Audit Roundup: Oil Turmoil

WaPo and WSJ on the fallout from falling crude; Watching the swaps market; etc.

The bust has already sent oil prices tumbling, but here’s a shocking headline from Bloomberg: Options contracts are pointing to $50 a barrel oil by the end of the year. Crude was at more than $147 just three months ago.

That’s good for the economy short-term, but long-term it will keep us tethered to foreign oil supplies and gas-guzzling cars longer than we would have with expensive oil. The Washington Post is good on that:

“Declining oil prices can give us an artificial and temporary sense that reducing oil consumption and energy consumption is an issue we can put off,” said Greg Kats, a managing director of Good Energies, a multibillion-dollar venture capital firm that invests in global clean energy.

The credit crisis is compounding that threat by making it more difficult to finance capital-intensive projects, whether they are new auto assembly lines or solar panels or wind turbines. General Motors has been touting the Chevy Volt as the first mass-marketed, plug-in hybrid vehicle. GM, which has been holding merger talks with Chrysler, believes the project will help justify federal financing. It hopes to deliver the car by the end of 2010.

The Journal chimes in on the effect on renewable-energy companies. It ain’t pretty.

In the past three months, global renewable-energy stocks tracked by New Energy Finance, a London-based consultancy, have dropped about 45%, compared with a 23% decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same period.

The sector’s problems have been compounded by the skid in oil prices to below $70 a barrel last week from more than $147 in July. The sudden reversal in crude prices has removed — at least temporarily — a key rationale for investors to pump billions of dollars into alternative fuels, industry analysts say.

The result: At least in the short term, a slew of projects from palm-oil-based biodiesel plants in Indonesia and Malaysia to wind farms and solar projects across the U.S. and Europe may not be able to get funding.

The Journal’s Heard on the Street column says “the race to the bottom on regulation is over” and suggests that the U.S. beef up its regulatory system to maintain financial supremacy. It notes it’s the opposite argument from what Henry Paulson was making not so long ago:

Two years ago this month, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was talking about how the regulatory pendulum “may have swung too far” in the wake of corporate scandals earlier this decade.

Mr. Paulson’s fear: That overly burdensome regulation would make U.S. capital markets less innovative and competitive globally. If only.

As investors now know, stunningly ineffective regulation led to the biggest credit bubble ever. Its implosion has resulted in the nationalization of swaths of the financial system. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has taken to calling Mr. Paulson’s boss “Comrade Bush.”

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that whoever succeeds Mr. Paulson will need to view competent regulation as a competitive advantage, not an albatross. This will be especially important in bond markets, where global investors will choose between instruments backed by a variety of government guarantees. Clearly, a country’s financial strength, along with prospects for its currency, will be important factors.

But investors will also have to consider which countries can best back up guarantees with regulatory oversight that minimizes chances of unexpected losses.

The Washington Post is keeping an eye on some key dates in the credit-default swap market, which has exacerbated the financial crisis. Problem is, since the system is completely unregulated and opaque, nobody really knows where to watch.

Potentially, hundreds of billions of dollars of these contracts are coming due.

But it’s unclear which firms are on the hook, how much they’re on for, and whether they can pay. Firms do not have to disclose whether they hold these contracts, called credit-default swaps. So there’s no way to know whether the contracts will be settled smoothly, or whether they will set off a cascade of losses in markets that already have been pushed to the brink…

“If there are other large concentrations of CDS outstanding, we don’t know about it,” said Robert Bliss, a finance professor at Wake Forest University and a former economic adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “But who would have thought AIG, a plain-vanilla insurance company, suddenly was going to get blown up by CDS?”

Robert Samuelson of the Post tosses off a terrible column (not an unusual occurrence by any means).

In this fluid situation, one thing is predictable: The crisis will produce a cottage industry of academics, journalists, pundits, politicians and bloggers to assess blame. Is former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan responsible for holding interest rates too low and for not imposing tougher regulations on mortgage lending? Would Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin have spotted the crisis sooner? Did Republican free-market ideologues leave greedy Wall Street types too unregulated?

Some stories are make-believe. After leaving government, Rubin landed at Citigroup as a top executive. He failed to identify toxic mortgage securities as a big problem in the bank’s own portfolio. It’s implausible to think he’d have done so in Washington. As recent investigative stories in the New York Times and The Post show, the Clinton administration broadly supported the financial deregulation that Democrats are now so loudly denouncing.

Where did Rubin come from here? Does anyone believe he was a gun-totin’, regulatin’ sheriff of Wall Street? I don’t think so. Hello, straw man.

There’s a broader lesson. When things go well, everyone wants on the bandwagon. Skeptics are regarded as fools. It’s hard for government — or anyone — to say: “Whoa, cowboys; this won’t last”…

We go through cycles of self-delusion, sometimes too giddy and sometimes too glum. The consolation is that the genesis of the next recovery usually lies in the ruins of the last recession.

What is this “we” business (and thanks for the platitudes)? Trying to pull everybody into the blame here is irresponsible and dangerous. It deflects blame from the tiny sliver of financiers on Wall Street and elsewhere that created most of the mess.

The NYT’s David Carr visits the set of “Mad Money” and paints a nice picture of a subdued Jim Cramer.

The Times also looks at the growing backlash by newspapers against the Associated Press, which they say is charging them too much while competing with them on the Web—and not writing as many, you know, news stories.

The editors in Ohio, in particular, say The A.P. has retreated from one of its traditional roles: producing a lot of routine, breaking-news articles.

The A.P. wants to make its work more engaging, with more enterprise journalism like features, investigations and analyses — but that is also the direction many papers are going.

Mr. Marrison of The Columbus Dispatch said that course had forced newspapers to devote more resources to small stories that used to be covered by The A.P. “Then The A.P. rewrites our story and sends it out,” he said. “So we’re sacrificing our enterprise so that A.P. can do its enterprise? No, no, no. We’re the owners.”

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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.