Audit Roundup: A Day (and a Half) in the Life

Riveting NYT story on 36 hours of panic; Press explains in its own way why something must be done

The Times puts its big guns on a long page-one piece on the 36 hours when the crisis began spinning out of control. It’s a must read.

This is what a credit crisis looks like. It’s not like a stock market crisis, where the scary plunge of stocks is obvious to all. The credit crisis has played out in places most people can’t see. It’s banks refusing to lend to other banks — even though that is one of the most essential functions of the banking system. It’s a loss of confidence in seemingly healthy institutions like Morgan Stanley and Goldman — both of which reported profits even as the pressure was mounting. It is panicked hedge funds pulling out cash. It is frightened investors protecting themselves by buying credit-default swaps — a financial insurance policy against potential bankruptcy — at prices 30 times what they normally would pay.

The piece has some great reporting with a quote from the Federal Reserve Chairman in his meeting with Congressional leaders several days ago to convey the magnitude of the situation. If this is Fedspeak, I don’t want to know how bad things really are.

In a hastily convened meeting in the conference room of the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the two men presented, in the starkest terms imaginable, the outline of the $700 billion plan to Congressional leaders. “If we don’t do this,” Mr. Bernanke said, according to several participants, “we may not have an economy on Monday.”

At this point, the business pages are clearly trying to explain to a very skeptical public why some sort of rescue is needed. It’s hard to explain, but this is a good attempt by the Times.

Check out the good interactive chart, too.

The Journal is also on the case, reporting on a $9.3 billion Wachovia money-market fund for colleges that’s been shut down. It may take years for them to get their money back and the paper says it has left them “scrambling to make sure they have enough money for payroll and other bills.”

The NYT and LAT report on how the credit crunch is already filtering down to small businesses. The LAT:

Steller, whose company manages trade associations for industries including automotive and construction, said many of his clients and peers saw trouble brewing months ago and slashed expenses accordingly. But none anticipated having their business credit lines pulled at the same time that their customers could no longer get financing. He named three local car dealerships and one boat dealership that have closed in the last year alone.

“Payrolls are getting harder to meet. Cash flow is extremely difficult,” Steller said. “I’m getting the feeling that if we don’t have sort of a federal deal that a lack of cash flow is going to bring everything to a halt.”

And Steven Pearlstein of the Post is always worth reading. Here, he takes on some of the easy criticisms of the bailout package from the left and right.

Meanwhile, the credit seizure continues to worsen as banks are extremely hesitant to lend to each other and are hoarding cash. Libor, a key rate of how much interest they charge for overnight loans to other banks rose for a fourth straight day, says Bloomberg.

The WaPo has a nice profile of FDIC chairwoman Sheila Bair, who’s about the only government official who’s come out looking good in this mess. In a previous administration job, she warned of subprime lender abuses way back in 2001, as the Times reported last year.

Bloomberg reports the Fed may lose $6 billion on its Bear Stearns bailout.

The Journal got inside Lehman Brothers’ commercial real estate operation yesterday and explains how one culprit helped push that company over the edge.

Finally, KCET in Southern California takes a good look (literally) at “Foreclosure Alley” in the Inland Empire (via Calculated Risk). Good visuals to remind us of the tragedies at the heart of this crisis.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.