The Activist Ratings Agencies and Their Poor Public Sector Predictions

In 1996 Thomas Friedman said: “There are two superpowers in the world today in my opinion. There’s the United States and there’s Moody’s Bond Rating Service. The United States can destroy you by dropping bombs, and Moody’s can destroy you by downgrading your bonds. And believe me, it’s not clear sometimes who’s more powerful.”

We may have an answer soon. Dave Dayen is watching the ratings agencies, particularly S&P, say that a clean debt ceiling increase won’t cut it, and that there needs to be a $4 trillion dollar deal in order to keep the United States’ credit rating secure:

This concern about the markets has happened very suddenly. All of a sudden there’s a belief that a clean increase or a small debt deal with a minor amount of spending cuts would not be enough to avoid a downgrade. Standard and Poor’s basically forced this by saying that they would downgrade if there wasn’t a $4 trillion deficit deal in the next 90 days. The claim is that this has been caused by political leaders attaching the debt limit to a deal on reducing the deficit, and the inability to reach an agreement, the political stalemate, has led the markets to lose confidence.

Two quick sources that you might find helpful.  There’s a long running argument that the ratings agencies work as a mini-IMF, forcing austerity measures favorable to bond-holders everywhere from developing nations to municipalities and states here in the USA.

But their travels in the political sphere go beyond that.  It’s tough to rank the awful financial-sector policy decisions that were made in the past decade, but two of the worst ones were very much influenced by rating agency political pressures.  When Congress tried to put some resolution powers in place to deal with the possibility of the GSEs collapsing, the ratings agencies put pressure there.  When states were trying to put in sensible state-level regulations to deal with predatory subprime lending, the ratings agencies put pressure on federal regulators to overrule (“pre-empt”)  them, leaving state housing regulatory powers at the mercy of the pro-bank OCC.

Check out Josh Rosner and Joseph Mason’s Where Did the Risk Go? How Misapplied Bond Ratings Cause Mortgage Backed Securities and Collateralized Debt Obligation Market Disruptions, for specifics:

F. Rating Agencies Are Activist in Ways They Have Never Been

…What is clear is that NRSRO powers have extended to areas of public policy in ways we have not witnessed before….In early 2004, after accounting problems were discovered at Freddie Mac but before those of Fannie Mae were fully uncovered, Congress again embarked on a legislative process to create a new regulator with enhanced powers.  One of the key provisions legislators considered was one that would better define the receivership authority of the GSE’s regulator in case they became seriously undercapitalized. In early April S&P “hinted about a possible downgrade of GSE debt if a new regulator had receivership powers”. This announcement supported the GSE’s goals of trying to prevent receivership authority from being included in legislation…

On October 1, 2002, the Georgia Legislature passed sweeping new anti-predatory lending legislation. The Georgia Fair Lending Act contained a provision that assigned unlimited liability exposures to lenders who made “high cost loans” (and noteholders). In January of 2003 the three major credit-rating agencies announced that they would no longer be willing to rate RMBS originated in Georgia. As a result, the Georgia legislature moved quickly to make amendments to their legislation to stop lenders from leaving the State. As other States began to move to pass similar legislation they were reminded of the effect that the Georgia law had and also limited their liability provisions.

(We discussed Comptroller of the OCC, John D. Hawke Jr., and his speech he gave to the Federalist Society on July 24th, 2003, where they announced they were going after Georgia law, here.  It’s an important speech for the what a neoliberal financial-sector policy looks like in practice.)

There’s a few ways to think about how the ratings agencies could add value to the financial marketplace.  Information tends to be a public good, so there’s a free rider problem towards any individual investor paying to rate a bond.  This is one reason why issuers tend to pay for the rating.  There are also instruments so complex, or with so little historical and comparative information, or so illiquid, that the ratings agencies can bring their so-called expertise to give information.

But the United States bond market is one of the largest, most-liquid, most-studied, most transparent markets in the world.  There’s nothing the ratings agencies have that any else doesn’t have.

And what’s more important, the ratings agencies own internal analysis shows that they are terrible at rating government debt.  Their ratings are all off, as government, especially those with a printing press for their own currency, simply don’t behave like the corporate world they were designed to analyze.  And rather than just being wrong, they are wrong in that they are always overestimating the liklihood that governments will default.

