If you visited The Wall Street Journal’s website yesterday, you saw it touting a three-part in-house video called “The End of Wall Street: An Oral History.”
First of all, applause for the ambition shown here. This, for a newspaper (until Web revenues push past print revenues, I’ll still call it that), is a major motion picture.
The production values are surprisingly good. A lot of time was spent. The bigshots were interviewed. News Corporation has clearly poured some money into Web video. I can remember some cringe-inspiring Web video efforts there just a year or two ago under the dithering Dow Jones regime.
We open with modern-enough (if a bit trying-too-hard) jump cuts and shaky camera shots, news clips and great B-roll of the Wall Street area itself overlaid with ominous-sounding music—all deep bells and piano. But it’s an irritating contrivance to put thin stripes over every news clip, and there’s a whoops moment later when the shots on Wall Street suddenly include the U.S. Supreme Court.
The video is a joint production with WSJ Books and prominently features Dave Kansas, the paper’s former Money & Investing editor who’s writing a book titled, coincidentally—and clumsily—enough, “The Wall Street Journal Guide to the End of Wall Street As We Know It”.
It corrects course by then focusing on the easy money that came from incredibly low borrowing rates from the Federal Reserve and how Wall Street took on loads of debt and created instruments like collateralized-debt obligations that it didn’t really understand. Then, the ratings agencies, who were key enablers of the debt bubble in giving AAA ratings to instruments stocked with subprime mortgages.
My old boss and the current Money & Investing editor Ken Brown has a good synopsis here:
And so the amount of borrowed money in the U.S. Increased tremendously over those years. Anyone who could sign his name to a piece of paper could get a $300,000 mortgage. nobody really cared if they could pay it off because it was getting sold and sold and sold in different structures to different people who really didn’t understand what they were buying.
And WSJ blogger Heidi N. Moore makes a good point:
They got involved in instruments and securities that they didn’t quite understand. but the pressure was so high to be able to get high returns and to do as well as the next guy, that they all followed suit, without really examining closely what they were getting into.
And Dennis Berman makes a fascinating historical comparison of the credit-default swap market to 18th-century parlors that took bets on whether a ship going out to sea would ever come back.
In the second part of the series, the Journalistas put blame on regulators, Alan Greenspan, the credit-ratings agencies, and the complexity of securitization.
Kansas is certainly right here when he says:
The regulators were too interested in watching Wall Street succeed and going from riches to riches.
But that doesn’t mention that there was a distinct ideology, ascendant for nearly three decades (including the Democratic Clinton years), behind the regulators’ hands-off approach.
Deputy Managing Editor Dan Hertzberg is solid here in calling out Alan Greenspan:
Alan Greenspan says, “Oh, I’m surprised the banks didn’t have better risk controls. Well, the purpose of a regulator is that the banks do have better risk controls and that they’re aware of what’s going on.
As is Economics Editor David Wessel:
The reason it was so uncomfortable to see Alan Greenspan testifying before that House committee and saying that basically what I got wrong was my fundamental understanding of how the system works. So the things we got wrong were not details. The things we got wrong were major checks and balances and safety valves in the global financial system.
But then there’s a big hole where the whole production jumps to September 2008 and the decision by the government to let Lehman Brothers fail. Where’s a discussion of the vast crookedness in the mortgage industry, fed by and encouraged by Wall Street? I don’t get much sense from this video of the gigantic CDO machine that stretched from Orange County to Wall Street. But then, this is somewhat characteristic of the Journal’s coverage overall.
In the third part there’s a moving moment when Berman talks about having his faith in our nation’s institutions utterly shaken—but then, in the same breath as he blames banks and regulators, also blames the rest of us as consumers.