In 2000, Standard & Poor’s made a decision about an arcane corner of the mortgage market. It said a type of mortgage that involves a “piggyback,” where borrowers simultaneously take out a second loan for the down payment, was no more likely to default than a standard mortgage. While its pronouncement went unnoticed outside the mortgage world, piggybacks soon were part of a movement that transformed America’s home-loan industry: a boom in “subprime” mortgages taken out by buyers with weak credit.
[T]the real-estate bubble of recent years, like the stock bubble of the late 1990s, both caused and was fed by widespread malfeasance. Rating agencies like Moody’s Investors Service, which get paid a lot of money for rating mortgage-backed securities, seem to have played a similar role to that played by complaisant accountants in the corporate scandals of a few years ago. In the ’90s, accountants certified dubious earning statements; in this decade, rating agencies declared dubious mortgage-backed securities to be highest-quality, AAA assets.
But there’s a big difference between accountants and raters: the latter get first amendment protection for their assessments. Is this a wise extension of the first amendment? It’s a difficult question, but I think the new scandals will lead to increasing calls for regulation, if not liability, of the ratings agencies.