Public Policy Matters After All

Where’s the reporting on the laws that built Wall Street’s house of cards?

I’m wondering if any other newspaper and business-press readers are curious about the degree to which public policy, including laws passed by Congress and signed by presidents, have anything to do with the great unraveling of the U.S. financial system?

Or is just us CJR elite-types?

I mean, I know Phil Gramm made a boo-boo when he floated a talking point—the “nation of whiners” thing, a real zinger that free-markets-free-men capitalists should have connected with but the girly-man media got in a huff about—then saw it go horribly, horribly wrong. Stupid politics is certainly unforgivable. Nothing is worse, I agree, except the lipstick thing, but anyway, did you hear what happened on The View?

Sorry about the snark, but it’s getting ridiculous. Gramm is the author of two of the most important financial deregulation bills of our time—bills pushed for, lobbied over, and coveted by Wall Street not so very long ago.

And let’s face it, financial deregulation, and deregulation of all kinds, has been a public-policy theme since the 1970s, the era in which the current generation of media leaders grew up, and yet you’d scarcely know it from the coverage, both political and financial.

I’m not just talking about this morning’s deeply unsatisfying political coverage of Obama and McCain’s responses to Wall Street’s implosion.

These stories take false balance to a new level.

But more generally our pals in the media&business press, political press, US Weekly—are treating this calamity like it was Hurricane Ike or some reenactment of the story of the Golden Calf.

Public policy must matter at least somewhat. Otherwise, why do people pay so much attention to politics?

Gramm, for instance, wrote the Commodity Future Modernization Act, passed in December 2000, in the throes of Bush v. Gore, which blocked regulation of a derivative known as the credit-default swap.

If you are just arriving to this horror movie, let’s puzzle this out together. CDSs are, I think, very sophisticated insurance contracts, written, or so I am told, by high-SAT-scoring graduates of famous universities working for formerly well-known but now-extinct financial firms to protect against the failure of AAA-rated instruments called collateralized debt obligations, which are derived from risk-modeled and once-thought-to-be-super-safe mortgage-backed securities, which in turn are derived from home mortgages, like, say, the one taken by the eighty-five-year-old retired chef in Brooklyn, who, suffering from dementia, decided it would be a good idea to refinance his thirty-year fixed-rate loan for a “no income, no asset,” “payment option” adjustable-rate mortgage from IndyMac, sold to him by a Long Island brokerage, that took his monthly payments to $1,400, which is $300 more than his entire monthly fixed income.

Simple, right? Why would anyone want to regulate that system? Anyway, the Brooklyn guy’s mortgage is in foreclosure, as are those of millions of other people, but we don’t have time for that now.

The real problem is that, apparently, one doesn’t have to actually own a security to hedge against it by buying a CDS. That’s why there are $62 trillion—with a “t”—worth of them floating around the financial system, including at American International Group, once the world’s largest insurance company and now the latest Sword of Damocles hanging over the financial system.

Indeed, CDSs are part the financial toolbox of all the financial houses currently in disarray, including hedge funds.

One of the best pieces on this, for some reason, was by Mother Jones this summer. Read our own Elinore Longobardi’s review of the piece and of the issue generally here:

Apparently, A.I.G. is now seeking help from the government.

And that’s just CDS. Gramm is also the author of Gramm-Leach-Bliley, formally known as the Financial Modernization Act of 1999 (taxpayers: next time you seen the word “modernization” next to financial legislation, check your wallet), which allowed the combination of investment banks, such as those in trouble now because of CDOs, CDSs, etc., with the commercial banks, which are entrusted with deposits backed by the federal government.

Think this is a partisan thing? Both bills in question were signed by Bill Clinton.

The point is, we readers need smarter reporting, with context, and more of it, and we need it fast.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.