To understand just how destructive credit rating agencies like S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch are, an excellent starting point is an op-ed in the NYTimes by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn:
Everyone now knows that Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s botched their analyses of bonds backed by home mortgages. But their most costly mistake — one that deserves a lot more attention than it has received — lies in their area of putative expertise: measuring corporate risk.
Over the last 20 years American financial institutions have taken on more and more risk, with the blessing of regulators, with hardly a word from the rating agencies, which, incidentally, are paid by the issuers of the bonds they rate. Seldom if ever did Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s say, “If you put one more risky asset on your balance sheet, you will face a serious downgrade.”
The American International Group, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, General Electric and the municipal bond guarantors Ambac Financial and MBIA all had triple-A ratings. (G.E. still does!) Large investment banks like Lehman and Merrill Lynch all had solid investment grade ratings. It’s almost as if the higher the rating of a financial institution, the more likely it was to contribute to financial catastrophe. But of course all these big financial companies fueled the creation of the credit products that in turn fueled the revenues of Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.
These oligopolies, which are actually sanctioned by the S.E.C., didn’t merely do their jobs badly. They didn’t simply miss a few calls here and there. In pursuit of their own short-term earnings, they did exactly the opposite of what they were meant to do: rather than expose financial risk they systematically disguised it.
This is a subject that might be profitably explored in Washington. There are many questions an enterprising United States senator might want to ask the credit-rating agencies. Here is one: Why did you allow MBIA to keep its triple-A rating for so long? In 1990 MBIA was in the relatively simple business of insuring municipal bonds. It had $931 million in equity and only $200 million of debt — and a plausible triple-A rating.
By 2006 MBIA had plunged into the much riskier business of guaranteeing collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s. But by then it had $7.2 billion in equity against an astounding $26.2 billion in debt. That is, even as it insured ever-greater risks in its business, it also took greater risks on its balance sheet.
Yet the rating agencies didn’t so much as blink. On Wall Street the problem was hardly a secret: many people understood that MBIA didn’t deserve to be rated triple-A. As far back as 2002, a hedge fund called Gotham Partners published a persuasive report, widely circulated, entitled: “Is MBIA Triple A?” (The answer was obviously no.)
At the same time, almost everyone believed that the rating agencies would never downgrade MBIA, because doing so was not in their short-term financial interest. A downgrade of MBIA would force the rating agencies to go through the costly and cumbersome process of re-rating tens of thousands of credits that bore triple-A ratings simply by virtue of MBIA’s guarantee. It would stick a wrench in the machine that enriched them. (In June, finally, the rating agencies downgraded MBIA, after MBIA’s failure became such an open secret that nobody any longer cared about its formal credit rating.)
The S.E.C. now promises modest new measures to contain the damage that the rating agencies can do — measures that fail to address the central problem: that the raters are paid by the issuers.
Remember that the ratings agencies receive special status from the SEC. Many funds (e.g. pension funds) can only buy bonds that the “official” agencies give high ratings. So the agencies aren’t neutral messengers. They are unelected regulators who are paid by the corporations they regulate, with no appeals process, and an abysmal historical track record of corruption and incompetence.
The whole article is well worth a read: The End of the Financial World as we Know It.