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NPR bought a toxic asset to watch it die. They call her "Toxie" (npr.org)
120 points by iamelgringo on Sept 18, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 13 comments

I feel a little obligated-by-honor to post this, as I frequently rag on news media for not being very good, but I think this is pretty good journalism. They put a bit of elbow grease and actual resources into this, it's a great way to get a bit of concrete perspective in what is one of the most abstract (yet real) crises we've ever seen, it's pretty much everything journalism is supposed to be. So my compliments, from a frequent critic.

I agree. Planet Money is a great example of what financial news should be. And it is a completely replicable phenomena. Its strength largely comes from a few personalities who are engaging, intelligent and intellectually curious and asking them to report on a subject they know little about. It gives a really strong mix of high end analysis and laymen explanations for the financial and economic mechanisms at work.

Whats interesting about this style of reporting is that it seems to actually produce more in depth and nuanced analysis than what you typically see in, say, the wall street journal. I suspect this is because the laymen explanations lea to side analysis of issue that would otherwise be washed over. Where most financial news sources would report on the current state of toxic assets and how they are effecting broader markets, planet money in this series has spent an entire year reporting on what a toxic asset actually is, how it progresses through a market, its role in the market crash and what is being done to correct it. And all of this in about 3 minutes once a week.

This idea was a good one but I want to make a grumpy comment anyway. That "Planet Money" series is on the whole terrible. It's supposed to be in-depth but there's nothing deep about the pieces I've heard, just painfully bad dialogue issued by pseudo-hipsters all imitating Ira Glass to varying degrees of cringitude. I admire Ira Glass too, but this is analogous to folk singers imitating Bob Dylan's nasal whine instead of, you know, writing good songs. As for content, nearly all of what I've heard has been them asking obvious questions of economists who repeat the same obvious half dozen bromides such economists invariably repeat, which the Glassbots then ploddingly translate into even dumber terms, presumably so they can hear the sound of their own voices some more on national radio. That and painfully staged little sketches for idiots, like the one where they go to different supermarkets to play walkie-talkies and conclude that some of them sometimes price things differently.

It's so awful I can't listen to it any more: I find it traumatic to be exposed to people making asses of themselves. That's probably why I'm writing this, to expunge the trauma. Have I just heard the wrong 10 episodes or something?

Some of the economic reporting produced by This American Life, on the other hand, has been superb and genuinely in-depth. Since the intersection of the two sets is non-empty, perhaps the producers are to blame.

I disagree.

Take the reporting on Toxie, their toxic asset. I think what they did was a good idea, I have followed their reporting on it for a while now. First they presented how one actually acquires these assets (they started with a trader and walked through that process) then they actually dug deeper beyond just monitoring the prices. They followed the individual mortgages within the security and found how one was tied to a mortgage fraud scheme and the other was tied to a guy who borrowed beyond his means.

I saw similar research put together by a well respected bank's equity research arm that decided to start visiting the homes which corresponded to certain distressed bank loans in Ohio. So overall, I thought the Planet Money team took a really good approach to their story.

Is it true that they have to sometimes dumb things down for the masses? Yes. No ordinary person is going to sit there and read through a CDO prospectus. But if I wanted something more in depth I would just listen to my Bloomberg podcasts.

Also, your criticism about Planet Money versus TAM seems a bit off base. I have found that Planet Money is the group that most often contributes the economic reporting/segments to TAM. Although there have been times when ProPublica contributes to both.

I say it's 50/50.

Some days you get Simon Johnson from the Baseline Scenario blog. He tends to do pretty insightful pieces. Other days you get Chana Walt and Caitlin Kenney, who make SNL's "Delicious Dish" skit look like Edward R Murrow.

All in all Planet Money did some great pieces during the crazy days of the meltdown and TARP and etc. It certainly helped me understand some of the stuff that was going on in the news with a lot more depth than the rest.

The quality has gone downhill somewhat. I think I stopped listening after hearing that back-of-the-throat-H in Chana crackle my car speakers for the 200th time.

They call her "Toxie" (Planet Money Podcast - http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast.php?id=510289 )

Good call. Fixed.

Bizarre that there are so few REOs. Lots of housing reporting involves the mention of homes owned by banks that aren't on the market, because the banks know if they put them on the market it will just depress prices further. So are the busted properties immediately being bought by investors/homebuyers and avoiding going to the bank?


I have been watching (listening) Toxie since the day she was born. It's, by far, my favorite anthropomorphized menace since the Woodland Christmas Critters:


Wow. Step through the months from '96 and watch the number of current mortgages decline steadily.

Well, ANY mortgage-backed security will decline in number of current mortagages -- as people pay off their mortgages or refinance. The alarming thing is not the decrease in "current" but the increase in delinquencies.

96? do you mean 2006 or am I missing part of the widget?

If you want to buy a toxic asset that won't die, buy some BP stock.

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