We’re past the one-year marks of the financial crisis and the $700 billion bailout; next up, in February: the stimulus plan’s first birthday. These dubious anniversaries have sparked their share of retrospective coverage, book releases, and much editorializing. (And at least one multimedia graphic where you can see which members of the “Lehman diaspora” are now making it rain at UBS, Citigroup and elsewhere.)
The banking bloodbath and government efforts to combat it got quite a bit of newsprint in the days and weeks after they were announced, of course. But we have a sneaking suspicion that now is not the time for press watchdogs to call off the chase. What other stories about this historic spate of federal assistance still need to be told? And what resources on the bailout and stimulus plan are actually useful in divining new stories from the available data?
In a specially commissioned study, The Audit here takes a look at online resources tracking the bailout and stimulus money, from government web sites to independently run operations. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s pretty good. No need to thank us. It’s what we do.
This is a continuation of CJR’s coverage of the coverage of the bailout and stimulus programs. Previously, on the subject we’ve tackled perplexing coverage of Goldman Sachs; FOIA battles; and what else the press
should and could be doing in terms of financial coverage, just to name a few things.
Ready? Let’s begin.
To Stimulate Coverage, a Refresher:
The federal government has taken significant measures to intervene in the economy as a part of its efforts to improve the economic situation, first bailing out the financial sector in October last year. The government then passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February, which will introduce $787 billion into the economy over the next several years— $288 billion in tax breaks, $280 billion allocated to states and localities, and $219 billion in federal spending.
In general, finding sources on the stimulus and the bailout isn’t hard, but navigating them can be, because many provide the same information in different formats. For instance, SubsidyScope, ProPublica, The New York Times, and the Center for Public Integrity all provide data and resources on the Treasury’s bailout activities and TARP spending, but each uses a different approach and somewhat different information to build their resources. So, it’s important for journalists who use these sources to understand what they include, and just as importantly, what they exclude. We’ll help with that below. And while differing information about the same subject is one problem, coverage of other subjects suffer from too little information. Coverage of the Federal Reserve and the FDIC is largely superficial, for instance, because the agencies haven’t released information necessary for deeper coverage.
And while getting bailout information has its challenges, there are even fewer and less comprehensive sources on the stimulus. Stimulus funds are hard to track because they’re disbursed in a variety of ways—some by individual federal contracts or grants, others in block grants to the states. Only the first two tiers of recipients (the contractor and subcontractor, for instance, but not subs to subs) are required to report to the federal government. But there is a now standardized formula on Recovery.gov from which to calculate these stimulus numbers. The tiered allocation system as well as the limited reporting requirements make tracking stimulus spending a surprisingly difficult task, even at this late date.
State stimulus tracker sites often provide details about local projects that have been approved and proposed. Trouble is, there’s no uniform format for reporting at the state level, and states frequently re–classify projects after they’re already in the pipeline.(e.g. a single project may split into two sequential projects to apply for different grants). Also, state sites often don’t specify which projects have already been approved and which are merely proposed. In this case, sites like Recovery.org, which aggregate information from local news reports, are quite useful.
Finding these tracking sites, much less figuring out which ones are most useful, can be tricky. For a quick run-through of what’s out there, ProPublica has this handy chart, recently updated.
Coverage of tax breaks included in the stimulus, which account for roughly one third of the total investment, is particularly weak. The Tax Policy Center has the most comprehensive information on the stimulus tax cuts. TPC’s “Tax Stimulus Report Card” outlines the tax provisions included in the stimulus, their estimated cost, and a subjective analysis on their effectiveness. But The Tax Policy Center doesn’t provide a way to localize stimulus tax information, or show how to report on the impact of tax breaks in a given community. Here’s an example of their work.
In covering the bailout, again, the key challenge is that the government hasn’t released full information about the activities of all government agencies administering it, including the U.S. Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
The Treasury has released information on funds that it’s disbursed, primarily through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Thanks to news and government-accountability organizations, much of the data on TARP disbursements is available for free.
The Federal Reserve hasn’t released information on the assets it’s acquired, or the terms of acquisition. Several news organizations, including Bloomberg and Fox Business, sued the Fed for this information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)— the Fed argued that it’s not technically a government agency bound by FOIA’s requirements. (Bloomberg won its case against the Fed in August; the Fed has appealed and the case is now pending. Fox News lost its case against the Fed in July.)
The FDIC has provided guarantees to banks on their deposits, but ultimately whether and how this all plays out depends on how many banks actually fail.
We’ve listed below key sources that cover the bailout, including the information and services offered as well as the limitations of the data. Let’s start with the governmental stuff, particularly the agencies created in response to the bailout:
Congress created the Congressional Oversight Panel when TARP was implemented, in order to “review the current state of financial markets and the regulatory system” (according to the COP Web site).
