Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wall Street's Opacity Protection Team and Mark Pittman

In a wonderful tribute to Mark Pittman, Bob Ivry wrote a Bloomberg article describing the triumph of a single person (backed by the Bloomberg news organization) over the Federal Reserve.

Mark was not a random reporter to me.  He was someone I had dined and exchanged ideas with (either by phone or email).

Several weeks prior to his death, we had our last telephone conversation.  The focus of the conversation was Wall Street's Opacity Protection Team.

I was pointing out all the different ways that Wall Street was preventing transparency from occurring in the structured finance market (regular readers know that disclosure of the current underlying collateral performance is necessary if investors are going to know what they own and be able to value it).

Mark pointed out that the Opacity Protection Team extended well beyond Wall Street and included its regulators.

He talked about where he was in the pursuit of the Fed's bailout data and how the Fed lent new meaning to the term significant, well-financed resistance to disclosure.

He concluded our conversation by observing that with only the two of us pursuing disclosure Wall Street's Opacity Protection Team would win.

Mark, I am glad that Bloomberg News carried your quest to the finish line.  I suspect I am going to need the 99% to carry my quest for disclosure to the finish line.

One legacy of the release of the Federal Reserve’s bailout data was the triumph of a single person over the most powerful bank in the world. 
Bloomberg News’s Mark Pittman, a hulking former cop reporter from Kansas with equal love for spreadsheets and beer chasers, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Fed in May 2008. He asked for details of the emergency-lending programs that were then just under way. It’s the taxpayers’ money, Pittman argued. They ought to know where it’s going. 
The Fed resisted, and along with a group of the biggest U.S. banks called Clearing House Association LLC, waged a legal battle that in March 2011 reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to rule against lower courts that ordered the release. 
Pittman wasn’t around to celebrate....
Pittman had a favorite joke he’d tell about the bailouts, which he believed were futile because by preserving the status quo they presumed that, without incentive to change, things would be different next time. Bankers would be prudent, regulators would be firm and the public good would be served. 
It went like this: A guy borrows money from a loan shark. When he doesn’t pay up, two goons visit him one evening at home, where he’s eating dinner with his wife. 
“Give me one more day,” the guy tells the debt collectors. “I have a dog that talks, and tomorrow I’m going to make a bunch of money from my talking dog.” 
The goons accept this, vowing to return for the money the next evening. 
After they leave, the guy’s wife looks at him like he’s nuts. 
“What will you do when they come back?” she asks her husband. 
The guy shrugs and says, “Maybe tomorrow the dog will talk.”

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