Shoe on the Other Foot

Just six months ago, governments were criticizing ratings agencies for letting threats by debt security issuers cow them into keeping ratings for bad debt higher than they should be (emphasis added)

Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, Wall Street’s two largest credit rating agencies, were roundly criticized in the Levin-Coburn Senate reportfor betraying investors’ trust and triggering the massive mortgage-backed securities sell-offs that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

Credit rating agencies are supposed to provide independent, third-party credit assessments to help investors understand the risks in buying particular securities, debts and other investment offerings. For example, securities that have earned the highest ‘AAA’ rating from Standard & Poor’s (S&P) should have an “extremely strong capacity to meet financial commitments” or have “a less than 1% probability of incurring defaults.” Investors would use the ratings to help evaluate the securities they’re seeking to buy.

However, the standard practice on Wall Street is fraught with conflicts of interest. In reality, the credit rating agencies have long relied on fees paid by the Wall Street firms seeking ratings for their mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), or other investment offerings. The Levin-Coburn report found the credit agencies “were vulnerable to threats that the firms would take their business elsewhere if they did not get the ratings they wanted. The ratings agencies weakened their standards as each competed to provide the most favorable rating to win business and greater market share. The result was a race to the bottom.” Between 2004 and 2007, the “issuer pay” business model fostered conflicts of interest that have proven disastrous for investors.

I have no problem with this analysis.  But it's ironic in contrast to the very same governments' reactions to their own downgrades over the last 6 months.  In fact, the general government reaction from Washington to Paris has to be to ... wait for it ... threaten the agencies in order to keep their ratings up.  And these threats go farther than just loss of business - when the government issues threats, they are existential.  It's hard to see how the US or French government's behavior vis a vis downgrades has been any different than that of banks or bond issuers that have faced downgrades.

In general, the tone of government officials has been "what gives them the right to do this to us?"  The answer to that question is ... the government.  These self-same governments were generally responsible for mandating that certain investors could only buy certain securities if they are rated.  And not just rated by anyone, but rated by a handful of companies that have been given a quasi-monopoly by the government on this rating business.

  • Mark

    Ratings agencies obviously were at the center of the mortgage debt problem. One of the most interesting systemic problems I found was that in the investment community the buyer of a bond did not pay for the rating itself. Instead, they relied upon the broker, the entity that was packaging the securities into bonds, to select the agency and conduct the analyis.

    This was equivalent to allowing the seller of the house conduct the inspection and appraisal. Even unsophisticated buyers of real estate understand how dumb such a relationship is, yet large scale investors allowed just such an issue when they bough securities.

  • http://harries@free.fr blokeinfrance

    Another criticism of ratings agencies was that they were "behind the curve".
    Well.
    Should they have been in front of it? Like, being self-fulfilling prophets?

    Poor souls. Sixty years of blameless obscurity as a sort of financial pond life - and now they are responsible for all our woes! For pointing out the bleedin' obvious.