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Alchemy Lives!

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I'm not an economic idiot -- I remember what "elasticity of demand" means -- but I may be an economic special-needs person. Even so, there's one fact about the current credit meltdown that seems to be escaping a lot of attention. I know President Bush wants to solve the problem, and leave the process of finding out how the problem came about for later (maybe four months down the road?), but my needs aren't that special.

So here goes: the key to the process of wrapping questionable mortgages together in fancy financial packages and selling them to financial institutions far away was making those packages attractive. What better way than to turn them into bonds rated AAA, the same rating given to bonds issued by our strongest corporations and best-managed cities? But how does that happen? It would seem to be like turning dross into gold, the old alchemists' trick.

Enter the bond-rating agencies, the folks whose job it is to signal to investors which bonds are golden and which are junk (even junk bonds had their day, although it was in the 1980s). So what possibly convinced these normally sober ladies and gentlemen that financial instruments that basically turned slices of questionable mortgages into "securities" deserved a triple-A rating? I'm all ears.

Maybe Carly Fiorina could explain it to me.