Through regular reports, COP is supposed to oversee the Treasury’s actions and evaluate market transparency. In September, COP released this report on TARP funding in the government bailout of Detroit bigs General Motors and Chrysler.
The Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (“SIGTARP”) was established by the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (“EESA”).
SIGTARP, headed by Special Inspector General Neil M. Barofsky—profiled in Mother Jones as “the taxpayers’ $3 trillion watchdog“—scrutinizes TARP activity. Regular audits and reports to Congress are available on the SIGTARP web site.
The following sites are also good for stats and banking basics:
The Federal Reserve releases federal reserve bank stats every Thursday.
The Financial Stability Plan’s site allows users to track where the Treasury has funded transactions through the Capital Purchase Program, and a “decoder” glossary of financial terms for all of those confusing acronyms, among other tools. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s and FDIC’s sites provide the bank-regulation basics.
SubsidyScope, an enterprise funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and the Sunlight Foundation, aims to make available information on all federal subsidies (eventually). The Web site specializes in federal assistance to the financial sector, most of which is related to the bailout; recently, it added a section on transportation transportation, with plans to track coverage of energy, healthcare, housing, agriculture, and philanthropy subsidies as well.
The free site features information on government assistance to the financial sector culled from a variety of government sources including the Federal Assistance Awards Data Set (FAADS), which is administered by the Census Bureau; the Federal Procurement Data Set (FPDS) by the General Services Administration; and information from the Treasury’s Joint Committee on Taxation, with data from other sources where appropriate. Users can search for data by issuing agency, program, and, in the case of TARP money, location. The interactive TARP map allows users to see where TARP money was spent in total and by institution. You can also find information on a particular bank’s involvement in TARP and the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP) through the “Find My Bank” function on their homepage.
SubsidyScope also has information on the activities of the Federal Reserve and the FDIC—again, the data available on these programs isn’t as comprehensive due to the limited information released by the government.
ProPublica’s Eye on the Bailout includes coverage on the money from TARP plus money granted to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It includes a list of all the TARP recipients, a timeline of events, maps and other graphics showing where the money was allocated. Users can search for information by recipient, state, or program.
ProPublica is licensed under Creative Commons, so journalists can use the data and information on their site free of charge as long as they give ProPublica credit, don’t change any data, and don’t sell it. Seeing that ProPublica probably has the most extensive bailout and stimulus resources we’ve stumbled across (plus, they’re regularly updated!), take note.
The investigative journalists at the Center for Public Integrity conducted a project on the connection between banks that received money from the bailout and their role in the financial crisis. “Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown?” analyzed data on mortgages collected by the provisions in the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) in order to show links between banks that received federal assistance and those that were involved in the subprime lending practices behind the crisis. The project also went on to show which actors were also involved with securitizing the subprime loans. CPI published a map which shows where subprime lending has occurred, as well as profiles of the subprime lenders.
”Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown” serves as a model that local reporters can replicate to cover this issue in their community. After it was published in May, CPI followed up with a look at the role of non-bank mortgage companies in the crisis and covered the administration’s efforts to slow the continuing foreclosures—while still keeping an eye on the big subprime players big subprime players. CPI doesn’t make the data used in their analysis public, but the site can be used as a tool that local reporters can use to further investigate how this story developed in their area.
The New York Times’s bailout project provides readers with more data on the distribution of funds and the companies that received bailout money. Included is a graphic that shows how the money was distributed by type of company, and lists all the companies that received funds, when they received them, and if they returned them. It’s a good source for journalists to get high-level information on companies that received bailout funds. The Times has also reported extensively on the bailout and journalists can use their articles to gain a more in depth knowledge of the subject and find story ideas that may be able to be localized. Here’s the general “Credit Crisis” page under Times Topics—pretty straightforward and easy to explore.
Tracking stimulus spending can be a bit tricky, due to the different methods by which funds are allocated. Some money is distributed directly by the federal government through contracts or grants. Other money is distributed to states in block grants, which are often further allocated to localities and other entities. The federal government requires that first and second tier recipients of stimulus funds report the use of funds, but there are no requirements for reporting allocations after that. For example, if the federal government gives a block grant for transportation to the state of New York, and New York allocates some of that funding to Ithaca to repave the roads, the federal reporting requirements will capture that money is allocated to the state and the city, but it will not capture the contractor who Ithaca hires to do the repaving, nor any of its subcontractors.
