OLD Media Moves

Five years later: Time versus Businessweek

September 13, 2013

Posted by Liz Hester

It’s been five years since the crisis, and the two leading weekly magazines (or the only two left) have vastly different takes on Wall Street and the coverage.

Let’s take a look, starting with the covers.

Time’s cover was of the Wall Street bull on a white background wearing a party hat complete with confetti. The headline reads “How Wall Street Won: Five Years After the Crash, It Could Happen All Over Again.”

By contrast, Bloomberg Businessweek had a dark portrait of Hank Paulson, former Treasury Secretary, and ran the headline “Five Years From the Brink.” Decidedly darker tone and imagery than the Time cover.

The Time cover story began like this:

Five years on from the financial crisis, the disaster that was Lehman Brothers and its brutal, economy-shredding aftermath can seem a distant memory. We’re out of the Great Recession, and growth is finally back. America’s biggest banks are making record profits. The government is even earning money from its bailouts of institutions like AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Obama Administration, which is pushing hard to complete the new financial rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank reform act deserves credit for making our financial system safe—or that’s the line being tossed around by current and past members of the crisis team.

But amid all the backslapping, a larger truth is being lost. The financialization of the American economy, a process by which we’ve become inexorably embedded in Wall Street, just keeps rolling on. The biggest banks in the country are larger and more powerful than they were before the crisis, and finance is a greater percentage of our economy than ever. For a measure of this, look no further than the Dow Jones industrial average, which just ditched Alcoa, Hewlett-Packard and retail lender Bank of America in favor of the most high-flying investment bank of all, Goldman Sachs.

Given all this, is your money really any safer over the long haul than it was five years ago? And have we restructured our financial industry in a way that will truly limit the chances of another crisis? The answer is still not an unequivocal yes, because banking is as complex and globally intertwined as ever. U.S. financial institutions remain free to gamble billions on risky derivatives around the world. A crisis in Europe, for instance, could still potentially devastate a U.S. institution that made a bad bet—and send shock waves through other key sectors, like the $2.7 trillion held in U.S. money-market funds, much of which is owned by Main Street investors who believe these funds are just as safe as cash.

Although this scenario isn’t necessarily probable—many U.S. banks have reduced risk and increased capital—it is possible. We’re relying on the banks’ good intentions and self-interest, a strategy that didn’t work out so well before. The truth is, Washington did a great job saving the banking system in ’08 and ’09 with swift bailouts that averted even worse damage to the economy. But swayed too much by aggressive bank lobbying, it has done a terrible job of reregulating the financial industry and reconnecting it to the real economy. Here are five things that are still badly needed to reduce the risks for everyone.

It goes on to list the five issues. The first is fixing too-big-too-fail, in part by finally enacting the Volcker Rule. The story also says that the system should limit the leverage for banks, bring derivatives under better scrutiny and regulation, regulate the so-called “shadow banking system,” and change the culture of the financial industry.

My biggest issue with the cover story was the assumptions it made. It assumes that readers know exactly what happened when during the crisis and that they even completely understand what is meant by the term “shadow banking.” I was in the newsroom in 2008 and I’m not totally sure what Time means by the term.

Bloomberg Businessweek PaulsonBy contrast, Bloomberg Businessweek’s web site had a great interactive timeline outlining the major events of the collapse. The cover story, which was first person by former Treasury Secretary Paulson, started with an anecdote about Dick Fuld, former head of Lehman Brothers:

People weren’t taking Dick Fuld’s calls the weekend before Sept. 15, because Dick had been in denial for a long time. As the CEO of Lehman Brothers, he had asked the New York Fed and the Treasury weeks earlier to put capital into a pool of nonperforming illiquid mortgages that he wanted to put in a subsidiary he called SpinCo and spin off. We had explained that we had no authority to do that. He thought somehow there was something the government could do to help. How could it be that no one would want to buy his company? He just couldn’t believe it.

I was one of the few people speaking with him, and I told him what was happening: We couldn’t find a buyer, and without one, the government was powerless to save Lehman. He was devastated. You would have to be a CEO to really understand what he was going through. He obviously loved the firm—viewed it as his firm—and to have it go down when you’re at the helm, there can’t be much that’s more devastating than that professionally. But the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy on Sept. 15 was hardly the end of the crisis. It wasn’t the beginning, either. My goal had never been to go to Washington. My first year at Harvard Business School, 1969, I stopped studying. I was a good enough student that I could get by, so I spent most of my time at Wellesley College with Wendy Judge and persuaded her to marry me before the second year. Wendy got a job teaching swimming in Quantico, Virginia, so I got a job at the Pentagon. The only time I had ever worn a suit was to go to church. The only management experience I had was at a summer camp in Colorado. But, remarkably, I worked on my first bailout in those days.

 The comparison is hardly fair. But to trump all of that, Businessweek even made a documentary with an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and a Netflix release featuring Paulson. The time, effort and planning is apparent. Businessweek gets Paulson. Businessweek gets a movie premiere.

Time, well, they’re not even adding information to the debate over the legacy. The win on this one clearly goes to Businessweek for comprehensive, complete and interesting stories with important newsmakers.

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