Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

January 22, 2014

S&P’s Fightin’ Words

By David Reiss

S&P filed a memorandum in support of its motion to compel discovery in the FIRREA case that the United States brought against S&P last year. S&P comes out fighting in this memorandum, arguing that the “lawsuit is retaliation for S&P’s decision to downgrade the credit rating of the United states in August 2011.” (1)

S&P argues that the “most obvious explanation” for the United States’ “decision to pursue a FIRREA action against S&P alone” among the major rating agencies “is apparent:”   “S&P alone among the major rating agencies downgraded the securities issued by the United States.” (17) This is not obvious to me, particularly given the various explanations for this disparate treatment that have appeared in outlets like the WSJ over the last couple of years. But it may be true nonetheless.

In any case, I do not find the “chronology of events relating to the downgrade and the commencement of this lawsuit” to provide “powerful evidence linking the two.” (17) The chronology ends with the following entries:

  • S&P’s downgrade of the United States occurred on Friday, August 5, 2011. That Sunday, August 7, Harold McGraw III, the Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of McGraw Hill (of which S&P was a unit), received a telephone message from a high-ranking official of the New York Federal Reserve Bank; when the call was returned, the official conveyed the personal displeasure of the Secretary of the Treasury with S&P’s rating action.
  • This was followed on Monday by a call to Mr. McGraw from the Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, in which Secretary Geithner stated that S&P had made a “huge error” for which it was “accountable.” He said that S&P had done “an enormous disservice to yourselves and your country,” that S&P’s conduct would be “looked at very carefully,” and that such behavior could not occur without a response.
  • The McClatchy Newspapers subsequently reported in a piece authored by Kevin G. Hall and Greg Gordon that while the United States’ original investigation included S&P and Moody’s, “[i]nvestigator interest in Moody’s apparently dropped off around the summer of 2011, about the same time S&P issued the historic downgrade of the United States’ creditworthiness because of mounting debt and deficits.” A source familiar with the investigations was quoted as stating: “After the U.S. downgrade, Moody’s is no longer part of this.”
  • In the year preceding S&P’s downgrade of the United States, two states, Mississippi and Connecticut, had initiated proceedings alleging deceptive practices based specifically on an alleged lack of independence. Each of those states named both Moody’s and S&P as defendants. After the downgrade, additional state lawsuits were commenced, with allegations nearly identical to those of the Connecticut and Mississippi complaints. Drafted after coordination and consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice, none of those lawsuits named Moody’s. (19, footnotes omitted)

This is surely no smoking gun and lots of dots remain to be connected.  How did DoJ get involved? Are the state Attorneys General in on the conspiracy? Why would DoJ stop an investigation of Moody’s to punish S&P? Sounds a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face?

That being said, S&P might be right about the motivation for this suit and their allegations may be enough to win this motion to compel discovery. But whoever wins this round, this should be a fight worth watching.

| Permalink