There’s no way to know exactly how much money will be spent below the second-tier reporting requirement, but an expert from Onvia—a private company that tracks federal spending for companies interested in bidding on federal contracts—estimates that as much as half of the stimulus money may be allocated to third-tier recipients and beyond. The federal government will also only capture projects after they have been approved for funding, and there really aren’t any defined reporting standards for projects that are being considered for funding. This potentially leaves big holes in the public’s knowledge about the projects that are being funded.
Recovery.gov, run by Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, is the official government stimulus spending tracker. The Web site tracks funds that have been committed, but not yet allocated, spending by category, state, and agency, with some information on the specific projects that have actually been funded. The Recovery Act requires that all first and second-tier recipients report their spending, information scheduled to be posted this month. Some groups are pressuring the government to require reporting at all levels, regardless of tier, but it is unclear at this point if the government will require reporting at this level of detail.
USASpending.gov—a re-launch of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006’s fedspending.gov site—contains all contracts (stimulus-related or not) issued by the federal government and recently introduced a function to sort out contracts funded by the stimulus, but similar information does not exist for federal grants or contacts awarded by states. Recovery.gov links to the recovery sites for individual states, which often contain more information about specific projects than the federal sites. Trouble is, information reported on states’ recovery sites isn’t standardized, and the Web sites’ quality varies—the California site is all bells and whistles, for example, with an interactive map that beats Recovery.gov in terms of flash, while the state of Michigan has a very bare-bones site. Some cities also have recovery Web sites that explain how they’re using stimulus funds.
In general, the federal sources give a top-down view on where stimulus money is being committed, while the state and local Web sites have more detail on individual projects being funded or are proposed.
Recovery.org aggregates information on the economic stimulus from various government sources as well as information published in the local press. It’s run as a public service by Onvia. The site’s database includes projects that are approved, as well as projects still awaiting approval. Since Onvia makes use of various federal, state and local sources, it is able to capture projects that are not required to be reported through the official channels, such as projects that are below the second tier reporting requirement. You can filter projects by state, county or project type, and includes a description, project owner, location, value, estimated jobs, category, market sector, and contact information (where available); there are also interactive graphs and maps of aggregate data. You can also comment on whether projects are “useful” or not.
Despite the level of detail available on Recovery.org, some experts advise caution when using the data as the information included in their database is aggregated from a variety of sources outside of the official reporting channels required for the stimulus.
Again, the amount of data and how sophisticated a fashion the information is presented varies widely from Web site to Web site; it’s probably a good idea first to check out ProPublica’s chart of the different state trackers. (ProPublica’s Christopher Flavelle’s HuffingtonPost “piece”, “Stimulus numbers: Transparent? Yes. Intelligible? No.” sums up pretty well the problems in navigating amid all these data. Even with all the data, these maps are just a starting point —figuring out whether there is any kind of story takes further poking around. For regular folks, the maps can be seen as something of a comforter—it’s good to know that there’s transparency, even if you don’t know quite what to do with the data once you have it.
Propublica’s stimulus coverage includes analytical reporting on stimulus-related issues and a database of stimulus projects. The “Adopt a Stimulus” involves aggregating transportation projects that are funded by the stimulus and approved by the Department of Transportation (DOT). The database contains all transportation projects, administered on the state and federal levels, which are approved by the DOT. The database includes a description of the project, location, funds allocated, project type, and a project number. Users can search for the projects by state or county and can volunteer to report on (or “adopt”) individual projects. ProPublica has plans to expand the scope of this project beyond transportation projects in the future. They also have a page that lists the tax cuts included in the stimulus, which has a description of the tax cut and its estimated cost, as well as an interactive graphic which shows the dollar per capita cost to the government of the different tax breaks by state.
Stimulus Watch is an independent, volunteer-run site that aggregates all the projects that were proposed for funding at the 2009 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. These projects have not necessarily been approved for funding nor are they necessarily part of the economic stimulus, but rather they represent how mayors would like to see money spent in their towns. Users can search for projects by state and locality and comment on the project. But the site doesn’t include projects that are actually funded, or those that are candidates for funding under the Recovery Act. It does, however, provide journalists insight into the priorities of local officials, which can be related to stimulus spending.
A unit of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (or NICAR) manages a database library that includes data on federal spending and federal contacts, but does not specify which projects are funded by the stimulus. NICAR provides access to cleaned data from the Census Bureau’s Federal Assistance Awards Data Set (FAADS), which contains information on federal grants, as well as the Federal Procurement Data Set (FPDS), administered by the General Service Administration, which has extensive information on federal contracts. These two data sets include all federal spending related to the stimulus, as well as other federal spending. While comprehensive, FAADS has a long lag time for reporting and its data can be months old. FPDS is updated quarterly. Given the lag time on the FAADS, the fact that neither FAADS nor FPDS identify stimulus projects, and the government’s plans to improve federal spending reporting through Recovery.gov, these datasets may not be useful to reporters wishing to cover the stimulus per say, but are helpful in covering government spending generally. NICAR makes both sets of data available to journalists for a fee, and offers help managing it.
