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In defense of the toxic asset plan

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Renita Jablonski: Wall Street ended with losses yesterday after that huge rally Monday, but some analysts say that's to be expected -- there's still a lot of fear out there. But despite that, there is some genuine optimism about the government's plan to buy toxic assets and get them off of bank balance sheets. That is, depending on who you ask.

L.A. Times business columnist David Lazarus joins us now. David, I have a feeling you're not one of those optimists -- at least when it comes to this.

David Lazarus: I've got a couple of quibbles I guess, and my first is virtually every report in the media refers to "toxic assets." And when I hear that, it's almost like we're saying that all these banks and financial institutions bought a pig in a poke. And also, look at the Obama administration, calling them legacy assets -- as if crazy old Uncle Willie sold you a house with termites and now it's a big problem. There's not a legacy here, OK, these assets, they're fine.

Jablonski: Well, they were fine . . .

Lazarus: By fine, what I mean is the assets are still exactly what they were at the beginning, and that is a security -- something that you buy and sell. And the notion that the asset has suddenly turned toxic and is somehow infecting like a cancer all of Wall Street strikes me as a misnomer. Really, what we're talking about here are mortgage companies that did not do their due diligence and gave money to people who had no ability to pay it back. Then we're talking about Wall Street heavyweights that bought the securitized versions of these loans without, again, doing any due diligence. And now they're deep over their heads after making all of these bad decisions -- and we're saying it's the assets that are the problem.

Jablonski: All right, so what would you call the assets?

Lazarus: I'm glad you asked me. I would call them the "Boneheaded Loan Irresponsible Mortgage Package," or "BLIMP!"

Jablonski: I was just trying to figure that out. OK.

Lazarus: Thank you. And the way to deal with a blimp: You let out all the hot air.

Jablonski: Well, tell me this: If you could, for a day, change your name to Tim Geithner, what would you do right now?

Lazarus: I think one thing I would do is to step right up and say all this lip service we've been paying to regulatory changes, here's what we're talking about. And what we're talking about specifically is far greater transparency in the marketplace.

Jablonski: But how do you create that?

Lazarus: How do you create that? It's reporting requirements -- very clear reporting requirements and very regular reporting requirements. And also consequences that come -- severe consequences -- when those reporting requirements are not met. Obviously, I'm simplifying very grossly. But at the same time, this is the culture that needs to come into place -- a culture of disclosure as opposed to a culture of denial.

Jablonski: L.A. Times business columnist David Lazarus. Such a pleasure.

Lazarus: Thank you.

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