Three weeks ago, Egan-Jones Ratings Co. downgraded America. Almost no one paid attention. "S&P's downgrade was on the front page of every newspaper," said Sean Egan, president of the Haverford, Pa., ratings firm, which has been issuing ratings since 1995. Mr. Egan's disappointment that Standard & Poor's rattled the world with its Friday-night rating cut on long-term U.S. government debt to double-A-plus, from triple-A, while his identical move was essentially ignored, is a sign of the grip on the debt-ratings industry held by its three giants. [WSJ, earlier]
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Egan-Joneses?
Let's not stop there with the clichés.* Here's a great one: "never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." In applied form: your model of all the AAA mortgage CDOs that were maybe not so AAA could be "ratings agencies were paid by banks so they were venal and corrupt and sold the banks good ratings on products they knew were bad." Or it could be "ratings agencies created medium-dumb criteria to make a thing be AAA, and bankers who were smarter than medium-dumb arbed those criteria to make more things be AAA than should have been AAA." The incentives model has good economic theory behind it, and some suggestive evidence; the stupidity model has that lovely cliché but also some evidence, about which more later. But first hilarious contrarian ratings agency Egan-Jones is in trouble: