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A flawed first draft of history

By Lionel Barber

Published: April 21 2009 20:17 | Last updated: April 21 2009 20:17

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These are the best of times and the worst of times to be a financial journalist. The best, because we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to report and analyse the most serious financial crisis since the Great Crash of 1929. The worst, because the newspaper and television industries are suffering, not only from the shock of a recession but also from the structural shock of the internet revolution.

Now comes a third shock. The financial media are accused of mis­sing the global financial crisis. Asleep at the wheel. Head in the clouds. No cliché has been left unturned as reporters, commentators – yes, even editors – have been castigated for failing to warn an unsuspecting public of impending disaster. Do these charges add up? To paraphrase the killer question from the Watergate hearings: what did the press know and when did it know it?

First, by way of mitigation, journalists were not the only ones to fall down on the job. Political leaders were happy to break open the champagne at the credit party; many lingered long after the fizz had gone. Regulators in the US, UK and continental Europe all failed to identify and contain the risks building within the system. Many economists, too, fell short. Only a few – such as Nouriel Roubini, now celebrated as the thinking man’s prophet of doom – identified pieces of the puzzle, even if they failed to piece them together.

Why did financial journalists not pay more attention to these warnings? First, the financial crisis started as a highly technical story that took months to go mainstream. Its origins lie in the credit markets, coverage of which in most news organisations counted as a backwater. Most reporters working in this so-called “shadow banking system” found it hard to interest their superiors who controlled space and who were more interested in broadcasting the “good news” story of rising property prices and economic growth.

A second related problem with the credit derivatives story was that it took place in an over-the-counter market with little disclosure and very little day-to-day news. Inevitably, the temptation was – and still is – to run with the stories that are much less opaque such as public company earnings. Yet the big innovations and the big money came in the credit markets.

The second criticism is that the media were too interested in building up a good news story. The comedian Jon Stewart’s on-air demolition of the booster-turned-doomster Jim Cramer shows there is a case to answer. Mr Stewart went so far as to suggest that CNBC, which hosts Mr Cramer’s Mad Money show, overlooked market shenanigans as it was too close to its core community: Wall Street traders and investment bankers. Danny Schechter, writing in the British Journalism Review, is equally critical alleging that newspapers had no interest in pursuing scandals in mortgage lending for fear of alienating property advertisers.

Journalists routinely face tensions between relying on their sources and burning them with critical coverage. Think of the White House press corps, the British “lobby” press that covers parliament or sports journalists assigned to a team. The incentive to “go along” to “get along” is always present, in competition with a journalist’s instinct to speak truth to power.

In the final resort, there can be little debate that the financial media could have done a better job. In this spirit of self-criticism, I identify four weaknesses in the coverage.

First, financial journalists failed to grasp the significance of the failure to regulate over-the-counter derivatives that formed the bulk of counterparty risk in the explosion of credit following the dotcom bubble. Alan Greenspan was opposed to such regulation, but how many commentators took the former Fed chairman to task and warned of the risks? For the most part, journalists were too enamoured with the prevailing tide of deregulation.

Second, journalists, with a few notable exceptions, failed to understand the risks posed by the implicit state guarantees enjoyed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giants. Here, we should tip our hats to the now much-maligned Mr Greenspan. He raised alarms early about the risks. Of course, it was hard for journalists to attack the ideal of broader home ownership in America, but that is no excuse.

Third, journalists failed to grasp the significance of the growth in off-balance sheet financing by the banks, its relationship with the pro-cyclical Basle II rules on capital ratios, and the overall concept of leverage. How many news organisations reported on the crucial Securities and Exchange Commission decision in 2004 to loosen its regulations on leverage? The explosive growth of structured investment vehicles at the height of the credit boom was also woefully under-reported.

Fourth, financial journalists were too slow to grasp that a crash in the banking system would have a profoundly damaging impact on the real economy. The same applies to regulators and economists. For too long, too many experts treated the financial sector and the wider economy as parallel universes. This was fundamentally wrong.

Many of the most important developments of the past decade – the rise of radical Islamic terrorism, the opening of the Chinese economy as well as two credit bubbles – have largely been unanticipated or failed to attract the attention they deserved. Journalists, in this respect, have a crucial role to play. Flawed they may be, but they still have the capacity to be the canaries in the mine. Long may it be so.

The writer is editor of the Financial Times. This is an abridged version of a speech he gave at Yale University this week

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