Sorry for the long block-quote, but it is important to give you a sense at how awful their ratings are with public-sector debt, and the serious consequences that has for access to capital.  From a fact sheet with links to complaints against specific agencies (my bold):

In June of 2001, S&P published a study commissioned by its Analytics Policy Board that reviewed public bond defaults rates from 1986-2000. The June 2001 report concluded that “the number of defaults and cumulative default rates are extremely low for public finance obligations rated by Standar & Poor’s” and that “no defaults of ‘AAA’ or ‘AA’ rated debt occurred in the 1986-2000 period.” S&P attributed this stability to the fundamental nature of governments in that “governments have ‘perpetual’ existence” and that bankruptcy typically is not an option for governments….

In July of 2001, S&P published a public bond default study which found that public bonds default at much lower rates than corporate bonds of similar or higher credit ratings. S&P published at least six subsequent default studies on public bonds from April 2004 through May of 2008. Each of these S&P studies reached the same conclusion as S&P’s July 2001 study. Moody’s was aware of all of the S&P studies….

In June of 2002, Moody’s published the “highlight” results from its own default study that Moody’s began in 2000. Moody’s found that for “the period covering 1970-2000, the one year, issuer-weighted average default rate for all Moody’s rated municipal issuers – regardless of their rating level – is just .01% versus 1.30% for all corporate issuers. In other words, for the study period, Moody’s found that public bonds were on average 130 times less likely to default than corporate bonds during the first year after issuance…

In November of 2002, Moody’s published the final version of its public bond default study. The Moody’s study concluded that “the 1, 5 and 10-year cumulative default rates for all Moody’s rated municipal bond issuers have been .0043%, .0233%, and .0420%, respectively compared to .0000%, .1237%, and .6750% for Aaa-rated corporate bonds during the same time period.” In other words, Moody’s concluded that public bonds as a group, even when including public bonds with low credit ratings, have lower default rates on average than the highest, “Aaa” rated corporate bonds….

In October of 2005, an internal report prepared for S&P’s Analytics Policy Board unequivocally confirmed that “U.S. public sector entities have historically exhibited substantially lower default rates than corporates, for a given rating.” Despite this conclusion, S&P still did not consider rating public bonds according to their true credit risk and continued to represent that its ratings were comparable across asset classes….

In March of 2007, Moody’s published a report purporting to outline how much public bonds had been underrated by Moody’s as compared to corporate bonds. The Moody’s report provided a “map” detailing the gaping differences between public and corporate bond credit ratings. The Moody’s map showed that in many cases the default rates of public bonds were equal to or less than corproate bonds rated as many as seven notches higher by Moody’s….

As one Moody’s exectuive conceded in an August 31, 2006 email: “I think there is clearly a mismatch between the default data and people’s perception of the risk associated with municipal credits.”

The ratings agencies are so in the plumbing of the financial system that even with these qualifiers they can wreck havoc on US financing.  There is one policy point Moody’s has brought up that I’d like to see happen: eliminate the debt ceiling already.

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27 Responses to The Activist Ratings Agencies and Their Poor Public Sector Predictions

  1. Pingback: Blogging the debt ceiling — Marginal Revolution

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  3. K. Williams says:

    “On October 1, 2002, the Georgia Legislature passed sweeping new anti-predatory lending legislation. The Georgia Fair Lending Act contained a provision that assigned unlimited liability exposures to lenders who made “high cost loans” (and noteholders). In January of 2003 the three major credit-rating agencies announced that they would no longer be willing to rate RMBS originated in Georgia. As a result, the Georgia legislature moved quickly to make amendments to their legislation to stop lenders from leaving the State.”

    I don’t understand — what do you think the rating agencies’ response to the Georgia law should have been? Their argument was that because the Georgia law provided for assignee liability and unquantifiable damages — that is, there was no clear way to measure how much money RMBS investors who bought these deals would be on the hook for — they had no way to reasonably rate the risks inherent in these deals. (In order to rate a deal, one presumes, you need some sense of what the potential downside looks like.) What part of this do you actually disagree with? I find the fact that that the rating agencies are quasi-state enterprises absurd, and think we should do away with all regulatory reliance on the agencies’ ratings. But given that they’re playing the role they are, I’m confused about what you think they should have done with the Georgia deals. Just continue to rate them as if the economics of these deals hadn’t significantly changed? That seems like it would have been willfully irresponsible.

    • Mike Easterly says:

      In the same article Mason and Rosner point out that the rating agencies did not respond in like fashion when a court decision called into question the bankruptcy-remoteness of SPVs.

