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WSJ Blows the Ratings-Agencies Story

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Ryan Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review:

The Wall Street Journal does a terrible job today of covering the ratings-agency investigation news, which is a big deal (to state what should be the obvious).

A Senate panel released smoking-gun emails showing Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s fudging their criteria on CDOs to get Wall Street business, but here’s the Journal’s lede:

New documents from a congressional inquiry shows the tense relationship between credit-ratings firms and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. as they structured risky deals like the one featured in the recent fraud allegations against the investment bank.

Okay—wishy-washy. Maybe the second paragraph is better:

Such debates between credit raters and issuing companies are commonplace.

Um, no. The third?

The newly released internal emails and other communications depict Goldman bankers tussling with analysts at Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Corp. over the process of rating mortgage-backed securities.

Is there an emoticon for “throwing my hands up”? No wonder the paper stuffs this news on C3. The news doesn’t even make the paper’s “ten-point”—the “What’s News” columns of blurbs on A1.

The New York Times is much better. Here are its first three graphs:

In 2004, well before the risks embedded in Wall Street’s bets on subprime mortgages became widely known, employees at Standard & Poor’s, the credit rating agency, were feeling pressure to expand the business.

One employee warned in internal e-mail that the company would lose business if it failed to give high enough ratings to collateralized debt obligations, the investments that later emerged at the heart of the financial crisis.

“We are meeting with your group this week to discuss adjusting criteria for rating C.D.O.s of real estate assets this week because of the ongoing threat of losing deals,” the e-mail said. “Lose the C.D.O. and lose the base business — a self reinforcing loop.”

McClatchy, whose Kevin G. Hall, has done excellent work on this scandal, one that we’ve argued hasn’t gotten enough attention relative to its outsize role in causing the crisis, has the best lede of the three:

A Senate panel investigating the causes of the nation’s financial crisis on Thursday unveiled evidence that credit-ratings agencies knowingly gave inflated ratings to complex deals backed by shaky U.S. mortgages in exchange for lucrative fees.

That’s what it’s all about, no? How long until we see charges against these guys? Remember, investors like pension funds were dependent on these ratings—and they (and we) got hosed in bad faith.

Revisit that email the NYT put in its third paragraph, and look at another it quotes in its fourth:

In June 2005, an S.& P. employee warned that tampering “with criteria to ‘get the deal’ is putting the entire S.& P. franchise at risk — it’s a bad idea.”

The Journal doesn’t get around to quoting these damning emails until the tenth paragraph. Indeed, it quotes one in the fifth that doesn’t show anything:

“I am getting serious pushback from Goldman on a deal that they want to go to market with today,” notes one Moody’s analyst in an April 2006 email. The analyst was being asked by Goldman to give more favorable terms than the ratings firm was offering.

This kind of thing matters. The Journal is the nation’s business paper of record (yes, even though Murdoch has made it more of a general-news paper) and has a leadership role in financial news much like the Times has in national news. When it downplays or misses a story, it tends to make that story seem less important—not only to people in power, but to the rest of the press.

This is a big story.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2010 at 3:11 pm

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