Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Black Swan

Hindsight is said to be 20/20. But sometimes, it's blurry.

The thing I learned from the "Brawl Street" confrontation between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer is the latter.

The crux and larger message in the interview however, shouldn't get buried and should be repeated over and over. That message is that American investigative journalism has failed us in reportage on the financial crisis.

There's truth to that, however, hindsight remains fuzzy. In 2006 and 2007, business reporters from the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Business Week reported signs of distress in the mortgage market. By mid-2007, there were mortgage foreclosures and were growing at a rate that was anticipated to exceed the amount during the Great Depression. Alan Greenspan cautioned in late 2007 and 2008 that it was unclear if this problem could be isolated and not contaminate other areas of the financial markets.

In August 2007, the global financial markets went into defibrillation. And a few months after, This American Life did a brilliant show, "The Giant Pool of Money", that unpacked the crisis to glean deeper meaning from it. In 2008, Vanity Fair did another brilliant article that deconstructed the Bear Stearns acquisition.

And then there's CNBC. The bigger question that comes to play is who is CNBC's audience? Investors, consumers, or corporations? The Daily Show put a spotlight on the fundamental problem that I think we already know. CNBC isn't journalism. Jim Cramer isn't a reporter. He's a commentator. He's a man who's worked in the industry for years, built relationships with people that became leaders in the industry, and creators of financial products that grew money, real and most likely, imagined. Then the bottom fell out and things fell apart fast. And we learned that the financial market was made of widgets worth two trillion dollars more than the GDP.


CNBC's credibility was compromised. And that tagline, In Cramer We Trust? How can he continue to be a reliable source for commentary on market conditions when his own contacts have become unreliable? If the economy is a function of confidence, and confidence is supported by value of accurate information or simply insight that comes from trusted sources, then our confidence is shaken. But that's if you were only relying on CNBC to provide you an accurate picture of the crisis. And if you were really paying attention, you would've been able to see how these things were connected. Maybe the reporting wasn't loud enough, or maybe it's hard to explain a system that requires insider knowledge of how concepts lead to wealth accumulation. Perhaps we needed the major news networks to have done a series of primetime specials noting how regulatory agencies didn't do their due diligence, or risk management departments were understaffed within major financial institutions, or worse ignored, or better, explain why you need risk management, and that we were borrowing beyond our means from the Chinese that accelerated growth of our national debt. Or even how all our institutions over leveraged and borrowed while we obsessed (rightfully so) about Iraq, Afghanistan and the 2008 Election.

Did CNBC see this meltdown coming to report it accurately? Hindsight is a funny thing. I'm a layman at best, and worked in the real estate industry, and I can tell you one thing: I did see it coming. A lot of us did. Some may not have expected it to be so toxic that it would cause a system shut down. But there were signs of distress everywhere. It seemed to me that people were reluctant to connect the dots and prepare everyone that a correction was on the horizon. CNBC is a network in collusion with financial industry. It's an offshoot of a larger conglomerate that relies on advertising dollars to support its programming and operations, and let's be honest; it restricts what truth they can say. NBC could have reported these signs of distress, but they would've lost money and we wouldn't have another Celebrity Apprentice.

Some of the conservative talking heads also are dismissive of the demographic that watches the Daily Show. It presumes that young people aren't paying attention to the news and only get news from the Daily Show. That's inaccurate. They're paying attention, they're twittering links, posting links on Facebook, reading Huffpo, NYT. The jokes wouldn't be funny or make sense if you weren't paying attention. And if you are paying attention, you must be resourceful enough to find news sources out there that you can trust and restore your confidence in the system.

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