The Tax Policy Center’s’s Report Card explains and rates the tax breaks included in the stimulus. The Report Card has an explanation of current law and the stimulus changes, a discussion of the tax break’s impact, and a subjective grade for each tax proposal included in the stimulus, which will amount to over $200 billion in funding over the life of the program.
The TPC provides detailed commentary on the stimulus tax provision, but doesn’t include information that would allow journalists to localize stimulus tax coverage. Reporters can use the TPC to learn about the tax issues, but will have to use other methods to report on local issues relating to the tax changes.
And then there are the blogs. We’ve sifted through the angry, guerrilla ex-banker musings (as well as some less angry ones) and picked our favorites.
A Goldman veteran who goes by Yves Smith comments on economic and finance news at Naked Capitalism, with super-long posts critiquing coverage. Bonus: mixed into the stinging commentary are animal pics as “antidotes du jour.”
Barry Ritholtz launched finance blog The Big Picture in 2003, back when Word Press was barely beta. (Remember those days?) The site as it is today features regular posts, mostly by Ritholtz, Peter Boockvar’s “Macro Notes” (or commentary on the day’s news releases), and links to relevant videos and his (well-received) book, Bailout Nation. As a day job, Ritholtz runs an online quantitative research firm; he’s also a TV/radio frequent commentator on economic data and financial markets.
Paul Kedrosky, tech entrepreneur and strategist, muses on technology, finance, venture capital and money culture at Infectious Greed. Kedrosky cuts through general money world and blogosphere clutter for a well-curated read, providing Infectious Greed visitors with lists of “Readings” and “Weekend Reading” (links to top stories so you don’t have to find them yourself), alongside provocative blog posts. Or even better, sometimes he gets “other smart people” to go to “interesting-looking conferences” and report back—in abbreviated, easy to digest form—as he does with the Economist’s Buttonwood Conference here here. Also, he loves graphs and visual maps.
Lauded as a top economics blog by The Wall Street Journal, CNN and others,
Angry Bear is run by several Ph.D economists, who provide individual takes on topics ranging from world trade to government regulation. The contributors come from different backgrounds—one’s an ex-biologist, for example, another is a law professor—which results in a healthy range of prospectives and posts.
Calculated Risk covers finance and economics and is run by Bill McBride (co-blogged from 2006 to 2008 by the late Tanta, aka Doris Dungey, an 20-year veteran of mortgage banking). Recognized as “indispensable” and “prescient,” Calculated Risk was one of the first to write about the U.S. housing bubble and it remains a top-visited econ site by traffic.
The recent, shadowy subject of a long New York profile, financial blog Zero Hedge has made a name for itself by posting reports (news to some, conspiracy theories to others) that sometimes seem wildly out there—until they sometimes prove true. (See: potential abuses of high-frequency trading at Goldman Sachs.) Zero Hedge is run by an ex-broker, Dan Ivandjiiski, under the blogonym “Tyler Durden”—the narrator’s alter ego in the novel “Fight Club,” played by Brad Pitt in David Fincher’s cultishly followed film adaptation. (The name Zero Hedge comes from a “Fight Club” quote: “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”) It’s aggressive in its reporting and theorizing, and decidedly anti-establishment—reasons why it’s a blog to keep an eye on.
Planet Money is NPR’s multimedia finance and economics team, reporting news via podcasts and blog posts. Launched last year, the first Planet Money podcast was actually a co-production with
This American Life, spurred on by that progam’s reporting on the housing crisis. There’s been other collaborations, too, with The New York Times and NPR’s Morning Edition—“traditional media” if you will—but Planet Money’s leveraging the social media aspect too, with presence on Facebook and Twitter.
Called “a must read” by Paul Krugman and “one of the most informative news sites in the blogosphere” by Bill Moyers, Baseline Scenario explores issues in the global economy and develops policy proposals, brought to you by a trio of two economists and a former McKinsey consultan/current law student. Baseline Scenario also produces the super handy “Financial Crisis for Beginners”, which is just as it sounds.
Backed by he-who-yells-at-NBA-referees Mark Cuban, BailoutSleuth covers and analyzes issues related to the financial bailout. They source their information primarily from the Treasury Department, company statements, and Securities and Exchange Committee filings from TARP recipients. BailoutSleuth focuses mainly on reporting rather than making data available publically, so it’s is a resource for information and story ideas for journalists rather than a source for data.