Senate report on the financial crisis (1) Inflated Credit Ratings: Moody's and Standard & Poor's

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A report from the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations two-year, bipartisan investigation into the origins of the 2008 financial crisis and a chronology - April 13, 2011

Abstract: (3) Inflated Credit Ratings: Case Study of Moody's and Standard & Poor's - The next chapter examines how inflated credit ratings contributed to the financial crisis by masking the true risk of many mortgage related securities. Using case studies involving Moody's Investors Service, Inc. (Moody's) and Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC (S&P), the nation's two largest credit rating agencies, the Subcommittee identified multiple problems responsible for the inaccurate ratings, including conflicts of interest that placed achieving market share and increased revenues ahead of ensuring accurate ratings.
Between 2004 and 2007, Moody's and S&P issued credit ratings for tens of thousands of U.S. residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Taking in increasing revenue from Wall Street firms, Moody's and S&P issued AAA and other investment grade credit ratings for the vast majority of those RMBS and CDO securities, deeming them safe investments even though many relied on high risk home loans. 1 In late 2006, high risk mortgages began incurring delinquencies and defaults at an alarming rate. Despite signs of a deteriorating mortgage market, Moody's and S&P continued for six months to issue investment grade ratings for numerous RMBS and CDO securities. Then, in July 2007, as mortgage delinquencies intensified and RMBS and CDO securities began incurring losses, both companies abruptly reversed course and began downgrading at record numbers hundreds and then thousands of their RMBS and CDO ratings, some less than a year old. Investors like banks, pension funds, and insurance companies, who are by rule barred from owning low rated securities, were forced to sell off their downgraded RMBS and CDO holdings, because they had lost their investment grade status. RMBS and CDO securities held by financial firms lost much of their value, and new securitizations were unable to find investors. The subprime RMBS market initially froze and then collapsed, leaving investors and financial firms around the world holding unmarketable subprime RMBS securities plummeting in value. A few months later, the CDO market collapsed as well. Traditionally, investments holding AAA ratings have had a less than 1% probability of incurring defaults. But in 2007, the vast majority of RMBS and CDO securities with AAA ratings incurred substantial losses; some failed outright. Analysts have determined that over 90% of the AAA ratings given to subprime RMBS securities originated in 2006 and 2007 were later downgraded by the credit rating agencies to junk status. In the case of Long Beach, 75 out of 75 AAA rated Long Beach securities issued in 2006, were later downgraded to junk status, defaulted, or withdrawn. Investors and financial institutions holding the AAA rated securities lost significant value. Those widespread losses led, in turn, to a loss of investor confidence in the value of the AAA rating, in the holdings of major U.S. financial institutions, and even in the viability of U.S. financial markets. Inaccurate AAA credit ratings introduced risk into the U.S. financial system and constituted a key cause of the financial crisis. In addition, the July mass downgrades, which were unprecedented in number and scope, precipitated the collapse of the RMBS and CDO secondary markets, and perhaps more than any other single event triggered the beginning of the financial crisis.

The Subcommittee's investigation uncovered a host of factors responsible for the inaccurate credit ratings issued by Moody's and S&P. One significant cause was the inherent conflict of interest arising from the system used to pay for credit ratings. Credit rating agencies were paid by the Wall Street firms that sought their ratings and profited from the financial products being rated. Under this "issuer pays" model, the rating agencies were dependent upon those Wall Street firms to bring them business, and were vulnerable to threats that the firms would take their business elsewhere if they did not get the ratings they wanted. The ratings agencies weakened their standards as each competed to provide the most favorable rating to win business and greater market share. The result was a race to the bottom. Additional factors responsible for the inaccurate ratings include rating models that failed to include relevant mortgage performance data, unclear and subjective criteria used to produce ratings, a failure to apply updated rating models to existing rated transactions, and a failure to provide adequate staffing to perform rating and surveillance services, despite record revenues. Compounding these problems were federal regulations that required the purchase of investment grade securities by banks and others, which created pressure on the credit rating agencies to issue investment grade ratings. While these federal regulations were intended to help investors stay away from unsafe securities, they had the opposite effect when the AAA ratings proved inaccurate. Evidence gathered by the Subcommittee shows that the credit rating agencies were aware of problems in the mortgage market, including an unsustainable rise in housing prices, the high risk nature of the loans being issued, lax lending standards, and rampant mortgage fraud. Instead of using this information to temper their ratings, the firms continued to issue a high volume of investment grade ratings for mortgage backed securities. If the credit rating agencies had issued ratings that accurately reflected the increasing risk in the RMBS and CDO markets and appropriately adjusted existing ratings in those markets, they might have discouraged investors from purchasing high risk RMBS and CDO securities, and slowed the pace of securitizations. It was not in the short term economic interest of either Moody's or S&P, however, to provide accurate credit ratings for high risk RMBS and CDO securities, because doing so would have hurt their own revenues. Instead, the credit rating agencies' profits became increasingly reliant on the fees generated by issuing a large volume of structured finance ratings. In the end, Moody's and S&P provided AAA ratings to tens of thousands of high risk RMBS and CDO securities and then, when those products began to incur losses, issued mass downgrades that shocked the financial markets, hammered the value of the mortgage related securities, and helped trigger the financial crisis.

U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (April 13, 2011)
Read full document (652 pages) published by The New York Times: Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse


1/ S&P issues ratings using the "AAA" designation; Moody's equivalent rating is "Aaa." For ease of reference, this Report will refer to both ratings as "AAA."


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In memoriam
In memoriam
After a long battle against the disease Franck Biancheri passed away 30th of October 2012, at the age of 51. A great European, a militant democrat, a wonderful person.
Franck Biancheri was founder of AEGEE and founding fathers of the ERASMUS programme. He also was research director of the European thinktank LEAP 2020. In 2005, following the no of the Dutch and French to the Constitutional Treaty, Franck Biancheri founded the European citizens movement Newropeans.