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A pillar of the financial crisis was rating agencies slapping triple-A ratings on junk mortgage products only to be mystified when the securities blew up. In the 2007 transaction involving the recent Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) CDO fraud saga, almost half of the debt was downgraded from triple-A (perfect) to junk (perfectly worthless) in short order.
Fool me once ...
Now, a sober person would think the rating agencies have learned from these flubs. But that makes too much sense. Truth is, they're as miserably inept as ever.
Last summer, Standard & Poor's invoked the ghost of 2005 when it rated a set of CDO-esque securities triple-A, which implies essentially zero probability of default.
Last week, it downgraded the same securities all the way to junk. That's triple-A to junk in less than a year. Again. Recall Einstein's definition of insanity, and feel free to smash your head against the nearest wall.
"The downgrades reflect our assessment of the significant deterioration in performance of the loans backing the underlying certificates," cried S&P. This is mildly true at best, and more likely a product of the same deceptive shell games rating agencies are now infamous for.
Here's your pig, there's your lipstick. Have at it.
These securities, you see, weren't new products created last summer when S&P initiated the ratings. They're called "re-remics," born from an alchemical process of taking existing bonds struggling for survival, slicing them up anew, and giving the new pieces a fresh set of ratings. The idea is that you can take a low-rated mangled mortgage bond, extract the pieces that still have a heartbeat (even though they share the same characteristics as the rapidly defaulting mortgages), and pronounce the new security triple-A.
So to be sure here, the same material that S&P called triple-A last summer was, at nearly the same time, rated far below that. David Blaine can't even fathom this stuff.
During a flood of re-remics last fall, The Wall Street Journal wrote an article questioning their validity "partly because re-remics rely on ratings firms -- faulted for failing early on to identify problems with mortgage-backed bonds -- to rate the new securities." That was spot-on, as was a comment by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who warned, "The credit-rating agencies could be setting us up for problems all over again."
That's exactly what's happening, and it's time we do something about it. One of the central flaws in the rating agency world is that large-scale investors such as money market funds are required to hold assets scored by a rating agency registered as a Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization, or NRSRO. Only a handful of raters are blessed with this status, and Moody's (NYSE: MCO ) , S&P, and Fitch are kings of the court. They're privileged to what amounts to guaranteed business and no threat of new competition.
While it's certainly well-intentioned, there's fairly universal agreement that the NRSRO has created the ability, if not the incentive, for rating agencies to produce wildly flawed work. They have nothing to lose. Investors have to use their services. S&P can recklessly issue wacky ratings (as it just did), and business goes on as usual.
Hedge fund manager David Einhorn summed it up perfectly: "Nobody I know buys or uses Moody's credit ratings because they believe in the brand. They use it because it is part of a government-created oligopoly and often because they are required to by law." In any normal market, new competition and customers' disgust over shoddy analysis wouldn't let this happen.
Let's do something about this
Fortunately (though long overdue) Congress is waking up. Two amendments in the just-passed Senate financial overhaul bill could euthanize the flawed parts of the rating system.
One amendment would eliminate all mention of the NRSRO from federal regulations. The organization could still exist, but language requiring investors to use products rated by an NRSRO rating agency would vanish. Competition from eager rivals like Morningstar (Nasdaq: MORN ) and KPMG could then step in and sanitize the industry.
A separate amendment would create a clearinghouse set up to assign rating agencies with deals. That way, banks that issue credit products couldn't shop around for the morally bankrupt rater that's willing to assign triple-A status to toilet paper just to bag a nice fee. Both amendments aim to end a kink in the financial system that benefits exactly nobody except the rating agencies and the banks that sell glorified debt products.
We'll be patiently watching as the Senate and House reconcile their respective versions of the financial overhaul bill. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, share your thoughts on financial reform in the comments section below.