ratings agencies

Bloomberg has a delightful story today about a new JPMorgan RMBS transaction, its first non-agency deal since the crisis. Specifically about this:

The bonds are made riskier by the New York-based bank and other originators of the mortgages offering weaker promises to repurchase misrepresented loans than those on similar deals, Fitch Ratings said today in an e-mailed report. Lenders and bond sponsors have been seeking to trim potential liabilities in such deals as the market revives after suffering billions of dollars of losses from debt sold before the collapse in home prices.

The value of the so-called representations and warranties in the JPMorgan transaction is “significantly diluted by qualifying and conditional language that substantially reduces lender loan breach liability and the inclusion of sunsets for a number of provisions including fraud,” New York-based Fitch analysts including Roelof Slump wrote in the presale report.

So naturally the deal is limited to an Aa rating, as it would be at Moody’s based on those sort of rep and warranty weaknesses, right? Errr not so much:

The classes of the deal expected to receive top credit ratings carried loss buffers of 7.4 percent as Fitch said it adjusted its analysis to reflect the greater investor dangers created by the weaker contracts, according to the report.

So 92.6% of the deal will be AAA rated at Fitch and Kroll, the other rating agency on the deal. Here’s the cap structure from Kroll’s report: Read more »

Fitch Ratings does not want to find itself in S&P’s shoes. Read more »

  • 04 Feb 2013 at 5:10 PM

Controversial New Theory: S&P Got A Few Ratings Wrong

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 »

It’s popular to say that financial markets and regulators have extremely short memories and so let’s say it about these new Basel liquidity coverage ratio rule changes out today. But not in an annoying sneery way. I mean, in an annoying sneery way, but not the obvious one.

The story is that among the post-2008 Basel mechanisms for keeping banks out of trouble is the required “liquidity coverage ratio,” which for each regulated bank:

  • tots up how much cash is likely to go out the bank’s doors in a crisis due to things like customers withdrawing deposits, derivatives counterparties terminating trades or demanding more collateral, corporate clients drawing down lines of credit, etc.; and
  • requires the bank to hold liquid assets that it could sell quickly in a crisis to meet those demands on cash.1

Virtually everything there is a term of art, but “crisis” and “liquid assets” are particularly squishy. When the LCR was first proposed it had rather harsh ideas of what sort of crisis might affect liquidity, and a rather narrow conception of what assets might be liquid enough to be sold quickly and economically in a crisis. The news today is that Basel has relaxed that approach in a number of specific ways described here and listed here; the brief version is that the types of assets that can be counted toward “high quality liquid assets” has been dramatically expanded to include a lot of corporate and RMBS debt, the assumed outflows in a crisis have been reduced, and the LCR is now being phased in from 2015-2019 instead of going into effect all at once in 2015.

A lot of people think this is a good thing, as it will reduce the already significant demands on “safe assets” and make banks a little more willing to use balance sheet to lend and stuff. As is true of everything that banks like, you can also if you are so inclined easily find people who think it’s a bad thing. There is no particularly Platonic right answer. Basically the exercise here is (1) imagine a bad situation and (2) see if the bank survives your imagined bad situation with a given mix of liquid assets; step (2) is a question of simple arithmetic while step (1) is determined entirely by the direction in which your imagination runs. There are good practical and social reasons for making your bad situation basically “2007-2008, but a little worse,” and so most of the debate is over translating that notion into liquidity outflows and asset haircuts, but if you think that that notion is conceptually suspect I can’t really prove you wrong. If aliens invaded France, SocGen’s liquidity reserve would probably not be suited to the situation.

But whatever. The jarring thing for me was this first bit of the changes to the LCR announced today: Read more »

  • 05 Dec 2012 at 6:03 PM

Greek Bonds Now Defaulted, Also Extra Attractive

You can see why no one likes rating agencies. It’s not exactly a surprise to anyone that Greece’s debt situation is Not Good, so the fact that S&P just downgraded Greece to selective default is (1) not particularly helpful to anyone attempting to make an investment decision re: Greek bonds and (2) not particularly helpful to anyone else either.

That said, I admire S&P’s role as a stickler for the rules of a game that it invented and no one else is playing. Greece is conducting an essentially non-coercive exchange for its bonds at above their all-time high prices. Is that a “default”? Well, for what purposes? Legally, mostly no. For CDS, no. But for S&P, yes. (Yes, it is.) They’re paying off their debt for less than par, so default it is. And since those are the rules, S&P must pointlessly note that Greece is in selective default.1

Nobody else seems to care much. What do you make of this? Read more »

  • 30 Nov 2012 at 11:36 AM

Skeptical Investor Puts Trust In Ratings Agency

You may be aware that noisy Asia-focused short-seller Muddy Waters is in a fight with Singaporean agricultural commodity trader Olam. Muddy Waters thinks that Olam is “an extreme example of an increasingly important conflict in modern finance: the clash between accounting and business reality,” and that “it is instructive to view Olam through the lens of failed US trader Enron Corp.” Olam disagrees, vehemently and litigiously. You can read all about it at your leisure (pro, con); I am not an idiot so I will carefully avoid taking any position on who is right and by how much.

Our question today is instead: are S&P idiots? Here is Muddy Water’s latest offer:

We hereby make a bona fide offer to pay for Olam to have one of its public debt issues rated by S&P. … The Company has never before had a debt rating, and having Olam’s debt rated by S&P would be an important step toward improving the Company’s transparency. Because we will pay the expense, Olam has no good reason not to have a rating.

I love this move! On its surface this is a pretty straightforward proposal. Muddy Waters thinks that Olam is – to use simple words – a big fraud, but the only way to really know is to have inside information,1 which Muddy Waters lacks. Olam has plenty of inside information but (1) has a vested interest in persuading people it’s not a giant fraud, whether or not it in fact is, and (2) can’t reveal every piece of inside information to everyone for reasons both practical and competitive-secrecy-y. Read more »

Have you finished reading Judge Jayne Jagot’s 43,000-page opinion in the Australian CPDO case yet? Good, because we’ve got to move on to other things.1 Like: what does it all mean?

One obvious thing that it could mean is “nothing,” or at least not very much. The case involved $30 million of damages, and there seems to be an Australian class action coming that might involve more damages, but it seems unlikely that CPDOs are going to track S&P across the globe to haunt its bovine dreams. Euromoney points out some of the many barriers to suing, though it adds:

In the case of CPDOs, however, of which around $5 billion were issued, there might be impetus for investors to follow the Australian councils’ lead. The firm that funded their litigation, IMF Australia, is believed to be examining the viability of further claims in Europe (CPDOs were largely arranged by European banks and sold in Europe).

Here in America, though, S&P seems safer. Here’s the FT:

Floyd Abrams, an attorney for S&P, says: “It is highly unlikely that this Australian court opinion will have any significant impact elsewhere. The case does not involve mortgage-backed securities. And the ruling does not recognise – as courts in the US and elsewhere generally have – that ratings are opinions which are not actionable unless disbelieved by those that issued them.”

They also point out that the statute of limitations will protect most crisis-era ratings at this point. And here’s John Carney: Read more »