One day – one day soon – the Justice Department will sue S&P for mis-rating a bunch of CDOs, and when that happens let’s all read the complaint and then meet back here to discuss it, okay? [update!] In the meantime we have S&P’s preemptive denial:
A DOJ lawsuit would be entirely without factual or legal merit. It would disregard the central facts that S&P reviewed the same subprime mortgage data as the rest of the market – including U.S. Government officials who in 2007 publicly stated that problems in the subprime market appeared to be contained – and that every CDO that DOJ has cited to us also independently received the same rating from another rating agency.
I submit to you that this is not a great defense, though it has a certain intuitive appeal. If in fact it turns out that S&P knowingly gave terrible CDOs AAA ratings because they were being bribed by investment banks or whatever, then it doesn’t help them much that Moody’s, say, gave the same CDOs the same AAA ratings with pure hearts and empty minds.1 Intent matters; being evil makes you more liable than does being stupid.
More interesting, though, is the claim that “S&P reviewed the same subprime mortgage data as the rest of the market.” First of all, that’s an almost magically ridiculous statement. (Though, also: true!) S&P’s credit ratings not only had the force of quasi-law in 2007 when they were bopping around misrating CDOs: they still have the force of quasi-law today, and there’s no plan to change that. Basel III regulations rely on ratings-agency ratings all over the place. And yet S&P has no actual advantage over anyone else in deciding what’s a good credit risk.
So why would you rely on S&P to tell you what’s a good credit risk? Read more »