ratings agencies

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 »

Oh man, CPDOs. CPDOs! Why was I not aware? This Australian court decision is like 3,000 pages long but it is riveting; if you built a CPDO, email me, I will buy you a drink and you can tell me all about it. My God it’s so beautiful.

The story is that ABN Amro invented a structured-credit monstrosity called a constant proportion debt obligation, got it rated AAA by S&P, and sold it to some people; it ended up in the hands of some Australian regional councils, and then it chewed their hands off. As well it might have! It was monstrous. Anyway the councils sued S&P (and others) and today they won their lawsuit, which is bad news for S&P, though they kind of deserved it.

To simplify enormously the CPDO deal was:

  • You are a ten-year pool of money
  • You make a levered investment in some 5-year investment grade credit indices
  • Every six months you roll that investment into the next 5-year index
  • If credit has widened, you have lost money and therefore lever your investment more, to try to make your money back
  • If credit has tightened, you have made money and therefore ratchet down your leverage, hoping to get out in one piece
  • If you keep winning you take more money off the table until you end up with your money in Treasuries for the remainder of the 10 years
  • If you keep losing you run out of money and just give up, with your investors losing everything

This is obviously a martingale gambling strategy and the analogy is made extensively in the opinion but don’t worry about that now. Worry about the purity of the ratings arb here. It is breathtaking. Here is the core trick of it: S&P rated structured credit products based solely on the probability that they would pay off less than 100% of their principal plus interest, and not at all based on the expected loss if that happened. A triple-A rating required a <0.728% probability of defaulting. What this means is that: Read more »

There are many great businesses in the world but surely none is as great as being paid money not to do stuff. I was in that line of work for two glorious months in the summer of 2011 and I’m pretty sure it was the peak of my career. Counterintuitively this business is not always massively scaleable,1 but there are some examples. My favorite is that in the 1980s companies would pay Skadden Arps a retainer fee to prevent Skadden from representing a hostile acquirer; I have idly suggested that David Einhorn look into charging similar fees to direct-marketing companies who want peaceful earnings calls.

If I were Moody’s I’d have a sliding scale of CMBS fees that goes like:

J.P. Morgan seems to have opted for false economy: Read more »

They’re gonna downgrade their outlook from stable to negative though, just in case. [WSJ]

The role of the hero who has been in the belly of the beast and emerged to slay it seems to be psychologically rewarding,* because people keep trying to claim it for themselves. Like this Geoffrey Tomes gentleman, who bared his soul to tell DealBook that he “was selling JPMorgan funds that often had weak performance records, and I was doing it for no other reason than to enrich the firm.” You imagine him racing to tell DealBook about this revelation, imagining his welcome into the Greg Smith Hall of Heroes, and being a little disappointed that everyone was all “wait, what, did anyone on earth not know that was exactly what you were doing? Why did they think you were pushing JPMorgan products? That’s what banks do.”

Similarly there is a certain amount of “duh, obvs” to the recently unsealed documents in the lawsuit over the Cheyne SIV. But they’re still funny. Cheyne was a conduit stuffed with mortgages and home equity loans that exploded in the face of some people, who are now suing Morgan Stanley, who built it, and the rating agencies, who did sort of a not-so-great job of kicking its tires. From their filing unsealed yesterday: Read more »

  • 17 May 2012 at 2:30 PM

Fitch Could Not Think Less Of Greece Right Now

Fitch ratings agency downgraded debt-crippled Greece deeper into junk territory on Thursday, warning of a “probable” Greek exit from the euro currency union if new national elections next month produce an anti-bailout government. Fitch said it had cut Greece’s rating by one notch, from B- to CCC, the lowest possible grade for a country that is not in default. [AP]

  • 24 Apr 2012 at 6:00 PM

Quo usque tandem abutere, Egan-Jones, patientia nostra?

Lawyers all know the old case in which a guy sued another guy over a dead fox that Guy A chased and Guy B caught. Who owns the dead fox?, the case asks. It’s hard to care. My professor asked the better question, which was: just how much was a dead fox worth? The answer, it turns out, is “significantly less than the amount you’d have to spend on lawyers to become a famous old case.” So why did they spend so much on lawyers? Unclear. But the moral of the story is that if you see a lawsuit over something really trivial, it’s probably about something else. My professor added, “usually a love triangle.”

So who is Sean Egan sleeping with? He is, of course, the president of Egan-Jones Ratings, which the SEC sued today over … well, the SEC complaint is amazing: Read more »