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.

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

Be Careful What You Wish For GSEs

Genie Lamp

Jim Parrott and Mark Zandi have released a report, Privatizing Fannie and Freddie: Be Careful What You Ask For. The authors go through a very useful exercise in which they break down the cost of reprivatizing. The report opens,

Few are happy with the current housing finance system that has Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in conservatorship and taxpayers backing most of the nation’s residential mortgage loans. Yet legislative efforts to replace the system have largely faltered, raising concern that we may not have the political will or competence to replace it any time soon.

This has created an opening for those who contend that we should not replace the system at all, but simply recapitalize the government-sponsored enterprises and release them from conservatorship. Fannie and Freddie were remarkably profitable prior to the financial crisis, after all, and have been consistently in the black recently. Why embark on the laborious, risky and now stalled process of fundamental reform when we can simply return to a model that we know can provide steady access to affordable, long-term fixed-rate lending?

While we both have serious concerns with the wisdom of releasing the duopoly back into the market, we thought it useful to set those concerns aside for the moment to explore the economics of the move. The discussion often takes for granted that this path would take us back to the world precrisis, but economic conditions and the regulatory environment have changed in ways that would significantly affect how Fannie and Freddie would function as reprivatized institutions. (2)

Parrott and Zandi conclude that

The debate over whether to recapitalize and release the GSEs into the private market is often framed as a choice of whether or not to return to a prior period in lending. For all its shortcomings, the argument goes, at least we know what to expect in the cost and availability of mortgage credit. But this is a misconception. In releasing the GSEs into the private market again, we would release them into a very different regulatory and economic environment, and they would respond, not surprisingly, by charging very different mortgage rates. (4)

I really have no argument with Parrott and Zandi’s paper, but I would note that their conclusions don’t differ so much from the pre-crisis academic papers that attempted to quantify the increase in mortgage rates that would result from privatizing the two companies — fifty basis points, give or take (see, for example, The GSE Implicit Subsidy and Value of Government Ambiguity).

I value Parrott and Zandi’s paper because it reminds us to keep pushing forward with real housing finance reform even though Congress has not yet made any progress on that front.

Reiss on Financial Crisis Litigation

Law360 quoted me in Feds’ Moody’s Probe Marks Closing Of Financial Crisis Book (behind a paywall). It opens,

A reported investigation into Moody’s Investors Service’s ratings of residential mortgage-backed securities during the housing bubble era could be the beginning of the last chapter in the U.S. Department of Justice’s big financial crisis cases, attorneys say.

Federal prosecutors are reportedly making their way through the ratings agencies for their alleged wrongdoings prior to the financial crisis after wringing out more than $100 billion from banks and mortgage servicers for their roles in inflating the housing bubble. But the passage of time, the waning days of the Obama administration and the few remaining rich targets likely means that the financial industry and prosecutors will soon put financial crisis-era enforcement actions behind them, said Jim Keneally, a partner at Harris O’Brien St. Laurent & Chaudhry LLP.

“I do look at this as sort of the tail end of things,” he said.

With the ink not yet dry on a rumored $1.375 billion settlement between the Justice Department, state attorneys general and Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services, prosecutors have already reportedly turned their attention to the ratings practices at S&P’s largest rival, Moody’s, in the period leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The federal government and attorneys general in 19 states and Washington, D.C., had launched several suits since the financial crisis accusing S&P of assigning overly rosy ratings to mortgage-backed securities and other bond deals that ended up imploding amid a wave of defaults, causing a cascade of investor losses that amounted to billions of dollars.

Although S&P originally elected to fight the government, it ultimately elected to settle. The coming $1.375 billion settlement arrives on top of an earlier $77 million settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts over similar claims.

Moody’s is reportedly next in line, with Justice Department investigators reportedly having had several meetings with officials from the ratings agency that looked into whether the Moody’s Corp. unit had softened its ratings of subprime RMBS in order to win business as the housing bubble inflated.

Both the Justice Department and Moody’s declined to comment for this story.

The pursuit of Moody’s as the S&P case wraps up follows a pattern that the Justice Department set with big bank settlements for the financial crisis.

“You would expect that they would sweep through, so to speak,” said Thomas O. Gorman, a partner with Dorsey & Whitney LLP.

After reaching a $13 billion deal with JPMorgan Chase & Co. in November 2014, the Justice Department quickly turned its attention to Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp., which reached their own multibillion-dollar settlements last summer.

Now prosecutors are in talks with Morgan Stanley about another large settlement, according to multiple reports.

All of those deals follow the $25 billion national mortgage settlement from 2012 that targeted banks’ pre-crisis mortgage servicing practices.

Time may be catching up with the Justice Department more than six years following the height of the crisis, even after the Justice Department began employing novel uses of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, a 1989 law passed following the savings and loan crisis, Keneally said.

