A Credit to the Chicago Public Radio show This American Life and NPR’s new podcast Planet Money for an incisive and —dare we say it—entertaining piece on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s disgraceful performance in the credit crisis.
Media criticism of current SEC Chairman Christopher Cox has been spotty since the crisis began. But the This American Life piece is part of a needed refocusing by the press on the regulatory lapses that enabled this crisis. It was early in a second wave of media stories on the SEC and its accessibility and clear-headedness is laudable, all the more so for not dumbing down the issue.
The near collapse of Bear Stearns brought the SEC to the notice of the press as early as this spring. After one or two somewhat demure pieces, The Wall Street Journal let loose an excellent article in June. The New York Times also took a hard look at the SEC in April, and other critics chimed in, as well.
Then came a mid-summer lull. But after the SEC’s actions in July and August to crack down on “naked” short selling, and then in September to ban short selling on hundreds of stocks, the press redoubled its efforts on the hapless watchdog with a new, more forceful wave of SEC analysis. Increasingly, business reporters have begun to wonder in earnest why the SEC has been virtually absent—except for rattling shorts’ cages—while Wall Street, the commission’s purview, has been crumbling to its foundations (such as they are).
That’s where This American Life comes in with its September 12 segment “Now You SEC Me, Now You Don’t,” which NPR re-released as a Planet Money podcast on September 17. Reporter Alex Blumberg cut to the chase right away:
The chairman of the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, is often referred to as ‘Wall Street’s Top Cop.’ And this past year, the year in which the global financial system seemed perpetually on the verge of collapse, collapse due in large part to complex, unprecedented and, as we now know, extremely risky financial products created and sold on Wall Street, you might expect to be hearing a lot from Wall Street’s main enforcer. But Christopher Cox, the current chairman of the SEC, has been notably absent from any public housecleaning.
In this way, the piece does what so many fail to do: place both Wall Street and absent regulators at the heart of the credit crisis—without mincing words.
The piece describes how the SEC left its regulatory mandate unfulfilled, and when Cox finally did get around to, um, addressing the crisis, he seemed not to understand the source of the problem, focusing on naked short sellers instead.
Following Cox off into the eelgrass, Blumberg explains short selling to us, then naked short selling. (A primer: short sellers borrow stocks and sell them, hoping to replace them later when the share price has declined. Naked short sellers short a stock without actually borrowing it. It’s wrong, but hardly the reason for the crisis.) And here is where the piece really starts to take off: former SEC officials speaking openly—and not all that kindly—about the policies of their one-time employer.
Jim Coffman, who used to run investigations in the SEC enforcement division, patiently explains short selling in layman’s terms. Here he is in an exchange with Blumberg:
Coffman: It would be no different in many respects than selling a car that you don’t own. You get the money, you put it in your pocket, and you don’t deliver the car…. In some circumstances that would be considered—that is, selling an item you don’t own would be considered—a criminal activity. That’s not true in the stock market.
Blumberg [laughing]: And why is that not true in the stock market?
Coffman: Ah… to ah, to paraphrase a presidential candidate: That’s not in my pay grade.
What follows is a brief on the historical origins of naked short selling, which involves wheelbarrows. But, more importantly, Blumberg goes on to put naked short selling in context, as a “fringe activity.”
Former SEC chief accountant Lynn Turner:
It seemed to be strange that the SEC would be taking this particular path to trying to deal with the subprime crisis, when there obviously were other, bigger issues out there…
This is a clear analysis, presented with a light touch. It is a useful starting point for someone wanting to wade into the deluge of financial-press coverage—or a raft for someone who has tried to wade through but feels like they are being swept off their feet.
And it was on the leading edge of a torrent of commentary and reporting.