Category: Corporate Finance

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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What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men?

When students, friends and family have asked me what I think “happened” to cause our current financial crisis, my response has been an embarrassed shrug.  Embarrassed because (as a corporate law teacher) I’m expected to have clear answers.  A shrug because the crisis doesn’t have a obvious anecdote or story that explains it, and lacks a clearly defined evil doer who might be plausibly blamed.  The best candidate – who I’ve thrown out there to quiet persistent friends – is Joe Cassano, formerly head of AIG’s Financial Product’s Division, and the so-called “patient zero” in the crisis.

Now comes the myth-killer, Michael Lewis, with a must-read article in Vanity Fair.  He starts by reminding us that “nearly a year after perhaps the most sensational corporate collapse in the history of finance, a collapse that, without the intervention of the government, would have led to the bankruptcy of every major American financial institution, plus a lot of foreign ones, too, A.I.G.’s losses and the trades that led to them still haven’t been properly explained.”  And he then takes a crack at that problem, suggesting that AIG’s traders (i) made a bad (negligent?) bet on the likely course of the housing market, (ii) didn’t unwind their positions fast enough; (iii) fell victim to a liquidity crunch caused by covenants tied to their AAA rating; (iv) were made into a convenient villain by the media; and (v) like everyone else, were outsmarted by Goldman.

And how about Cassano?  Here’s the key – and dispiriting – paragraph:

[T]he A.I.G. F.P. traders left behind, much as they despise him personally, refuse to believe Cassano was engaged in any kind of fraud. The problem is that they knew him. And they believe that his crime was not mere legal fraudulence but the deeper kind: a need for subservience in others and an unwillingness to acknowledge his own weaknesses. “When he said that he could not envision losses, that we wouldn’t lose a dime, I am positive that he believed that,” says one of the traders. The problem with Joe Cassano wasn’t that he knew he was wrong. It was that it was too important to him that he be right. More than anything, Joe Cassano wanted to be one of Wall Street’s big shots. He wound up being its perfect customer.

“A need for subservience in others and an unwillingness to acknowledge his own weaknesses.” The flip side of authority and confidence, and the hallmarks of an executive who has passed many gates in the corporate advancement tournament.  The law lacks purchase on this kind of evil – if that is what it is.

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“A great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”

That’s how Matt Taibbi describes Goldman Sachs in the opening paragraph of his 12-page Rolling Stone article (which, as far as I can tell, is available online only here, in moderately annoying scanned form). From there, Taibbi picks up steam. For instance, we learn that:

The bank’s unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into one giant pump-and-dump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere — high gas prices, rising consumer credit rates, half-eaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts. All that money that you’re losing, it’s going somewhere, and in both a literal and a figurative sense, Goldman Sachs is where its going.

Yikes!

Is this just another crackpot conspiracy theory? (Paging Mr. Stein, Mr. Ben Stein.) Nay — Taibbi has give us proof of Goldman’s nefari-iety. It goes more or less along these lines: 1. Goldman survived the Great Depression. 2. Goldman made some savvy bets in the past ten years. 3. Goldman pays really big bonuses. Read More

Where are the Rating Agencies in the Financial Regulatory Overhaul?

Jonathan Stempel of Reuters notes that “rating agencies [were] largely spared” in the financial industry regulatory overhaul proposed by the Obama administration. Jonathan Macey of Yale critiques the oversight:

“The overall impact of existing and proposed regulatory changes on rating agencies is extraordinarily easy to summarize: They reward abject failure,” said Jonathan Macey, deputy dean of Yale Law School.

“Any credit rating agency that relies on an NRSRO rating [nationally recognized statistical rating organization pursuant to the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934], which is effectively a government subsidy, should be subject to lawsuits by investors,” he went on. “It should also be made clear to professional investors that it is not a defense or a sufficient discharge of their fiduciary duties to rely on credit ratings when assembling portfolios.”

Given my recent series of posts on the “public/private” divide, I was heartened to see Macey characterize the government licensure of rating agencies as a “subsidy.” As I noted in my 2007 post “From First Amendment Absolutism to Financial Meltdown?,” the agencies have used a “free expression” shield to protect against legal consequences for their incompetence, malfeasance, and conflicts of interests. Following the reasoning of FAIR v. Rumsfeld, Congress may be able to condition the “subsidy” of requiring investor reliance on ratings agencies’ work on ratings agencies’ willingness to give up First Amendment immunity from lawsuits.

Admittedly, Congress has gone in precisely the opposite direction in the recent past. In 2006, the Rating Agency Reform Act specifically prohibited the SEC from regulating the “substance of the credit rating or the procedures and methodologies.” We can only hope that current Congress is more serious about either really regulating this field, or getting out of the “implicit subsidy” business altogether.

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You Would’ve Thought They Worked for Moo-dy’s

If you were deciding whether to loan someone money, it would be very useful to know the chances that the person would pay you back.  (For example, the higher the chance they would default, the more you would charge them to borrow the money.)  Rating agencies–two dominant agencies are Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s (or “S&P”)–are supposed to provide lenders with that information.  The less the risk of default on a particular financial instrument, the higher the rating.   The rating agencies predict (or model) the risk, and if the rating agencies don’t do a good job, financial instruments’ market prices don’t reflect their actual value.

As others have discussed in a much more nuanced fashion, rating agencies may be partly to blame for the recent financial crisis.  The agencies appear to have been more concerned about keeping their clients (those who issued the financial instruments) happy than rating financial instruments accurately.  The ratings were too high, prices were too high, lenders and other purchasers of financial instruments didn’t anticipate default…and (to oversimplify) there’s your financial crisis.

