Ten years after the financial crisis, business journalism awaits its reckoning

Lehman Brothers headquarters on September 15, 2008. Photo: Robert Scoble via flickr.

Ten years ago, Lehman Brothers, the venerable Wall Street firm, shut down after a failed rescue effort by the US Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. Panic spread, along with rumors that other Wall Street banks were next. Stock markets plummeted as regulators and central bankers scrambled to save one big financial institution after another.

The collapse of Lehman was the watershed moment in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. It prompted a wave of coverage, and business journalists, who often work in the shadow of colleagues who cover politics, took center stage. It was, for a moment, business journalism’s finest hour.

But the moment didn’t last. Almost immediately, everyone from bank customers to policy makers to Queen Elizabeth herself, began to ask a painful question: How is it that no one saw this coming?

Today, the question once again resonates, and not just because of the one-decade anniversary of the crisis (which is being widely chronicled, including in a special pull-out section of The New York Times over the weekend). Many of the banks that helped create the crisis are as dominant as ever, and some of the reforms enacted to prevent a repeat have been rolled back. Beyond economics, questions about how the press missed the crisis—and, in fact, continued to lionize financial executives even as it was beginning to unfold—echo in our current politics, as journalism continues to grapple with its failures around the 2016 presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump.

“The regulators didn’t put it together. The big institutions didn’t put it together. A whole lot of smart people could see the pieces, but they couldn’t see the whole,” says Allan Sloan, who has won a record seven Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism at magazines like Fortune and Forbes and as a newspaper columnist. ”And then there’s all of this breast beating, ‘Oh, we journalists, we failed, we failed!’ Well, you know what? It’s not as if this is a failure of journalism. This is a failure of everything.”

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In the years before the crisis, business and financial journalists got big pieces of the story—but nowhere near the full extent. Most of the financial media failed to connect the housing bubble and the explosion of subprime mortgage loans to the big Wall Street banks that were packaging and selling them. That nexus of Big Finance and corrupt, unscrupulous lenders was the toxic swamp in which the financial crisis brewed, yet few journalists understood what was going on, let alone passed it along to their readers and viewers.

You had the chairman of the Federal Reserve saying in May of 2007 that the subprime crisis would be contained. . . and it would not spill over into the overall economy, which was, of course, stupendously wrong,” says Gretchen Morgenson, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her coverage of Wall Street in The New York Times and now an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal. “The regulatory failure that brought on the crisis was certainly not a failure of journalism.”

And yet journalism did fail: It failed to alert its readers to the coming disaster, to appreciate the complicity of the Wall Street banks, and to understand the inability or unwillingness of regulators to grasp the problem. That business journalists are still defending their role in a meltdown that happened ten years ago speaks to how deep the criticism cut and how raw the debate still is. I was editor of Barrons.com before the crisis and didn’t see it coming, either.

It also speaks to the future. After the 2016 election, which Trump won despite a near-universal belief among members of the press that Hillary Clinton would be the victor, political reporters and editors realized they had missed one of the biggest stories of their careers and pledged to devote more resources to cover people and regions of the country they, too, had left behind. And while the parallels are obvious—the financial crisis was the business equivalent of the 2016 political quake—there was no similar, widespread reckoning then.

 

That business journalists are still defending their role in a meltdown that happened ten years ago speaks to how deep the criticism cut and how raw the debate still is.

 

“Not that much, no, to be honest,” says Gillian Tett, US managing editor of the Financial Times. “There wasn’t nearly enough sense of, we need to start trying to look beyond what I call the tip of the iceberg—a bit more, but not nearly as much as there could be.”

“My sense is, no, there wasn’t a reaction that said, ‘We screwed up and we need to get new people here,’” says Paul Steiger, who was managing editor of The Wall Street Journal from 1991 through 2007 (he left right before the crisis), and is now chairman emeritus of ProPublica.

So, if business journalists missed critical parts of the story before the crisis hit and didn’t see the need for fundamental change in its wake, what are the odds they’ll spot the next crisis, before it comes?

 

The crisis that nearly toppled Wall Street began on Main Street. Since the end of World War II, owning your own home has been a central pillar of the American Dream. Politicians of both parties encouraged home ownership as a path to financial security. By 2004, a record 69.2 percent of US households were owner-occupied, according to the Census Bureau.

Technology and financial innovation helped make home ownership more accessible, or at least they appeared to do so. In the 1970s and 1980s, government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac combined the huge volume of mortgages they bought from banks and savings and loans into securities and sold them to investors. This took the risk of holding individual mortgages off their own (and banks’) balance sheets and made Fannie and Freddie huge players in the housing market. Wall Street responded by creating a market for mortgage-backed bonds.

