June 5, 2009

The Watchmen

Since Congress hasn't held 1930's-style hearings into the causes of the financial crisis, we stage one of our own. The subject? The regulators and watchdogs who were supposed to be overseeing the banks and the finance industry—to make sure things wouldn't blow up like they have. Clearly something went wrong. Today we pound a gavel and ask: Where were the watchmen?

This show is a co-production with NPR News, part of our Planet Money project.


Host Ira Glass talks with Michael Perrino, a law professor at St Johns University School of Law in New York, who wrote a book about Ferdinand Pecora called The Hellhound of Wall Street. Pecora was the lead attorney in the Senate Banking Committee hearings in the 1930s looking into wrongdoing in the banking industry. When he got the job, he turned the hearings from an unimportant and not terrible useful exercise into a real investigation into Wall Street and the causes of the 1929 stock market collapse. It spurred Congress to pass landmark reforms regulating Wall Street. Ira and Perrino talk about whether these kinds of hearings could or should happen today. (9 minutes)

Act Two

Investigation Report #2

Alex Blumberg and NPR correspondent (and "Planet Money" reporter) Dave Kestenbaum examine what went wrong with the credit ratings agencies. When all these financial instruments that brought down our economy—the mortgage backed securities, the derivatives—were originally issued, the rating agencies (Standard and Poors, Moody's and Fitch) gave many of these things their top rating of triple-A. Because of the great ratings, trillions were invested. And then the ratings turned out to be wrong. What happened? (25 minutes)