Audit Roundup: Playing Chicken

Coverage of credit crisis is good, bad, ugly

Here’s a quick guide to what the business press is saying about the deepening crisis on Wall Street:

The Journal provides a good behind-the-scenes look at the weekend’s momentous events that signaled the return of consequences to the markets:

“We’ve re-established ‘moral hazard,’” said a person involved in the talks, referring to the notion that the government should eschew bailouts, since financial firms might take more risks if they’re insulated from the consequences. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing? We’re about to find out.”

Columnist Paul Krugman of the NYT makes the cogent point (made in the above quote) that the government is playing a massive game of chicken by letting Lehman fold.

Mr. Paulson seems to be betting that the financial system—bolstered, it must be said, by those special credit lines—can handle the shock of a Lehman failure. We’ll find out soon whether he was brave or foolish.

And an interesting thought on what’s going on here:

…the system has been experiencing postmodern bank runs. These don’t look like the old-fashioned version: with few exceptions, we’re not talking about mobs of distraught depositors pounding on closed bank doors. Instead, we’re talking about frantic phone calls and mouse clicks, as financial players pull credit lines and try to unwind counterparty risk. But the economic effects—a freezing up of credit, a downward spiral in asset values—are the same as those of the great bank runs of the 1930s…

Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture blog has some trenchant comments on why Bear Stearns got bailed out but not Lehman. For example:

Don’t just risk your company, risk the entire world of Finance. Modest incompetence is insufficient—if you merely destroy your own company, you won’t get rescued. You have to threaten to bring down the entire global financial system.

The WSJ on the similarities of the situation to Japan in the 1990s.

Can’t John McCain just get his economic advisers to shut up? Here’s one of the stupidest pieces we’ve read in some time, from a McCain adviser who says he sees nothing in the situation that warrants pessimism.

“I see nothing in the situation that warrants pessimism.” —Herbert Hoover’s infamous Treasury secretary Andrew Mellon, in 1930.

Speaking of politics, John Harwood of CNBC said earlier this morning the worsening crisis is good for the Democrats: “This will put the debate back on terms that Barack Obama wants to have it on.”

Referring to the Charlie Gibson interview with McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin, he also said, “You can see that she’s not an expert on economic policy.”

Forbes is way too bullish on the Bank of America deal to buy Merrill Lynch. This is the same bank that made the boneheaded move to buy Countrywide Financial for $4 billion.

With Merrill’s assets and its recent acquisition of Countrywide Financial, in addition to its massive commercial bank, Bank of America now rivals Citigroup in size.

As if that’s a good thing, Forbes?

Floyd Norris is one of the best commentators out there, and he’s blogging the day’s events over at the Times:

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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.