Audit Roundup: Obama and the Crash

CNBC's Gasparino says Barack's to blame; WaPo's Samuelson says it's "deleveraging"; etc.

CNBC’s Charlie Gasparino tosses off a boneheaded column today in the NY Post suggesting the market is cratering because it thinks Barack Obama is going to win the election.

And, as it looks increasingly likely that Obama will be that man, the markets are casting a vote of “no confidence.”

To be fair, McCain hardly instills confidence among the Wall Streeters I speak to. Why has his campaign spent the last week focusing on Obama’s friendship with former terrorist William Ayers—when it should be hitting Obama’s blind loyalty to policies that bring together the worst elements of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter?

Gasparino is a good reporter, but his colleague Larry Kudlow would have a hard time writing something as partisan and just plain old dumb as this—and that’s saying something. The markets have tanked because we’re in the worst financial crisis in eighty years—the gears of finance have come to a near halt and banks are afraid to lend to each other for fear the other might go broke tomorrow. We’re lucky stocks haven’t fallen even further than they have.

Blaming Obama for the crash is beyond silly.

Robert J. Samuelson explains in the Washington Post why the system hasn’t been able to contain the damage from the mortgage bust, and why the stock market is way down. Listen up, Charlie:

Large parts of the financial system are too thinly capitalized and too dependent on unreliable short-term debt. Leverage ratios often reached 30 to 1 for investment banks and hedge funds (that is, $30 of debt for every $1 of capital). The presumption was that the MBA types had learned how to “manage risk.” That false conceit backfired. Low capital didn’t adequately protect against losses. Confidence and trust evaporated, because no one knew which institutions held suspect securities, how much the losses were and who was ultimately safe…

Consider stocks. Their plunge has been driven in part by hedge fund selling. Hedge funds often buy stocks by borrowing from their “prime dealers” — firms such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, which in turn borrow from commercial banks. If banks “deleverage” by reducing loans to prime dealers, then prime dealers tighten up on hedge funds, which react by selling stocks.

Gordon Crovitz of the WSJ is a couple kinds of wrong in his column today, which half-heartedly tries to perpetuate the bogus argument that Fannie, Freddie and lending to minorities (forced by the gub’munt!) caused the crisis.

Global markets and new financial instruments are indeed complex. This complexity led to a fragility that made government meddling in markets more dangerous than ever before — creating the 1% likely disaster. The good news for VaR and similar models is that the free market alone would not have allowed the bubble of subsidized mortgages, but the bad news is that it’s far from clear that Congress has learned from the current crisis to pursue policy goals in ways that don’t distort the fundamentals of markets.

Crovitz says we just need to unleash the markets to solve this problem! One thing I don’t understand: If the invisible hand is the end all be all, why can’t it adjust for the impact of government intrusion Crovitz decries?

McClatchy swats down Crovitz’s bogus argument. It’s the first news report I’ve seen that takes on this emerging meme.

Between 2004 and 2006, when subprime lending was exploding, Fannie and Freddie went from holding a high of 48 percent of the subprime loans that were sold into the secondary market to holding about 24 percent, according to data from Inside Mortgage Finance, a specialty publication. One reason is that Fannie and Freddie were subject to tougher standards than many of the unregulated players in the private sector who weakened lending standards, most of whom have gone bankrupt or are now in deep trouble.

During those same explosive three years, private investment banks — not Fannie and Freddie — dominated the mortgage loans that were packaged and sold into the secondary mortgage market. In 2005 and 2006, the private sector securitized almost two thirds of all U.S. mortgages, supplanting Fannie and Freddie, according to a number of specialty publications that track this data.

In 1999, the year many critics charge that the Clinton administration pressured Fannie and Freddie, the private sector sold into the secondary market just 18 percent of all mortgages.

Fueled by low interest rates and cheap credit, home prices between 2001 and 2007 galloped beyond anything ever seen, and that fueled demand for mortgage-backed securities, the technical term for mortgages that are sold to a company, usually an investment bank, which then pools and sells them into the secondary mortgage market.

BusinessWeek reports the SEC’s three-week short-sale ban didn’t work out so well: Markets fell 22 percent during that time and banks, which were the main protection targets, dropped a third.

Congratulations to Paul Krugman of the NYT and Princeton for winning the Nobel Prize in economics.

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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.