Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 27, 2014

New and Improved Rating Agencies!

By David Reiss

The SEC issued its 2013 Summary Report of Commission Staff’s Examinations of Each Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization. I had noted that the 2012 report was not an impressive document. Much the same can be said for the 2013 version of this statutorily required document (it is required to be produced pursuant the 1934 Securities Exchange Act). It seems, to my mind, to focus on the trees at the expense of the forest.

The report is overall positive, with the staff noting “five general areas of improvement among the NRSROs [rating agencies]” from the previous reporting period:

(i) Enhanced documentation, disclosure, and Board oversight of criteria and methodologies. The Staff has observed that many NRSROs have developed and publicly disclosed ratings criteria and methodologies that better describe ratings inputs and processes. Some NRSROs have also increased Board oversight of rating processes and methodologies.

(ii) Investment in software or computer systems. The Staff found that some NRSROs have made investments in software and information technology infrastructure by, for example, implementing systems for electronic recordkeeping and for monitoring employee securities trading. One NRSRO has implemented systems that enable it to operate in a nearly paperless environment, so as to minimize the inadvertent dissemination of confidential information and to ensure preservation of all records required by Rule 17g-2.

(iii) Increased prominence of the role of the DCO within NRSROs. The Staff has found that the role of the DCO [designated compliance officer] has taken on more prominence within many NRSROs. The Staff has noticed that certain DCOs have increased reporting obligations to, and more interaction with, the NRSRO’s Board. At these NRSROs, the DCO meets with the Board to discuss compliance matters, quarterly or more frequently.

(iv) Implementation or enhancement of internal controls. The Staff has recognized that all NRSROs have added or improved internal controls over the rating process. More NRSROs are using audits and other testing to verify compliance with federal securities law, and NRSROs have generally improved employee training on compliance matters.

(v) Adherence to internal policies and procedures. The Staff has noticed a general improvement in NRSROs’ adherence to internal rating policies and procedures, which improvement appears to be attributable, in part, to improvements in the internal control structure at NRSROs. (8)

Hard to complain about any of these findings, but I have a sinking feeling that improvements such as these won’t add up to enough of a change to the culture that put profits ahead of objective ratings. Hopefully I am wrong about that

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