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.