Tag Archives: rating agencies

S&P Ratings Destroy Information

By James Kwak

A lot of the theory of securities markets revolves around information: securities prices respond to changes in available information, you want to provide incentives for people to produce information, some kinds of information should be equally available to everyone, other kinds of information you should be able to trade on, etc. In the conventional model, rating agencies are information providers: they produce information that is useful to market participants, and thereby improve the functioning of the markets.

Well, forget all that. Nate Silver has the best article I’ve seen yet on S&P’s sovereign debt ratings, and the summary is that it isn’t pretty. Some of the things Silver finds, using some publicly available data and Stata, are:

  • Debt-to-GDP ratio alone is a better predictor of default risk than an S&P rating (meaning that the rating subtracts information provided by the debt-to-GDP ratio).
  • S&P ratings have almost no correlation with future default risk.
  • S&P rates European countries higher than other countries, all other things being equal—and look where that got us.
  • S&P ratings are serially correlated, which means they incorporate new information especially slowly.
Hopefully this will be one more nail in the coffin of regulations that incorporate NRSRO ratings.
(In other non-news, I’ve been forgetting to mention that I was on Benzinga Radio last week talking about the debt ceiling deal (mainly politics, not much economics). I was also on Letters and Politics on KPFA and KPFK in California this morning, talking about economic factors behind the stock market slide.)

So What?

By James Kwak

Everyone (well, the media at least) seems to be acting as if Moody’s downgrading the United States would be a bad thing. I feel like I must be missing something.

First of all, we know what bond ratings are worth. See, oh, the entire past decade for evidence. (It wasn’t just mortgage-backed securities; they didn’t downgrade Enron until after the SEC announced an inquiry and CFO Andrew Fastow was forced out, and less than five weeks before the company declared bankruptcy.)

Still, the point of bond rating agencies is to do research on securities that other investors may not know well. If I’m a buy-side investor, I don’t have the time to review tens of thousands of different debt securities I could buy. It makes sense for me to turn to someone like Moody’s or S&P, because I can count on them to do at least some level of research and analysis on them. In other words, the ratings may not be great, but they still carry information.

But this is emphatically not true when it comes to U.S. government debt. Enormous amounts of information about the government’s finances are open to the public and are pored over by thousands of analysts from all around the world. Moody’s is no better at estimating future tax revenues and spending commitments than anyone else.

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Reforming Credit Rating Agencies

This guest post was contributed by Gary Witt, an assistant professor in statistics and finance at the Fox Business School at Temple University. He was previously an analyst and then a managing director at Moody’s Investors Service rating CDOs from September 2000 until September 2005. Witt also caught one error in 13 Bankers, which I explain here.

Many readers will think that the last person whose opinion should be consulted on the issue of rating agency reform is a former rating agency employee. Maybe they’re right, but I did learn one thing from rating hundreds of complex securities. Contrary to what some may think, there are no easy solutions here. Unintended consequences are guaranteed. So here’s my humble take on the current CRA reform proposals.

What should be the goal of rating agency reform?

In 2007, as S&P and Moody’s were trying to decide how to rerate the entire structured finance debt market, I asked a shrewd fund manager what advice he would give to the management of a rating agency. He said they have to get the ratings right. No matter how hard it is, they have to focus on getting the ratings right.

There is an alternative school of thought. Instead of improving ratings, the reform agenda should be to be to eliminate their use. Since the rating agencies are hopelessly stupid or corrupt or both, just say no. End the market’s addiction to credit ratings by eliminating the SEC designation Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization (NRSRO). Go cold turkey and end the practice of using ratings to assess credit risk by governmental or regulatory entities.

These two competing goals, improve credit ratings and eliminate credit ratings, can be viewed from a larger perspective, a Minsky mindset. If stability breeds instability, then trust breeds disappointment; the greater the trust, the bigger the disappointment. The rating agencies were over-trusted until 2007.

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Financial Safety and Fire Safety

This guest post was contributed by engineer27, a longtime reader of and frequent commenter on this blog. (I had exams this past week, which is why I haven’t posted in a while.)

This Thursday, the Senate added two amendments to the Financial Regulation in process that deal with Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Agencies (NRSROs), which are blamed for being a factor in the financial crisis of 2008. The most widely cited problem with the NRSROs is the inherent conflict of interest which resides in the “issuer pays” model currently in use. However, even supporters of doing something are stymied when trying to envision a workable solution. The two (perhaps contradictory) amendments each try to implement a proposed solution that runs into some of the critiques. The Franken amendment has rating agencies assigned to debt issues by a neutral arbiter; critics maintain that lack of competition may reduce the quality of analysis. The LeMieux amendment removes legal mandates to obtain a NRSRO rating and the preferential treatment those issues currently receive. However, it leaves out details about whose advice agencies and public trusts should seek out instead.