The system largely worked until the dot-com bust of 2000, which also marked the end of income growth for many middle-class Americans—a stagnation that continues to the present day. Investors who had lost money betting on internet stocks flocked to real estate, which, they believed, never declined in value.

Soon, lightly regulated independent mortgage companies jumped in to offer “subprime” and other exotic mortgages to borrowers who couldn’t qualify for the conventional mortgages Fannie and Freddie typically bought from lenders. The subprime factories churning out these mortgages, such as Countrywide Financial, Ameriquest Mortgage, and New Century Financial, had to sell the dicey loans to somebody, and Wall Street, seeing a money-making opportunity, jumped in. The banks issued some $2.1 trillion worth of securities backed by subprime mortgages from 2000 to 2007.

But housing prices peaked in early 2006, and as the speculative fever broke, prices plummeted by more than 50 percent in former boom towns like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Miami. As housing values dropped, borrowers struggled to repay, and more than 9 million Americans lost their homes.

The housing collapse eventually swamped Wall Street. Two hedge funds run by investment firm Bear Stearns that invested in exotic securities linked to subprime mortgages imploded in the summer of 2007. By the following March, Bear itself, on the verge of collapse, was purchased by JPMorgan Chase with a $29 billion backstop from the Federal Reserve. When Lehman failed in September 2008, the Great Recession was well underway.

The scale of the crisis, and the obscure nature of it, was a lot for business journalists to take in. Dean Starkman, a former reporter for the Journal then working for The Audit, a business journalism project affiliated with CJR, tracked more than 700 stories published by leading media organizations about the housing market, mortgage lenders, and Wall Street from 2000 to mid-2007. He chronicled his findings in a 2009 CJR cover story, called “Power Problem,” which included a detailed spreadsheet of relevant stories in the mainstream business media, and a 2013 book, The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism.

Starkman concluded that business journalists did a good job covering the emerging housing bubble and the abuses of the mortgage industry from 2000 to 2003, but then dropped the ball from 2004 to 2006 as the bubble inflated and the abuses grew.

By failing to connect the dots between the housing bubble, subprime mortgage debt, and the big Wall Street firms at the center of the money machine, financial journalists failed to fulfill their watchdog role, he says. “Mainstream business coverage of major financial institutions from 2004 to 2006 was trapped in old narratives, trapped in New York, trapped in the Wall Street paradigm, trapped on a spinning hamster wheel of increased productivity requirements, trapped in a comfort zone,” he wrote in his book.

The stories on Starkman’s spreadsheet about Wall Street firms were overwhelmingly positive, including puffy profiles of soon-discredited CEOs like Stanley O’Neal of Merrill Lynch and Charles Prince of Citigroup, who infamously declared in July 2007, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

Even Richard Fuld, the CEO who oversaw the collapse of Lehman, got his fair share of encomiums. Among them was a Times piece by Jenny Anderson on October 28, 2007, which depicted a Pattonesque Fuld girding his troops for “war.” The story, headlined “The Survivor,” said Lehman “has offered proof, at least for now, that its risk management is sound.” Less than a year later, the company was gone.

The fundamental problem, Starkman says, was a split between accountability and access journalism—the latter of which became a far more powerful force in business journalism, he contends. “No one ever argued that business reporters weren’t diligent and adversarial in their way and sophisticated. . . . and yet look what happened, right? To me it was all about how their task was defined and how they approached the job,” says Starkman, now a fellow at the Center for Media, Data, and Society and a lecturer at Central European University. “It’s not that people didn’t care; of course they cared. They were asking the wrong questions and to me, coming up with the wrong answers.”

The problem, according to many prominent business journalists, was the inability to show how closely subprime mortgages were tied to the big Wall Street firms that packaged, bought, and sold them. That combustible mixture brought on the global crisis.

“The colossal failure of the financial media in the run-up to the crisis was that we failed to understand the rise of complex mortgage securities, of derivatives and of the excesses on Wall Street and in the major money center banks,” says Jesse Eisinger, the Pulitzer Prize–winning former columnist for the Journal who is now a senior reporter and editor for ProPublica. “We really did not understand how vulnerable the financial system was, and we did not raise nearly enough alarm bells about it.”

But there were real barriers to reporting on the crisis, including the inherent difficulty of understanding Wall Street’s complex, arcane derivatives, in which thousands of mortgages were packaged and sold to investors. “In 2005, you couldn’t even get prices,” says Tett, who was editor of the Financial Times’ capital markets team at the time of the crisis. “I had to call up brokers one by one and say, ‘What are you quoting on this and what are you quoting on that?’”

“I mean, the central bankers couldn’t get it,” she continued. “I remember the BIS (Bank for International Settlements, a leading global banking regulator) calling me up once and saying, ‘Where do you get your data from?’”

