By, Shah Gilani
Underlying the credit crisis gripping the U.S. and world economies is a crisis of confidence. Blame has been laid at the feet of the U.S. Federal Reserve, and an investment bankers’ brew of toxic financial products. Ultimately, however, it was the supposedly trustworthy rating agencies that got everyone to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid.
The sheer fraud and greed of rating agency analysts and executives is staggering. That no one has gone to jail, and none of the agencies have been shut down is a travesty of justice on an infinitely larger scale than Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Until depositors, bankers and investors regain confidence in the quality of ratings we rely upon to measure financial stability and creditworthiness, the tremors that underlie the credit crisis will drag on indefinitely.
Letter and number ratings – such as AAA, Aa1, BBB and Caa1 – are financial shorthand for the due diligence supposedly done by rating agencies after they’ve examined an issuer or a security’s financial structure, and evaluated the likelihood of its being able to pay interest and principal at maturity. Investors rely on the objectivity and fiduciary responsibility of the rating agencies to publish fair, accurate and uncompromised assessments.
By law, certain investors must rely on the ratings of a handful of Securities and Exchange Commission designated “Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations” (NRSROs). For example, most state insurance regulators require that only assets rated in the top four ratings categories by NRSROs are eligible investments. Similarly, money market funds can only invest in securities with the highest NRSRO ratings. In fact, innumerable institutions – public and private, and domestic and international – mandate asset quality levels predicated on the major rating agencies’ due diligence.
Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services, Moody’s Investors Service (MCO) and Fitch Ratings Inc. are all SEC-designated NRSROs. They are the largest, best-known and most-profitable ratings firms in the tiny, $5 billion-a-year universe of ratings firms. S&P is a part of The McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc. (MHP), while Fitch is a subsidiary of France’s Fimalac SA.
Moody’s was spun out of financial publisher Dun & Bradstreet Corp. (DNB) as a public company in 2000. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A, BRK.B), apparently having spotted a diamond in the rough, bought into D&B before the divestiture, and ended up with a hefty 19% stake in Moody’s after the spin-off was completed.
The problem with the business of rating the issuers of securities, and rating the securities they issue – such as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized mortgage-backed obligations – is that the rating agencies are paid by the issuers to rate them. Objectivity aside, ratings firms are in business not to rate but to make money for themselves by rating issuers and their securities. It’s like all the contestants in the Miss World pageant paying the judges with country funds … who’s not going to be judged beautiful?
What was even more problematic in the scheme of the ratings business model was that analysts didn’t understand how to analyze and rate the very complex cash flow structures of these new collateralized mortgage-backed securities. Not wanting to lose business to their competitors, who were all in the same boat, they used the same rating model structures that they used to rate corporate bonds, though the two different securities had nothing in common.
It was like asking your local car mechanic to certify your Citation V jet – just before you take off for a transatlantic flight to London. God help you if there’s a problem.
And there were problems. Lots of them. According to a Feb. 15 “Review & Outlook” piece in The Wall Street Journal, Joseph Mason, professor of finance at Drexel University, studied collateralized debt obligations rated “Baa” by Moody’s and determined that they were 10 times more likely to default than equivalently rated corporate bonds. The article went on to say that an S&P spokesperson, when asked if they actually examined the underlying mortgages in the pools, answered: “We are not auditors; we are not accounting firms.”
While S&P – and to a lesser degree, Fitch – were just playing the game, Moody’s actually ran away with the ball. An eye-popping and brilliant April 11 Journal article by Aaron Lucchetti exposed the unseemly underbelly of Moody’s greed. What stood out the most in the article was Moody’s willingness – under the direction of Brian Clarkson, who joined the firm in 1991 and became president and chief operating officer – to bend over backwards to accommodate issuers of mortgage-backed and structured finance paper. Clarkson was willing to switch analysts if clients complained, which several did, including Credit Suisse Group AG (ADR: CS), UBS AG (UBS), and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS).
Under Clarkson, Moody’s expanded and grabbed a huge piece of the deal-ratings-market pie. By 2006, the company was rating $9 out of every $10 raised in mortgage securities. For all of that year, the firm’s structured finance group generated more than $881 million in revenue, about 43% of Moody’s revenue. And in 2007 it was estimated that the firm rated 94% of the approximately $190 billion in mortgage and structured-finance CDOs floated during the year.
But there was some concern, including some from insiders. Former Moody’s analyst Mark Froeba told The Journal that “there was never an explicit directive to subordinate rating quality to market share. There was, rather, a palpable erosion of institutional support for rating analysis that threatened market share.” In the same article, former Moody’s executive Paul Stevenson was quoted as saying that “the most recent problem is that the rating process became a negotiation.”