This is not such a difficult problem. We already have an example of a successful private rating agency, whose imprimatur is desired or in some cases required by law, that is paid for by fees on the seller, and has been operating since 1894: Underwriters Laboratory. The UL publishes safety standards for almost 20,000 different types of products, many of which are adopted by other standard-setting organizations like ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and Canada’s IRC (Institute for Research In Construction). Although generally not actually required by federal law, the sale of many types of products in the US would be difficult without UL listing. Also, many local jurisdictions responsible for building and fire codes mandate the use of UL approved products. In all cases, the manufacturer must submit samples and pay fees to UL in order to win approval.

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A Failure of Corporate Governance

By James Kwak

(I’ve gotten several great articles forwarded to me via email by readers. It may take a few days to do them justice. Here’s one.)

In the great consensus of the past twenty years, government regulation was unnecessary because the free market provided better tools for constraining private companies. One force was the market, idealized by Alan Greenspan, who believed that counterparties could even police effectively against fraud. The other force was shareholders, who would punish managers for acting contrary to their interests. The market would prevent companies from abusing their customers, while corporate governance would prevent them from abusing their shareholders.

For those who still believe in the latter, McClatchy has a good (though infuriating) article on what went wrong on Moody’s, the bond rating agency that, we previously learned, responded to warnings about the toxic assets it was rating by . . . firing the people making the warnings. In the words of an executive on a Moody’s risk committee:

“My question the whole time has been, ‘Where the hell has the board been?’ I would have expected, sitting where I was, that I would have got a lot more calls from the board. I got none of that.”

Another Moody’s executive added, “There was no (corporate) governance at the firm whatsoever. I met the board, I presented to them, and it was just baffling that these guys were there. They were just so out of touch.”

The story that Kevin Hall tells about Moody’s has been told many times before. Board members often serve at the pleasure of the CEO, who controls who receives the perks of board membership. The result is often, but not always, boards that rubber-stamp the decisions of the CEO and his or her inner circle. Court precedents make it difficult to hold board members personally liable for anything, and companies buy liability insurance for their board members just in case. As Lynn Turner, former chief accountant of the SEC, said to McClatchy, “I personally think until law enforcement agencies start holding these boards accountable, . . . you’re probably not going to get a lot of change.”

This is why I am skeptical of proposals to, for example, increase the number of independent board members. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I think it betrays a certain amount of naivete over what independent board members actually do.

The Problem at Moody’s

Kevin Hall of McClatchy has an article  about Moody’s that goes beyond the usual — giving AAA ratings to products “structured by cows” and taking money from the cows (actually, the “cows” comment was from S&P). He documents how Moody’s forced out executives who questioned the lax rating policies, replaced them with executives from the structured finance division, and filled its compliance division with people from that same division.

In this week’s column at The Hearing, we discuss this as an example of a common tension within businesses — between the revenue-generating side of the business and the people responsible for product quality. The problem is that in the short term, you can maximize revenues by cutting corners on quality, but in the long term, cutting those corners can come back to hurt you. Or it can hurt your customers. Or the whole economy, as it turns out. Unfortunately, however, there is no particular reason to believe that companies will resolve this tension in a way that is good for them in the long term, let alone the economy.

By James Kwak

S&P Revises Expectations for the Economy Downward

Calculated Risk reports that S&P is increasing its forecasts for losses on subprime mortgages again. As I’ve said before, in principle this means that their expectations about the economy are worse today than they were yesterday. They’re not just saying that defaults will go up; they’re saying that they will go up by more than they thought before today.

I previously discussed why I think this is weird, and there are a number of good comments to that earlier post. My theory that they are trying to spread out the deterioration of their forecasts over several months to save face got some support. q and others explained that rating agencies lag the economy because they base their forecasts on published economic data. That may be true, and it may be the best explanation for what is going on, but if so it seems like a condemnation of the rating agencies, since their job is to estimate the likelihood of default, and one of the inputs to their models should be the economic situation. (Or maybe their job is to estimate default likelihood assuming “normal” economic conditions, and it’s up to the investor to adjust accordingly.)

Note that these are their macroeconomic forecasts, not revisions to ratings of specific bonds, so the bond-rating schedule isn’t the driving factor here.