TV was an even tougher nut to crack. Money manager Barry Ritholtz, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion who wrote the book Bailout Nation about the financial crisis, recalls one appearance on CNBC warning about the crisis to come. “I will never forget coming off the set of CNBC with [money manager] Peter Boockvar after both of us had talked about subprime and housing, and [how] it’s clearly unsustainable and will eventually collapse, and the anchors literally laughed at us,” Ritholtz tells CJR. “And it wasn’t like we were saying, ‘Hey, the market’s going to zero tomorrow.’ It was, the house is on fire, and nobody has seen the smoke yet. I [said to Boockvar]: ‘Are we the only two people who see this?’ It was quite amazing.”

 

“I will never forget coming off the set of CNBC with [money manager] Peter Boockvar after both of us had talked about subprime and housing, and [how] it’s clearly unsustainable and will eventually collapse, and the anchors literally laughed at us.”

 

Nor were there whistleblowers like short seller James Chanos, who alerted Bethany McLean to accounting anomalies at Enron before she wrote her story, “Is Enron Overpriced?” for Fortune in 2001. McLean subsequently wrote All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis with Joe Nocera, now of Bloomberg Opinion.

“Even when I went through everything for my book with Joe, we didn’t find anybody who had predicted it,” McLean says. “There are people who got pieces of it and said this could be a huge problem, but I don’t think there was anybody saying, ‘Here’s the mechanism by which this is going to bring down every firm on Wall Street.’”

“It wasn’t like there was a source journalists could have called who was skeptical and saw this coming and we just failed to call them,” she says. “Journalists are really only as good as our sources.”

That standard journalistic defense can come across as a bit of a rationalization, however, given the fact that business journalism has largely failed to own up to the shortcomings of its pre-crisis coverage. “I don’t think that there was a paroxysm of soul-searching about how badly we behaved,” says Paul Steiger. “If you asked a typical journalist who deserved the blame for the crash, it was a combination of bankers and government officials.”

But although there has been no great reckoning, business journalists say they’ve learned some important lessons. “There was this growing sense that we just have to ask tougher questions about everything, especially when it comes to finance, given how complicated it has become,” says Lawrence Ingrassia, who was deputy managing editor and business editor of the Times from 2004 through 2014. “There was a failure to imagine the worst possible scenario.”

Adds Eisinger: “I think that the coverage of the financial world has gotten more sophisticated, people are warier of the dangers of the big banks and of financial complexity. And so you’re seeing an improved coverage of the banks and Wall Street and hedge funds.”

Unfortunately, 10 years after the crisis, Starkman says the dire financial situation of many business media outlets—particularly the collapse of advertising-supported media, which doomed Time Inc.—has made it even harder for them to carry out their watchdog role. Scoops are at an even greater premium, the hamster wheel is spinning faster, and access journalism is more dominant than it was a decade ago.

“I think the thing pushing in the other direction is just budgets, right?” says McLean. “Places like Fortune and Forbes have been really hollowed out.”

Tett worries that as commercial pressures on the mainstream media rise and resources shrink, journalists may be tempted to ignore so-called geeky topics, as they did with credit derivatives before the crisis.

Where will the next crisis come from? Speculative buying of stocks with borrowed money led to Black Monday in 1929; computerized “portfolio insurance” and index arbitrage triggered the crash of 1987; the dot-com boom turned into the dot-com bust in 2000, and the housing bubble, subprime mortgages, and speculation in exotic derivatives caused the most recent financial crisis and Great Recession.

“I think that the next crisis is not going to come from mortgage-backed securities. It’s not necessarily going to come from the banks,” says Tett. “I think the longer we get away from the last crisis, the greater the danger of complacency.”

A cursory review of financial media over the last couple of months revealed many stories about potential stock market overvaluation; the threat from tariffs and trade wars; potential dangers from subprime auto loans, student loan debt and too much government and household borrowing; underfunded state and local pension funds; deteriorating credit quality in both high-yield and investment-grade corporate bonds; loosening credit standards in private equity buyouts, and rising instability in emerging stock and bond markets. Any of these could bring on the next crisis—or not.

“I think that it was such a shattering moment for so many people who lived through it that it’s hard to shake that, so I think that people are looking for indications of problems that might lie ahead,” says Morgenson.

Business journalism and the public that relies on it need to hope she’s right.

Editor’s note: Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, is married to Kate Kelly, who has worked as a business journalist at The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and, now, The New York Times. He also previously served as an editor for Jesse Eisinger, who is mentioned in this piece.

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Howard R. Gold is a columnist with MarketWatch and editor of a retirement-investing website, GoldenEgg Investing. He was the founding editor of Barrons.com and also has written for Forbes, Money, and USAToday.