Clarkson, the Moody’s president and COO, didn’t do too badly negotiating his compensation, either. In 2006 he made $3.8 million, while the firm’s chief executive officer, Raymond McDaniel, made $8.2 million. Clarkson “retired” under pressure this past May and McDaniel, the CEO, added the title of president to his mantle.
Eventually, the always-late-to-the-dance SEC awoke to the realization that it was supposed to be watching the watchers – the ratings agencies. While hundreds of billions of dollars around the world was invested in Wall Street’s pay-to-play version of Illinois gubernatorial politics, many heartbroken and flat-out-broke investors discovered that what the rating agencies had determined to be “AAA” rated securities were not the princely investment-grade securities those three letters said they were, but were toxic Amazon frogs instead. Of course, that calls for an investigation. And so it was.
A 10-month “examination” by the SEC, concluded in July, uncovered, believe it or not, “poor disclosure practices and procedures guiding the analysis of mortgage-related debt and insufficient attention paid to managing conflicts of interest.” Brilliant!
According to the report, which included as exhibits several e-mail exchanges between analysts at unnamed ratings firms, there was an obvious degree of knowledge and complicity in playing the ratings game. In one exchange, an analyst said that their ratings model didn’t capture “half” of the deal’s risk but that “it could be structured by cows and we would rate it.” And in another even more famous exchange dated Dec. 15, 2006, a manager wrote that the firms continued to create an “even bigger monster – the CDO market. Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.”
Have any heads rolled? No. Have any fines been levied or any firms closed down? No. The SEC apparently went back to sleep, having since been intermittently aroused by the failure of The Bear Stearns Cos., the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (OTC: LEHMQ), the nationalization of American International Group Inc.(AIG), and a few other minor nap-interrupting events, including the bailout of Citigroup Inc. (C). I’m only sorry that the Commission’s disjointed hibernation should once again be interrupted by the petty crime of a simple Ponzi scheme artist. Well, maybe now they can finally get some rest. For the sake of our future, someone please disband this band of sleeping fools.
Shortly after the July examination was made public, in an acknowledgement that it might be under unwarranted attack, S&P announced that it was considering ways to take volatility and stability into account in its ratings. But, in a simultaneous burst of clarity, S&P suggested that it feared that a more disciplined and functional ratings model would make it harder for issuers to raise capital. Only days later, in fact, S&P went on the offensive, calling SEC proposals to boost disclosure and mitigate internal conflicts of interest too costly for the ratings businesses. Among the proposals that were pushed back was one to require a separate ratings structure and ranking system for structured products.
Fast-forward to Dec. 3, and the unveiling of the SEC’s latest proposed rules changes. While the toothless wonder folded up like a pup tent once again on all substantive changes that would have created a more transparent and honest playing field, it did manage to sneak in some suggestions, including those that said:
The rating agencies can’t rate debt they help structure.
Analysts can’t participate in fee negotiations.
Analysts can’t be given gifts worth more than $25.
Analysts must disclose a random 10% sampling of their ratings within six months.
The ratings agencies must maintain a history of complaints against analysts.
And that the agencies must record when an analyst’s rating for structured debt differs from a quantitative model.
Calling these proposed rules changes baby steps is like calling the Grand Canyon a ditch.
Because Wall Street didn’t like the idea, what got dropped from the proposed changes were rules to create different structures for rating different products. And the most egregious of the dropped rules was a proposal that ratings firms make public all underlying information they use in making their ratings. Which is exactly the transparency needed.
There is an overwhelming heaviness to the credit crisis that bears on our economic future. It is the inordinate weight of established, self-serving power brokers driving dump trucks full of ill-gotten gains over any clarion call for transparency. The underlying currency of capital markets must be clearly and objectively rated instruments, whose value is determined by free markets. Until confidence is restored in the producers, products and the purveyors of financial services, thirsty investors are unlikely to partake of any new punch.
[Editor’s Note: Uncertainty will continue to be the watchword for at least the first part of the New Year. Little wonder, as the global financial crisis continues to whipsaw the U.S. financial markets in a manner that hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression. It’s almost enough to make you surrender. But what if you knew, ahead of time, what marketplace changes to expect? Then you’d be in the driver’s seat – right? You’d know what to anticipate, could craft a profit strategy to follow, and could then just sit back, watching and waiting – and finally profiting from – the very marketplace events you anticipated.
R. Shah Gilani – a retired hedge fund manager and a nationally known expert on the U.S. credit crisis – has predicted five key financial crisis “aftershocks” that he says will create substantial profit opportunities for investors who know just what these aftershocks are, and how to play them. In the Trigger Event Strategist, trigger events,” as gateways to massive profits. To find out all about these five financial-crisis aftershocks, and about the trigger-event profit strategy they feed into, check out our latest report.]
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