the media differs from the rest of the population.

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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. Tags: , , , ,