“I think that one of the things in this crisis all along has been it’s like a mystery novel,” David Wessel, the economics editor for The Wall Street Journal, told The Observer last Friday. “Every time you turn the page you’re in a new chapter, and you’re being introduced to new characters and new plots that you hadn’t expected. It’s hard to understand what’s going on.”
That was what the coverage of the Bear Stearns implosion was about: a scramble to understand.
Some pulled it off magnificently, if belatedly; others opted for the comfort of hyperbole; all were, for a time at least, rolled by the Bush administration.
Luckily, regardless, the nation emerged as anyone would expect: another week older and deeper in debt.
To simply leaf through the headlines of the different sections of the March 18 Journal was to lose all faith in the American way of doing things. The terrorists must’ve been kicking themselves for not being the first to think of subprime-mortgage-backed securities as a sure way to cripple the U.S. The sky was falling; not a drill this time.
Even the mercilessly nonthreatening Personal Journal section screamed in its main story, “Is There Anywhere Safe?” Oh, dear. And the middle story on the front page—perhaps the most-read newspaper page in the entire financial universe on any given morning—led ominously: “The past six days have shaken American capitalism.”
Said who? Well, said Treasury Secretary (and former Goldman Sachs chairman) Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman (and former chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers) Ben Bernanke; and a few others, including those directly involved in JPMorgan Chase’s Fed-guaranteed takeover of Bear Stearns at bargain-basement prices.
James Dimon, JPMorgan’s chief executive, was lionized in The New York Times and The Journal (and in the editorial pages of The Observer) as a sort of savior of capitalism itself. New York magazine hit newsstands on March 24 referencing the day of the sale of Bear Stearns as “the day Dimon helped save Wall Street.”
And he saved it in typical sleep-when-I’m-dead, God of Fiduciary Thunder style. From The Times on March 18: “On Sunday, Mr. Dimon, weary-eyed after three days and nights of frantic negotiations, stunned Wall Street with the news that JPMorgan would buy Bear Stearns, the troubled investment bank, for a fire-sale price of $2 a share. With that one jaw-dropping deal, Mr. Dimon, like the bank’s namesake before him, has become a principal player in the biggest financial drama of his age.”
Such coverage relied upon two things: the seeming inexplicability of it all; and the trumpeting from the likes of Messrs. Paulson, Bernanke and Dimon about its gravity.
THE ROOTS OF Bear Stearns’ collapse and of the current crisis are actually easy to grasp: The debt from subprime mortgages, which were fantastically easy to get in the housing boom’s heady days, was securitized, and those securities were traded like stocks.
Analysts touted the subprime-mortgage-backed securities even though they were inherently risky (after all, they were backed by literally subprime borrowers); and investment banks and other investors snatched them up or facilitated their snatching. When the debtors started defaulting, the crisis snowballed. Bear Stearns, to paraphrase Michael Corleone, got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming to it.
David Leonhardt, in a front-page Times story on March 19, broke down the crisis’ roots quite well, though he wrapped his simple explanation in complication: “Raise your hand if you don’t quite understand this whole financial crisis,” his story led. (Mr. Leonhardt did not respond to e-mails for comment.) The story quickly became The Times’ most e-mailed; the unquestioned agenda-setting of the national newspaper of record ensured that the crisis’ subsequent coverage would be couched in an aura of incomprehensibility. It was all so hard to understand; leave it to the pros. They know what they’re doing.
And who were the pros? The people at the top, like Messrs. Bernanke and Paulson, who acted, according to a March 17 Times recount of an ABC News interview, because “our primary concern right now—my primary concern—is the stability of our financial system, the orderliness of the markets. And that’s where our focus is.”
The financial system—the actual nuts and bolts of American capitalism, the mechanisms and machinations that keep us, however close to teetering off, at the top of the heap and the envy of most even during tougher times at home—was never in mortal danger from one risk-addicted investment bank and its government enablers.
The coverage eventually caught up with this reality once the hyperbole had its day(s). The Journal’s Mr. Wessel, for one, had by March 20 expressed it all quite neatly in a 2A column. It calmly explained the political considerations behind the financial maneuverings that saw $30 billion in taxpayer money hand-shaken into ensuring the orderly transfer of one investment bank to another.
“It’s hard to fashion the sound bite that deflects the inevitable question,” Mr. Wessel wrote. “Why a ‘bailout’ for Wall Street, and none for homeowners?”
Mr. Wessel noted that Messrs. Paulson, Bernanke et al. are willing to try; they’ve already tried. They’ve painted the bailout of Bear Stearns as an essential—even fundamental—step in shoring up “shaken American capitalism.” And never mind the usual routes of that capitalism for companies that gamble and lose.
As The Times noted, top JPMorgan executives cut off a conference call after a disgruntled Bear Stearns investor dared suggest that he and his fellow investors would make more money if the investment bank went appropriately bankrupt rather than into the rapaciously welcoming, Fed-brokered arms of JPMorgan.
“[L]ike troubled teenagers seeking succor from Mom, when the going gets tough, these same free enterprisers frequently run to the government for instant succor,” wrote a guest blogger, Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt, on the Financial Times’ Web site on March 21. “Watch, for example, as our investment bankers on Wall Street, a.k.a. Masters of the Universe, now run to our government for help, after the mess they have made of their companies, of our economy and, indeed, of global finance.”
And The Times on Easter Sunday, a week after the crisis coverage commenced: “Well, the economists are here to say that you can dig up the family silver and stop training the kids how to jump onto a moving train. While many who study the nation’s economic health agree that a recession has probably already begun, and that it may be long and severe, they also say the odds of a full-blown depression are almost nonexistent.”
The Economy Is Risen! Everything’s fine; or, at least, it’s not as bad as you were told just one week earlier.
SO WHY WERE you told that? Because the American economy now relies on the creation and trading of debt as its main vehicle of profit making.
We don’t manufacture too many things anymore for export; nor do we have a thriving agriculture business (we do have agribusiness, but that’s something else entirely). America does spend, spend, spend, whether we have any actual hard money to do so, and we do it better than most nations ever; thus the negative personal savings rate and the current foreclosures wave, and on up to the ballooning federal deficit and the indebtedness of even billionaires like GM Building owner (for now) Harry Macklowe.
We love creating the need for credit and the debt that follows. And the securitization of such debt—specifically subprime mortgages—sparked the current brouhaha.
The federal government reacted as it’s supposed to in this new normal: It bailed out a major Wall Street firm that gorged at a little too unseemly a level on such securitized debt. And, then, on March 18, it slashed the key short-term lending rate. It made money cheaper to get; it ensured more debt.
The system, oddly, then, worked. The Bush administration—and any administration, Democrat or Republican, would’ve had to do the same—hyped the situation over that fateful March weekend when the Bear Stearns immolation was negotiated. The media delivered the hype initially to a public reassured that it was O.K. to be confused and pliant.
(And just a quick aside: Why is it that the top national media routinely depicts Bush’s foreign policy advisers as disingenuous or naïve at best and dishonest or nefarious at worst, but credits—ha!—his top economic advisers, in the past two weeks, with the oracularity normally afforded Jesus, the Prophet Mohammed or Suze Orman?)
Only eventually did the media catch its breath. By then, of course, the bailout was in the details phase and the Fed had slashed its key interest rate. The stage was set for a repeat. So, expect one.