As Hudson wrote:
Citigroup has established itself as perhaps the most powerful player in the subprime market by swallowing competitors and employing its vast capital resources and its name-brand respectability
The web of subprime is woven throughout Citigroup. Sandy Weill’s company has refashioned itself into a full-service subprime enterprise—one that makes high-cost loans and sells securities backed by the income streams from all these transactions. In 2000, one study calculated, nearly three of every four mortgages originated within Citigroup’s lending empire were made by one of its higher-interest subprime affiliates—nearly 180,000 loans out of a total of 240,000-plus mortgages for the year.
The fact is, Citigroup made subprime lending a cornerstone of its operations, betting investors’ capital on the market’s most vulnerable borrowers. And the rest of Wall Street followed its example.
This was known before Weill retired. If investors, policymakers and business-press readers want context, they should be reading a four-year-old edition of a 3,000-circulation magazine.
Listen, I don’t fault financial publications for attempting to go beyond the obvious, for trying to offer deeper and more sophisticated analysis than competors’ versions.
Robin Sidel, for instance, offers great insider detail that readers can find only in the Journal:
Defiant Citigroup bond traders still cling to their corporate roots, sometimes answering phones “Salomon” even though Citigroup a few years ago dropped the Salomon Brothers name it had acquired and instructed employees not to use it. The bank’s retail network isn’t hooked into other parts of the company — meaning branch tellers can’t see whether a customer in front of them has been preapproved for a credit card so they can offer it. Until recently, capital markets and consumer businesses within the bank’s European operations duplicated basic office functions because each had its own legal and human-resources staffs.
But you can’t forget the obvious.
I know it’s easy to second-guess reporting, especially reporting crashed out on deadline over a weekend.
Still, I’m coming to believe that Citigroup and the general subprime scandal—and that’s what it is, a scandal—represents as much a crisis for business journalism as it is for banks. But in crisis, there’s opportunity.
So, here’s an idea: business publications have in recent years come to see themselves as champions of the shareholder. And that’s good. But I would say, consider pulling the camera back even further.
It is now beyond question that Weill’s company, his profit machine, was built to some material degree on bad practices. Its investment bankers were implicated in the collapse of both Enron and WorldCom; its stock research operation gave the world Jack Grubman; its private banking arm violated Japanese anti-money-laundering rules, etc.
However, like subprime lending, these practices brought spectacular results for shareholders—but only in the short term.
In the longer term, business-press readers’ interests as investors coincide with their interests as citizens. Business publications should question corporate practices beyond their implications for shareholders.
Challenge the assumptions. Do the investigations. In the end, investors will do well by journalists doing good.