But there appears to have been another market failure associated with rating agencies–a totally unexploited chance for profit.

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“We Own GM” and Other Rhetorical Illusions

illusion-spinning-circlesMisleading talk continues to plague discussions of government’s financial intervention into private enterprise, including automotive, insurance and banking companies. Latest talk, centered at General Motors but applicable to AIG, Citigroup and others, is misuse of three abstract notions: taxpayer, ownership and investment.

Standard talk sees US government’s capital transfers from the federal purse to private corporations as resulting in “taxpayers owning investments” in these companies. The upshot of this speech is the illusion that (a) people who pay US federal income tax (b) now own a bit of these corporations and (c) are entitled to enjoy investment return from that. All these conceptions are misleading. Clinging to them will complicate the process of government rescue and revival at the heart of this effort.  Read More

Brooksley Born: Profile in Financial Courage

borngreenspanWhile public intellectuals like Richard Posner assure us that “no one could have foreseen” today’s financial crisis, many voices called for the types of sensible regulation that may well have prevented it. Today one of them, Brooksley Born, is being honored at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library with a Profile in Courage Award. It is given to “to one or more public officials who took a stand that took a lot of integrity and nerve.” Here is Born’s citation:

In 1998, as chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Brooksley Born unsuccessfully tried to bring over-the-counter financial derivatives under the regulatory control of the CFTC. The government’s failure to regulate such financial deals has been widely criticized as one of the causes of the current financial crisis. In the booming economic climate of the 1990’s, Born battled other regulators in the Clinton Administration, skeptical members of Congress and lobbyists over the regulation of derivatives, warning that unregulated financial contracts such as credit default swaps could pose grave dangers to the economy.

Her efforts brought fierce opposition from Wall Street and from Administration officials who believed deregulation was essential to the extraordinary economic growth that was then in full bloom. Her adversaries eventually passed legislation prohibiting the CFTC from any oversight of financial derivatives during her term. She stepped down from the CFTC in 1999 and returned to a distinguished career in public interest law.

The silencing of Born was just one more sad consequence of the Clinton administration–whose tilt to Wall Street lobbies was almost indistinguishable from that of Reagan and the Bushes. As Frank Partnoy has said,

History already has shown that [Alan] Greenspan was wrong about virtually everything, and Brooksley was right . . . I think she has been entirely vindicated. . . . If there is one person we should have listened to, it was Brooksley.

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Toward Transparent Derivatives Trading

Could you describe the financial crisis in a sentence? Margaret Atwood’s description (in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth) appears to me as good as any:

[This] scheme. . . boils down to the fact that some large financial institutions peddled mortgages to people who could not possibly pay the monthly rates and then put this snake-oil debt into cardboard boxes with impressive labels on them and sold them to institutions and hedge funds that thought they were worth something.

I’d only add one amendment, to recognize the last step in the agency problem: the products were sold by and to institutions whose managers believed that they could still pocket fees and bonuses without being liable to principals for gross malfeasance. As the former head of AIGFP enjoys his fortune, the joy in passing on the proverbial hot potato must daily bring a smile to his face.

As these black boxes continue to blow up, the WSJ Opinion page recently featured a proposal to open up some of them. Professors Viral Acharya and Robert Engle argue that “derivative trades should all be transparent,” in refreshingly plain English:

Most financial contracts are arrangements between two parties to deliver goods or cash in amounts and at times that depend upon uncertain future events. By their nature, they entail risk, but one kind of risk — “counterparty risk” — can be difficult to evaluate, because the information needed to evaluate it is generally not public. Put simply, a party to a financial contract might sign a second, similar financial contract with someone else — increasing the risk that it may be unable to meet its obligations on the first contract. So the actual risk on one deal depends on what other deals are being done. But in over-the-counter (OTC) markets — in which parties trade privately with each other rather than through a centralized exchange — it is not at all transparent what other deals are being done.

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Deconstructing the Put-Option State

Larry and David Zaring have a thoughtful piece making the case against an overly exhuberent regulatory response to the financial crisis.  There is a lot of wisdom to what they say.  At its bottom, however, it seems to me that the keygovernment failure lay not in our regulations but in our political culture.  As Simon Johnson (of the must-read Baseline Scenario blog) observes in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, our current debacle looks less like Wall Street circa 1930 than Indonesia circa 1997.  The problem is not that we are reaping the whirl-wind of unregulated markets run amok, but rather that we are reaping the whirl-wind of a system where politically powerful business actors get the up-side of huge risks, while they can push the downside on to the public.  We are living in the put-option state.

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Hayek, the True Sale Doctrine, and the Origins of the Financial Crisis

Hayek.jpgHere is my theory du jour about the origins of the financial crisis, suggested by one of my students*: blame it all on the true sale doctrine or rather on its evisceration. Stick with me to the end, and I have some overly broad generalizations about expertise, property rights, and Hayek.

The “true sale doctrine” is not a staple of the law school curriculum. At best it makes a brief cameo in secured transactions and bankruptcy courses. Notwithstanding this academic obscurity, however, its failure may have had a big role in the current melt-down of the banking sector and with it the world economy. Here is the gist of the issue:

Securitization is the process by which financial assets (essentially promises to pay money in the future) are transferred from their original holder to a special purpose vehicle such as an LLC or business trust, which then issues securities entitling the holder to some fractional right to the income from the transferred assets. Hence, for example, a bank might transfer mortgage loans to an SPV, the SPV would then issue securities to investors, and the cash from the sale of these securities would flow back to the bank. The investors in the securities have two ultimately inconsistent goals.

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