Rating Agencies: Privilege Without Responsibility

First Amendment fundamentalist Floyd Abrams is back on the attack, now in the service of the credit rating agency S&P. He says that their ratings are essentially the same as an editorial — a position I looked at with some skepticism here. Editorials fail to receive the regulatory subsidy routinely channeled to raters, via acts like the Secondary Mortgage Market Enhancement Act of 1984 and the Investment Company Act of 1940, and agencies like the National Credit Union Administration (all of which mandate the use of raters’ products). Abrams appears to want to let the raters get all the benefits of such government subvention, without the liability or extensive regulation it should naturally lead to.

On the Media has a great interview with Abrams, who vigorously defends the agencies’ actions:

[Interviewer] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so first of all, explain to me why this is more like an editorial. To me it seems more like a clothing inspector, the people who leave the little number inside the clothing you buy. They leave their number so that if the zipper was put in backwards, for instance, they could theoretically take responsibility. Why are the ratings companies different from that?

FLOYD ABRAMS: Well, because the rating agencies use their models, use their heads, use their common sense, have ratings committees. They sit down and they come out with their best judgment as to what is likely to happen in the future about repayment of debt. And that is not subject to mathematical yes/no answers. It’s not the same as saying, my zipper is no good or a couch is no good. It’s not being an inspector. It’s not.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fair enough. Let’s move away from that analogy and let’s go to one that attorney David Grais, who we just spoke to, came up with, that in many cases rating agencies want their ratings to be protected as opinion, like, say, a restaurant critic’s. But more often, he notes, they’re like critics who go into the kitchen, make the food and then come out and write about it. They help create these deals. And they have a financial stake in their own ratings ‘cause they’re paid by the very companies they rate, a seemingly obvious conflict of interest.

FLOYD ABRAMS: Rating agencies have analytic standards. They apply those standards. And, yes, they discuss with the entities that they’re rating why they’re doing what they’re doing. And if the entity asks them, well, you know, how come you’re giving us a triple BBB instead of a double AA, they tell them why. And if the entity wants to do things to get a higher rating, they can do them.

And it is not inappropriate, in my view, so long as they take good steps to deal with the potential for conflict of interest. It is not inappropriate that they get paid by the entities they rate. I mean, it is not conceptually that distinguishable from, you know, a large entity which puts big ads in – what, a motorcycle magazine and then they write about the motorcycles. Do they have to be careful? Yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The fact of the matter here is that the ratings agencies, in this case, were so widely off the mark, ultimately, that it doesn’t seem to have been just a series of mistakes of judgment.

I really look forward to seeing how Abrams would deal with facts like these if similar revelations emerge about his own client:

[In the package of loans it was to rate,] Moody’s learned that [over 38 percent of the borrowers] did not provide written verification of their incomes. . . . On the plus side, Moody’s noted, 94 percent of those borrowers with adjustable-rate loans said their mortgages were for primary residences. “That was a comfort feeling,” [one analyst] said. Historically, people have been slow to abandon their primary homes. When you get into a crunch, she added, “You’ll give up your ski chalet first.”

Borrowers have no chance of repaying via income and assets? Assume a ski chalet! (Much like the classic economic approach of assuming a can opener.) As the Summary Report of Issues Identified in the Commission Staff’s Examinations of Select Credit Rating Agencies (by the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations of the SEC) noted in July 2008, none of the rating agencies had specific procedures for collateralized debt obligations–even though 17 CFR 240.17g-2 required them to make certain internal documents public, including procedures and methodologies they use to determine credit ratings.

Sadly, I think that, given the current state of the law, Abrams’s First Amendment arguments will do well in front of many courts. But as David Segal states in the NYT article, “The First Amendment is no defense against fraud, and that is what is alleged by many of the plaintiffs.” Segal notes that, “Against them, Mr. Abrams will argue that S.& P. was every bit as blindsided as nearly everyone else in the private sector and in the regulatory sphere.”

Here are a few quotes that appear to be from S&P:

1. Internal Email: “rating agencies continue to create [an] even bigger monster – the CDO [collateralized debt obligation] market. Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.”

2. Instant Message: “It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.”

These people don’t sound blindsided to me. Rather, they, like the three ratings agency CEOs who together earned $80 million themselves over the past 6 years, sound like people who knew exactly what they were doing: getting while the getting was good. If Abrams succeeds, he’ll be making that particular Wall Street strategy all the more foundational for America’s brave financial innovators.

But would a loss for S&P change anything? I really don’t know. What I do believe is that the US discourse on rating agencies would probably benefit from some input by scholars like John Quiggin, who argue that “Among the many challenges in reconstructing a sustainable system of global finance, the replacement of ratings issued by for-profit agencies with an alternative system, in which AAA ratings actually mean something, is among the most important.” Quiggin notes that the rating agencies are biased in many important ways:

[T]hey have a long-standing ideological bias against the public sector. This is reflected in the fact that state and local governments, which rarely default on their debt, are assessed far more stringently than corporate issuers. In the last year, thousands of private-sector securities issued with AAA ratings have been downgraded to junk, and many have subsequently gone into default.

By contrast, defaults on government debt have remained rare. One effect of the differential ratings practices of the agencies is that government borrowers have been forced to seek insurance from bond insurance companies such as AMBAC that are, in reality, less sound than the governments they are insuring.

Unfortunately, the 2006 Credit Rating Agency Reform Act specifically prohibited the SEC from regulating the “substance of the credit rating or the procedures and methodologies” used to calculate it. Reform measures proposed by the Obama administration have barely addressed the CRA’s. At the very least the government ought to be able to use FAIR v. Rumsfeld to insist on more responsible behavior (as Jennifer Chandler has argued, in another context, here). CRA’s should take the bitterness of regulation with the sweetness of regulatory subsidies.

I believe that as long as the US government provides a de facto regulatory subsidy to CRA’s, it should require them to factor into at least some of their ratings the full social value of the rated entity—not simply its likelihood to default. Ratings are often a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the state should harness their value to promote projects that improve the health, safety, security, and well-being of citizens. At the very least, the government should set up a “public option” in credit rating (akin to the proposed public option in health insurance) that is more transparent and accountable than extant credit raters. If the finance sector is going to grow as dependent on government help as the health care sector has, it should learn to accept the same web of standards and regulation that guarantee some minimal accountability for providers who accept government funds. Looking at the AHRQ and comparative effectiveness research could be a good place to start.

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