Why Credit Rating Agencies Exist

image: www.solvencyiiwire.com

Robert Rhee has posted Why Credit Rating Agencies Exist to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Although credit rating agencies exist and are important to the capital markets, there remains a question of why they should exist. Two standard theories are that rating agencies correct a problem of information asymmetry and that they de facto regulate investments. These theories do not fully answer the question. This paper suggests an alternative explanation. While rating agencies produce little new information, they sort information available in the credit market. This sorting function is needed due to the large volume of information in the credit market. Sorting facilitates better credit analysis and investment selection, but bond investors or a cooperative of them cannot easily replicate this function. Outside of their information intermediary and regulatory roles, rating agencies serve a useful market purpose even if credit ratings inherently provide little new information. This alternative explanation has policy implications for the regulation of the industry.

I do not think that there is much new in this short paper, but it does summarize recent research on the function of rating agencies. Rhee’s takeaway is that, “given their dominant public function, rating agencies should be subject to greater regulatory scrutiny and supervision qualitatively on levels similar to the regulation of auditors and securities exchanges.” (15) Amen to that.

Expanding the Credit Box

Tracy Rosen

DBRS has posted U.S. Residential Mortgage Servicing Mid-Year Review and 2015 Outlook. There is a lot of interest in it, including a table that demonstrates how “the underwriting box for prime mortgages slowly keeps getting wider.” (7) The report notes that

While most lenders continue to originate only QM [Qualified Mortgage] loans some have expanded their criteria to include Non-QM loans. The firms that are originating Non-QM loans typically ensure that they are designated as Ability-to-Repay (ATR) compliant and adhere to the standards set forth in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) Reg Z, Section 1026.43(c). Additionally, most Non-QM lenders are targeting borrowers with high FICO scores (typically 700 and above), low loan to values (generally below 80%) and a substantial amount of liquid reserves (usually two to three years). Furthermore, most require that the borrower have no late mortgage payments in the last 24 months and no prior bankruptcy, foreclosure, deed-in-lieu or short sale. DBRS believes that for the remainder of 2015 the industry will continue to see only a few Non-QM loan originators with very conservative programs.


The ATR and QM rules (collectively, the Rules) issued by the CFPB require lenders to demonstrate they have made a reasonable and good faith determination, based on verified and documented information, that a borrower has a reasonable ability to repay his or her loan according to its terms. The Rules also give loans that follow the criteria a safe harbor from legal action. (8)

DBRS believes

that the issuance of the ATR and QM rules removed much of the ambiguity that caused many originators to sit on the sidelines for the last few years by setting underwriting standards that ensure lenders only make loans to borrowers who have the ability to repay them. In 2015, most of the loans that were originated were QM Safe Harbor. DBRS recognizes that the ATR and QM rules are still relatively new, having only been in effect for a little over a year, and believes that over time, QM Rebuttable Presumption and Non-QM loan originations will likely increase as court precedents are set and greater certainty around liabilities and damages is established. In the meantime, DBRS expects that most lenders who are still recovering from the massive fines they had to pay for making subprime loans will not be originating anything but QM loans in 2015 unless it is in an effort to accommodate a customer with significant liquid assets. As a result, DBRS expects the availability of credit to continue to be constrained in 2015 for borrowers with blemished credit and a limited amount of cash reserves. (8)

The DBRS analysis is reasonable, but I am not so sure that lenders are withholding credit because they “are still recovering from the massive fines they had to pay for making subprime loans . . ..” There may be a sense of caution that arises from new CFPB enforcement. But if there is money to be made, past missteps are unlikely to keep lenders from trying to make it.

SEC Update on Rating Agency Industry

The staff of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has issued its Annual Report on Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations. The report documents some significant problems with the rating agency industry as it is currently structured. The report highlights competition, transparency and conflicts of interest as three important areas of concern.