By James Kwak

The Mystery of Rating Agencies

Calculated Risk has a routine post about S&P increasing its loss projections for subprime and Alt-A loans and for the mortgage-backed securities built out of those loans. These announcements have been so common over the last several months that I usually don’t even think about them. But today I had a thought about them: these are forecasts, which means that they should not get worse just because the economy is getting worse. Forecasts should only change when there is new news that affects expectations about the future. So if you take these rating agency reports at face value, they imply not only that the economy is getting worse (by traditional measures such as the unemployment rate), but that there is new bad news about the future of the economy, despite all this talk you hear about green shoots and a recovery. If there is only old news, then that should have been “priced in” to S&P’s forecasts already.

So what gives? Do the rating agencies see some new perils in the economy that are being overlooked? Or are they just stretching out a writedown in their forecasts over several quarters? Under the latter theory, they should have known what would happen to subprime and Alt-A loans the same time people like Calculated Risk did – that is, several months ago – but it would be too embarrassing to do a massive writedown all at once, so they are spreading it out over time for respectability.

By James Kwak

TARP for Rating Agencies

I would have thought that the credit rating agencies would be at least one group that everyone could agree to throw under the bus. We know that the powerful chieftains of Wall Street are trying to pin the credit crisis on rating agencies – see page 3 of JPMorgan’s blame-shifting attempt, for example. Yet the new Financial Regulatory Reform plan has almost nothing on the subject. Apparently the rating agencies, too, are Too Big to Fail.

Reuters catalogs the provisions relating to the rating agencies. Here’s the summary:

The plan urges Moody’s Corp’s Moody’s Investors Service, McGraw-Hill Cos Inc’ Standard & Poor’s and Fimalac SA’s Fitch Ratings and others to bolster the integrity of their ratings, especially in structured finance.

It also calls for reduced conflicts of interest and for regulators worldwide to tighten oversight.

But the blueprint does nothing to address what critics call the industry’s key shortcoming: That the biggest agencies are paid by issuers whose securities they rate, creating an incentive to win more business by assigning high ratings. . . .

“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.

Also see the Huffington Post, which has this understated but damning criticism: “Today, the agencies welcome the government proposals, saying that they favored improved ratings quality and transparency.”

Perhaps this is one area where Congress can improve on the administration’s plan.

Update: Krugman:

The plan says very little of substance about reforming the rating agencies, whose willingness to give a seal of approval to dubious securities played an important role in creating the mess we’re in.

By James Kwak

“There Were Ratings That We Saw That Made No Sense To Us.”

This American Life had another good financial crisis episode by the Planet Money team this past weekend. There’s a story on regulatory holes by Chana Joffe-Walt and one on rating agencies by Alex Blumberg and David Kestenbaum. The latter had some money quotes (starting around the 40-minute mark).

Jim Finkel, Dynamic Credit, which creates structured products: “There were ratings that we saw that made no sense to us. We knew the rating agency models and metrics, and we could replicate them ourselves, and we couldn’t make sense of what they were doing.”

Felicia Grumet (sp?), Bear Stearns, who was involved in creating structured products: “It makes me feel really bad, so actually it’s very hard for me to acknowledge . . . I knew what I was doing. I knew I was doing things to get around the rules. I wasn’t proud of it, but I did it anyway.”

One of the heroes is Mabel Yu, a buy-side bond analyst at Vanguard, who couldn’t get the rating agencies to explain the ratings they were giving to structured products – and therefore refused to recommend them internally at Vanguard. Who knew? Not only do you get lower costs at Vanguard, but better fund management, too? (I have most of my money at Vanguard, but it’s in all in index funds or near-index funds, so I guess I wasn’t benefiting from Yu’s research.) 

By James Kwak

Feel-Good Story of the Day

Calculated Risk reports that Citigroup is livid that S&P would have the audacity to downgrade the senior tranches of commercial mortgage-backed securities. 

Citigroup commented that the changes were “a complete surprise”, “flawed”, lacked “justification” and the “S&P methodology changes do not seem rational or predictable”. Ouch. 

It’s nice to see that the banks – who spent the last decade shopping for favorable ratings from the rating agencies, and overwhelming them with thousands of complicated offerings backed with sophisticated models – and the rating agencies – who spent the last decade giving AAA ratings to the banks’ models and are now claiming that it was all the banks’ fault – are getting along so nicely. Some marriages truly are forever.

By James Kwak

Rating Agency Self-Defense

I’m drafting a post for The Hearing on credit rating agencies (the ones who gave AAA ratings to all those CDOs). The CEO of Fitch is giving this prepared testimony tomorrow. Here’s the question: Can anyone find anything in there that constitutes a constructive suggestion for how regulation of rating agencies could be improved? Or is it all just self-serving insistence that there is no problem? 

(My favorite part is on pages 6-7 where he says, effectively, “Don’t regulate us – regulate the issuers and underwriters instead!”

By James Kwak