Monday, 19 July 2010

Financial journalists should take responsibility too

In our information-soaked age, it is shocking to see how little our newspapers know of money. Though newspapers are hardly advertisements for financial acumen, as they lose both money and readers at a quite astonishing rate, but one would have thought that finance was one area of our newspapers immune from the distractions of celebrity culture and sensationalist reporting. Surely, money would be too important to trivialise and people wouldn’t make mistakes over simple numbers.

A general reader glancing through The Financial Times - the high point of London’s financial journalism - would be forgiven for thinking that readers of the finance pages are treated with a certain respect. It might be not be very entertaining, but it looks pretty solid, what with lots of numbers and graphs, and clever-looking men staring out from columns full of weighty-sounding economics talk.

But it was out of these pages that emerged the single biggest crisis the world has seen, certainly in the last decade, maybe even the last half-century. Somewhere in those boring pages lay the causes of the biggest economic crisis since the Second World War, a crisis that came close to tipping the western world into depression and collapse, that loaded taxpayers with hundreds of billions of pounds of debt, and longer-term ramifications that are only just starting to be felt.

As a financial journalist reporting on the world of credit throughout the build-up to the crisis, I had a remarkable vantage point to understand the credit boom, and also to get a sense of what would happen if the house of cards came tumbling down. During this time I started - but never finished - a book about debt.

It is damning criticism of my business, financial journalism, that we failed to look hard at the credit boom and call it for what it was, and what it would mean. Instead, what happened, was we stood up the day after it happened and pointed to all the reasons why we knew it would have happened, and highlighted the small number of examples were we mentioned it in passing. Then a few months passed, and we forgot everything we might have learnt from the biggest disaster our industry has known in recent times, and reverted to populism.

Blame the banker was an easier game to play than the intellectually difficult, and quite worrying, truth: that ignorance was central to the crisis, that a profound and systematic intellectual failure undermined almost every one of the world’s financial and government institutions. And while it was not journalism’s fault that credit boomed, and assets bubbled, and banks tweaked structures, and governments’ took advantage, it was journalism’s responsibility to tell the world what was going on.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

What they are not telling you

There is so much going on in the world, and the well-trained journalist knows that within each event lies a thousand stories, and within those a million different articles. No-one is able to tell all those tales. As such, journalism is a flawed occupation; destined always to fail. But the mistakes are interesting, and only by understanding them can understand their impact.

Financial journalism is certainly one flawed part of this error-strewn business. Indeed, because of the importance of finance and money in our world, the failures of financial journalists have a particularly large impact, not just on their readers - misled about how to manage their finances and hence much of their lives - but also upon opinion-formers and policymakers, who introduce bad laws based on poor information.

Moreover, even professionals in the world of finance, who really should know better, can find themselves herded into decisions by journalists and newspapers who in the search for the big story often generate a climate of crisis out of nothing, or sometimes just blunder on through mistakes and misunderstandings.

This is why I instinctively reject conspiracies. Nothing in the world that I have seen has ever been as perfect, as neat, as the stories told by conspiracy theorists. The things they are not telling you are usually secret not because there is some massive conspiracy generated by an all-powerful elite. No, what they are not telling you are the things they don’t know, or don’t think you need to know, or they can’t be bothered to tell you about.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

CDS fail

People don't understand CDS. I guess that fact should be obvious - it's a relatively complex tool used by financiers to make money, sometimes in situations where others are losing out. Like short-selling, it appears to have given politicians in Europe something (anything!) to rail against and as with the short-selling ban it is unclear what the evidence there is to support the vituperative attacks. (Indeed, as time as gone by there appears to be less and less evidence that short-sellers were to blame for problems with banks.)

Here is a brief explanation of what was going on with Greece: it seems as though hedge funds sold CDS to banks to protect the banks against a possible default by Greece. More here and here and a lengthy and wide-ranging one here. The CDS became more desirable - and the price rose - as Greece found an enormous black hole in its finances, a media and political storm became whipped up, and some banks panicked. None of this stopped Greece eventually selling its bonds (to those evil foreign investors that it relies on), but neither did it stop European politicians capitalising on all this froth to try to ban an element of finance capitalism they seemed not to understand.

It is an interesting question to ask whether it matters if policy has to come from evidence. Many people seem to believe that politicians should act just because a group in society is angry, often at wide variance to the facts. This is a form of populism, and it has a long history. Unfortunately most of this long history is of making people, particularly those in identifiable minorities, sad, poorer and/or dead.

Thursday, 25 February 2010