Competition. There are some of the interesting insights to be culled from the report. It notes that “some of the smaller NRSROs [Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations] had built significant market share in the asset-backed securities rating category.” (16) That being said, the report also finds that despite “the notable progress made by smaller NRSROs in gaining market share in some of the ratings classes . . . , economic and regulatory barriers to entry continue to exist in the credit ratings industry, making it difficult for the smaller NRSROs to compete with the larger NRSROs.” (21)

Transparency. The report also notes that “there is a trend of NRSROs issuing unsolicited commentaries on solicited ratings issued by other NRSROs, which has increased the level of transparency within the credit ratings industry. The commentaries highlight differences in opinions and ratings criteria among rating agencies regarding certain structured finance transactions, concerning matters such as the sufficiency of the credit enhancement for the transactions. Such commentaries can serve to enhance investors’ understanding of the ratings criteria and differences in ratings approaches used by the different NRSROs.” (23) The report acknowledges that this is no cure-all for what ails the rating industry, it is a positive development.

Conflicts of Interest.Conflicts of interest have been central to the problems in the ratings industry, and were one of the factors that led to the subprime bubble and then bust of the 2000s.  The report notes that the “potential for conflicts of interest involving an NRSRO may continue to be particularly acute in structured finance products, where issuers are created and operated by a relatively concentrated group of sponsors, underwriters and managers, and rating fees are particularly lucrative.” (25) There is no easy solution to this problem and it is important to carefully study it on an ongoing basis.

The staff report is valuable because it offers an annual overview of structural changes in the ratings industry. This year’s report continues to highlight that the structure of the industry is far from ideal. As the business cycle heats up, it is important to keep an eye on this critical component of the financial system to ensure that rating agencies are not being driven by short term profits for themselves at the expense of long-term systemic stability for the rest of us.

Weaker Reps and Warranties on the Horizon

Inside Mortgage Finance highlighted a DBRS Presale Report for J.P. Morgan Mortgage Trust, Series 2014-IV3.  This securitization contains prime jumbo ARMS, some with interest only features. So, these are not plain vanilla mortgages.

The report raises some concerns about loosening standards in the residential mortgage-backed securities market, particularly relating to standards for the representations and warranties that securitizers make to investors in the securities:

Relatively Weak Representations and Warranties Framework. Compared with other post-crisis representations and warranties frameworks, this transaction employs a relatively weak standard, which includes materiality factors, the use of knowledge qualifiers, as well as sunset provisions that allow for certain representations to expire within three to six years after the closing date. The framework is perceived by DBRS to be weak and limiting as compared with the traditional lifetime representations and warranties standard in previous DBRS-rated securitizations. (4)

 DBRS noted, however, that there were various mitigating factors.  They included:
Representations and warranties for fraud involving multiple parties that collaborated in committing fraud with respect to multiple mortgage loans will not be allowed to sunset.

Underwriting and fraud (other than the above-described fraud) representations and warranties are only allowed to sunset if certain performance tests are satisfied. . . .

Third-party due diligence was conducted on 100% of the pool with satisfactory results, which mitigates the risk of future representations and warranties violations.

Automatic reviews on certain representations are triggered on any loan that becomes 120 days delinquent, any loan that has incurred a cumulative loss or any loan for which the servicers have stopped advancing funds.

Pentalpha Surveillance LLC (Pentalpha Surveillance) acts as breach reviewer (Reviewer) required to review any triggered loans for breaches of representations and warranties in accordance with predetermined procedures and processes. . . .

Notwithstanding the above,DBRS reduced the origination scores, assigned additional penalties and adjusted certain loan attributes based on third-party due diligence results in its analysis which resulted in higher loss expectations. (4-5)
All in all, this does not sound so terrible. But it is worth noting that the tight restrictions in the jumbo RMBS market appears to be loosening up. As the market cycles from fear to greed, as it always does, it is worth keeping track of each step that it takes toward greed. We can always hope to identify early on when it has taken one step too many.