Credit Rating Agencies gave bad debt AAA ratings

How banks gamed the rating system from April 2008 Triple-A Failure

Nothing sent the [credit ratings] agencies into high gear as much as the development of structured finance. As Wall Street bankers designed ever more securitized products — using mortgages, credit-card debt, car loans, corporate debt, every type of paper imaginable — the agencies became truly powerful.

In structured-credit vehicles like Subprime XYZ, the agencies played a much more pivotal role than they had with (conventional) bonds. According to Lewis Ranieri, the Salomon Brothers banker who was a pioneer in mortgage bonds, “The whole creation of mortgage securities was involved with a rating.

What the bankers in these deals are really doing is buying a bunch of I.O.U.’s and repackaging them in a different form. Something has to make the package worth — or seem to be worth — more that the sum of its parts, otherwise there would be no point in packaging such securities, nor would there be any profits from which to pay the bankers’ fees.

That something is the rating. Credit markets are not continuous; a bond that qualifies, though only by a hair, as investment grade is worth a lot more than one that just fails. As with a would-be immigrant traveling from Mexico, there is a huge incentive to get over the line.

The challenge to investment banks is to design securities that just meet the rating agencies’ tests. Risky mortgages serve their purpose; since the interest rate on them is higher, more money comes into the pool and is available for paying bond interest. But if the mortgages are too risky, Moody’s will object. Banks are adroit at working the system, and pools like Subprime XYZ are intentionally designed to include a layer of Baa bonds, or those just over the border. “Every agency has a model available to bankers that allows them to run the numbers until they get something they like and send it in for a rating,” a former Moody’s expert in securitization says. In other words, banks were gaming the system; according to Chris Flanagan, the subprime analyst at JPMorgan, “Gaming is the whole thing.

When a bank proposes a rating structure on a pool of debt, the rating agency will insist on a cushion of extra capital, known as an “enhancement.” The bank inevitably lobbies for a thin cushion (the thinner the capitalization, the fatter the bank’s profits). It’s up to the agency to make sure that the cushion is big enough to safeguard the bonds. The process involves extended consultations between the agency and its client. In short, obtaining a rating is a collaborative process.

The evidence on whether rating agencies bend to the bankers’ will is mixed. The agencies do not deny that a conflict exists, but they assert that they are keen to the dangers and minimize them. For instance, they do not reward analysts on the basis of whether they approve deals. No smoking gun, no conspiratorial e-mail message, has surfaced to suggest that they are lying. But in structured finance, the agencies face pressures that did not exist when John Moody was rating railroads. On the traditional side of the business, Moody’s has thousands of clients (virtually every corporation and municipality that sells bonds). No one of them has much clout. But in structured finance, a handful of banks return again and again, paying much bigger fees. A deal the size of XYZ can bring Moody’s $200,000 and more for complicated deals. And the banks pay only if Moody’s delivers the desired rating. Tom McGuire, the Jesuit theologian who ran Moody’s through the mid-’90s, says this arrangement is unhealthy. If Moody’s and a client bank don’t see eye to eye, the bank can either tweak the numbers or try its luck with a competitor like S.&P., a process known as “ratings shopping.”

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