It appears that the United States government is going to purchase hundreds of billions of dollars worth of bad mortgages in an effort to prevent the collapse of the world’s financial system. If they do, I’d like them to publish a list of all of the mortgages they purchase — the loan number, the address of the property, the lender, the amount of the loan, the status of the loan, the plaintiffs and defendants in any associated foreclosure cases, and so on.

As far as I can tell, it’s not currently possible for the public to determine the underlying assets of any of the mortgage security instruments that have been the subject of so much pop-culture sturm und drang. We all know that this is a big story, because the papers scream it and the numbers are enormous.

But we also know that it’s a big story because it is a local story. Foreclosures are plainly visible all of us, all over the country. We all know people — or are someone — affected directly by failing mortgages, decreasing home prices, and the accompanying social problems like crime, blight, homelessness, downward mobility, and despair.

Large hedge funds and investment companies have gobbled up these mortgages — pieces of paper with data on them — again and again. They’ve resold them to each other, all the way into oblivion. You better believe that they know what the underlying mortgages are, but they are never published.

In July 2008, Benton J. Campbell, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, indicted Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin of the Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Master Fund. This fund is a classic example of what we used to call the "Subprime Mortgage Crisis".

The indictment provides details on the scheme that the defendants allegedly perpetrated to trick people into thinking that their fund was in good shape — to throw good money after bad. They knew the fund was collapsing, yet sought to conceal that:

CIOFFI talked about the extremely difficult month the Funds had experienced in February, stated that the Funds had averted disaster and led a vodka toast to celebrate surviving the month. Before ending the meeting, CIOFFI directed those present not to talk about the Funds’ difficulties with others, including other members of the Funds’ team.

And gloated at tricking people:

In an email message to another member of the portfolio management team at the end of March 2007, TANNIN expressed satisfaction at his success in convincing investors to add more capital to the Funds: "believe it or not – I’ve been able to convince people to add more money…"

Attorneys General love this stuff — it makes for great headlines and is good for guttural voter outrage. So they direct their teams to mine email, wear wires, and otherwise use technology to get the goods on defendants.

What the indictment lacks— and what I can’t find anywhere— is a simple list of the assets of the fund. What mortgages on what properties on what streets in what neighborhoods in what cities issued by what lenders for what amount of money. To be sure, this is a long list, but it is a knowable one.

Imagine what developers, journalists, activist lawyers, housing advocates, social workers, and researchers could do with such a list. The Charlotte Observer series, Sold A Nightmare, is a great example. They found disturbing patterns about particular builders, were able to pinpoint social problems that follow foreclosure, and publish a database of foreclosures in the area.

We need this data. We should have had it based on SEC rules on disclosure — investors in these funds should be able to know what they are buying. Now that it looks like we’re all going to be the buyers, there is an even more pressing imperative.