Ratings Agency

Ratings Agencies Incentivized By Incentives, Part 2

A thing about credit ratings is that issuers pay for ratings, and the issuers who pay more get better ratings. This is a problem that many people want to solve either by the obvious approach of having someone else pay for ratings or by the fancier approach of having issuers pay for ratings but not letting agencies compete directly for that money.

Today a paper by three accounting professors reminds us that the first approach has been tried, and not just by Egan-Jones. In the early 1970s, while Moody’s was charging issuers for ratings, S&P was still charging investors, so there was a period where you could directly compare the ratings of two big established agencies, one of whom had incentives to give actionable advice to investors, the other of whom had incentives to give good ratings to issuers. You will not be surprised at what happened: Read more »

Fitch released a report today saying “ohmygod banks Europe” and the market went down and maybe there’s a causal link, whatever.

The report mostly takes notice of US banks’ European exposures in general, and the mystery of net versus gross derivatives exposure in particular, in which one asks “if Bank A sells CDS on $100bn of Italian debt to Bank B, and buys CDS on $100bn of Italian debt from Bank C, then when things go pear-shaped is it on the hook for zero (because it has no ‘net exposure’) or $100bn (because Bank C goes belly-up) or somewhere in between (because of collateral, sub-1 correlations, etc.)?”

It’s an important question: net exposures are manageable, gross exposures are terrifying, and there are legitimate questions about whether in a stress case the netting could break down. Various people who are smarter than me have tried to triangulate around parts of the answer using public data.

I don’t know the answer and doubt I’ll find out, though my gut is that netting should kind of sort of mostly work (I find Graph 5B of this, and the definition of “bilateral netting,” oddly comforting). What troubles me today, though, is that Fitch has no clearer answer than I do. Read more »

The Way Forward For Credit Ratings

Long before we were told by the Securities and Exchange Commission that short-sellers and rumor mongers were behind our credit market crisis, blame was being heaped on the ratings agencies. While we’ve since moved on here in these United States, attention in Europe has largely remained focused on the ratings agencies. The Europeans are proposing that regulators take on oversight responsibility for the agencies, on the dubious assumption that regulators will better be able to determine errors in credit quality assessment than market processes.
But we have a better idea.

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The Big Idea Ratings Agencies.JPGAt the most basic level, the critique of the ratings agencies seem to be that by assigning triple A ratings to riskier credit products, they concealed risk. This dismays the ratings agencies who believe that they never claimed every kind of credit product that bore the same label carried the same risk.
“Credit ratings are relative to the type of credit,” a credit rating official tells DealBreaker. “Different types of products have different inherent risks, and the labels reflect payment expectations within those categories.”
The ratings agencies have all but admitted, however, that by using the same labels for products carrying different levels of risk they may have left themselves open to the critique they now face. This is why they have proposed reforms such as explicit warnings and using different systems of rankings for different types of products.
By and large, Wall Street does not appear to have been fooled by the fact that CDOs and corporate bonds may have both been called AAA. The CDO market typically offered higher yields for triple A paper than the corporate debt market, implying that investors understood the risk profile was different. It wasn’t only the nature of the credit product that was heterogeneous. The pricing was as well.

The Big Idea Ratings Agencies.JPGRatings agencies are the folks everyone has learned to love to hate as credit markets have deteriorated. They stand accused of damaging Wall Street investors by negligently or corruptly assigning unduly high credit ratings to collateralize debt obligations. But was Wall Street really fooled by the ratings agencies?
There is strong evidence that suggests investors in many CDOs were skeptical that a AAA CDO paper had the same risk premiums of more traditional investment grade debt. Investment-grade CDOs typically offered higher yields than similarly rated corporate bonds. But yield and price are inversely related, so this is just a way of saying that they were priced below similarly rate corporate bonds. The CDOs were rated triple A and structured to have similar payouts but priced lower.
Basic financial theory should tell anyone that this is too good to be true. Excess reward should quickly be priced away, returning profits to average levels. If higher yields continue, there is clearly some kind of discounting going on.
You can think of the higher yield for CDOs as resulting from the assignment by investors of a ratings agency error discount. The market understood that triple A did not mean triple A when it came to CDOs, and it discounted the CDOs for this errant marking.
This is not to say that the high ratings for CDOs weren’t a charade. But clearly the investors in CDOs weren’t fooled.

  • 12 Feb 2008 at 8:05 AM
  • Big Idea

Rethinking The Ratings Agency Scandal, Part II: Cui Bono?

The Big Idea Ratings Agencies.JPGWe began yesterday by announcing that the ratings agency scandal was showing signs of becoming overwrought. Ratings agencies, including S&P, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings, have been criticized and mocked in recent months as credit markets have deteriorated. More recently, regulators and prosecutors have announced investigations into the role of the ratings agencies in the subprime bubble and meltdown.
At the heart of the critiques, mockery and investigation is the sense that ratings agencies damaged the market by assigning investment grade ratings to securities that are now considered to assigned far lower values by much of the market. Many regard certain types of CDOs that were highly rated by the agencies as toxic or simply worthless. In the moveable feast of blame, the ratings agencies are being made to eat some humble pie and admit they made errors.
But how much of the damage to CDO investors is really the fault of the ratings agencies? Were sophisticated investors—banks, hedge funds and other institutional investors—really fooled into over-investing in these risky credit products by the high ratings assigned by the agencies? There’s good reason to be skeptical of some of the criticism coming from banks and regulators.
We explain why after the jump.

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  • 11 Feb 2008 at 8:57 AM
  • Big Idea

Is The Ratings Agency Scandal Overwrought?

The Big Idea Ratings Agencies.JPGWe’ve joined the cacophonous critical chorus on the failure of the ratings agencies to anticipate the risks involved in structured credit products and the much mocked reform proposals. But conversations we had over the weekend have us wondering whether this scandal might have become overwrought.
At the heart of the scandal is the idea that the errors of ratings agencies damaged the market by convincing investors of the safety of credit products that have turned out to be far more risky than the ratings issued for them seemed to imply. This idea of harm on the market assumes that the products did not originally trade at a discount for ratings agency error. Should we really assume the market did not price in a discount for error? Was the market really priced for ratings agency perfection? What’s the evidence for this contention?
Prior to the meltdown in the CDO market, there were many who warned that the markets contained hidden dangers. Are we to believe that there was no discount priced into even highly rated CDOs for risks so publicly discussed? The proposal from MBIA that ratings for credit products come with warning labels implies that such ratings should be priced with a higher discount for error than other types of credit. But since when do our institutional investors and much vaunted efficient market need warning labels to tell it that complex and little understood investments may be riskier than simpler credits? Wasn’t there an implied warning label in the very nature of many CDOs?
The fact that CDOs may now be trading lower than they did in the past is not evidence of the absence of a discount, of course. As risks become more apparent, the discount for those risks often becomes heavier. This is a risk pricing issue but it doesn’t imply that those who bought under the earlier discount were misled.
This question of a discount for agency error matters. Last week we learned that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was investigating the ratings agencies, and possibly considering using the dreaded Martin Act to allege fraud. The Martin Act is a powerful tool for the attorney general because it does away with many of the evidential requirements to prove fraud in the securities markets. But, from our reading, it does require the attorney general to show that the conduct of the accused caused harm to investors. A discount for rating agency error might create a powerful defense for the agencies.
It might be time to take a deep breath. It’s starting to look like the ratings agencies are in danger of being scape-goated for the indulgences of the credit markets over the past few years.