The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission released its report yesterday and the press play indicates that it’s either an utter failure or that the press itself has some real questions to answer. I’m going to say it’s the former.
The Wall Street Journal puts it on A4, and puts it sixth in its Business & Finance column of top news briefs, below such blockbuster news as the Dow almost closing above 12,000 and Amazon.com’s mixed earnings.
It gives its story a dud headline:
Report Details Wall Street Crisis
The Washington Post at least has a snappy lede:
The official U.S. government report on what caused the financial crisis casts blame on Goldman Sachs for fueling the subprime mortgage bubble, Merrill Lynch for not telling investors about the true state of its financial condition and the Federal Reserve for failing to stop dangerous lending practices.
Compare that to the Journal’s weak lede:
Twelve of the 13 largest U.S. financial institutions “were at risk of failure” at the depth of the 2008 financial crisis, while at least 50 hedge funds tried to capitalize on it, according to a report released Thursday by a U.S. panel investigating how the financial system unraveled.
But even the Post notes that “the report does not contain any major revelation that would fundamentally alter popular perceptions of the crisis.”
The New York Times’s piece is our nominee for Worst Headline of the Day:
Crisis Panel’s Report Parsed Far and Wide
That just about screams “don’t read me!”
On its website, the report gets third billing below these stories:
U.S. Company, in Reversal, Wants to Export Natural Gas
U.S. Approves Genetically Modified Alfalfa.
Granted, some details of the FCIC leaked out yesterday and the day before, but it’s a 600-page report. You’d think there would be plenty of news to chew on here.
The Times stuffs what seems like it could be news down in the second half of its story:
It offered new evidence that officials at Citigroup and Merrill Lynch had portrayed mortgage-related investments to investors as being safer than they really were.
That’s all we get on that.
For more we go to The Huffington Post’s Shahien Nasiripour, who reports the panel found that “Wall Street firms that sold mortgage-backed securities appear to have violated federal securities laws by misleading investors on the quality of the underlying mortgages.” I think he’s right, but the problem is, the FCIC pussyfoots around the issue, as quoted by the HuffPo:
That failure raises “the question of whether the disclosures were materially misleading, in violation of the securities laws,” the panel said.
It raises the question? The FCIC is supposed to answer the questions, not just raise them. But it does fit, as Nasiripour notes, with his earlier scoop that the panel had referred cases to authorities for prosecution.
Still, there’s no doubt, even if the press has missed some things early here, that the panel is a massive disappointment. Bloomberg’s Jonathan Weil has the must-read piece on how and why. This is my nominee for Best Headline of the Day:
Wall Street’s Collapse to Be Mystery Forever
And Weil gets at the problem of the FCIC raising questions but not answering them. Like in its reporting of how the biggest investor in a $40 billion Bank of America money fund took it down by yanking $20 billion out in 2007, referring to news reports for the info. The FCIC doesn’t name which investor pulled the money out because it “has never been publicly disclosed.” Weil hammers them:
And here I had thought the purpose of the commission’s inquiry was to uncover new facts that the public didn’t already know. Such as: The identity of the mystery investor that single- handedly kneecapped Bank of America’s Columbia Strategic Cash Portfolio, once the largest cash fund of its kind in the U.S.
This, in journalistic parlance, is what we call a clip job. And that’s the trouble with much of the commission’s 545-page report. There’s lots of breezy, magazine-style, narrative prose. But there’s not much new information.
And he tells us why it’s as thin as it is:
The FCIC’s failure was predictable from the start. To examine the causes of the financial crisis, Congress created a bipartisan panel of 10 political appointees led by Democrat Phil Angelides, a former California state treasurer. What was needed was a nonpartisan investigation directed by seasoned prosecutors (like Pecora was) who know how to cross-examine witnesses and get answers.
Whereas Pecora had no fixed deadline, Congress gave the crisis commission until December 2010 to complete its inquiry. Witnesses who didn’t want to cooperate fully could simply milk the clock. The panel got a budget of less than $10 million to investigate all the causes of the financial crisis. Lehman’s bankruptcy examiner got $42 million to produce a 2,200-page report on the failure of a single company.
Indeed, Weil called it from the get-go. Here’s his headline from January 21, 2010:
Wall Street Fix Is In at Bank-Crisis Coroner
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.
Tags: Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Headlines, Jonathan Weil, The Wall Street Journal