Friday, November 04, 2011

Rein in the ratings agencies

Commentary - Executive magazine

Why should we take credit ratings agencies seriously anymore? It is a question that has growing currency globally, and one that would not have been asked several years ago, certainly not by those in the financial sector. Yet in these turbulent economic times I have heard corporate bankers, private traders, insurance brokers and compliance officers rant about how the credit ratings agencies (CRAs) have gotten out of control.

People are starting to question why the CRAs’ “opinions” — for that is what their ratings are — should wield such power in the global markets given their prominent role in instigating the financial collapse. Subsequent moves over the past year have further escalated the crisis, such as downgrading Greece, Portugal and Italy in the midst of the European sovereign debt debacle.

The CRAs raising ire are the three majors in the United States, Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) and Fitch, not the 70-plus other CRAs that operate on a much smaller scale worldwide. Indeed when China’s Dagong, the only non-Western sovereign CRA, downgraded the US in 2010 to “AA” status it hardly registered, especially compared to when S&P did the same (to “AA+”) a year later.

In particular, the problem is the way the three CRAs work to assess the risk of debt-based securities and other structured financial products: CRAs are paid by clients to “objectively” rate these same clients. But there is a clear conflict of interest here. As US Senator Charles Schumer remarked to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs in 2008, this is comparable to “allowing students to pay for their grades,” for naturally, everyone wants to receive a higher rating. CRAs bestowed “AAA” ratings — the highest possible — on the bulk of the $3.2 trillion in mortgage-backed securities issued by banks during the build up of the housing bubble, despite the risky nature of bundling together what is known as ‘collateralized debt obligations’, while watching their profits double to $6 billion between 2002 and 2007. When the bubble burst the following year and the big three CRAs were asked during US government investigations why they kept these securities rated so highly, all three stated: “it’s an opinion.”

Among the core issues here is that these opinions — the downgrade on the debt of sovereign debt or unrealistically high appraisals of toxic assets — are a type of self-fulfilling mantra: a poor asset wrapped in the gloss of a high rating will attract people to invest in it, making it worth more. This warps a market and can cause havoc, as we continue to see. Credit ratings are also used to anticipate future credit worthiness, but CRAs cannot predict the future no matter how good the data at their fingertips, and especially not if they are inherently in a conflict of interest.

So what is the solution to curb the powers of the CRAs? The US Dodd-Frank Act, the financial overhaul law enacted in 2010, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have proposed policies to crack down on the CRAs, but they do not go far enough, with pressure from the well-lined pockets of the CRAs and Wall Street lobbying for significant concessions.

A more radical — and simple — solution was proposed by economist David Raboy at a Congressional Oversight Panel in 2009. Raboy suggested creating an independent clearinghouse that would receive rating applications from securities issuers and allocate each assignment to a ratings agency in a random fashion, with payment dependent on the complexity of the securities involved. Accurate ratings would ensure assignment of further cases. This model could be applied nationally or even at an international level, such as for sovereign ratings. Another solution is to scrap the CRAs all together. After all, the stock markets are devoid of ratings, with investors getting by on research from firms and banks to make decisions. If neither of these solutions is adopted — which seems likely unless the ongoing protests of the Occupy Wall Street movement pick up momentum for greater change in economic policy — then one must hope that the SEC can effectively rein in the CRAs through tougher regulation.

In a world with properly functioning markets, however, it is likely CRAs would have already rated themselves out of business, with their lost credibility leaving the services they offer akin to stirring gossip and spreading rumor.

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