Using FIRREA extended the statute of limitations on financial crisis-era cases, allowing for prosecutors to develop their cases and take a systematic approach. Even that statute may have run its course, as it pertains to the crisis.

“The passage of time is such that you have evidence that no longer exists,” Keneally said.

Politics may also play a role as the financial crisis recedes from memory and the next holder of the presidency potentially looks to move forward, he said.

“We’re getting to the end of the Obama administration,” Keneally said. “I think it’s going to be hard for any administration to ramp things up again.”

And that has some wondering whether the Obama administration and the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder followed the correct path.

“The Justice Department and the states’ attorneys general collected far more in their penalties and settlements than anyone could have imagined before the financial crisis,” said Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss.

Those large settlements may give investors and top management pause when it comes to questionable activity. However, because no traders or other top banking personnel went to prison, questions remain about what deterrent effect those settlements will have on individuals.

“Big institutions are now probably deterred from some of this behavior, but are individuals who work on these institutions deterred?” Reiss said.

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.

Does Morningstar Speak with Forked Tongue?

Morningstar Credit Ratings, a small Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization (albeit a subsidiary of Morningstar, the large investment research firm), has issued a Structured Credit Ratings Commentary on Rating Shopping in Asset Securitization Markets. It finds that

Rating shopping is alive and well in the U.S. securitization markets notwithstanding the implementation of regulatory and legislative actions intended to curb the practice and promote competition among credit rating agencies, or CRAs. It is important to note, however, that the rating shopping following the financial crisis has not led to a “race to the bottom” scenario with respect to rating standards that some congressional lawmakers and other critics of the issuer-paid model believe was prevalent during the years leading up to the crisis. (1)

I have to say that I find Morningstar’s analysis perplexing. The commentary highlights a number of structural problems in the ratings agency industry. It then goes on to say that everything is fine and that there is no race to the bottom to worry about, to lead us into another financial crisis.

The commentary goes on to state that while

it is rational for issuers and arrangers to choose the CRA with the least onerous terms, CRAs generally have held their ground by adhering to their analytical methodologies notwithstanding the constant threat of losing business. . . . The CRAs’ unwillingness to lower their standards in the midst of reviewing a transaction is attributable in part to strong regulatory oversight from the SEC, which has focused heavily on holding nationally recognized statistical rating organizations, or NRSROs, accountable for following their published methodologies. (1-2)

I find it odd that the commentary does not consider where we are in the business cycle as part of the explanation. Once the market becomes sufficiently frothy, rating agencies will be more tempted to compromise their standards in order to win market share. I wouldn’t accuse Morningstar of speaking with a forked tongue, but its explanation of the current state of affairs seems self-serving: move on folks, we rating agencies have everything under control for we have tamed the profit motive once and for all!

S&P Must Face The Orchestra on Rating Failure

After many state Attorneys General brought suit against S&P over the objectivity of their ratings, S&P sought to consolidate the cases in federal court. Judge Furman (SDNY) has issued an Opinion and Order in In Re:  Standard & Poor’s Rating Agency Litigation, 1:13-md-02446 (June 3, 2014) that remanded the cases back to state courts because “they arise solely under state law, not federal law.” (3) Explaining the issue in a bit greater depth, the Court stated,

there is no dispute that the States’ Complaints exclusively assert state-law causes of action — for fraud, deceptive business practices, violations of state consumer-protection statutes, and the like.The crux of those claims is that S&P made false representations, in its Code of  Conduct and otherwise, and that those representations harmed the citizens of the relevant State. (20, citation omitted)

The Court notes that in “the final analysis, the States assert in these cases that S&P failed to adhere to its own promises, not that S&P violated” federal law. (28) The Court concludes that it does not reach this result “lightly:”

Putting aside the natural “tempt[ation] to find federal jurisdiction every time a multi-billion dollar case with national  implications arrives at the doorstep of a federal court,” the federal courts undoubtedly have advantages over their state counterparts when it comes to managing a set of substantial cases filed in jurisdictions throughout the country. Through the MDL process, federal cases can be consolidated for pretrial purposes or more, promoting efficiency and minimizing the risks of inconsistent rulings and unnecessary duplication of efforts. (51, citation omitted)

S&P knew that it would have to face the music regarding the allegations that its ratings were flawed. But it hoped that it could face a soloist, one federal judge. That way, it could keep its litigation costs down, engage in one set of settlement talks and get an up or down result on its liability. The remand means that S&P will face many, many judges, a veritable judicial orchestra. In addition to all of the other problems this entails, it is also almost certain that S&P will face inconsistent verdicts if these cases were to go to trial. This is a significant tactical setback for S&P. From a policy perspective though, the remand means that we should get a better understanding of the issuer-pays model of rating agencies.