      It’s been awhile since I read the article, but my sense was that they were arguing that the NRSRO reaction was way out of proportion to the actual restrictions of the law, and that with a little due diligence they could have rated much of the RMBS. It was interpreted as a punitive action, intended to send a message to states considering similar laws that they better not mess with the NRSRO’s revenue stream.

  4. Tom says:

    It would have been interesting if Georgia had called the ratings agencies bluff.

    K Williams is not considering the fact that the agencies ratings on RMBS indicate that they either did not know what the hell they were doing, or they were conspirators in a fraud.

    An honest, competent bond rater would not have considered it more difficult to rate under the new law than to rate the usual fraudulent crap.

  5. financeguy says:

    Great analysis as always, Mike. But you should contrast public bonds (where the possibility of default is greatly overestimated) not with corporates, but with securitizations (where the possibility is greatly underestimated). The ratings on securitizations are blatantly, provably wrong. But the rating services make such a fat profit off rating CLOs and the like, that they’re willing to be as lenient on these as they are tough on sovereign ratings. Totally out of whack. The real travesty: that our system has enshrined their crap ratings on securitizations, from Basel capital requirements right through to fund investing mandates.

  6. james says:

    Who would think that the financial elite would align themselves with disaster economic policies of the right??

    But but fox told me Obama and goldman and bad and stuff

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  8. K. Williams says:

    “It would have been interesting if Georgia had called the ratings agencies bluff.”

    I don’t know what this means. It wasn’t a bluff — the rating agencies refused to rate the deals, and as a result Georgia mortgages stopped being included in securitization deals, which pretty much killed the subprime lending market in Georgia. Now, you could say this would have been, on the whole, a good thing, given what happened, but what it meant in practice was that it became very hard for people with weak credit to buy houses. That’s why the legislature amended the law. I guess “calling their bluff” would have meant leaving the law in place, but I think we know what would have happened then — there would have been no subprime lending in Georgia.

    “my sense was that they were arguing that the NRSRO reaction was way out of proportion to the actual restrictions of the law, and that with a little due diligence they could have rated much of the RMBS.”

    I realize that this is what Mason/Rosner were arguing, but it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no question that the Georgia law did make investors liable, and that that liability was unquantifiable (since there were provisions for punitive damages, etc.) Critics of the NRSROs said that they overreacted because in practice it was hard for people to bring lawsuits against investors, and unlikely that they would prevail or win punitive damages. But that’s a very strange argument to make, since it quite literally asks the NRSROs to ignore the full range of downside risks with these bonds.

    It also seems important that both Fitch and Moody’s (though not S&P) rated NJ bonds after NJ passed a tough anti-predatory lending bill that nonetheless did not include the two provisions that ended up forcing the amendment of the Georgia law. That’s a piece of evidence against the punitive case.

    • Pococurante says:

      “I guess “calling their bluff” would have meant leaving the law in place, but I think we know what would have happened then — there would have been no subprime lending in Georgia.”

      And given the mess caused by sub-prime defaults how would that have been bad? I recognize I’m calling out from hindsight but lowering the bar of creditworthiness hasn’t worked that well.

    • tom says:

      “Calling the bluff” means not repealing the law.

      Was there a law that said subprime mortgages had to be securitized? No? So I guess nobody thought these were good enough loans to hold, only good enough to resell to suckers. And the ratings agencies were willing to call these things good, as long as the law was that there was not penalty for peddling the crap.

      The point of the laws was to stop abusive lending. Apparently the law was going to have that effect. The complaint is that with the law, there would be no non-abusive lending either. Of course, that begs the question of whether there was non-abusive lending to low-income homeowners without the law either.

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  11. Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    I’m not sure if Mike understands his data. The agencies have been notoriously bad on municipal debt, and I think that the quote is referring to muni debt. (Conspiracy theorists are apt to say that they under-rate muni debt to benefit the muni debt insurance industry.) Muni debt is a very different animal than sovereign or corporate debt. It is possible that every word in the quote is true, yet the agencies are spot-on for sovereign debt. Or not.

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  13. Gray says:

    It’s interesting what studies are missing: Any statistics on the default probability of public bonds that were rated below AA! I’m sure such a report would show that such “risky” investments are still as secure as corporate papers rated AA or AAA. This would show the true extent of the agencies’ double standard. But I guess that’s something they don’t want the public to now, this, no such studies.

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  15. Lil'D says:

    I suppose the true problem is that many contracts have tight, explicit linkage to ratings, such that consequences are automatic and free of any kind of judgment or thought.
    It’s another Bookstaber situation – nonlinear + tightly coupled…

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