The Ratings Game
In 1996, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, remarked on “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” that there were two superpowers in the world — the United States and Moody’s bond-rating service — and it was sometimes unclear which was more powerful. Moody’s was then a private company that rated corporate bonds, but it was, already, spreading its wings into the exotic business of rating securities backed by pools of residential mortgages.
Obscure and dry-seeming as it was, this business offered a certain magic. The magic consisted of turning risky mortgages into investments that would be suitable for investors who would know nothing about the underlying loans. To get why this is impressive, you have to think about all that determines whether a mortgage is safe. Who owns the property? What is his or her income? Bundle hundreds of mortgages into a single security and the questions multiply; no investor could begin to answer them. But suppose the security had a rating. If it were rated triple-A by a firm like Moody’s, then the investor could forget about the underlying mortgages. He wouldn’t need to know what properties were in the pool, only that the pool was triple-A — it was just as safe, in theory, as other triple-A securities.
Over the last decade, Moody’s and its two principal competitors, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, played this game to perfection — putting what amounted to gold seals on mortgage securities that investors swept up with increasing élan. For the rating agencies, this business was extremely lucrative. Their profits surged, Moody’s in particular: it went public, saw its stock increase sixfold and its earnings grow by 900 percent.
By providing the mortgage industry with an entree to Wall Street, the agencies also transformed what had been among the sleepiest corners of finance. No longer did mortgage banks have to wait 10 or 20 or 30 years to get their money back from homeowners. Now they sold their loans into securitized pools and — their capital thus replenished — wrote new loans at a much quicker pace.
Mortgage volume surged; in 2006, it topped $2.5 trillion. Also, many more mortgages were issued to risky subprime borrowers. Almost all of those subprime loans ended up in securitized pools; indeed, the reason banks were willing to issue so many risky loans is that they could fob them off on Wall Street.
But who was evaluating these securities? Who was passing judgment on the quality of the mortgages, on the equity behind them and on myriad other investment considerations? Certainly not the investors. They relied on a credit rating.
Thus the agencies became the de facto watchdog over the mortgage industry. In a practical sense, it was Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s that set the credit standards that determined which loans Wall Street could repackage and, ultimately, which borrowers would qualify. Effectively, they did the job that was expected of banks and government regulators. And today, they are a central culprit in the mortgage bust, in which the total loss has been projected at $250 billion and possibly much more.
In the wake of the housing collapse, Congress is exploring why the industry failed and whether it should be revamped (hearings in the Senate Banking Committee were expected to begin April 22). Two key questions are whether the credit agencies — which benefit from a unique series of government charters — enjoy too much official protection and whether their judgment was tainted. Presumably to forestall criticism and possible legislation, Moody’s and S.&P. have announced reforms. But they reject the notion that they should have been more vigilant. Instead, they lay the blame on the mortgage holders who turned out to be deadbeats, many of whom lied to obtain their loans.
Arthur Levitt, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, charges that “the credit-rating agencies suffer from a conflict of interest — perceived and apparent — that may have distorted their judgment, especially when it came to complex structured financial products.” Frank Partnoy, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law who has written extensively about the credit-rating industry, says that the conflict is a serious problem. Thanks to the industry’s close relationship with the banks whose securities it rates, Partnoy says, the agencies have behaved less like gatekeepers than gate openers. Last year, Moody’s had to downgrade more than 5,000 mortgage securities — a tacit acknowledgment that the mortgage bubble was abetted by its overly generous ratings. Mortgage securities rated by Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have suffered a similar wave of downgrades. READ MORE HERE
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